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A Nation Holds Its Breath

Mexico’s Spring of Discontent Reaches Climax

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City.

It’s been a long time coming but the outcome of the Mexican presidential election next Sunday is no longer a sure thing. Say “gracias” to those students from the University Iberoamericana in Mexico City – alternatively written off by the country’s corporate media as “puppets”, “thugs” and “children” – who started a nationwide protest movement against Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and haven’t let up since.

In the space of a few short weeks, the so-called “#YoSoy132” (“I am 132”) movement has taken to the streets and altered the complexion of the race, peaking thus far with a 100,000-strong march on Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue on June 10. They’ll hit the asphalt again on June 30, the day before the big vote.

It wouldn’t mean anything if there weren’t now the genuine possibility of an upset. The only question is whether the palpable shift in public opinion translates into apathy, or support for leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Progressive Movement coalition. A stalwart of the Left and former Mexico City mayor, Lopez Obrador (usually referred to as AMLO) had been written off by the same noxious media as yesterday’s news. Yet recent polls have him within single digits or even neck-and-neck with the PRI candidate.

The #YoSoy132 movement emerged from an already-legendary student protest at the (conservative) University Iberoamericana on May 11. After spontaneously driving the visiting Peña Nieto off their campus with cries of “Coward!”, “Murderer!” and “Get out!” the students were labeled by the PRI and its media backers as “puppets”. Thus was born a movement that has thoroughly overshadowed the election race and held the country in thrall. T-Shirts, flags and Facebook avatars reading “#YoSoy132” are now part of the national iconography. Of course, all that these “puppets” and “thugs” actually want is a clean, democratic election.

With all due respect to #YoSoy132, the chances don’t look great. No way on earth do the Mexican elite and its Washington sugar-daddy allow AMLO to take power, and if he did, they would surely do everything they could to get rid of him. If the Barack Obama administration is willing to stand by while Manuel Zelaya or Fernando Lugo gets the coup d’etat treatment in Honduras or Paraguay, what would one expect in Mexico?

The overwhelming majority of the US (and “western”) media are predicting an easy victory for Peña Nieto despite numerous independent polls to the contrary, while last week The Economist charmingly described him as “the least bad” of the four candidates. Few of these outlets have even mentioned the strong possibility of fraud on July 1 – for which evidence is already gathering – the bully tactics of the PRI during campaigning or the icky relationship between the party and TV network Televisa, the Hispanic world’s largest mass-media power.

Ask yourself why anyone would want the return of a party that governed Mexico as a de facto dictatorship for 71 years, suppressing political opposition, leaving countless dead in a “dirty war”, and generally keeping the country’s tens of millions of poor and extremely poor under its boot. Incredibly, there are those that do, but only because for the past twelve years the National Action Party (PAN) has driven the country even deeper into despair with, yes, the suppression of opposition, countless dead in a “war on drugs”, and economic policies that even governments in the developed world are struggling to justify.

What a surprise, then, that many of Mexico’s potential 78 million voters don’t buy it. The #YoSoy132 movement has become a rallying cry for anybody who’s had it up to here with the PRI-PAN duopoly. Written off as angry young students rebelling against anything-you’ve-got, any visit to a #YoSoy132 demonstration around the country – and there have been many since May 11 – reveals the social and cultural diversity of its supporters; ordinary Mexicans who resent the return of the old dictatorship and the money, power and propaganda it is wielding in the election race.

It’s been hyped by its enthusiastic supporters as a “Mexican Spring”. The question is what happens to the movement if Peña Nieto does indeed emerge victorious on July 1, by hook or by crook? And what happens in that long, long interim until his inauguration on December 1?

 “Turn off the TV; Switch on your Conscience”

So influential has the #YoSoy132 movement been that it forced three of the candidates to appear in a third televised debate this past Tuesday, organized by students, broadcast via You Tube, and hailed as “Debate132”. This was a response to the truly pathetic “official” debates held by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which gained more column inches for the surreal appearance of busty former Argentine Playmate Julia Orayen as chaperone.

Come “Debate132”; guess which of the four candidates was AWOL? Of course, the event was barely given the time of the day by the PRI’s media shills, who blamed “technical difficulties” resulting from a poor live stream on being unable to broadcast it. They also trumpeted that “only 90,000” people watched the debate live. As of this writing, the You Tube video has 1.3 million views.

In fact, much of #YoSoy132’s ire has been directed at the country’s media giants. Although IFE tightened the rules this time around, they’ve had little effect in preventing a “dirty campaign” by the big-money media and its preferred candidates (the PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota included) against the populist AMLO, who in comparison has one national newspaper (“La Jornada”, which Noam Chomsky calls “the only independent newspaper in the hemisphere”) and a weekly magazine (“Proceso”) behind him. As AMLO has risen in the polls, TV spots presenting him as a boorish, sombrero-wearing shit-stirrer who believes in “revolution” and “insurgency” have been eagerly financed by both the PRI and the PAN.

