Amidst the din of hundreds of housewives beating on pots and pans with a variety of kitchen utensils–a massive “Casarolazo” reminiscent of similar manifestations of discontent in Argentina 2002 (the “Argentinazo”)–the popular classes filled the streets of the Mexican capital January 31st to express outrage at the drastic jump in the cost of household staples (eggs 50%, milk 30%, and tortillas 40%) during the first 50 days of the presidency of Felipe Calderon, the right-winger who was awarded high office in fraud-marred elections last July 2nd.
The steep rise in the price of tortillas cuts right to the quick of the popular economy, dramatically impacting 70,000,000 Mexicans who live in and around the poverty line, 22,000,000 of who barely survive in extreme poverty (less than $2 a day.) Although working class Mexicans eat tortillas at most meals, for 13,000,000 children living in extreme poverty, tortillas are the whole meal according to studies done by Dr. Hector Borgez of the National Nutrition Institute.
Only last November, the month before Calderon took office, tortillas were selling for six pesos a kilo most everywhere in the country. But since Calderon’s chaotic December 1st swearing-in, the price has tripled to 18 and even 20 pesos, well beyond the budgets of the Mexican underclass.
The assault on the poor and the extremely poor is compounded by the Calderon regime’s miserly annual increase in the daily minimum wage by 1.9%, about 17 cents USD, an increment which doesn’t come close to matching the hike in tortillas–let alone milk, eggs, meat, and gasoline which are squeezing working people to a pulp.
With the buying power of its constituents shrinking dramatically (an 18% decline since January 1st), a usually quiescent Mexican labor movement is demanding an emergency boost in the daily minimum wage to match the spiraling cost of living. The National Union of Workers (UNT), a powerful federation of labor organizations independent of the political parties organized the January 31st “Casarolazo” which was heavily attended by supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the leftist former mayor of Mexico City who millions avow beat Calderon in the July 2nd vote-taking but was deprived of victory by the ruling right-wing PAN Party’s manipulation of the electoral machinery.
AMLO himself made a rare Mexico City appearance at the January 31st march. Although the organizers tried to deny Lopez Obrador a place at the mic, the ex-candidate spoke by popular demand at the conclusion of the mammoth march in the great Zocalo plaza, invoking the militancy of the post-electoral struggle and seemingly signaling his return to the political spotlight.
The nation’s business associations, which heavily financed Calderon’s campaign, have unanimously rejected the demand for an emergency wage increase as being inflationary. But threatened with popular insurrection if the price of tortillas was not brought under control, the new president prevailed upon the nation’s powerful transnational corn merchants — Cargill/Consolidated, Maseca/ADM, and Mimsa/Corn Products — to lock in the increase at 8.50 pesos the kilo, a 40% hike over November.
According to Fred Rosen, an economics writer with the Mexico City edition of the Miami Herald, low-income Mexican families eat three kilos of tortillas a day which. under the new price scheme, would cost a working head of family 42% of the minimum daily wage.
Felipe’s first 50 days in office have brought palpable pain to a populous, at least a third of which does not accept him as the legitimate president of Mexico. Over 200,000 workers have lost their jobs in the seven weeks since Calderon pinned the presidential sash on his breast according to Labor secretariat and Social Security Institute numbers, and social benefits are threatened by the precipitous drop in world oil prices–petroleum exports account for up to 70% of the social benefits budget.
A morning run on public transportation around Mexico City brings home the impacts down below. Two well-dressed little girls, perhaps seven and four years old, navigate through the crowded subway cars handing out slips of paper upon which their parents have painstakingly hand lettered this message: “We are hungry. Our parents cannot afford to buy tortillas. Please help us. God Bless you,”
A rural schoolteacher from the Totonaco sierra of Puebla state shakes a can at a teeming bus stop. “Calderon and the governor have cut our budgets and we can’t feed the Indian children in our school” Arnulfo Prieto explains, “so we have to come here to beg for cooperation from the passengers.”
