The tableau of 155 leftist deputies and senators storming the tribune of congress here September 1 to prevent President Vicente Fox from delivering his sixth and final State of the Union address (the “Informe”) should be mandatory viewing for members of both houses of the U.S. Congress who, year after year, burst into servile applause for George Bush when each January he imposes his own infernal Informe upon the citizens of Gringolandia.
One crucial political distinction between these two distant neighbor nations is the presence of a third party in the Mexican mix, one that at least purports to be left of the center. Swindled out of the presidency by fraud this past July 2, the party of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO)–the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD–appears to have broken with the political class and traditional cronyism.
It is not that the PRD’s hands are clean its legislators have regularly prostituted their wares – but in the wake of the stolen election and having been frozen out of any power positions in the brand-new congress despite being Mexico’s second political force, the Party of AMLO has little to lose, and is suddenly speaking its truth to power, a singular position for any politico right or left.
Despite rampant corruption, regular vote stealing, and authoritarian tendencies, Mexico’s multi-party system makes U.S. “democracy” with its two-headed single party rule, look a lot more like Idi Amin’s Uganda than what the Boston tea party had in mind for the future citizens of the United States of North America.
The spectacle of elected officials being pissed off enough to stare down tin-plate potentates like President Vicente Fox topped off weeks of scuffling in and around the 10 kilometer steel wall Mexican troops had thrown up around the Legislative Palace to keep Lopez Obrador’s die-hard supporters from congregating in shouting distance of the congress of the country. On the government side of the barricade, 6000 preventative police (drawn from the military) and Fox’s own presidential guard or the Estado Mayor had turned the congressional precinct into a war zone. One side in this standoff was equipped with clubs, electric shields, tear gas, water cannons, light tanks, live ammunition, and snipers up on the rooftops. The other only with its dreams and its “coraje” (righteous anger.) Guess which side won?
When I first touched down in this mile-high capital a full generation ago, Informe Day was a sacrosanct national holiday. Banks closed, workers got the day off, the streets were lined with adoring fans of the sitting president who was always a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the confetti drizzled down from the heavens above like worthless manna. Each September 1, El Presidente would be escorted into the PRI-controlled congress by a military honor guard and a gaggle of obsequious legislatures for sometimes six-hour speeches to the nation.
But little by little, this pompous ritual, which is not contemplated by the constitution and was first mandated by the PRI’s founder General Plutarco Elias Calles in 1928 with the sole goal of aggrandizing an imperial presidency at the expense of the other two houses of government, has been stripped down to the bone largely due to the incessant heckling of a third party, the PRD.
This year, Informe Day dawned dark and apocalyptic, an evil wind snaking through the deserted streets of the capital in anticipation of violent clashes to come. At 4 in the afternoon, Lopez Obrador summoned his followers to the great Zocalo plaza, where he and 10,000 more have been encamped for five weeks now, to issue marching orders to the left-leaning hordes about to throw themselves against the military’s metal walls. But despite the masses’ eagerness, AMLO’s marching orders were not to march after all. His people now occupied the political heart of Mexico, he reasoned, why give it up? Moreover, the Fox was pouring hundreds of thousands of pesos every day in policing costs just to keep them right where they were, the most strategic space in the nation. So should we march, Lopez Obrador asked the assembly. The vote was mixed, with many hands raised in favor of mayhem and AMLO had to cajole the crowd into non-violence. As if on cue, Lila Downs and Rita Guerrero, two of Mexico’s stellar songbirds, were brought out to warble for the born-again pacifist throng.
Nonetheless, bands of hot-hearted students and workers set out for the nearby Legislative Palace to do battle with the robocops. Although this movement has been miraculously free of violence, after a month of living in the streets, many are itchy for fisticuffs.
While ski-masked youths scrimmaged on the barricades with Fox’s cops and others shook their bodies in the Zocalo, the 155-member congressional delegation of AMLO’s Coalition for the Good of All was examining its options. Having literally forced their way through the military checkpoints and the metal detectors to enter the Legislative Palace, they were in no mood for symbolic protest, as has so often been the antistrophe during the President’s annual address. “We come as aggrieved citizens” warned Carlos Navarete, leader of the PRD in the senate and an ex-communist, and they were going to let the President, his bogus successor Felipe Calderon, and the archly right-wing PAN party know it. Besides stealing the election and unconstitutionally cordoning off congress with the troops, Fox’s PAN, in league with
the PRI had rubbed salt in the PRD’s wounds by keeping AMLO’s party out of the direction of every committee in the new legislature. Now it was pay back time.
