Friday, September 13, 2013


Mr. Obama Takes Sides in a Divided Country

In May of this year Mr. Obama paid a state visit to Mexico to support the domestic reforms being proposed by the country’s newly elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and gave a short speech to a small, select audience of university and high school students and business leaders at Mexico City’s famous Museum of Anthropology. Obama’s now familiar message of hope and change, though greeted with skepticism from some members of his young audience, was generally received with enthusiasm. His efforts at broken Spanish and his concessions to Mexicans’ national pride and sensibilities were met with repeated cheers and applause.  He praised Mexico for its progress towards democracy, technological and economic development and the growth of a middle class. He noted with satisfaction that Mexico was beginning to take its rightful place among the nations of the world.  He urged greater economic cooperation between the two countries working as equals towards a bright future of mutual respect and prosperity. Obama also urged the young Mexicans in his audience to leave “old mindsets” behind and work towards a new and prosperous Mexico based on “new realities” and a new relationship with the United States, which was no doubt a reference to the difficulties which have plagued the history of Mexican-American relations in the past. He urged the young, technologically savvy students in his audience to use their talents and imagination to create the “next big thing”. 

 Although Obama’s message of hope and change constantly holds immense attraction for his audiences, his words are somehow always belied by the very facts and the reality of the situation in which they are spoken. In fact, the more desperate their situation, the more people are disposed to listen to such messages. In reality the new Mexican President, whose party is returning to power after 12 years in the opposition is presiding over a deeply divided country whose divisions between the haves and the have-nots go back for centuries, divisions which, rather than disappearing or being mitigated by time, have become more accentuated and deeply entrenched in all aspects of Mexico’s modern society, culture, and political institutions. The pro-business, pro free-trade National Action Party (PAN) which held the presidency from 2000 to 2012 only managed to exacerbate these divisions and to disillusion those voters who believed that after 70 years of PRI governance, elections would finally offer solutions to these age-old problems. Now, the PRI is hoping to overcome these divisions by proposing a plan, a “Pact for Mexico”, which represents an agreement between the three major political parties of the country, the PRI, the PAN and the PRD, (the Democratic Revolutionary Party) to wage an aggressive offensive against all those in the country that stand in the way of their neoliberal program of further opening Mexico up to foreign investment and to the vicissitudes of the global economy.  

But there is tremendous resentment and a rapidly growing resistance to the PRI’S “Pact for Mexico”; a resistance which, like Popocatepetl, the dormant volcano that lies just outside of Mexico City and has been spewing inordinate amounts of water vapor, gas and ash into the air lately, threatens to erupt into open class warfare.

The Electoral Parties

Before the 2000 elections, the PRI had held a monopoly on political power in Mexico for 70 years and was returned to power in the 2012 elections after 12 years in the opposition, during which time the PAN held the presidency. The main alternative to these two bourgeois political parties, and the great hope of many leftists in the country, that was once offered by the newly formed populist left PRD and the candidacies of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) for president in 2006 and 2012 has been at least temporarily derailed since the election of Peña Nieto. During the 2006 campaign, AMLO and his populist views were successfully stigmatized by his pro-business free-market opponents and the corporate media as a “danger for Mexico”. The hostility to AMLO among these same sectors only intensified after AMLO protested the largely fraudulent election results of 2006, which gave the victory to PAN’s Felipe Calderon, by calling on his followers to occupy the center of the capital, a protest which eventually lasted for 47 days, causing hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the area to suffer economic losses. Now the middle class views AMLO with the same contempt with which they view Mexico’s president from 1976 to 1982, José Lopez Portillo, who is vilified for nationalizing the banks at the end of his term, and the contempt with which they once viewed Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chavez, a figure with whom AMLO’s opponents often compare him. These electoral defeats of the PRD have led to demoralization, dissension and opportunism in the party’s ranks and a faction of the party has signed on, along with the PAN, to Peña Nieto’s “Pact for Mexico”. The PRI now not only holds the presidency but a good share of the national congress and a majority of the state legislatures. Finding the presidency denied to his political movement, AMLO has now left the PRD and created an independent opposition movement called the Movimiento de Renacimiento, (MORENA)