Documents allegedly leaked by a Televisa employee and published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper on June 7 reveal that the PRI paid the network millions of dollars for glowing coverage of Peña Nieto’s campaign. The documents also confirmed what everybody already knew – that Televisa had a clear strategy to defame AMLO’s presidential bid in 2006 when he narrowly lost to President Felipe Calderon.

Televisa responded that the documents were forged but for many in Mexico the scandal has only confirmed what has been an open secret for years – the grubby, incestuous relationship between the network and the PRI. Two years ago, Peña Nieto got hitched to one of the company’s most glamorous telenovela stars, Angela Rivera aka “The Seagull”, and hasn’t been out of the spotlight since.

Anything to Stop AMLO

After the May 11 protest, the PRI accused #YoSoy132 of being manipulated by AMLO’s coalition, but the movement’s leadership has never openly endorsed the leftist candidate. In fact, it arguably has more in common with the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity against the “Drug War”, which formed in May 2011, and whose influential leader Javier Sicilia has also declined to endorse a candidate in this year’s race. Sicilia joined #YoSoy132 sympathizers for a protest outside Televisa’s studios in Mexico City on May 22 and has publicly described AMLO as “arrogant” and “messianic”.

Yet AMLO is clearly the candidate to gain most from the anti-PRI and Televisa protests. Nearly 40% of this year’s electorate is under the age of 30, and he has undoubtedly tried to win the students over to his cause. On May 21, two days after the first #YoSoy132 march, he held an emotional rally in the capital’s Three Cultures Plaza where a PRI government infamously massacred as many as four hundred student protesters ahead of the Olympic Games in 1968. “We don’t want a return to authoritarianism,” AMLO told the crowd of young people. “This is the generation of change that will transform the country.”

At the most recent #YoSoy132 march on June 10, protesters were split between sympathy for AMLO and those who say they won’t vote for any candidate. In response, many supporters of the Progressive Movement coalition carried placards reading: “A blank vote is a vote for the PRI”.

AMLO’s political career has been drenched in controversy but he’s always had the support of the majority of Mexicans who live in poverty. Like many in the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which heads the leftist coalition, he’s an ex-PRI man who joined Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’s newly-formed party after the electoral fraud of 1988 when a “computer failure” saw Carlos Salinas take the presidency.

Known for his outspoken rhetoric, AMLO ascended to the leadership of the PRD in 1996, was a wildly popular Mexico City mayor between 2000 and 2006, and ran for the presidency that same year, dominating the polls for months before Felipe Calderon – Washington’s pick – beat him in an election that the late, great Counterpunch writer John Ross described as “one of the most egregious frauds in Mexican history.” When he was sworn in at a closed-door ceremony on December 1, at least 36% of the country believed that Calderon was illegitimate.

2006 Revamped? 

Another aim of the #YoSoy132 movement has been to encourage more citizens to register as election observers to prevent the kind of fraud that has occurred frequently in Mexican history. Unfortunately, there are signs that some kind of electoral voodoo may already be underway.

On June 8, ballots with print errors were reported in several municipalities in the southern state of Oaxaca along with 31 missing – they’re distributed nationwide by ludicrously heavily-armed elements of the Navy. On June 20, a taxi driver in the state of Chiapas walked into a regional IFE office and announced he had found 183 presidential, congressional and senatorial ballots that had been reported missing the previous week. IFE insists the ballots are “impossible” to clone.

The most shocking incident yet, however, was the murder of a PAN campaigner gunned down in the small town of Villaflores, Chiapas. The town’s PRI mayoral candidate Ulises Alberto Grajales has since been arrested in connection with the murder and replaced on the local ballot.

At a rally in Ciudad Juarez on Wednesday, AMLO accused the PRI of already plotting a fraud, citing a “secret” meeting of 16 PRI governors at the house of Eruviel Avila in Mexico State, the party’s electoral stronghold. A day later, Avila confirmed the meeting had taken place, but retorted that “PRI governors are very united… Every time we meet, it’s to share successful experiences and analyze the socio-political panorama of the country.”

IFE has announced that 31, 401 electoral observers will be present at the polls on July 1, including 501 foreign observers, which still doesn’t instil confidence in a population so convinced that the Right can steal an election in a heartbeat.

On June 22, a coalition of more than 600 civil organizations – including religious, peasant, migrant, ecological, union and human rights groups – released a joint statement saying they would take to the streets in protest should there be clear evidence of fraud in the result.

As such, a nation doesn’t so much hold its breath as wait with a kind of anxious resignation. Here in Mexico City, AMLO is overwhelmingly the people’s choice, but at the national level a large number of his supporters – and neutrals – are fully anticipating the kind of dirty tricks that have haunted Mexican elections in the past. The only question is how the country fights back.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com