A Polarized, Pissed-Off Country
The Mexican state is falling apart as drug traffickers, bankers and major media impose their will, bolstering an exclusionary neoliberal model that cranks out both multimillionaires and penniless emigrants. A wave of indignation is growing in the face of such inequality, with those at the bottom organizing in various ways.
The various struggles against neoliberalism have been increasing in recent years in Mexico, choosing one of two major paths. The first is inspired by the Zapatistas, proposed from the most abandoned members of society and trusting in the unleashing of a definitive struggle against capitalism itself. Since 1994, this movement has consolidated into a very broad and ambitious organization of people all over the country who have been marginalized and harmed by neoliberalism. It continues to call on people to join a struggle for democracy, liberty and justice for all Mexicans. Its Other Campaign has been taking shape as a civil, leftist and above all anti-capitalist effort.
The other path has been taken by groupings that are focusing on the fight against neoliberal privatizations, questioning state power and denouncing neoliberalism—which has increased Mexico’s inequalities and concentrated immense economic and political power in only a few hands. In particular, workers belonging to the Mexican Union Front, the National Workers’ Union, the Promoter of National Unity against Neoliberalism and the Mexican Network in Response to Free Trade have waged a large number of actions against the privatization of state electricity, water, social security and public education. Since 2004 they have been organizing annual meetings as part of what they call a National Dialogue, in which they have been discussing an alternative national project to neoliberalism and have drawn up a declaration and a non-negotiable minimum program.
The army’s getting all the privilegesThe electoral fraud in 2006 was ensured by what is known in Mexico as the “powers that be” to maintain the neoliberal model. The new National Action Party (PAN) government is now using public funds, its new plans and key public posts to return the favor, protecting the big capitalists and equally big tax evaders. After doing a costly reorganization, it has promised to return important highways to the business sector. It has also made an alliance with the Institutional Revolutionary Party to ensure it impunity, and with the anti-democratic corporative unions to increase their privileges.
The only new touch in all this has been the army’s increased political weight. Although the government opposes salary increases in general, it has made an exception for the army, whose salaries went up by 46% while a 4% salary ceiling was imposed on all other state workers. Calderón has chosen to govern by linking arms with the military, but the number of drug-related executions increases daily, revealing that big security sweeps lauded as a success in the media have really been nothing short of a failure. The traffickers regroup and re-strengthen after every sweep. Drug-related violence is already uncontrollable and is still on the rise, affecting tourism. Writer Carlos Montemayor has stated that the Mexican state is falling apart, as the drug traffickers, bankers and major media do whatever they want.
The inequality is creating more millionaires and more emigrantsCalderón promised to be the employment President, yet the national unemployment rate has actually gone up since he took office. To make matters worse, he plans to reduce social programs and anti-poverty welfare measures. The majority of Mexicans survive on precarious incomes. Just in the time Calderón has been in office, the cost of 42 products in the basic basket of essential goods rose 32.5% compared to 10.5% in 2006. The inequality is growing. Lists of the world’s multimillionaires put Mexico’s Carlos Slim in second place. In less than ten years, Slim has increased his fortune five hundredfold. Official figures show that the wealthiest 20% of households pull in 52.5% of national income, while the poorest 20% end up with just 4.5%. The personal wealth of nine of Mexico’s multimillionaires amounts to US$72.4 million, which is 23.5% more than they had last year, having benefited handily from the neoliberal policies.
On the other side of the equation, Mexico has become the greatest source of emigrants in the world, according to World Bank data. This situation, with its high social costs, cannot be considered a recipe for development, despite the large quantity of remittances the emigrants send home to their families. It has been said that the concentration of wealth in Mexico is a result of industrial, commercial and financial monopolies; low salaries; pathetic social services and corrupt fiscal spending. Even the World Bank has sounded the alert: individual and business monopolies are expanding inequality in Mexico. And even the IMF has recommended that Mexico should limit the tax exemptions that benefit the few.