One after another, the parties, starting with the most inconsequential–the so-called “Alternative Social Democratic Farmers Party” (two seats)–followed each other to the podium to diss the Fox in the traditional run-up to the President’s blahblah.
When it was Navarete’s turn, the Senator seized the microphone to denounce the constitutional violations that had turned congress into an armed camp and declared that he would not budge from the podium until the barriers came down and the robocops sent back to barracks. 154 more leftist senators and deputies solemnly filed onto the tribune and proclaimed their solidarity. In a matter of seconds, the Mexican Congress had been transformed into an extension of the seven-mile encampment of AMLO’s devotees that has clogged the city’s thoroughfares for a month and so enraged the motoring class here.
No matter how many times the frozen-faced PANista president of congress Jorge Zerminio rapped his gavel and ordered the leftists back to their seats, AMLO’s legislators would not be moved. They proudly stood their ground up on the podium, waving signs and banners labeling Vicente Fox “a traitor to democracy” and much worse.
After weeks of being excluded from the cameras of Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, Lopez Obrador’s message was suddenly being carried on prime time. Both Televisa and its pipsqueak partner TV Azteca, obligated by time constraints and the imminent arrival of the President, could not cut away. There in the eye of the nation, newly-elected senators Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, the grande dame of Mexico’s human rights movement, and the luminous actress Maria Rojo, kept flapping their insolent signs and chanting that Fox was a traitor.
The President and his pouting wife Martita had been helicoptered in from Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House to deliver his State of the Union message. Guarded by hundreds of dark-suited goons, they were then transferred to a fleet of bulletproof SUVs, and warned that there was trouble in the congress. When the convoy pulled up to the principle door of the legislative palace, the President tentatively emerged as if not knowing what to expect–Martita was held back by the bodyguards–and slowly, painfully mounted the great steps of congress (he has a bad back.) The tension was now as taut as a drawn catapult. The sacred scenario of the Informe was about to go kaplooy.
The Fox got about a foot and a half inside the lobby of congress before he found himself face to face with the indignant leaders of the PAN contingent in the new legislature who had the unpleasant task of informing him that the tribune was occupied by AMLO’s dirty yellow scum and for the first time in modern Mexican political history, the President would not be allowed to deliver his State of the Union bullshit to the nation. Fox got gray real quick, his jowly face a mask of indecision and befuddlement for all to see. The cameras were grinding and the whole country glued to the tube as Fox’s authority and what was left of the imperial presidency collapsed into dust.
After conferring with his attorney general, the President must have realized that the final nail had been driven into the coffin of this useless ceremony, handed the text of his Informe to the secretary of the Congress in completion of his constitutional obligations, turned on his heels, and phalanxed by the Presidential Guard, trudged back down the steps of Congress. “ADIOOOOOS!” AMLO’s leftists crooned from the tribune.
Outside, Martita was waiting for the green light to enter the Palace and flout the dazzling new frock the taxpayers had bought her and when she realized that her hubby had been rebuffed, her little face crumpled up in a grimace of disgust. The President and the First Lady were then driven back to the whirlybirds and returned to Los Pinos where Fox was rushed into the presidential television studio to doctor up a tape of the thwarted address pre-recorded for just such a contingency. Broadcast an hour later on all television and radio outlets and intercut with footage of smiling Indians and exuberant school children, the once-inviolable Informe was reduced to an info-mercial.
Meanwhile back in Congress, the leftist legislators clung to the podium despite the snarling insults of the PANistas, waving their mocking signs and tootling little Fox-40 Classic whistles as if they had suddenly all become soccer referees, until they were finally assured that the troops outside were being retired and the metal barriers disassembled. By then, the TV buzzards had long since lost interest in the denouement and one by one faded back into regular programming. Mr. Bean and Bart Simpson now filled the screen.
At the most nerve-wracking juncture in this battle for the soul of Mexico, AMLO had won a stunning propaganda victory, pyrrhic as it may prove to be, and his people celebrated accordingly. In the camps along the Paseo de Reforma and in the Zocalo, supporters embraced and jumped up and down (“he who does not jump is a PANista”), yodeled “adiooooooses” at the Fox, waved flags, detonated bottle rockets, and rehydrated a movement that had been flagging under a deluge of hard rain and bad news.
