Massacre in the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas


Mexico City.

Forty-four years ago this Tuesday, Mexican soldiers gunned down as many as four hundred student protesters in the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in Mexico City just days ahead of the 1968 Olympic Games. With an unprecedented media spotlight about to descend on the country, the Gustavo Diaz Ordaz administration wanted to show that everything was rosy in the Aztec garden, despite a long summer of police repression and civil unrest.

In the aftermath, the government claimed that the protesters fired first, that the student movement had been infiltrated by “Cuban agitators” bent on violence, and that no more than 30 people had been killed by security forces. In reality, there was evidence of hundreds dead, and bodies being disposed of to cover up the extent of the atrocity.

The CIA, whose presence in Mexico in those days was justified by the Cold War (it’s now justified by the “war on drugs”) was on hand to offer helpful advice, prompting a communiqué from the Mexican government six days before the massacre that the protests would be “under complete control very shortly”.

After a decades-long whitewash by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regime (which spent 71 years in power), a 2001 investigation found that Presidential Guardsmen in sniper positions deliberately shot at soldiers on the ground, provoking them to fire into the crowd. No senior official has ever been prosecuted for their role in what we know today as the “Tlatelolco massacre”.

It remains the most shocking event in modern Mexican history. Students and other civil groups protest the long cover-up every October 2, but Tuesday’s demonstrations had a double edge. On July 1 this year, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto won the presidency in a highly dubious election and returned the former dictatorship to power after twelve years in opposition.

The students protesting in 1968 were part of a movement known as the National Strike Council that had risen up against the increasing authoritarianism and corruption of the PRI since it seized power in the wake of the Revolution of 1910. In May this year, another generation of students – many of whose parents weren’t even born in ‘68 – picked up the baton to oppose the return of the party and what they viewed as the “imposition” of Peña Nieto by the country’s media and economic elite.

The #YoSoy132 (“I am 132”) movement was born on May 11 after a spontaneous protest against Peña Nieto on a university campus in Mexico City. It quickly snowballed into an entire pro-democracy movement that forced the four candidates into a third television debate organized by students and put immense pressure on the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to investigate evidence of vote-buying and other fraud.

Yet the movement fell short of stopping Peña Nieto’s victory being ratified by the Electoral Tribunal last month; the new president will be sworn in on December 1.

Working Man’s Blues 

2012 has felt a lot like that heady summer of ‘68. The march to commemorate the anniversary of Tlatelolco took place the same day as thousands of workers protested the labor reform bill passed by congress on September 28; the outgoing Felipe Calderon administration’s parting gift for its big business cronies and the free trade zealots in Washington.

Labor reform has been a wet dream of domestic and foreign capital since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1992. The big problem for these guys is that Mexico’s existing labor laws are “antiquated” i.e. they give way too much power to workers. For the NAFTA brigade, the reason why the agreement has failed to shower prosperity on Mexico is because investors have shunned the country for sunnier climes like China where labor is even cheaper and more pliable.

Thus, for the Mexican economy to be “competitive”, it’s necessary to tear up the Federal Labor Law of 1970, which guaranteed a certain amount of rights for workers and unions. Ironically, that law was signed in the wake of the Tlatelolco massacre to pacify the striking dissidents that Gustavo Diaz Ordaz went to such horrendous lengths to suppress.

The new labor reform is opposed by the vast majority of Mexicans because it’s pure NAFTA; with the ease it allows employers to dismiss workers, regulations on outsourcing, restrictions on strikes, and a minimum hourly wage of just seven pesos (about five cents), it essentially imposes Third World working conditions on a country already rife with labor abuses and really only benefits the rapacious, non-tax paying multinationals.

The reform has been a key goal of successive Mexican governments since the mid-‘90s but has always been extremely difficult to pass. The political left, represented by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), opposes it altogether, while the PRI’s stance is complicated by its incestuous relationship with party-affiliated unions that helped it stay in power for 71 years. In fact, the main complaint of these corrupt, self-interested sindicatos is that they would have to open their books and act with transparency; anthemia for the Mexican elite.

Naturally, the only way the Felipe Calderon administration could get the reform through was by cutting a deal with the PRI. Calderon notably refrained from challenging his successor’s crooked election victory and appears to have dropped some of the sticking points on union transparency in exchange for the party’s support. There couldn’t be a better example of how the cards are stacked against the left in Mexico and how the PRI/PAN double-act (most people just call them “PRIAN”) plays footsy.

When Peña Nieto “won” the Mexican presidency on July 1, the world’s media speculated on what a return of the “perfect dictatorship” might mean for Mexico; currently being marketed as one of the world’s great (slowly) emerging economies. Did it signal a return to the political repression of the past? Was Mexican democracy still in good health (presuming it had ever been)?

The truth is that it really makes little difference. As a country, Mexico has been on the same trajectory since 1982 when the Latin American debt crisis saw the PRI’s Miguel de la Madrid “structurally readjust” the Mexican economy at the whim of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), banking on massive foreign investment and not much else; a neoliberal trajectory that has continued through the administrations of Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo (PRI) and Vicente Fox and Calderon (PAN).

In fact, labor reform can be seen as an entree to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the corporate mega-agreement soon to be signed by at least nine countries throughout the Pacific Rim and alternately hailed by detractors as “the free trade agreement to end all FTAs” and “NAFTA on steroids”. Mexico and Canada were late entrants into the negotiations as the TPP would undoubtedly redraw the trade map between the North American giants.

Dude, where’s the Left? 

While the grassroots left – #YoSoy132, the workers, the anti-Drug War movement – are taking it to the streets all over the country, the political left is all over the shop as usual. Having finished second to Peña Nieto in July’s election and failed to convince the Electoral Tribunal to annul the result, Mexico’s most popular leftist and two-time presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has now turned his back on the PRD, the party he joined in 1989.

AMLO will seek to register his civil National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) as a political party in time for the midterms in three years with the ultimate aim of another stab at the presidency in 2018. The PRD will run with either outgoing Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard or his successor Miguel Angel Mancera, who just won the post with a record 63% of the vote. This would inevitably split the left vote in two.

While AMLO claims that his departure from the PRD was amicable, his old nemesis and former party president Jesus Ortega said he hoped the split would end the “schizophrenia” within the Mexican left. Senator Manuel Camacho Solis was closer to the mark when he said that the move was “political suicide” for both factions.

It also represents an ideological split. Both Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Angel Mancera appeal to what the Mexican press likes to call the “rational left” – the liberal bourgeoisie who dig the socially-progressive laws (same-sex unions, abortion, environmental concerns) introduced by the PRD in Mexico City but generally sniff at AMLO’s taunting of the “mafia of power” (the business class, not the drug cartels) that he claims are the country’s real driving force.

As this political theater plays out, the real left is just getting on with it. The students are out in force, the workers are out in force, the victims of the “Drug War” are out in force. Very few believe that a return of the PRI will pull Mexico out of its economic and social morass; the new administration is desperately unpopular before it even takes office.

Back in May, as hundreds of thousands marched to protest Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency before the country even went to vote, some were optimistically touting the idea of a “Mexican Spring”. It’s a much longer battle than that, however; from Tlatelolco in ’68 to #YoSoy132, this is a never-ending struggle for Mexico’s future between the privileged few and the long-suffering many.

Paul Imison reports on Mexico for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com 

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