The revelation that the previous PAN government allowed four banks to dodge taxes to the tune of 41 billion pesos caused a scandal. Consortiums that bankrolled the dirty electoral war to back Calderón (Televisa, Bimbo, Cementos Mexicanos, Teléfonos de México and a dozen more) owe the Treasury Secretariat 105 billion pesos in taxes, the equivalent of 55.7% of their combined profits. In addition, 44% of the value-added tax collected from the big companies has been returned to them. Opposition legislators have charged that the previous and current governments caved in to the power groups in this regard, while studies show that privileges have prevented any genuine redistribution of wealth, and that the government is hostage to the powerful.
Given all this, the movement that former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been putting together—which has also become an anti-neoliberal movement—has shown that Mexico is extremely polarized between the owners of power and the government on one side, and the people on the other.
The new PAN government is stubbornly pursuing the IMF’s neoliberal dogma, despite increasing signs of its massive failure. While the Mexican economy grew nearly sixteen-fold between 1935 and 1982, it has only grown 0.7 times in the 25 subsequent neoliberal years, and minimum wages have lost 70% of their purchasing power. That is why Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has accused the IMF, his former employer, of not knowing how to adapt to the real world.
Criminalizing the unceasing protestsPresident Bush’s visit to Mexico in February triggered grassroots disturbances. Groups of young people protested and the Calderón government opted for repression, including jailings and torture. Autonomous human rights organizations have followed up on these cases, denouncing government impunity and corruption regarding human rights. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights backed such charges, stating that the government’s strategies to deal with insecurity were not only failing, they were also increasing human rights violations. It censured the many attacks on human rights defenders and warned that there would only be reconciliation among Mexicans if what has been happening when protests are criminalized is fully revealed. Carlos Payán, founder of the newspaper La Jornada, predicted that today’s persecuted will be tomorrow’s founders.
Although the peasant struggle has required the Mexican government to renegotiate the free trade agreement with the United States, Calderón didn’t defend his country’s agricultural producers in his meeting with Bush, causing the peasants to complain about the government’s lack of interest in changing the harmful agreement. The government has faced numerous peasant and environmentalist mobilizations. In response to its cosmetic, media-oriented measures to deal with the increasing cost of tortillas and the hoarding of and speculation in maize, the peasants have buttressed their presence in the streets.
They accuse the government of acting dictatorially on the agricultural question by designing programs without consulting those involved. They also charge it with plotting with the transnationals and propose increasing food security by rescuing maize and beans. The government’s response has again been to criminalize social protest and jail its leaders. This struggle, like all the others, has ended up in a fight for the release of the political prisoners. While the criminalizing of protest and resuscitation of the crime of social dissolution is aimed at diverting the energies of the social activists and sowing fear of dissent, the protests are not subsiding.
Protests everywhereThe situation is no different with the workers. A year after a mine explosion in Pastas de Conchos buried dozens of miners, the workers are charging “industrial murder” with government complicity, arguing that safety was sacrificed to the interests of pure profitability. The bishop of Saltillo, one of the few who listens to the poor, has insisted that the government’s responsibility in this grave event must be investigated.
In February, thousands of members of the Movement for a Decent Life marched to the presidential residence to demand social housing support for single mothers and the elderly. In Oaxaca, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) took to the streets again in early March to demand the release of political prisoners and the governor’s resignation. On April 10, APPO held another huge mobilization and in mid-April organized a national popular education forum. Then on April 20-21 it staged a human rights defense forum in which a Popular Tribunal was established that included national intellectuals and activists. This tribunal found the governor guilty of crimes against humanity and ruled that rather than honoring the rule of law and respecting its citizens’ human rights, the authorities were acting in an authoritarian way with Calderón’s blessing and support.
