Mexico's Historic Protest
by John Ross
The Progressive magazine, July
There are moments here when civil society
comes out of its house and fills the streets with righteous indignation,
the heat of human bodies fusing into one great fist of frustration.
Such moments are rare in Mexico and to be savored: the marches
of the doomed students in 1968; the fury that followed the stealing
of the 1988 presidential election from Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas;
the repeated mobilizations in solidarity with the Zapatistas that
have filled the Zócalo plaza to the brim.
Sunday, April 24, was such an outpouring.
Police estimated that 1.2 million citizens took to the streets
of Mexico City, this ancient Aztec capital. This was the largest
protest in Mexican history, and they were defending the capital's
leftwing mayor, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly referred
to by his initials, AMLO, or his nickname, "El Peje,"
a gar-like fish from his native Tabasco state). His opponents
were trying to oust him from office, toss him in the pokey, and
bar him from next year's presidential ballot. Since the 2003 mid-term
elections, AMLO has been running ten to twenty points ahead of
President Vicente Fox's rightist PAN party and the long-ruling
PRI, which Fox displaced from the presidency in 2000.
In a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic,
the April 24 gathering here drew bigger numbers than even the
coronation of a new Pope, which took place on the same morning
in faraway Rome.
Under scorching skies, the multitudes
converged on Chapultepec Park for the nine-kilometer hike to the
Zócalo. The route was purposefully the same as taken by
striking students in September 1968, just a month before hundreds
would be massacred by army troops downtown. Like that historic
mobilization, today's march would be a silent one.
López Obrador made his bones in
the swamps of Tabasco, a sweltering oil-rich entity that is a
kind of Mexican Louisiana. Twice Lopez Obrador and the leftist
Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) tried to wrest the governorship
from the PRI, and twice they were swindled out of victory, once
when the PRI engaged in a vote-counting fraud and once when the
PRI vastly exceeded the state campaign limits.
After kingfish Governor Roberto Madrazo,
now president of the PRI and its likely candidate for the presidency,
stole the 1994 contest with a billion pesos provided by a fugitive
tycoon who had just looted two newly privatized banks, AMLO marched
hundreds of ragtag campesinos 1,000 miles up to Mexico City. There
they encamped in the Zócalo for a month. When the farmers
returned to Tabasco empty-handed, they were attacked by PRI mobs
on the streets of Villahermosa.
Undeterred by the repression, in 1996,
AMLO led Chontal Indian farmers in a blockade of sixty drilling
platforms to protest the contamination of their communities by
PEMEX, the nationalized oil corporation. Troops and police beat
Lopez Obrador, jailed him, and broke up the blockade on orders
of Governor Madrazo and President Ernesto Zedillo.
But Lopez Obrador proved indefatigable.
Months later, he led a people's referendum condemning a Zedillo
government plot to dump billions of dollars of bank debt upon
the backs of Mexican taxpayers so that the banks could be sold
to U.S. and Spanish investors.
As president of the PRD, Lopez Obrador
engineered the victory of his one-time mentor Cuauhtémoc
Cárdenas as Mexico City's first elected mayor. Three years
later, he himself won the post on the same day in July 2000 that
Vicente Fox became the first opposition president of Mexico.
AMLO has proven to be an extraordinarily
popular mayor who builds massive public works, provides free medical
attention for all underclass residents, and offers a $60 monthly
pension to every uncovered senior citizen within the city limits.
Pugnaciously committed to his ethos of "Los Pobres Primero!"
("The Poor First!"), Lopez Obrador is relentlessly assailed
by Fox and his neoliberal cronies as a dangerous populist.
From the other side of the political spectrum,
Subcomandante Marcos of the rebel Zapatistas said AMLO represented
"the left hand of the right." Marcos criticized AMLO
for surrounding himself with "Salinistas" (former associates
of the now-reviled ex-president Carlos Salinas). And Marcos excoriated
AMLO for shutting down the investigation into the death of human
rights lawyer Digna Ochoa. Nevertheless, the Zapatistas stood
resolutely against AMLO's ouster, saying it was designed to "annihilate
the electoral option by which free men and women can come peacefully
Despite the government onslaught, AMLO
's popularity kept rising. In March polls, he stood 13 points
ahead of the probable PAN candidate for president, Interior Minister
Santiago Creel. At this point in the race, AMLO, who is stepping
down as mayor to concentrate on his run for president, seems all
but invincible. That is, if he is not removed from the competition
by hook or by crook.
The initial effort to oust him from the
race has now backfired. On red alert after the PAN was soundly
trounced in 2003 midterm elections, Fox, Creel, and Attorney General
Rafael Macedo de la Concha (a real general) cooked up a plot to
keep AMLO off the 2006 ballot. During Christmas week 2004, Mariano
Azuela, the president of Mexico's Supreme Court, was summoned
to Los Pinos, the Mexican 'White House, to iron out the legal
wrinkles in the conspiracy.
