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Day 17

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Part Two: Los Presidenciales

Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s Would-Be Mandela, Stares into the Darkness

by JOHN ROSS

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador demands a speedy trial on contempt of court charges arising out of his purported defiance of orders not to build a road to a Mexico City hospital. To qualify as a candidate for the presidency of Mexico, AMLO, the current frontrunner who President Vicente Fox’s PAN and the once-ruling PRI seek to imprison and thus exclude from the race, must be free of all criminal charges by January 15th 2006, the final day for registering his candidacy.

The snag in this scenario is that Lopez Obrador’s foes control the legal timetable. The PRI-PAN-dominated congress can send its recommendation to indict to the attorney general’s office in an hour or a month. Similarly Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, a former military prosecutor and staunch Fox loyalist, can bring a request for an arrest warrant to a judge whenever he deems it tactically advantageous ­ i.e. when the case can be assigned to a judge who will do Fox’s bidding. That judge is not obligated to even issue the warrant but once he or she does, AMLO will be theoretically stripped of his political rights and observe the rest of the proceedings from behind prison bars. The PRI and the PAN eagerly await the photo op.

If eventually convicted, Lopez Obrador could be pardoned by a triumphant Fox to demonstrate his magnanimity ­ Los Pinos (the Mexican White House) insiders recently floated this trial balloon to the Washington Post. But despite the conciliatory gesture, rumors abound that Macedo de la Concha and prosecutor Carlos Javier Vega Memije are reviewing arrest warrants for Lopez Obrador incurred when he led Indian farmers against government oil drilling platforms in 1996 (see "My Life With AMLO ­ So Far" ­ part three.) In what passes for a justice system here, arrest warrants are sometimes held in abeyance for years and trotted out whenever leaders of popular movements become a threat to the party in power.

Interior secretary Creel also charges El Peje with criminally releasing confidential U.S. Treasury Department information in defense of a former Mexico City finance secretary caught red-handed by T-Men cameras at Las Vegas gaming tables. AMLO’s reign at City Hall has been punctuated by exquisitely orchestrated scandals since he was elected mayor on the same day in 2000 that Vicente Fox became Mexico’s first opposition president.

Both Fox’s PAN and the PRI stand convicted of big-time finance finagling in the 2000 "presidenciales." The illicit triangulation of millions of dollars from mysterious donors outside of the country, the so-called "Amigo gate", was matched by the PRI’s "PEMEXgate" in which the then-ruling party purloined $110 million USD from the state oil monopoly to finance its campaign. Although the PRI was fined a billion pesos for this pillage, both parties have since erased the scandals from their respective memory banks. A PRD bid to extend the desafuero to the PRI senator responsible for PEMEXgate transactions was rebuffed by the PRI and the PAN less than a week after the two parties ganged up on Lopez Obrador.

Although Washington considers El Peje a Mexican Hugo Chavez, on a sliding scale his danger to U.S. hegemony in the Americas is probably at Lula-level, a notch below the return of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Nonetheless, Lopez Obrador remains a dangerous populist riding the pendulum swing of social democracy from the neo-liberal savageries the Washington Consensus has imposed upon Latin America and Mexican oligarchs were recently summoned to the digs of Romulo O’Farrell, an 88 year-old billionaire publisher historically close to the U.S. Embassy, where they were instructed that AMLO must be kept from the presidency at any cost.

Among El Peje’s crimes (other than trying to build an access road to a hospital): holding the banks responsible for swindling billions from the nation after the 1995 pesos collapse ­ a scandal known as FOBAPROA; calling for renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement; resolutely opposing the privatization of Mexican petroleum and electricity generation; and, as his campaign slogan promised, putting "the poor first."

While the attitude of the U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, a Bush crony, has been more abstract than that of Charles Lane Wilson, the envoy who ordered Madero’s liquidation in 1911, the embassy cheerfully praised AMLO’s crucifixion. Both Garza and the Mexico City American Chamber of Commerce, which represents 80% of U.S. investment in Mexico, toasted the desafuero as proof of "a maturing Mexican democracy."

In Rome, where he sought sanctuary from the boiling mobs in the Zocalo to bask in the fading aura of Karol Wojytla along with scores of other despots, scoundrels, and buffoons ranging from Tom Delay to Robert Mugabe, President Fox boasted that the congressional vote established "a new paradigm of legality" that would make Mexico the envy of the world (sic).