The Teachers’ Union and the Education Reform Law

In February of this year, Peña Nieto caused consternation and turmoil within the powerful teachers’ union, the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación) and the dissenting, smaller and more militant splinter group, the CNTE (Congreso Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación), when he arrested the corrupt leader of the teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo. He further aggravated the union with his proposed Education Reform Law, which seeks to undermine the power of the teachers’ unions in education and proposes to implement standardized testing for teacher evaluation. Resistance to the reform law is particularly strong in the underdeveloped, rural areas of the country.
       The teachers’ struggles in the PRI-controlled state of Oaxaca, it will be remembered, assumed historic proportions and erupted into violent confrontations in 2006 when a militant section of the teachers’ union, CNTE Section XXII, went on strike and occupied the center of the state capital for several months. Out of this movement grew a citizens’ political organization, APPO (Asemblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca), which helped fuel the protest and vent popular discontent. Confrontations reached a climax when an American reporter for Indymedia, Brad Will, was shot and killed by unknown pro-government forces of the PRI Governor at the time, Hector Ulises Ruiz.  As always, the public, taking its cue from the government and the corporate media, roundly criticized these tactics of the teachers’ union, which received little or no outside support, at least according to this same media.
We now see this history being repeated as CNTE and thousands of public school teachers from rural communities in the less developed areas of the country are going on strike, mostly in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas.  Thousands of teachers, again mostly from Oaxaca, have been converging on the nation’s capital, where they have organized large marches and demonstrations. Confrontations with riot police have taken place in front of the National Congress, where a general version of the new law was being discussed and was passed. There is talk of provocateurs having infiltrated the teachers’ ranks. These same teachers are now occupying the Zócalo (Constitution Square) of the capital in front of the presidential palace where they are living in tent cities and where they pledge to remain until September 15, Mexico’s Independence Day. Meanwhile, the patience of the capitalinos is wearing thin because of the almost daily traffic snarls that the teachers’ demonstrations in different parts of the city are causing; AMLO is calling for public understanding and indulgence towards the protests; the capital’s municipal PRD government, which is relatively liberal, is pledging not to repress or dislodge the protestors; and the rightwing PAN is asking for the protesters to be removed by force. There is a form of limited dialogue between the government and the teachers’ union taking place but Peña Nieto has pledged that an Education Reform Law will be passed in any case.1

 Tent city in Mexico City's Zocalo:  from Omar López/EL UNIVERSAL


Union Banner in Zocalo tent city opposing the labor "reforms" (Alex Steiner)

Union banner in Zocalo tent city (Alex Steiner)

The Labor Reform Law, the Electrical Workers’ Union, and PEMEX

      There is also a growing discontent and resistance to the “Pact for Mexico” among the union rank and file who have vehemently opposed the anti-worker, anti-union Labor Reform Law which was passed earlier this year, and there is still the smoldering resentment among electrical workers over Felipe Calderon’s dissolution of the Electrical Workers Union (the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas) in October of 2009 which put over 44,000 unionized workers out of a job by dissolving the state run electrical power company, busting the union and replacing the workers with non-unionized employees of the Comisión Federal de Electricidad
      Furthermore, the issue of the fate of PEMEX and the exploitation of Mexico’s oil reserves, which were once proudly proclaimed to be the patrimony of all Mexicans by the PRI’s Lazaro Cardenas in 1938, is still another bone of contention that threatens to erupt into open political confrontation once again as the major political parties submit their several proposals to the congress  to “modernize” the oil industry by opening it up to foreign investment, a move which, in turn, could well require the National Congress to modify several articles of the Mexican constitution. Emotions run high over the question and while the PAN and the PRI have submitted their own plans, they have promised to make common cause in their effort. The PRD is offering its own plan to “modernize” the oil industry and threatening not to vote for the law, thereby breaking with the PRI’s “Pact for Mexico”.  Once again, AMLO has captured the public spotlight by staking out a position of his own as the head of an independent political movement, MORENA, which promises to oppose any effort by the government to privatize PEMEX.

The Regional Self-Defense Brigades

      In addition, there is a growing socio-political movement in the states among poor rural communities in reaction and opposition to the rise of corruption and organized crime and to the drug lords who are infiltrating and taking over entire municipal governments all over the country. No longer content to depend on the corrupt institutions of the military and the police for protection, armed popular defense forces are being organized in rural communities all over the country in order to take justice into their own hands. The state of Michoacán has seen the most recent example of this movement in which self-defense brigades are successfully organizing and arming themselves in order to forcibly expel the drug cartels from their streets and their communities.2 The federal and state governments are anxiously trying to negotiate a peace with these vigilante groups and is promising to take matters into its own hands to solve the problem by using Calderon’s old, failed tactics of increasing police and military presence in the region. Confrontations between the government and these groups have already begun.

Student Discontent

      No less important is the lingering discontent among students. A student movement opposing the election of Peña Nieto took shape during the last elections and led to demonstrations, marches and confrontations with government forces on the very day of the president’s inauguration, December 1, 2012. It also led to a period of several weeks during which the Rectory of the National University (UNAM) was occupied by student sit-ins or “plantones”. There has always been the long standing problem of the lack of access to a university education for broad masses of young people in Mexico who can neither find a place in the public university system nor are able to pay tuition to gain entrance into one of the more expensive private institutions.

Peña Nieto’s Record of Repression

Peña Nieto, like Mexico and the PRI itself, has a record of violent repression and the question is whether, under certain circumstances, he might not resort to brutal repression of the kind for which he was responsible in 2012 against the students and in 2006 against rural peasants when he served as governor of the State of Mexico.  At that time, Peña Nieto was responsible for ordering the vicious attack by Federal and State Police on peasant merchants and organized flower sellers in the town of Atenco over their right to set up their popular markets in the town square.  In this confrontation homes were broken into, peasants, some of them armed with machetes, were beaten, detained and raped, and at least two young men, one of them only 14 years old, were killed. The governor had an additional score to settle with this community because it was their organized resistance that had earlier prevented the government from authorizing the construction of a second international airport in the same area some four years before.

Mexico: At a Crossroads or an Impasse?