Felipe Calderon does not travel on public transportation. He moves in a rose-colored bubble protected by elite military troops and seemingly governs another country than the one packed into the sardine can buses and subway cars down below. His goal now is to legitimize his governance and, impatient to impress his “achievements” upon a dubious public, Calderon could not even wait the customary 50 days to toot his own horn.
During a nationally televised address from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, just 45 days into his six-year stint as president, Felipe Calderon proclaimed Mexico to be “in order and at peace.” The nation was far more “secure and certain” than when he had taken office during a moment of widespread social upheaval just seven weeks previous.
Calderon seemed blissfully oblivious of the casarolazos in the street and the shocking repression of the popular movement in Oaxaca, which animated protests from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch during Calderon’s first European junket in January.
Among the accomplishments Calderon claims for his short-lived administration are subsidies to the poor to offset escalating electricity rates, a promise of universal health coverage for disadvantaged children, minimal pensions for impoverished senior citizens, and a 10% across the board cut in the salaries of the federal bureaucracy. All of these initiatives were lifted almost verbatim from the platform of the leftist Lopez Obrador who Calderon never tired of labeling “a danger to Mexico” during one of the dirtiest campaigns in the nation’s electoral history.
Another “achievement” of Calderon’s nascent regime: handing out juicy jobs to those who backed his well-financed campaign, including Guillermo Valdez, chief pollster for the GEA political consulting firm, who called the Calderon victory when most polls had AMLO four points up on election day. With no other qualifications, Valdez was designated director of the Center for National Security Intelligence (CISEN), Mexico’s super secret spy agency.
Felipe’s first 50 days have also featured the most intense militarization of Mexico since the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in 1994. 27,000 troops have been dispatched into drug-cropping states from Tijuana to Tapachula on the southern border with the mission of disrupting narco cartel operations. Nonetheless, no top “capos” were snared in the offensive–a huge manhunt in the “Golden Triangle” (Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua) failed to net the nation’s most notorious drug lord, “El Chapo” Guzman, CEO of the Sinaloa Cartel.
But if the dragnet for El Chapo proved a bust, “Fecal” (as his detractors diss him) warmed the hearts of his handlers in Washington by extraditing four imprisoned drug kingpins January 19th, along with 11 underlings (one of whom was wanted for a 1991 murder) to the U.S. justice system. Of the narcos, only Osiel Cardenas, titular ringleader of the Gulf Cartel, appears still to have been active. Other capos, such as “El Guero” (Paleface) Palma had been on ice for years before Calderon shipped them north where U.S. taxpayers will shell out millions to warehouse them at state-of-the-art maximum security prisons for the rest of their lives.
The unprecedented extraditions came one week after George Bush’s attorney general Alberto Gonzalez visited the country of his parents’ birth to encourage Felipe Calderon to jump through his boss’s hoop, and occurred the same week as the U.S. ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security) detained and deported 761 undocumented workers without one word of protest from the new Mexican president.
The extraditions so delighted the lame duck Bush that he picked up the Oval Office phone and dialed Felipe for a 15-minute congratulatory chat. U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, a longtime Bush crony, was effusive in his praise of Calderon’s “stupendous leadership” and proclaimed that the extraditions would usher in “a new era” of bi-lateral cooperation. Both Bush and Garza were among the first to congratulate Calderon last July for his severely questioned “victory.”
Calderon also earned fat kudos from the U.S. corporate press, which shamelessly pumped up the right-winger throughout the hard-nosed battle with Lopez Obrador and now exalts Felipe as “a man of action ” (Miami Herald.) The Dallas Morning News even suggested that Calderon should become president of Iraq to put that unruly nation in order.
