When we last left leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), recently robbed of the Mexican presidency by the usual fraud, he was eyeball to eyeball in the great Zocalo plaza of Mexico City where his supporters had been camped out since the July 2 election, with Vicente Fox, the former President of Coca Cola Mexico and the outgoing president of this very polarized republic staring down his throat.
At the core of their discord was who would declaim the time-honored “Grito” of Independence this past September 15, the eve of the 196th anniversary of the beginning of Mexico’s war to free itself from the Spanish Crown and the maximum patriotic moment in this nation’s year. By imperial fiat, the Grito is the property of the sitting president who installed on a balcony of the National Palace makes a big show of the rebel yell uttered by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the defrocked priest of Dolores Hidalgo in Fox’s home state of Guanajuato, who on September 16, 1810 (the time of day is disputed) had clanged the church bells to summon the black and brown underclass of the region to rise up against the “Gachupin” (Spanish but literally “spur-rider”) owned hacienda of Dolores. “Viva Mexico!” the excommunicated priest and father of many children, harangued the seething crowd, declaring the nation’s independence from the Crown, “let’s go string up some Gachupines.”
Later, Hidalgo, who was driven by his commitment to end slavery in what the Spanish Empire called New Spain, would lead an unarmed army of 100,000 people on Mexico City, was routed by the Spur-riders, fled north and was eventually captured, put before a firing squad, then beheaded.
To AMLO, a student of history, whose people had been occupying this Tienanmen-sized plaza for seven weeks, Hidalgo’s yell was far more appropriate to his rebel congregation than to a Fox who has often seemed more of a viceroy of a colonized land than the democratically-elected president of a questionably democratic republic. Seven weeks before, AMLO let it be known that his people were not abandoning the Zocalo for Vicente Fox’s Grito. The drumbeat of confrontation had been thrumming ever since.
Morning after morning, Fox’s press secretary Ruben Aguilar had insisted that the President would fulfill his obligations to protocol and pronounce the Grito from the usual balcony. The Presidential balcony was prepared, presidential bunting draped over the grillwork, the traditional bell which Fox would ring to proclaim independence hung, and the dimensions of the overhang measured for the installation of bullet-proof glass panels.
Thousands of members of the elite presidential military unit the Estado Mayor, and the militarized police (PFP) were snuck into the block-long National Palace through the back door backed up by light tanks, water canons, and portable metal barriers the Fox government had deployed to surround congress in the president’s foiled-by-AMLO attempt to deliver his State of the Union address this past September 1.
On Wednesday morning, about 60 hours before the Fox was to perch on the presidential balcony, the barriers, manned by the PFP robocops, were installed in front of the National Palace about 50 yards from the tent in which Lopez Obrador slept each night. Bands of AMLO’s supporters immediately set up camp in the no-man’s land between and there was light scrimmaging a bottle or two tossed all the morning. One persistent rumor had an assassination team emerging from the two subway stop exits immediately to the left and right of AMLO’s tent. By now, word was flying that the PFP would soon try to clear the Zocalo to sanitize it in advance of Fox’s Grito.
Lopez Obrador’s troops are sworn to non-violent resistance and in a maneuver worthy of Martin Luther King, AMLO’s encampments out on the Paseo De Reforma avenue broke down their tents and re-installed them on all the access corners to the great square to thwart federal police attack. By midnight Wednesday-Thursday, Fox and AMLO remained nose to nose and an eyeball apart.
I sprang out of bed around 4:30 Thursday morning. A siren wailed incessantly down a nearby street. The flopflop of the helicopter hovering over the old quarter was unmistakable. What sounded like the rumbling of many heavy trucks military transports bottomed the mix. I turned to the radio for early morning reports of troop movement.
But when dawn broke, the streets were not under siege. The morning vendors set up shop on the sidewalks and the encampments began to hum. Some sort of rapprochements was in the wind.
