A Year of Unprecedented Turmoil

After a tumultuous year in which the red and black flags of civil insurrection unfurled on the barricades and the rancor of “los de abajo” (“those from below”) took fire, newly sworn-in president Felipe Calderon and his transnational backers are banking on fading the color scheme to a ubiquitous gray in 2007. Their success will be measured by the fight back of a popular resistance that has surged from the bottom in many parts of the country during 2006.

“Unprecedented” became a cliché in Mexico 2006 as social and political turbulence crested in anticipation of the presidential elections. By spring, striking steelworkers were being gunned down and militarized police under the command of Calderon’s new attorney general brutalized angry farmers in San Salvador Atenco in one of the most egregious violations of human rights ever witnessed on Mexican screens. The teachers rose in Oaxaca.

The stealing of the election from leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in July drove millions into the streets in the largest political demonstrations ever recorded on this side of the border. Tens of thousands of protestors encamped in the capital blockading major thoroughfares for seven weeks.

Meanwhile, the upsurge in Oaxaca boiled over into urban warfare with death squads in the employ of tyrannical governor Ulisis Ruiz trolling the state capitol with a license to kill. Massive police repression in Oaxaca five days before Calderon’s coronation produced hundreds of political prisoners. The first bombings by radical groups in six years sent shivers through Mexico City.

The drama culminated in the pandemonium of Calderon’s surreal investiture during which the military had to be called out to protect the congress of the country while Lopez Obrador’s supporters scuffled with rightwing legislators on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies.

2007 will have a hard time topping its predecessor.

The first months of Felipe Calderon’s governance are a crucial test for the right-winger who at least a third of the electorate does not accept as the legitimate president of Mexico. To establish a modicum of credibility, he has embarked on a calculated strategy that combines the Hard Hand (“mano dura”) of the military with the high gloss of the media.

At the top of the embattled president’s agenda was the deployment of 7000 troops and police to his home state of Michoacan in which hundreds of victims have been slaughtered in recent years as narco gangs battle for turf in the vast hot lands south of Uruapan where marijuana plantations flourish on remote hillsides and tons of cocaine pour in through the port of Lazaro Cardenas.

True to the Calderon formula for taking control of a country that has been bordering on ingovernability, the troops were followed into the dope fields by embedded reporters from the national and international big press. Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly ran the raids as top story night after night reinforcing the new president’s authority although the operation netted meager bounty – the relatives of a few mid-level narco lords were arrested and a handful of gunsills killed in firefights. Michoacan is far from the U.S. border, control of which is the real source of narco violence in Mexico.

Such ballyhooed offensives in the narco wars are often counter indicative. The industry is destabilized and the cartels stirred up. When a capo goes down, another pops up to claim the turf. Every Mexican president wears a narco lord around his neck – for Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox, the “capo de sexenio” was “El Chapo” Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa cartel, who escaped from a maximum-security prison in the first months of his presidency.

Whichever capo the new president gets attached to could determine which way Calderon’s head might roll – much like the now-legendary five bloody heads that narcos rolled out on the dance floor of a popular Uruapan night club on the eve of the July election.

The new president has duplicitously hidden his hard hand behind his back while preaching reconciliation in Oaxaca, withdrawing Federal Preventative Police (PFP) from that troubled state and redeploying them to Michoacan. The move turned policing Oaxaca back to Ruiz’s Ministerial Police which is held responsible for widespread violence and the killing of at least 20 supporters of striking teachers and the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO) since last May, including U.S. Indymedia reporter Brad Will. Not 24 hours after Calderon had removed the PFP, Ruiz’s goons kidnapped APPO spokesperson Florentino Lopez.

The Federal Preventative Police is now commanded by General Ardelio Vargas, a close confederate of new Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora when he headed up the CISEN or national security intelligence service – General Vargas also commands the Federal Investigative Agency (AFI), the Mexican FBI, an unprecedented concentration of police powers in the hands of one man.