They decided to go after AMLO for signing
off on building an access road to a newly relocated hospital in
the red-hot Santa Fe enclave in western Mexico City, where many
transnational corporations are now headquartered. The owners of
the expropriated slice of right-of-way, less than sixty yards
long, obtained a court order to force the city to cease and desist,
with which Lopez Obrador promptly complied. But the promoters
then complained that heavy equipment parked near the abandoned
construction was blocking their access and won a contempt of court
citation against AMLO.
Fox and the PRI seized on this puny issue
as a way to do AMLO in. On April 7, the PRI-PAN majority in the
lower house of Congress voted to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity
from prosecution, which elected officials traditionally have.
The desafuero (outrage) would have removed him from office, laid
him open to prosecution and a possible jail term of one to eight
years, and prohibited him from running for office.
In classic AMLO mode, he vowed to run
his presidential campaign from a prison cell, much as Francisco
Madero had back in 1910 after the dictator Porflrio DIaz clapped
him in jail. (Denied victory, Madero proclaimed the Mexican revolution.
History is one of AMLO's keenest weapons.) AMLO summoned the masses,
a sometimes-dangerous proposition in a nation where the bad gas
of class and race hatred seeps just below the stoic surface of
society. On Desafuero Day, April 7, 330,000 people turned out
to accompany their beloved leader. It was the largest political
outpouring in the capital in the seventeen years since Cárdenas
was robbed of the presidency. Despite dire warnings, the gathering
was a peaceful one, some would say too peaceful.
Now, on April 24, the crowd had tripled.
From early dawn, the civil society reassembled itself by the Museum
of Anthropology in whose vaults the history of Mexico reposes.
Out in the park, old people, young people, straight people, gay
people, city people, country people, political people, just people
people, but mostly brown people, the people the Zapatistas' Marcos
calls "the people who are the color of the earth," gathered
to express their outrage. Their mouths covered with white tapabocas
(surgical masks) and their shoes slapping at the pavement, the
people moved in silence along the route of the murdered students.
Overhead, federal police helicopters buzzed and spooked the marchers,
since it had been a signal from a government helicopter that had
triggered the massacre at Tlatelolco. My compañero de marcha,
Humberto Trujillo, a cagey old farmers' lawyer and a veteran of
'68, glanced up in alarm over the top of his tapaboca.
With their fists pumping silently into
the broiling noon, the marchers' silence lent them an aura of
moral authority. They carried hand-lettered poster board: "They
Will Not Listen to Our Words-Now They Must Listen to Our Silence,"
"We Are No Longer Invisible Citizens," "Todos Somos
El Peje" ("We Are All El Peje," adapting a slogan
once exclusively reserved for Subcomandante Marcos), and "I
Voted for Fox and I Repent!"
Under the column of the Angel of Independence
on the Avenida Reforma, four men unfurled a mammoth banner that
read: "Revolution Every 100 Years: 1810 [liberation from
Spain], 1910 [the revolution], 2010 ???"
"This is not just about one person
anymore," said Nun Fernández, a longtime political
activist. "It belongs to all of us now!"
Inside the teeming Zócalo, Lopez
Obrador spoke from a stage erected directly in front of the National
Palace, the seat of government he could be inhabiting next year.
He declared his populist views, standing against the privatization
of PEMEX and the electricity industry and against the unbridled
free market. "We must not allow ourselves to become victims
of globalization but we must learn how to manipulate it for our
own benefit." If elected president, he vowed not to engage
in a witch-hunt of his opponents. And above all, he vowed, "Los
Three days after the unprecedented March
of Silence, Vicente Fox took to national television to announce
he accepted the resignations of Attorney General Macedo and his
bulldog prosecutor, Carlos Vega Memije. The charges against AMLO
would be consigned to legal limbo. The president promised to send
legislation to congress that would modify Mexico's legal proceedings
and guarantee a presumption of innocence. Shortly thereafter,
the government said it would no longer prosecute him.
Everywhere he goes these days, AMLO's
lucha has gathered momentum. Troupes of street venders follow
the marches, hawking buttons and T-shirts that bear his name,
as well as compact discs of "The Cumbia [The Dance] of El
Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador is
riding the pendulum swing that is moving across Latin America.
The neoliberal model savaged the poor, depleted national economies,
drove the farmers off the land, and made consumers dependent on
products made by far off multinationals. All over Latin America
today, the people are on the march, and they are demanding leaders
who respond to their needs, not those of Washington or the International
For millions of Mexicans, AMLO is just
such a leader.
If he can survive the tradition of assassination-which
dates back to Madero and Zapata and most recently revealed itself
in the 1994 hit on PRI presidential hopeful Luis Donaldo Colosio-Mexico
may soon have a leader who puts the poorest first..
Longtime Mexico hand John Ross's latest
book is 'Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life
& Death on the US. Left."
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