The Mess in Mexico
The scandalous indictment of Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador has roiled Mexico.
by Jeff Faux
The American Prospect magazine,
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
Andres Manuel Lopez 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 Lopez the right to run for president. On
April 7, their combined majority in Mexico's Congress in effect
ordered the federal government to indict Lopez 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 Lopez 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
riddied 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, Lopez 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 Zocalo, 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 PR!, an umbrella party of
national unity formed to settle a 20-year civil war. The PR! 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 PR! 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 PR!. 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 PR! 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
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
In the midst of this political malaise,
the P RD'S Lopez 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 Lopez
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. Lopez Obrador and
the pan 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 US. 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 Lopez 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. Lopez 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
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 Washing-ton.
In response to a reporter's question on the crisis, a State Department
spokesperson primly declared, "We see this as a Mexican internal
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
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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