For Vicente and Martita this farewell fracaso capped a disastrous plunge from grace. Elected in 2000 in a geyser of hope as the first opposition candidate to take the presidency since the PRI had franchised the office, things had soured fast. After pledging to resolve the crisis in Chiapas “in 15 minutes” and promising in his inaugural address to make the Indian rights accords that the Zapatistas had signed with the outgoing PRI government the law of the land, Fox had failed to deliver and the rebels had broken off all contact with his government. Six years later, that southern state still leaked blood.
Here at the end of his reign, Oaxaca was on fire–a new guerrilla group had appeared in public on the day of the Informe–and in the wake of the stolen election, the tangled traffic, and the military takeover of congress, Mexico City was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
In the six years Fox had occupied the throne of Mexico, the rich had grown exponentially richer and the poor were just as poor as ever. During his years in office, 4,000,000 of Vicente Fox’s fellow citizens had been forced to abandon the country for El Norte because of zero job growth and the depletion of the agricultural sector. The President much hoopla’d “Whole Enchilada” i.e. integral immigration reform had been flushed down Bush’s toilet and the nation had endured six years of legislative gridlock. Hundreds of women had been slaughtered in Ciudad Juarez and the narco gangs were beheading their rivals in broad daylight on the streets of provincial cities. Meanwhile Martita’s sons were about to be indicted for “illegal enrichment.”
With the country divided in half between brown and white, rich and poor, the future – the imposition of Felipe Calderon upon an incredulous populace–looks dim.
The Informe and the display of military might in which it had unfurled was a dress rehearsal for December 1 when Fox will try and hang the tri-color presidential sash around Calderon’s neck as if it were Coleridge’s albatross. AMLO himself is about to set up a parallel government that will dog Fox’s successor for the next six years when the leftist convenes the Democratic National Convention on Mexican Independence Day September 16. A million delegates are expected to attend this milestone in the heroic resistance of AMLO’s people to the imposition of Calderon.
Such a government would be illegal and constitute usurpation of functions, a crime punishable by many years in prison, threatens Attorney General Carlos Abascal. The officious presidential spokesperson, Ruben Aguilar, proposes that Lopez Obrador
be tried for rebellion, another felony. The taking of the tribune of Congress by his senators and deputies could result in the cancellation of the PRD’s registration as a political party, the PAN advises. The criminalization of AMLO–Fox has been trying to lock him up in La Palma, the nation’s maximum lock-up, for years–is in the wind.
But September 1 was a moment in this skein that not many Mexicans of meager means and less power will soon forget. “We sure showed those ‘pinches rateros’ who this country belongs to, no Juanito?” bellowed 71 year-old Isidro Garcia, a former boxer who handymans here at the Hotel Isabel, clapping me hard on my bum spine. I saw that same twinkle now gleaming in Isidro’s eye long ago after Cuauhtemoc Cardenas had whipped the reviled Carlos Salinas, the root of much of this evil, out in Michoacan back in ’88. Some precincts had come in 600 to zero not so much for Cardenas but against the PRI. When I asked the colonos what had happened, they would gleefully report “nos hemos chingada el PRI”.
“Do you know what a pendejo (cuckold or idiot) is?” Celia Cruz, an increasingly hunched-over “camarista” (bed maker) here at the Isabel laughed up at me, her eyes dancing to the top of her head, “a pendejo is an “arrogante” (arrogant person) who doesn’t know he is a pendejo. Este Fox! Que pendejo!”
As I top off this chronicle, the seven judge panel or TRIFE that must at last declare a winner in this stolen election, is about to name Felipe Calderon the next president of Mexico, although the court’s rotund condemnation of Fox’s unconstitutional intervention on behalf of his fellow PANista would seem to have called for annulation of the July 2 election.
But for Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinajosa and his elite white ilk, the TRIFE’s confirmation would seem to be another pyrrhic victory when the fury of those who have been once again defrauded out of their votes is measured. This battle for the soul of Mexico is not over yet.
JOHN ROSS’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 will be published by Nation Books in October. Ross will travel the left coast this fall with the new volume and a hot-off-the-press chapbook of poetry Bomba!–all suggestions of venues will be cheerfully entertained–write email@example.com