Surely, the country is at some sort of threshold or crossroads. Obama’s now familiar siren song and message of hope and change is very seductive to Mexico’s bourgeoning young middle class, who are composed of young professionals who have gotten college degrees usually in those areas of business, finance or high technology which are most in demand on today’s market. The only alternative to the rosy picture which Obama paints, it would seem, is despair. But instead of Mexico entering upon a new era of prosperity and taking its rightful place among the nations of the world, the country, contradictorily, seems to be entering upon a period of uncertainty, instability and turmoil. There is even talk of it becoming a “failed state”. The question is why?

Peña Nieto’s new plan for the modernization of Mexico is really nothing new and consists of a continuation of the old neoliberal policies of opening Mexico up to even more private investment in order to make the country more “competitive” on the world market. But as the world and the domestic economy continue to deteriorate, resistance to the old neoliberal policies grows. The PRI’s program is really that of the pro-business, free-market oriented PAN but by pushing through its new package of reforms, the PRI (much like the Democratic Party in the U.S.) is using its populist credentials to do what the PAN, in its few years in the presidency, could not do. The PRI has simply co-opted the right wing’s program. The reason that they have been able to do so and might even be able to implement it successfully is that in the early XX century after the 1910 revolution, the PRI built a reputation based on a sort of populist, nationalist-progressivism which at least claimed to be all inclusive. The famous paintings of the Mexican muralist movement of the 30’s eloquently expressed these progressive-nationalist aspirations. And Mexicans are still fiercely nationalistic-- something that is exploited by the country’s ruling classes. But the fact is that Peña Nieto and the PRI long ago abandoned the roots of its own nationalist-progressive traditions and during its 70 years in power proved itself to be hopelessly oppressive and corrupt.  Another reason for the PRI’s success is that it has used its traditional peasant base and a party machine based on compadrazgo, cronyism and patronage to assemble a kind of coalition of the three major political parties which only serves the interests of a ruling class elite whose loyalties are not to the nation or its citizens but to international banks and financial institutions, multi-national corporations and their stockholders and investors, all of whom stand to gain from the so-called reforms.  As Frantz Fanon pointed out in writing about the Algerian revolution, the loyalties of the nationalist bourgeoisie, despite what they avow, are always to the colonialist, imperialist powers. And what we are seeing in the world today is a resurgence of imperialism and the rebirth of colonialism.
The anti-reform forces, on the other hand, composed of the more politically and socially conscious sectors of Mexico’s poor and lower class working people and their traditional working class institutions and organizations see themselves as the sacrificial lambs of this promised prosperity of the future. Yet, at the same time the anti-reform forces appear unable, at least so far, to muster substantial support among the broad population against the reforms. In the eyes of the Mexican middle class and what Marx calls the petty bourgeoisie, this is because these forces cannot or do not offer any feasible alternative; they are simply the cause of the problem-- the fly in the ointment. Their lack of widespread, popular support, the middle class maintains, is only proof of this. Indeed the mobilization against the proposed reforms organized by the teachers, the unions and AMLO’s popular movement, MORENA, only manage to inspire rancor and hostility among the vast majority of middle-class, tax-paying Mexicans, who, whether rightly or wrongly, condemn the unions for their corruption, inefficiency and anti-free market principles and place all the blame for the low quality of education in the public school system squarely on the striking teachers.  It would appear that the forces opposing Peña Nieto’s reforms and his plans to modernize Mexico are simply regressive and backward spoilers who instinctively hate any kind of progress, hope and change.  
For the moment, therefore, it seems that Mexico rather than being at a crossroads or a threshold is actually at an impasse or a stalemate between two forces: the middle class, who sees Peña Nieto’s opponents as the obstacle to Mexico’s progress, on the one hand, and Mexico’s poor and lower class working people and their respective organizations, on the other, who find that they have no alternative left in the political arena but to resort to drastic extra-electoralist measures for the sake of their own survival but have not yet found the broad popular support that they need to seriously challenge or even change the status quo. The stalemate itself shows that the social divide between the haves and the have-nots has become almost total and complete, as if the two classes lived on different planets. But if the popular opposition movement to the elected government ever does find the support it needs among the general population, a fierce class confrontation of historic proportions is very likely.
Mexico’s future, however, does not rest with Mexico alone. Rather it is inextricably entwined with the future of its northern neighbor and with the fate of the world capitalist system as a whole, both of which are now confronting an enormous economic, political crisis and indeed seem to be on the eve of yet another war. If, therefore, there is an abrupt change in Mexico’s fortunes induced by a worsening of the international economic crisis, which seems very likely, the political, social relationship of forces inside the country could very quickly and drastically change in favor of those who are, at least for now, only a vociferous and vilified minority. If such proves to be the case, then the popular movement against the domination of capitalist imperialism that is now growing in Mexico will have been vindicated.
September 2, 2013

Ramón Rodriquez
Mexico, D.F.


1    As of August 31 the National Congress in a much disputed vote approved the Education Reform Law with 390 in favor and 69 against.
2    See the youtube video El pueblo que venció al crimen organizado. Testimonio de un policía comunitaria

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