The new president is utilizing the Mexican military to further his own political ends, considers Jorge Camil, a prolific political writer who suspects the deployment of troops against the narcos is a smokescreen to promote the illusion of Calderon’s legitimacy–Camil has long held that only the legalization of drugs can control drug violence. “This is a dangerous proposition–just who is going to rule Mexico? Calderon or the military?” Camil wondered during a recent telephone interview, implying that the freshman president could become a hostage of the generals’ ambitions.
Calderon has put in an appearance at at least 20 largely ceremonial events staged by the Mexican Armed Force since he took office, even donning an outsized military coat and campaign hat to address drug-fighting troops in Michoacan, the first Mexican president to appear in military dress since Maximo Avila Camacho in the 1940s–Camacho, however, was a real general.
“We will not tolerate anyone who defies the authority of the state,” Calderon declared to a Naval base audience in mid-January in a verbal display of what he likes to call his “firm hand.” The not-so-veiled warning was not just directed at fugitive narco barons but also at Lopez Obrador who had mostly been missing in action before his re-emergence at the January 31st march in defense of the tortilla.
Camil and other politicalologists see disturbing parallels between the first days of George Bush and Felipe Calderon. Both have called in their militaries to legitimize mandates tarnished by accusations that they stole their presidencies. Bush’s declaration of a “War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks and Calderon’s “War on Drugs” both serve these ends.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s evaporation from the political spotlight has made it easier for Felipe Calderon to claim a mandate. Since the National Democratic Convention elected AMLO as the “legitimate” president of Mexico last September 16th, both AMLO and his shadow government have disappeared into the shadows. Barnstorming the backwaters of the country, Lopez Obrador now speaks to dozens whereas just six months ago, he was leading millions in an historic outpouring of public indignation at the stealing of the election.
AMLO’s silence in respect to the on-going repression in Oaxaca and his absence from that powder keg state since the uprising began last May have disillusioned some former die-hards who sense that the ex-candidate has abdicated his responsibilities to the popular movement, leaving a vacuum in leadership on the left.
“Where is AMLO?” asks Alejandro Penaloza, a vender of left-wing newspapers in the old quarter of Mexico City who camped out in the Zocalo plaza during the “planton” that tied up the capital for seven weeks after the July 2nd balloting. “AMLO should never have called the planton off. He was right here in the center of power. It was a big mistake. Now he’s hiding out with the Tarahumaras and no one hardly pays any attention to him anymore” sighs the veteran activist.
Whether or not Lopez Obrador’s return to the political stage January 31st signals a sustained campaign to challenge the Calderon regime could determine the shape of politics in Mexico in 2007.
Despite Lopez Obrador’s months of absence, Felipe Calderon is having a hard time making peace with the people who he is charged with governing. His first visit to popular colonies in Chalco in the misery belt just outside the capital and to Veracruz degenerated into shouting matches as furious housewives screamed and snarled and sobbed at the president about the skyrocketing cost of tortillas. “Thank you Mr. President for Helping Us To Starve” read banners posted along the road from the Veracruz airport. “We want tortillas–not PAN!” (Bread–but also the initials of Calderon’s National Action Party) chanted housewives in that port city.
The new Mexican president received an equally hostile welcome on his first European junket. A meeting with the business community in Berlin had to be called off for “security” reasons and in Bonn, police scuffled with Mexican and German protestors demanding an end to the repression in Oaxaca. Similar welcoming parties awaited Calderon in London and Madrid.
If Felipe Calderon’s second 50 days are anything like his first, the Mexican president may soon be asking his friend Bush for political asylum in Washington–but by then, Bush himself could be considering seeking sanctuary south of the border.
JOHN ROSS is on the road in the southwest (February), the south and mid-west (March), and the East Coast (April) with his latest opus “Zapatistas! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006.” Write firstname.lastname@example.org for possible venues.
The “Making Another World Possible” tour kicks off Friday, Feb. 9th at New College in San Francisco’s Mission District when Ross presents a report back from the Mexican cataclysm, including a look inside Felipe Calderon’s brain. These dispatches will continue at ten-day intervals while the Blindman is on the road.