While Calderon’s Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna, whose human rights record as governor of Jalisco was tarnished with torture, begins to release some of the 200 prisoners taken in PFP repression last November 25th in Oaxaca city, others are hustled into custody. Flavio Sosa, former director of Lopez Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Oaxaca, and a prominent leader of the APPO, has been locked down in the nation’s most fearsome penitentiary and loaded up with sedition charges by Attorney General Medina Mora, the first political prisoner of the Calderon regime. The PRD and Lopez Obrador have not been active in his defense.

In order to govern Mexico, Felipe Calderon must split the PRD and neutralize Lopez Obrador. The new president launched a revived get-AMLO putsch when his finance minister, former World Bank heavy, 300-pound Augustin Carstens submitted a 2007 budget that slashed funding for universities and government support for culture, two sectors in which the left leader has widespread support. The budget cuts will advance Calderon’s neo-liberal strategy of privatizing both areas.

The new president also sliced 10% from his own salary but increased the military budget by 30%. Social budget allocations are just 10% of foreign and domestic debt service, a recipe for disaster.

Felipe Calderon is poised to retaliate directly against his old nemesis Lopez Obrador who was anointed the “legitimate president” of Mexico before hundreds of thousands of true believers in Mexico City’s Zocalo plaza this past November 20th. Reforma, a PAN-oriented national daily, recently published a deliberately leaked memo indicating that 34 arrest warrants are currently pending against the leftist, most filed during his years as Mexico City mayor but several stretching back to 1996 when Lopez Obrador led Chontal Indian farmers in shutting down oil drilling platforms in his native Tabasco. Should the left leader, who is currently trekking the nation shoring up his bases, become too much of a thorn in the side of Calderon’s rule, Interior Secretary Ramirez Acuna has the discretion to activate the arrest warrants.

Despite the new president’s veiled threats to remove AMLO from circulation, Calderon is not adverse to co-opting the leftist’s social programs, proposing pensions for elderly Mexicans and universal health care for poor children, two basic planks in Lopez Obrador’s campaign platform, even while failing to insure an adequate social budget.

The new president is deeply indebted to the two-headed television monopoly for crafting the illusion of his still-disputed victory in the fraud-marred July 2nd elections and he has sought to reward their support. One of the first acts of Calderon’s new Secretary of Communication and Transportation was to veto a bid by General Electric, Telemundo, and Mexican pharmaceutical tycoon Moises Sada for a license to launch a third national network. Curiously, soon after the license request was drawn up, both TV Azteca and Televisa aired investigative reports on how the Sada family was price-gouging consumers, the details of which the Calderon government has promised to probe.

Calderon’s rightist PAN party won the TV moguls’ hearts when just weeks before the presidential election, the PANistas pushed through a law – the so-called “Ley Televisa” – that gave Azteca and Televisa exclusive concessions over the entire electro-magnetic spectrum for the next 40 years.

Much as when he ran for president, Calderon is once again flooding the TV screens with slickly produced “info-mericals” trumpeting his early “accomplishments” in office.

As the designated business agent for the transnationals who put him in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, the new president has to deliver the goods. During the campaign, Calderon repeatedly pledged to the business “community” that he would open PEMEX, the nationalized oil corporation, to private investment. Such an initiative would require a constitutional amendment that can only be achieved by an alliance with the once-ruling PRI, now a minority party in the new congress. Calderon’s support for Oaxaca tyrant Ulisis Ruiz, a PRI honcho, seems to be the quid pro quo that could cement the deal in 2007.

The new president inherits an economy in serious stagnation and prospects for improvement in the next 12 months are not bright. Growth averaged out to less than 3% per annum during Fox’s six years in office, the lowest among major Latin American economies.

Felipe Calderon campaigned as the “Jobs President” but there are not enough McDonalds’ and Wal-Marts littering the landscape to provide new jobs for the more than a million young job seekers who enter the labor market each year. Annual wage hikes proclaimed by Calderon’s economic cabinet total out to 19 cents USD a day which will not much increase workers’ buying powers in 2007 – the price of tortillas, a staple of the brown underclass, has doubled in six years of PAN governance.