By mid-morning Thursday, the Senate, meeting in its own palace a few blocks west, stepped into the fray and tried to separate the combatants. Led by Fox’s own party in fact by his former Interior Secretary and personal favorite as successor Santiago Creel voted unanimously to “exhort” the Fox to go do his Grito someplace else in order to avoid confrontation and bring shame upon the office of the Presidency. One strategy advanced by Lopez Obrador’s supporters, if indeed they managed to stay in the Zocalo for Fox’s performance, was to turn their backs on the President, drop their pantalones, and mass moon the leader.
By Siesta time (4 PM), Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal summoned reporters to inform the nation that President Fox had blinked he would deliver his Grito from Padre Hidalgo’s hometown in far-off Dolores, deep in Fox country.
Two weeks after AMLO’s congressional delegation prevented Vicente Fox from presenting his final Informe to the nation, the growing civil resistance had sent him packing to another palace, cracked comedienne Jesusa Rodriguez, the mc of AMLO’s nightly “informative assemblies”, “the Palacio of Hierro”, a high end department store, so that first lady Martita could get in a little shopping.
The fiesta began immediately. By Thursday nightfall, the walls of the Zocalo were blazing million-volt replicas of Hidalgo, his bell, the Mexican eagle, the national colors, as platoons of Independence Day junk vendors moved in hawking their plastic “coronetas” and pestilent “espuma”, a foul foam with which kids blast each other and everyone else in the vicinity at these annual celebrations of Mexican schlock.
The Zocalo floor, now stripped of tents after 49 days of civil resistance in preparation for AMLO’s Grito and the National Democratic Convention (CND) to be convened the next day, was filled with joyous knots of supporters, many with their CND delegate badges hanging proudly around their necks. Grinning, big-bellied farmers from Sinaloa mowed down the roasted ears of the new corn, the elotes the first fruit of the season – offered by the Indian women who had set up their grills all over the square. Soon, after the Convention, the men from Sinaloa would be heading home for the first time since AMLO had called them to the Zocalo in July.
At his Friday morning press conference, Ruben Aguilar lied that his boss was just being “prudent” in eschewing the bout with AMLO in the Zocalo. Intelligence reports, he sneered brightly, had revealed that there were “violent groups” inside AMLO’s umbrella who were sworn “to kill civilians” if Fox had gone to the plaza.
Lopez Obrador’s last informative assemblies (this “Cronista” attended all 49 of them) were about as close to nostalgia as the straight-ahead AMLO ever gets. These had been historic days, he marveled. His people had lived under a hard rain, hardball-sized hail, and a deluge of racist abuse from the right wing PAN and its odious candidate Felipe Calderon who had been awarded the cooked election.
But flowers had bloomed from the peoples’ outrage. There were two weddings in the camps in the last days and a christening in the Chiapas tent over which Don Samuel Ruiz, the sainted bishop emeritus of San Cristobal presided. I would bet that nine months from now a lot of little “Andrea Manuelas” and “Andres Manuels” are going to be christened too.
Art had flourished in the tents. Poets and Ska bands and Nueva Trova singers crowded the stages and a group of 30 Jarocha musicians from Veracruz and the Huasteca strolled the seven-mile skein of the camps each night, their fiddles flying. Every evening for weeks, an old geezer like me had set up his easel by the side of the stage from which AMLO spoke and painted this mural-sized canvas of a huge fist wrapped in the Mexican colors emerging from the crowd which he drew as if the people were kernels of corn.
Each night, AMLO would remind the faithful that they were making history out here and that one day down the years they would tell their children and grandchildren about having been in the camps and they would be considered heroes of the republic in their own homes. This movement that had begun under the banner of “The Poor First!” and which had been germinating for years as the Fox government came down hard on Lopez Obrador with everything it had, had metastasized into a full-scale civic insurrection in the weeks since the election had been stolen July 2, peaceful civil resistance that rattled the nation’s rotting institutions, most prominently the judiciary and the electoral authority. Now Lopez Obrador was calling for a plebiscite to call a constitutional convention that would write a new Mexican magna carta, the re-founding of the republic. This was what the National Democratic Convention was all about – that and ratifying AMLO as the legitimate president of Mexico.
