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A Million in the Streets

Uprising in Mexico City

by LANCE SELFA

Only days after more than 1 million people demonstrated April 24 in support of Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President Vicente Fox pulled the plug on a politically motivated prosecution against López Obrador.

Hard-line Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, a former general who had led the charge against López Obrador, resigned. And Fox pledged to find a way to end the prosecution.

For Fox and Mexico’s political establishment–which is dominated by Fox’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN), as well as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for 70 years before Fox won the presidency in 2000–this was a major defeat.

For López Obrador, it is a triumph that will boost his chances to become Mexico’s president in next year’s elections. When he addressed the crowd on April 24, López Obrador sounded more like the president already, rather than a candidate for the office, according to news reports.

 

FOX’S CLIMBDOWN brought to an end a political crisis that some observers had worried would lead to ungovernability in the heart of the country. Macedo de la Concha and government prosecutor Carlos Javier Vega Memije, both Fox loyalists, had been preparing to indict López Obrador on a trumped-up charge of ignoring a 2002 court order barring construction of a road to a hospital.

Although Fox tried to pass off responsibility on Macedo de la Concha, few Mexicans were fooled. Most knew that the April 7 vote in the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico’s Congress) to strip López Obrador of his immunity to being charged with a crime–known in Spanish as a "desafuero"–was arranged at the highest levels of the PAN and PRI.

Under Mexican law, a person charged with a crime loses his political rights. López Obrador stepped down temporarily as Mexico City mayor. If he had still been under threat of trial–or convicted–by January 2006, the deadline for presidential candidates to file their intention to run, he would have been disqualified from the presidential race.

The PAN and PRI knew exactly what they were doing–eliminating a rival who, according to current opinion polls, is leading any PRI or PAN candidate by 10 to 20 points.

After the PRI-PAN bloc in Congress approved the desafuero, Fox and his cronies like Interior Minister Santiago Creel and PRI leader Roberto Madrazo traveled around Mexico giving speeches about how prosecuting López Obrador would uphold the rule of law. But few believed them.

Opinion polls showed that López Obrador’s popularity actually increased–and Fox’s declined–after the desafuero. Whatever they thought of the charges against AMLO (as López Obrador is popularly known, by his initials), more than two-thirds of Mexicans believed they should still have a right to vote for him.

This could be seen in the crowd that attended the "March in Silence" on April 24. People of all ages–including thousands of the elderly who receive a pension that was one of AMLO’s reforms–marched.

While earlier crowds in López Obrador’s defense had been largely organized by and confined to members of the PRD, the March in Silence reached far more widely. The PAN and PRI had to notice that many of those rallying to AMLO’s defense were their own supporters. For weeks, leading PAN and PRI politicians, including Fox himself, had been dogged at public appearances by protesters accusing them of selling out democracy.


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THE OUTPOURING of outrage against the attacks on López Obrador captures the widespread disillusion in Fox’s rule.

After promising "change" from seven decades of authoritarian PRI rule, Fox has supported more of the same free-market policies that his PRI predecessors pushed. Last year, the PRI-PAN bloc in Congress approved drastic cuts in the country’s social security system for retirees.

Fox had pledged to find a solution–in "15 minutes"–to the oppression of indigenous people in Chiapas that led to the 1994 Zapatista uprising. But he stood by while the Congress voted down a Zapatista-supported plan for autonomy in Chiapas in 2001.

The targeting of López Obrador also exposed the hypocrisy of politicians whose parties were convicted of laundering millions from foreign capitalists and stealing from the state-run oil company PEMEX to their finance their presidential campaigns in 2000.

But support for AMLO goes beyond mere disappointment with Fox. It is another aspect of the revolt against free-market dogma that has spread across Latin America.

AMLO is popular because he has supported certain reforms, like universal pensions and jobs programs, in Mexico City. Although a long-time politician, he took part in protests against oil drilling in his home state of Tabasco. His personal style is modest–driving his own car and not hobnobbing with the rich.

He also calls for the prosecution of banks that swindled billions from the country during the 1995 peso collapse and a re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he opposes the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry. His main campaign slogan calls for "putting the poor first."

These are the real crimes for which Mexico’s ruling parties want to keep López Obrador out of Los Pinos–Mexico’s White House. Romulo O’Farrell, the 88-year-old billionaire publisher with close ties to Washington, summoned leading Mexican capitalists to his mansion to tell them that AMLO must be prevented from becoming president at all costs, according to journalist John Ross.

The U.S. embassy, so ready to squawk about "democracy" in Lebanon or Ukraine, was silent about the PRI-PAN’s disregard for it in the case of the desafuero. But that’s because the extremists in Washington think López Obrador is a populist akin to Washington’s new bogeyman in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

This is nonsense. Even López Obrador rejects the comparison with Chávez. "On a sliding scale, [López Obrador's] danger to U.S. hegemony in the Americas is probably at Lula-level, a notch below the return of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega," wrote Ross.

Ross is right. Despite his populist rhetoric and policies, López Obrador is no radical. Among his chief advisers is Manuel Camacho Solis, a former ally of right-wing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In 2000, he paid more than $4 million in city funds to the consulting firm of Republican Rudolph Giuliani to bring a U.S.-style "war on crime" to Mexico City.

His election manifesto is full of generalities, but it supports the idea of "taking advantage of globalization, and not just suffering from it." As China has developed by exporting its labor power, he argues, Mexico can develop by exporting its energy resources. He promises more social reform and completion of the San Andrés Accords with the Zapatistas, but none of his proposals challenges private capitalism.

Left-wing commentator Alejandro Nadal, writing in La Jornada, worried that AMLO’s election manifesto–and the presence of advisers like Camacho Solis–signals that a number of "corrupt politicians, opportunists and architects of national pacts" are already lining up to jump on López Obrador’s bandwagon.

Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos urged his supporters to oppose the desafuero, but withheld support from López Obrador and the PRD–which, after all, voted with the PRI and PAN to reject proposals for autonomy for indigenous people in Chiapas in 2001.

As Mexican socialist Adolfo Gilly wrote April 30: "Without opposing or remaining on the sidelines of the popular movement that is fighting for democracy, rights and national sovereignty–and without tailing or becoming its uncritical supporters–the autonomous left that is independent of the institutions, advisers and parties of this crisis-ridden regime needs today once again to put forth its own ideas, defending the present and planning for the future."

LANCE SELFA writes for the Socialist Worker.