Character assassination has peppered U.S. coverage of the AMLO debacle. Long accustomed to being butchered in the PRI-run press here (in Tabasco, he was sometimes accused of killing his own brother), Lopez Obrador has now become a minor felon on front pages north of the border, i.d’d with Chavez and described as a "messianic leftist" who challenges free market reforms. An April 7th New York Times editorial labels AMLO "a demagogue", and although the paper endorsed his right to run for office, its greenhorn Mexico correspondent James McKinley, mendaciously accused El Peje of cultivating a following through "hand-out politics" and of having "a history of leading violent demonstrations."

The violence motif was echoed on the nation’s two-headed television monopoly. On the eve of the desafuero, Fox had summoned both the owners of Televisa and TV Azteca to Los Pinos and immediately thereafter a previously unknown "NGO". "Mexicans for Peace", began airing primetime spots accusing AMLO of fomenting riots that never materialized.

Should character assassination fail to shake Andres Manuel from the race, the rest of his body could well become a target. Political assassination of undesirable candidates is a tradition that predates the Mexican revolution.

For now, the PRI and the PAN are playing the "desgaste" card, hoping that AMLO’s followers will tire of protesting and go home as the case lapses into legal limbo, the classic Mexican "ni modo" ("there’s nothing we can do to change this") that often dampens social ardor here. A major measure of this strategy will come April 24th when Lopez Obrador will lead a silent march from the anthropology museum in Chapultepec Park to the Zocalo, following the route and emulating the silence of student strikers in 1968 whose massacre became a watershed in the struggle for democracy in this beleaguered nation.

"We are no longer imaginary citizens and we are not going back" Lopez Obrador preaches to civil society and his "desafuero" has become a sort of sack in which, as the Mexican "dicho" instructs, the "pueblo" (the people) is depositing all its grievances, a formula that often produces violent social upheaval here. AMLO seems to sense this and urges non-violence, sometimes citing Mandela and Martin Luther King (going to jail can only enhance the resemblance), keeping a tight lid on demonstrations, and urging his supporters to be wary of "provocateurs"

But no amount of Aztec sun balloons and bright yellow bunting, bottled water and piped-in pop music is going to calm the bad gas that always seeps just under the surface of Mexico’s stoic calm. The tinder is always set here and provocateurs from both the left and the right are past masters are making the mix of class and race hatred down below explode, often for obscure political ends. AMLO is faced with the daunting challenge of trying to control and channel this anger into palpable political change with a minimum of bloodshed.

For the non-electoral left, severely disaffected by the PRD’s complicity in gutting an Indian rights bill for which the Zapatista rebels had long battled, defending AMLO is wrought with contradictions. "We neither support Lopez Obrador or the PRD", Subcomandante Marcos recently wrote, "but the desafuero is a great injustice and signals a return to a dark past" and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation urged its supporters to join the struggle.

Nuri Fernandez, a veteran Mexico City activist, stood in the Zocalo April 7th with 330,000 defenders of AMLO but when she called upon protestors to combat the desafuero with massive non-violent civil disobedience, "the people around me looked at me like I was a provocateur." Fernandez was infuriated by Lopez Obrador’s decision to face congress alone. "He cannot do this alone ­ this is not just his movement. It belongs to the people." Long active in the anti-globalization movement, she complained that AMLO was behaving as if he didn’t want to upset the markets.

But the stock market here has been roiled by all this hullabaloo anyway, dropping 12% in a little less than a month until it recorded a big gain on Desafuero Day, a cogent reminder of the cynicism that rules at the top.

What has happened here worries even institutionalized historian Enrique Krauze who, during a recent late night television debate, reminded his peers that when democratic options are shut down, the revolution begins. Students went to arms after the Tlatelolco massacre left them no other option and the Zapatista rebellion detonated after the PRI repeatedly stole local and national elections. As Lopez Obrador never fails to recollect, Francisco Madero proclaimed the Mexican revolution from a prison cell.

On a Saturday morning two days after the desafuero, Nayeli, 20, stood on the steps of Lopez Obrador’s modest apartment house in middle class University City, her face broken apart in rage. "When they did this, the little justice left in this world died" she sobbed to reporters, "we will never forgive them for it."

It is on such no-longer imaginary citizens as Nayeli that the future of Mexico now rests.

JOHN ROSS will be in San Pedro California on May 15th where he was once imprisoned for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, to receive an ACLU Upton Sinclair ("Uppie") Award along with Dennis Kucinich. He will then wing off to the UK, Spain, and the Middle East (Istanbul for the concluding session of the Iraq War Crimes Tribunal) on a combined reporting and lecture tour. Contributions to ease travel costs can be sent in Ross’s name to 3258 23rd Street, Apartment 3, San Francisco Ca. 94110.