López Obrador’s Workers, peasants, grassroots organizations and many individual citizens whose demands have been relegated are now convinced that they’re up against a tele-government that hides behind a massive, costly and useless media propaganda campaign in lieu of resolving problems. On March 8, in response to a call by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico City’s Zócalo plaza filled with people opposing Calderón’s policies. Speakers denounced creeping inflation that is deteriorating people’s income, demanded emergency salary increases for all workers and summarized the outrages of the government’s anti-worker assault. López Obrador explained how the fraudulent government was destroying the country and warned that Calderón wanted to liquidate workers’ contracts. In mid-March the Morelense Civic Front received Calderón with protests against high electricity rates. Weeks later, several youths booed the President at a forum set up by one of Carlos Slim’s businesses. And in Oaxaca a number of people demonstrated against the PAN’s federal policy when Calderón inaugurated a controversial wind power center.
In the first three months of 2007, López Obrador toured over 200 municipalities and was given some 300,000 letters pledging to struggle against neoliberalism. Then in late March he headed the Second Democratic Assembly, a huge anti-neoliberal organization and mobilization that lasted several days. The civic consultation concluded that a program of struggle was needed, along with defense of the grassroots economy. It also discussed the national situation and proposed continued demonstrations for a fair wage. Members of the National League of Citizens in Resistance proposed debating a bill for competitive prices and urged major mobilizations against the planned privatization of energy suppliers, one of the IMF’s ongoing demands. Agreement was also reached to create a council to defend and strengthen the national heritage and stop all government actions that negatively affect the nation.
López Obrador proposed a fiscal reform and a tax system that obliges big companies and their owners to pay. The working tables were filled and participation was energetic. Ideas for transforming the country abounded. There was agreement on the need for fair taxes and the defense of petroleum, considered a people’s resource. It was also agreed to fight the Televisa law and support increasing the right to information. There was even strong insistence on fighting for the right to happiness.
“Never tire of thinking!”On March 25, López Obrador again filled the Zócalo for the convention’s closing act. Writer Elena Poniatowska spoke of the importance of so many people proposing actions to benefit Mexico. She stressed that this was one of the largest peaceful movements of our time, characterized by constancy, tolerance, patience and wisdom. She underscored that rather than having gone home after the fraud, López Obrador was fighting with and for people’s interests. She called for continued self-criticism in order to advance firmly, and defined this opposition as one that proposes to protect not only workers, but also forests, rivers, the seaboard and archeological areas.
López Obrador told the multitude that his nationwide tour had discovered convinced men and women who were placing their hopes in this movement, considering it the only option to pull Mexico out of its backwardness and its people out of their poverty and marginalization. All will depend, he said, on people never tiring of thinking, persevering and strengthening the movement.
Numbers talkLópez Obrador put things into focus by reviewing one of the previous fiscal years in which the corporations paid 118 billion pesos in taxes and the citizenry 182 billion, while the corporations obtained 60% of the national income and the workers only 30%. A company like Cementos Mexicanos, which had a 40% profit margin, only paid 2.3% in taxes; Teléfonos de México, paid 8.9% with an operating margin of 50%; and Mexico’s Stock Exchange paid absolutely nothing. In contrast, workers paid 15-28%. He warned that the Right had launched a campaign to demoralize people and convince them that PEMEX was bankrupt, leaving no choice but to turn it over to private hands. He reminded listeners that petroleum is the best business in the world, as it costs US$3 to extract a barrel of oil that is sold at $44. The Fox government had obtained $335 billion from petroleum, but the top bureaucracy squandered it amid huge corruption instead of investing it in modernizing the petroleum company, in Mexico’s development and in the population’s well-being.
He explained that the government had become a committee at the service of a minority, aggravated by the fact that the fraud had left it with debts to pay. Thus, the corrupt permanent leader of the teachers’ union had been given control of the Secretariat of Education, the National Lottery and management of the state workers’ savings. The National Democratic Convention reaffirmed its anti-neoliberal struggle and approved the idea of pushing for a political trial to stop Calderón, fighting for expropriation of the two major television channels and opposing reforms to the state workers’ pension system.