Night after night I had gone to the assemblies, chewing the revolutionary fat. I felt privileged to be there, a tall, bearded white guy in a kaffia and a beret in a sea of brown faces. After the last assembly, everyone in my part of the crowd turned and shook their neighbor’s hand like they do at the end of the Mass.
“La Noche Mexicana” (The Mexican Night) bookends the Grito. It’s the night when Mexicans put on those floppy, silly sombreros and Speedy Gonzalez serapes and serenade the moon. It is supreme, unabashed kitsch but this year the bash in the Zocalo had a distinct feel. In between the strands of ranchero singers who followed one another on the big screen above the stage, there was this steady roar of “Obrador! Obrador!” – or else the gracious chant that had captured the throat here in the last days of the assemblies and encampments: “it is an honor to be with Lopez Obrador.”
Andres Manuel was keeping a low profile. In fact, he had ceded the Grito to trusted colleague and successor as Mayor of Mexico City, Alejandro Encinas in tandem with new senator Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, lead mother of the Mothers of the Disappeared whose own son had been taken by the government during the guerrilla wars of the 1970s.
The roly-poly, one-time Communist mayor and the bird-like 76 year-old Ibarra shouted the Grito and rang them bells and there were many “Vivas!” and beneath them all, there was always this rumble. Obrador! Obrador! About 20 minutes of dazzling fireworks followed, fingers ol light dripping down on the throng with snappy booms and after each burst, there it was again. Obrador! Obrador!
AMLO had appeared briefly on stage for the ritual and then ducked down into the sealed-off subway and left the party to spend a first night with his sons in their small apartment down near the university and to prepare for the National Democratic Convention the next day. As the Zocalo emptied out into the darkened side streets of my beloved barrio, each became a tunnel of sound. Obrador! Obrador!
Unwilling to alienate the Generals and Admirals AMLO knows he will need down the line to refound the republic, Lopez Obrador urged celebrants and supporters to abandon the Zocalo before dawn on Saturday so that the Mexican military might display its might in a Soviet-style pageant of hand-me-down tanks and other menacing vehicles, goose-stepping troops, lightly salted with historical regiments like the ersatz “Zapapuaxlas”, the Indians who drove off the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1864. All of a sudden, the Paseo de Reforma, traffic-less and smog-free for seven weeks of encampments, was clotted with military vehicles poisoning the Mexico City air. It was back to business as usual.
Even before the final convoy had rolled out of the Zocalo, AMLO’s supporters had rushed in, seized the flagpole, and flashed signs that Fox was a traitor to democracy and Calderon a Usurper.
The National Democratic Convention was billed as the next stage in the civil resistance that is rolling across Mexico. Actually, the CND was less of a Convention than it was a stand-up march. In the weeks after July 2, when public ardor was at its zenith, AMLO had orchestrated successive 1.2 million and 2.1 million (police estimates) marches, the largest political demonstrations in the nation’s history, and he needed to top a million on September 16. He came close a million delegates had signed up but the commitment of many was tested by high holiday bus fares and the first corn coming in out in the countryside and perhaps only half that number actually showed up. Nonetheless, the Zocalo and the surrounding streets of the Centro were wall to wall with delegates but the numbers did not spill out of the old quarter into the city as in the gargantuan assemblies of July 16 and 30.
