The Great Mexican Chess Match

This capital’s Tiennemens-sized Zocalo plaza, lodged as it is at the heart of the Mexican body politic, has sometimes been transformed into a monumental chessboard. Under leftist mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (2000-2006), whom many still think won last year’s fraud-blighted presidential election; annual Chess Days attracted tens of thousands of players. One year, Chess Day broke the Guinness Book of Records mark for simultaneous games being played. On another, the plaza floor was squared off to create the world’s largest chessboard.

This September 15th, “La Noche Mexicana” (“The Mexican Night”), the eve of Independence Day ceremonies when the President traditionally delivers the “Grito” of “Viva Mexico” from the balcony of the National Palace in a colorful display of absolute executive power, the Zocalo was once again converted into a gigantic chess game, this one featuring multiple phalanxes of human pieces.

Last year, in the wake of the hotly-contested July 2nd election, supporters of the aggrieved Lopez Obrador encamped under tents that covered the great square in a massive mobilization to dissuade outgoing president Vicente Fox, whose manipulation of electoral law allowed his right-wing PAN party to sneak past AMLO, from declaiming the final “Grito” of his six year reign. The threat of a mass “mooning” and other random acts of creative resistance forced Fox to beat a retreat to his home state of Guanajuato where he speechified to a hundred hardy souls in the same town from which the Father of Mexican Independence, the priest Miguel Hidalgo, had once fired the opening salvo of the war of liberation from the Spanish Crown: “Long live Mexico! (Let’s Go Kill Some Spaniards!”)

But Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, whose talent for legitimatizing his rule has been troubled by his dubious 2006 victory, could not forego this golden opportunity to appear very presidential in public and the stage was set for face-off with his detractors.

Lopez Obrador’s pawns seized the opening advantage by re-pitching their tents in the center of the 48,000 square meter plaza and reinitiating last summer’s occupation. Calderon’s players responded by raising a six-foot high metal barricade just beneath the presidential balcony on the National Palace edge of the Zocalo – the barricade was backed up by several thousand plainclothes members of the president’s elite military guard and the militarized police. Then the President’s men played the electronic gambit, plugging in what was billed as the most powerful sound system in all of Latin America – the electronic arsenal had been leased from the Ocesa corporation which specializes in stadium shows and other magnum pop “spectaculars.”

But AMLO’s people – their leader was on tour in the provinces as he has been for almost a full year since the stolen election signing up followers for his new left political party – were not to be outmaneuvered. With the approval of Marcelo Ebrard, AMLO’s successor as Mexico City mayor, the leftists set up their own huge bank of speakers and the War of Words was declared.

Beginning on September 14th, the dueling decibels deafened denizens of the city’s old quarter without mercy. At one point, both sides hooked up their speakers to construction cranes and moved them to the dead center of the Zocalo in a tableau that left-wing La Jornada columnist Jaime Aviles would describe as resembling a medieval battlefield with the giant speakers replacing antique catapults.

Finally, in the interest of civil sanity, a compromise was hammered out between the President and his foes although Lopez Obrador has never recognized Calderon’s legitimacy. In lieu of AMLO, leftist senator Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, a 76 year-old world-renown human rights spokesperson often dubbed “the Mother of the Disappeared”, would deliver the “Grito de los Libres: (“The Cry of the Free”) between nine and 10 PM on the western rim of the square and then cede to Calderon on the National Palace balcony across the Zocalo.

Since Mexico’s two-headed TV monopoly Televisa and TV Azteca only trained their cameras on Calderon, most of the nation did not bear witness to this extraordinary political chess match.

In addition to his “Grito”, Calderon presided over the traditional Independence Day military parade from his presidential balcony at which two of his young sons appeared in military garb – Calderon himself donned military dress earlier this year, inciting speculation of a military coup.

During an unprecedented ceremony last December 1st, the new president, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was sworn in by high military brass and he has governed ever since with the military at his side. The media monopolies have covered his other flank.