Reflecting on the convention, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo said its members were facing “an immoderate Right, fed by the state’s weakness and built on complicity and corruption, economic transnationalization, domestic monopolies, clerical arrogance and the communications empire.” That confederation of powers that be could only be challenged by a militant social majority. Electoral democratic transition has been raped, making the executive illegitimate from birth. The convention had rigorously critiqued neoliberal thinking and its depredating effects and now it faced the challenge of figuring out how to implement an efficient organization.
Social security reformThe PAN and PRI legislative benches helped Calderón strike a blow at state workers by reforming the social security model. Obeying the World Bank, they quickly pushed through an eminently neoliberal bill with no prior examination. The new law increased the requisites for retirement and increased pensions. It was hurried through with under-the-table negotiations. The opposition argued that the law canceled workers’ rights in order to benefit large financial capital. Although the social security model pushed by neoliberalism has failed around the world and there are rumors about adjusting it in Chile, it has finally arrived in Mexico years late but with all its defects.
This law transfers the costs of the crisis affecting the entity responsible for providing state workers health care and retirement pensions onto the workers themselves, while the financial groups could wind up with the savings of 20 million salaried employees. The system of individual accounts into which those savings end up will be given to financial groups that charge 20% commission and pay only 2% interest, turning the retirement accounts from a labor right into merchandise. Under that scheme, someone who starts working at 18 and continues working for 47 years could retire with just under three minimum wages a month, which is not a decent pension. Even the retirement fund administrators’ regulatory body recognized that the privately managed system imposed 10 years ago for workers paying into the Mexican Social Security Institute has imposed upwards of 200% increases on account balance commissions, which means that the real beneficiaries are the companies not the workers. This is the model now being imposed on public sector workers.
The law secured at the topThis legal reform seeks to eliminate the state’s responsibility in providing social security and health care as social rights. Calderón termed the law’s passage a “great victory,” acclaimed the legislators who voted for it as patriots and launched an official campaign to justify it. Enthusiastic about the reform, the IMF then encouraged the pushing through of energy and fiscal reforms.
will be smashed at the bottom
The unions that opposed the maneuver resulting in this reform claimed that the law is an attempt to cover up the embezzlement of pension funds. One union lawyer wryly noted that a law that had to be justified through the manipulation of information and hiding of data must be pretty bad. Teachers’ union dissidents charged that it had been imposed by their spurious leader, an accomplice in the electoral fraud. She publicly admitted having in fact negotiated the reform, an admission confirmed by the head of the PAN bench in the Senate. Problems and irregularities persist nearly two decades after the body responsible for overseeing state workers’ social security gave 33 million pesos to the teachers’ housing trust fund created by this same union leader, while the law gives the leaders of corporative anti-democratic unions the possibility of handling the pension funds at their discretion for three years before passing them over to private bankers.
Mexico’s Union of Jurists considers the new pension law the first sizable theft of Calderón’s six-year term. Experts pointed out that it is based on a biased assessment, abusing the defenselessness of the many state employees subjected to anti-democratic unions. The law’s first great deficit was its anti-democratic conception, as the workers were not listened to and the law was imposed in an authoritarian manner.
López Obrador charged that the law is to pay off the teachers’ union leader and bankers for their part in the fraud and warned that a stacked fiscal reform will come next. He called on people to fight to reverse it. Irritation was quickly felt and protests followed right behind. There were massive demonstrations of repudiation and discontent all over the country against what was dubbed the “Gordillo law” for the surname of the corrupt teachers’ leader. Many protest marches were held, offices taken over and streets blocked, while work was suspended in several offices. Signatures were collected against the law and thousands of individual and collective writs of protection were filed against it. The slogan coined was “a reform secured at the top will be smashed at the bottom.” The independent unions began preparing even greater protests around International Workers’ Day on May 1, with unitary marches and work stoppages. With support from APPO, Oaxaca’s teachers announced that they would join the national work stoppage against the law. All over the country those affected promised to join the opposition groundswell.
Against the PPPIn April, the Presidents of Mexico, Colombia and the Central American countries met to try to resuscitate Plan Puebla Panama (PPP)—which really ought to be called Plan Puebla Bogota—through which the region’s oligarchs aspire to receive goodies for their own personal benefit.