Meanwhile, the agricultural sector – roughly 27 million Mexicans, a quarter of the population – is collapsing under NAFTA pressures. Over a million farm families (6,000,000 Mexicans) have been forced off the land, primarily by the dumping of cheap NAFTA corn on this side of the border, and jumped into the immigration stream during the Fox years – 2.4 million citizens took refuge in the U.S. during his “sexenio.” For Felipe Calderon, the devastation of the agriculture sector will only get darker – all tariffs on corn and beans will be completely eliminated as of January 1st 2008, greatly aggravating the conditions of the campesinos.

Out migration is a traditional safety valve for frustrated young Mexicans but that option is fast being extinguished by draconian U.S. immigration enforcement including the construction of 700 miles of border wall. Threatened massive deportations of Mexican workers from El Norte, who now send $16 billion USD home annually in remissions, would effectively shut down the Mexican economy.

With such dour prospects just down the pike, Felipe Calderon is dependent upon a lame duck U.S. president’s diminishing clout in his congress to pass a guest worker program to absorb the pressure building on the border.

Mexico annexed its economic and political future to Washington when it inked NAFTA 15 years ago as George Bush’s intelligence czar John Negroponte once predicted when he was ambassador to this distant neighbor nation. Now when Washington sneezes, Mexico comes down with Ebola fever. Any instability up north in 2007 – a new terror attack, a presidential impeachment or assassination, a devastating defeat in Iraq or the eruption of a new war in Iran, all not unlikely scenarios for the coming year – will send seismic shock waves south and set bilateral relations on a shaky footing in Calderon’s first year as Mexican president – much as 9/11 wrecked relations with Washington during Fox’s initial months in office.

As the pendulum swings left in Latin America, Felipe Calderon is Bush’s last gasp hope for the triumph of neo-liberalism south of the border but the new president is already perceived as the White House’s water boy in Latin America and among a majority of his own citizens and establishing credibility requires that he put some distance between his person and Washington.

Whereas Vicente Fox managed to alienate all of the new left leadership on the continent, particularly Hugo Chavez who dubbed him “an imperialist puppy”, Calderon is moving to tamp down the tone – his attendance at Daniel Ortega’s inauguration in Managua and the 15th anniversary of peace accords in Salvador in January, the Mexican president’s first foreign foray, seems designed to soften the disaffection of the Latin left. But Calderon’s testy accusations that Chavez was financing Lopez Obrador’s campaign so disaffected the Venezuelan strongman that diplomatic relations between Latin America’s two largest oil producers will probably not be revived very soon.

As the neo-liberal impositions dig in in 2007 and objective conditions grow more onerous for the 73,000,000 Mexicans – three quarters of the population – living in and around the poverty line (a quarter of them in extreme poverty), the strength of the popular resistance that surged in 2006 is suddenly a question mark in 2007. In Oaxaca, the APPO appears exhausted and at odds with allies in the teachers movement, on the defensive and reduced to rescuing its political prisoners.

Lopez Obrador is broke and continues to ply the provinces playing to an ever-shrinking audience to promote the legitimacy of his shadow presidency and government which are just that – shadows of what might have been.

The Zapatistas’ Other Campaign is on hold as Subcomandante Marcos tries to recover from the bruising he took when he balked at joining the post-electoral struggle. The armed movement – five tiny Marxist-Leninist “focos” – calls press conferences to challenge Calderon’s credentials but are a perfect demonstration target for the new president’s hard hand.

Will peoples’ resistance recover the initiative in the new year? For the popular movements, 2007 will be all about “ni modo” i.e. there is no way to change Calderon’s hold on power so we might as well allow ourselves to be co-opted by his handouts, and “si se puede” (“yes, we can”), a skew which views 2006 as a gateway to the next revolution. The outcome of this debate down at the broad base of the Mexican pyramid will determine the shape of the year to come.

JOHN ROSS will be on the road in the southwest, south, midwest, and Atlantic coast from February through April with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. Write him at johnross@igc.org for suggestions of possible venues and dates.


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org