As is mandatory at such peoples’ conclaves, the CND did not commence at the appointed hour. An hour went by and breathing room on the Zocalo grew scarce and the masses restless. Slightly after 4 PM, the skies broke open and a cold, drenching deluge cascaded down upon AMLO’s people. The plastic cape venders spread out through the crowd but plastic didn’t get it. My umbrella, battered after 49 days of downpour at the informative assemblies, drooped at the corners and when Martin Miranda, an old guy, huddled under it big drops kept sloshing off the busted spokes and splattering his nose. Martin laughed and shouted about how it rains and it rains and the people do not move (“llueve y llueve y el pueblo no se mueve!”)
As usual, AMLO’s people stood firm in the midst of the biblical weather, thundering back at Tlaloc, the rain god, whose bloody sacrificial mound is being refurbished on one corner of the Zocalo.
Many years before, in August 1994, the Zapatistas’ had invited 6000 members of civil society into the bowels of the Lacandon jungle for a National Democratic Convention and then as now, Chaac, the Mayan incarnation of Tlaloc, had let us have it with a monumental “tormenton” that enveloped the mostly-urban conventioneers in a sea of Jurassic mud.
The Convention itself was more cut and dried than the weather when it finally kicked in around 6 PM, the delay being chalked up to AMLO who was putting the final touches on his acceptance speech. Much like the Zapatistas’ historic 1994 CND, the convention givers set the agenda. There had been intense pre-discussions of the salient proposals that AMLO had proposed the naming of Lopez Obrador as the legitimate president of Mexico, the refusal to be governed by the usurper Calderon, and the preparation for a new constriction, inside AMLO’s orbit – the camps and the city he had governed for six years and a few strongholds on the periphery. But overwhelmingly, his people came prepared to vote the whole enchilada up without much discussion.
Unity was the buzzword and dissonance pretty much limited to should AMLO be inaugurated on November 20th, the anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican revolution in 1910 or on December 1st when Calderon the Usurper was scheduled to be imposed by congress. When Lopez Obrador asked for hands an intense shouting march broke out. “20!” yelled half the masses, “Diciembre!” screamed the other half in the end November 20 prevailed because on December 1 AMLO had other plans to prevent the investiture of Felipe Calderon,
A blue-ribbon commission was selected to investigate the writing of a plebiscite that would be the basis of the calling of a constitutional convention that would re-write Mexico’s magna carta and lead to the refounding of the republic Lopez Obrador was dead serious about this history. The basis for agreement was “Effective Suffrage! No to the Imposition!” the renovation of Mexico’s rotting institutions, an end to the appalling poverty in which 70 million Mexicans barely subsist, and the defense of the nation’s strategic reserves, petroleum, and electricity generation from the neo-liberal scourge.
The Convention came at a critical moment in this on-going battle to save Mexico’s soul. Now AMLO’s people were being dispersed back to where they came from. Could these enormously focused energies be sustained back home? The key was “chamba” (work), something for AMLO’s people to do to make his crusade felt every day out there in the country. A day to defend Mexico’s oil industry from privatization was set for September 27. A whole week in October was dedicated to blasting corruption. AMLO’s inauguration in November would come 10 days before Armageddon, December 1, Calderon’s coronation. In the meantime, the legitimate President of Mexico by popular acclaim, whose government would be based in the capital but would be an “itinerant” one as AMLO wends his way from state to state and municipality to municipality, to revisit the country that he is certain that he won last July 2.
AMLO’s acceptance speech rang with defiance, filled with hypnotically cadenced repetitive stanzas of what needed to change in Mexico it was not unlike one of Marcos’s serial list poems but by that time I was listening to it on the one radio station that ever covers these things, drying out and finishing up packing. Early the next morning, I would fly to Seattle and Sasha and I would begin our lives together finally. For this writer, much as for AMLO, a new stage of struggle was about to unfold.
This is JOHN ROSS’s final electoral chronicle. The Blindman and his blushing bride Sasha Crow (they met human shielding in Baghdad) will be honeymooning for the next few weeks in Turkey and Greece. Ross’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 will be published in October and the author will be traveling the Left Coast through December. These dispatches will continue at ten-day intervals.