The hope is that a rejuvenated PPP could serve as the Right’s response to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Latin American Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), now with the additional element of security. Many grassroots groups in Mexico came out against the plan’s proposed mega-projects and land evictions. They charged that repression against the indigenous and peasant population would intensify to ensure the economic groups investments in their ancestral lands under the excuse of the fight against organized crime. The Mexican Alliance for the Self-determination of Peoples warned that the plan would be one of enrichment for the few rather than the development of the people and would undermine national sovereignty. Far from improving people’s living conditions, the plan would set the right conditions for private investment in works that benefit large capital.
In their own different ways, many groups around the country have been converging around the demand to abandon this neoliberal obsession. In a document titled “Vale la pena resistir” (It’s worth resisting), the South Group called Calderón’s government “a bastion of neoliberal primitivism” and issued a call to keep up the resistance.
A polarized countryMéxico remains polarized in the midst of an ultra-right offensive against labor and social rights. Propped up by the church hierarchy and big capital, the Right has taken over the state, servilely subordinating all three branches (executive, legislative and judicial) to the interests of the powerful and against the people. Those below have been responding to this war, but the major television chains and other media are attempting to silence them behind an informative wall, imagining that if the rebels’ actions don’t appear in the news they won’t exist, and the powerful can go happily on enjoying what they have plundered. And when they do mention those being enslaved, it’s to criticize their unwillingness to submissively kiss their chains.
This ruthless economic and social war by the powerful against the despoiled has sparked a growing ferment at the bottom of the pile. The worker and peasant groups in the National Dialogue have converged with the resistance movement headed by López Obrador, which is touring the country spreading ideas of defense and alternatives. Many heads are thinking, discussing, reaching accords and acting. For its part, the Zapatista’s Other Campaign continues to promote and organize sizable sectors of marginalized people.
While accepting that the classes have been changing, we’re facing the flare-up of a new class struggle. On one side the dominating and exploiting classes are continuing to extort the dominated, exploited and excluded. But this has reached such levels that the proposals are now reaching beyond dispersed defensive struggles to a search for alternative models.
Changing Mexico and One person who has reflected long and lucidly about this new situation is the committed Mexican intellectual Pablo González Casanova. Taking as his starting point the fact that neoliberal policies have increased the number of poor and excluded, he has reflected on how the capitalist mode of domination and production combines the structuring of its own forces with the destructuring of those opposing it. This is not happening, however, without any rebellion from those below. For González Casanova there is currently “a mediatized and mediated class struggle that follows the mediations of traditional society.” He is investigating how the positions and interests of the subaltern class’ different sectors come together in times of crisis, and how they might be helped to move past their fragmentation through a union that respects differences; one that carefully scrutinizes rather than never moving past broad brushstrokes. When the crisis is unleashed, difficult problems hinder the creation of a historic bloc, as some tend to limit themselves to constructing systemic alternatives while others propose the need for anti-systemic alternatives. While some think about resolving pressing problems, others want to really resolve “the problem of the poorest of the poor.”
thinking about it differently
González Casanova concludes that the anti-systemic movements aren’t finding “the class by and for itself” that seemed to be shaping up in classic capitalism, but rather “sub-classes” that must reach agreements and firmly and respectfully settle their main difference—“the solution of the poor among the poor”—while at the same time ratifying the urgent need for a pluralist force or bloc in ideological, religious and philosophical terms and in relation to short-term policies. He is discovering that the anti-systemic movements won’t make concessions that limit their autonomous force, but will seek out “combinations of short-term demands and the most general, profound ones. For González Casanova what is at play is a “combination of forces,” or a “combination of combinations” more than a “sum of forces.”
Thus, all this effervescence from below, condemned and feared from above, is changing both the current political situation and the way it is being analyzed.
Jorge Alonso is a researcher for CIESAS West, and the envío correspondent in Mexico.