The chess match in the Zocalo was mirrored by a similar showdown in the congress of the country, where legislative gridlock was the benchmark of Fox’s six years in office. Due to the intransigence of the opposition – the once-ruling PRI (71 years in power) which was beaten badly in ’06, and AMLO’s forces mostly concentrated in the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD – little meaningful legislation was passed during the Fox years and Calderon was determined to break the logjam, even borrowing bits and pieces of Lopez Obrador’s platform to strike a conciliatory pose. With the opposition able to neutralize the PAN’s slight majority in both houses, the President would be forced into mind-boggling compromises to move his legislative package.

At the top of his must-pass list, Calderon has been touting “fiscal reform” he deems essential to animating an economy that is growing at the slowest rate in Latin America, and refurbishing the nation’s threadbare tax base. Despite rampant corporate tax evasion and precipitously declining revenues from the national oil corporation PEMEX (PEMEX accounts for 70% of a social budget that barely keeps 72,000,000 Mexicans living in and around the poverty line from open rebellion), fiscal reform has long been deferred.

Calderon’s proposals included a flat tax for corporations who live by the loophole and a 5% gasoline surcharge that automatically will trigger further inflationary surge (the cost of the basic food basket has leapt 34% in the right-winger’s first year in office) and chances that big business or an unquiet electorate would allow such legislation to clear congress seemed remote until the president, an unlikely political pragmatist, exhibited a chess player’s adroitness by coupling passage of fiscal reform with a long-sought revamping of Mexico’s electoral laws.

Under the provisions of the proposed electoral reform, Mexico’s maximum electoral authority, the Federal Electoral Institute or IFE, which the opposition holds accountable for the 2006 vote-rigging, would be restructured with all nine commissioners of its governing council including IFE president Luis Carlos Ugalde, a Calderon crony, being removed from office. In addition, federal subsidies to the parties would be cut by two thirds, thereby depriving Televisa and TV Azteca of millions of Yanqui dollars in political advertising.

Moreover, all negative advertising would be prohibited under the revision – Calderon’s corporate backers invested huge sums in a non-stop barrage of hit pieces designed by U.S. right-wing political consultant Dick Morris that labeled Lopez Obrador “a danger” to Mexico. The “black” campaign is thought to have been a key factor in a presidential race that was decided by just .5% of the nation’s 43 million voters. The new law would also bar carpetbaggers like Morris who designed similar smear campaigns against Evo Morales in Bolivia and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, from hawking his dubious wares to candidates here.

As might be anticipated, the television titans went ballistic at the specter of losing millions in political advertising revenues and embarked on a 24-7 electronic tirade of personal vindictiveness, assailing individual legislators in both the PRI and the PRD and even suggested that Calderon, in pushing for the trade-off, had betrayed those who had put him in power in the first place, threatening to wash their hands of a president who appeared to be their puppet just a few months ago.

Indeed in an effort to curry favor with the television giants on the eve of the July 2006 vote-taking, Calderon’s PAN had pushed through congress the infamous “Televisa Law” that gave the corporados a 40 year concession on the entire electro-magnetic spectrum – that law was declared unconstitutional by Mexico’s increasingly independent supreme court last spring, infuriating the TV moguls.

Despite the corporate outrage spewing from the tube, Calderon stuck to his guns and both reforms passed both houses of congress with minimal opposition. Because they are constitutional amendments, the measures must be ratified by at least 16 of Mexico’s 31 state legislatures and Televisa and TV Azteca have turned their vitriol on the nation’s governors in an attempt to prevent passage. Although the two-headed television demon is reduced to just a few gambits, it is not yet checkmate.

What happens next? The next round is sure to feature Calderon’s efforts to “reform” Mexican energy policies, specifically opening up electricity generation and petroleum resources to private investment, including transnational oil corporations. Indeed, fiscal and electoral reform are just warm-ups to this high stakes match.

JOHN ROSS is on the mend from eye extraction and will soon be on his way back to Mexico. If you have further information write


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