The Mess In Mexico

Mexico's fragile democracy is under attack from its own government -- and may not survive. Yet the Bush administration's neoconservatives, who almost daily proclaim their commitment to protect -- and indeed impose -- free elections in the world's every nook and cranny, are silent. Turns out that their defense of democracy extends only to candidates who meet their approval.

For more than a year now, polls have shown Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist, left-of-center mayor of Mexico City, leading all potential candidates in next year's presidential election. In response to this populist threat, the two major parties, both heavily supported by Mexican big business, have colluded to deny López the right to run for president. On April 7, their combined majority in Mexico's Congress in effect ordered the federal government to indict López Obrador on a transparently trumped-up charge. He is accused of approving a city project to widen a road to a public hospital on a small piece of land that his predecessor had acquired for the city, but whose ownership was still in dispute. The Mexican constitution prohibits anyone under indictment from running for president, and the government of President Vicente Fox has signaled that it will drag out the proceedings long enough to deny López Obrador a place on the ballot -- and might even put him in prison until the trial takes place.

Fox, of the Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), and the leaders of the major “opposition” party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), have piously portrayed their scheme as a demonstration that “no one in Mexico is above the law.” But under their management, Mexico has been riddled with massive corruption and lawlessness. Narcotics traffickers have infiltrated the higher levels of government, public service is widely seen as a way to get rich, and street crime has reached epidemic proportions. At least one current member of the Senate, who has been charged with embezzling millions, remains safely in his seat. In this context, López Obrador's crime -- if indeed he is guilty -- hardly rises to the level of a parking ticket. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans, whatever their party, believe the charges are pure politics.

The night of the congressional vote, 300,000 outraged citizens turned out in the Zócalo, Mexico City's main plaza, to protest this return to the authoritarian past. Mexico is suddenly in a serious political crisis. It could well dissolve into a protracted and violent class war that would inevitably spill over the porous borders and into the United States.

The roots of the current conflict go back at least to the election of 1988. For the previous 60 years, Mexico's government had been controlled by the PRI, an umbrella party of national unity formed to settle a 20-year civil war. The PRI managed a one-party system in which Mexico's oligarchs allowed some of the country's wealth to be shared with farmers and urban workers. The PRI was authoritarian, but the system worked reasonably well; until the early 1980s, the economy prospered, incomes rose, and inequality and poverty declined. But in the early 1980s, a younger generation of the leading wealthy families led by Carlos Salinas de Gortari took over the PRI. They deregulated trade, sold off government enterprises to their cronies, and slashed the small subsidies for the poor.

Salinas was hailed in Washington as a modern reformer who would bring capitalism and democracy to the benighted Mexicans. But economic growth stagnated, and the living standards of the vast majority of people fell. Just before the 1988 election, a group of progressive PRI members broke away to form the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD), and on election night their candidate -- Cuauhtémoc Cardenas -- appeared to have the most votes. The government abruptly announced that the election computers had broken down. Three days later the computers were “fixed,” and the official count went to Salinas. The ballots were confiscated, sealed, and mysteriously destroyed. Few Mexicans, whatever their politics, believe that Salinas won that election.

The possibility of even a mild left-wing government in Mexico was one motivation in Washington for negotiating the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA was sold to the U.S. Congress by the Bush Senior and Clinton administrations as a way to help Mexico prosper and become more democratic (though it was never made clear how rewarding someone who had stolen his election could be a step toward democracy).

Salinas' presidency was notorious for its drug-related corruption, political assassinations, and spectacular mishandling of the economy. Shortly after he left office, he fled the country in disgrace. Finally, in 2000, the electorate dumped the PRI and elected Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who promised clean government and an economic boom.

As the six-year term of Fox stumbles toward its end, it is clear that nothing much has changed. The oligarchs still control the country. The economy, despite the promises of NAFTA, cannot create enough work for its people. Fox's major economic policy is to encourage workers to emigrate to the United States so they can send dollars back home. To top it off, Salinas is back, and is widely believed to be the mastermind behind the current plot.

In the midst of this political malaise, the PRD's López Obrador has burst on the national scene -- establishing programs to aid the elderly and the poor in Mexico City, creating jobs with public-works programs, helping small business. He is energetic and politically savvy; his early-morning press conferences dominate the news.

There is little doubt that the White House would be as happy as Mexico's business elite to see López Obrador yanked from the political stage. He is not an isolated phenomenon. His popularity reflects the broader shift to the left in Latin America resulting from the failure of the free-market fundamentalism promoted by the U.S. Treasury and its partners at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the last decade. The Bushies might have to tolerate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, and maybe even Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But Mexico is at the front door.

Bush's oil business pals would be particularly unhappy. They have been cooking up a scheme to open Mexico's publicly owned oil reserves to foreign transnationals. Fox supports it, as does a large part of the PRI leadership. López Obrador and the PRD have vowed to keep the oil under Mexican control.

Neither do many of Bush's corporate contributors like the mayor's proposal for renegotiating NAFTA. The agreement has allowed them to produce goods for the U.S. market with low-wage labor and absent any pesky environmental or health and safety regulations. Signing a union pledge card in one of Mexico's maquiladora export factories can land you in a ditch with some broken bones -- or worse. While labor productivity in Mexican manufacturing rose 54 percent in the eight years after the trade agreement, real wages actually declined. U.S. corporate investors like NAFTA just the way it is.

Still, political uncertainty makes foreign financiers nervous. Wall Street doesn't care any more about democracy in Mexico than it does in China, but it expects the governments in both places to keep their people under control.

So López Obrador is counting in part on the impact of civil unrest with foreign investors to force the government to back down. He is calling on Mexicans to mount a campaign of nonviolent resistance, and has taken to quoting from Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The Fox and Salinas people are telling their friends in the financial markets not to worry. They are banking on the exhaustion factor -- that the crowds will thin as people get tired and go back to their homes and their jobs. But having tasted at least the promise of democracy, Mexicans may not tire so easily.

Indeed, popular demonstrations against the U.S. invasion of Iraq prevented Fox from endorsing George W. Bush's Middle East adventure two years ago. Some of the comments by the PAN and PRI legislators after their vote betray a fear that they may have gone too far. López Obrador may be an even more formidable political opponent for them as an imprisoned martyr for democracy. One early test of public sentiment will be the PRD's performance in the series of state government elections this July.

At any rate, if democracy is to prevail in Mexico, it won't get much help from the NAFTA neighbor to the north. Hypocrisy in Mexico City is matched by hypocrisy in Washington. In response to a reporter's question on the crisis, a State Department spokesperson primly declared, “We see this as a Mexican internal affair.”

Yet just a few days before, Condoleezza Rice told the National Conference of Editorial Writers that democracy was “on the march,” slyly taking credit for inspiring riots against sitting governments in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon. Earlier this month Rice declared, “Our nation will continue to clarify for other nations the moral choice between oppression and freedom, and we will make it clear that ultimately success in our relations depends on the treatment of their own people.”

Certainly the secretary of state has had no trouble butting into the internal affairs of Venezuela, publicly “clarifying” her dissatisfaction with the elected Chavez -- despite the people's recent rejection of referendum to oust him.

It's marvelous that we have such a farsighted secretary of state, able to discern the smallest threat to democracy by governments she doesn't like in the distant Middle East, in the mountains and plains of Central Asia, and down into Latin America. But she cannot quite spot it being trampled just across the Rio Grande. Why do I think a new pair of glasses won't help?

Jeff Faux is the Economic Policy Institute's Distinguished Fellow. His newest book on globalization and the future of North America will be released this coming winter.

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