Midnight in Mexico

This is how the Washington Consensus ends: With the president-elect of Mexico Felipe Calderón sneaking off with outgoing Vicente Fox Thursday night to hold a midnight, locked-door inauguration. Fait accompli, the next day the videotaped ceremony was broadcast to the nation. “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is’t you do?” “A deed without a Name,” they answered.

Over the last two decades, the Washington Consensus was more than just a set of economic policies that opened up Latin America’s economies to US corporations and banks. It was a political directive as well, aimed at redefining the meaning of Latin American democracy.

Once US-backed Cold War military regimes and death squads had violently severed the ties between socialist and nationalist political parties and their working-class and peasant base and allowed a return to constitutional rule, an army of corporate and government-funded U.S. social scientists descended upon Latin America. They advised politicians to move the fulcrum of politics away from mass rallies in the central plaza to televised campaign ads and back-room elite negotiations. They also sold a new brand of democracy, one defined exclusively as the protection of political and economic freedom and the defense of property rights, rather than the achievement of social justice. Such advice was aimed at putting to rest Latin America’s populist, egalitarian tradition, which had deep roots in the region’s political culture, drawing from Catholic humanism, Rousseauean notions of participatory democracy, and indigenous conceptions of justice and solidarity. “Political democracy,” Samuel Huntington lectured Latin Americans in one transitology handbook, “is clearly compatible with inequality in both wealth and income, and in some measure, it may be dependent upon such inequality.”

It depends on what you mean by democracy. The success of such a campaign to turn Latin Americans into passive consumers of electoral politics was dependent on the success of the Washington Consensus’s economic policies. But the 1990s were a disaster for a majority of Latin Americans. Inequality increased at a stunning pace and millions were thrown into not just poverty but extreme destitution, leading activists across the continent to rebuild alliances between grassroots social movements and political parties and lay the groundwork for today’s left resurgence. Popular protests brought down governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, and restored one in Venezuela. Poor people increasingly became involved in politics (Evo Morales is the first Bolivian president to win more than fifty percent in a first-round vote since the country returned to democratic rule in the 1980s, drawing the bulk of support from impoverished rural communities). What is more, a majority of Latin Americans continued to believe that democracy should entail some form of equity and wealth redistribution.

The conflict between these visions of democracy were brought into sharp relief in last summer’s presidential election, which pitted Calderón against Manuel López Obrador, a center-leftist with a strong grassroots base of support. López Obrador built his campaign around old-style rallies and marches. In fact, it took a massive social movement just to get him into the game, with hundreds of thousands filling Mexico City’s Zocolo to protest Vicente Fox’s bogus attempt to use a legal technicality to block his candidacy. He even refused to visit the US to glad-hand bankers and think-tank pundits who watched his early large lead with alarm. Calderón, in contrast, might as well as have set up his headquarters in Washington for all the personal contact he had with actual Mexicans. With an enormous corporate-funded war chest, he relied heavily on TV commercials to sell himself. In an effort to whittle away at what seemed like an insurmountable López Obrador lead, he turned to US political consultants, who micro-polled, product-tested, perception-managed, and focused-grouped to roll out the most relentlessly negative political campaign in Mexican history.

It worked, at least enough to equalize the playing field just enough for Calderón to squeak in with a victory that millions and millions of Mexicans believe to be illegitimate. So what better way to inaugurate the fruit of such a consumer-driven campaign than to abandon the pomp-and-circumstance that usually mark of Mexico’s transfers of presidential power and hold a closed-door, midnight rite later broadcast on the country’s corporate-controlled airwaves?

But maybe Macbeth’s conspiring witches are not the best image to invoke to capture the significance of Calderón’s nighttime ritual. Facing hundreds of thousands swearing allegiance to López Obrador, Oaxaca on the brink, and politicians brawling on the floor of Congress, Calderón just announced that he was naming Francisco Javier Ramírez Acuña as his Interior Minister, in charge of domestic security. While governor of the state of Jalisco, Ramírez was accused by Amnesty International and others of serious human rights violations, including ordering a brutal crackdown on anti-corporate globalization protesters. A more appropriate way to mark Calderón’s inauguration is perhaps Henry V’s Dauphin, as he prepares for battle: “Tis midnight; I’ll go arm myself.”

GREG GRANDIN teaches Latin American history at NYU and is the author of the Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and The Rise of the New Imperialism, from which this essay has been excerpted. He can be reached at: gjg4@nyu.edu



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