Mexican Flag Wrap

Mexico City.

September is the most patriotic month on the Mexican calendar each year marked by military parades, intense flag-waving, and stirring speeches.  Every public space is swathed in red, green, and white, the national colors, from the National Palace to cantinas and restaurants getting ready for “La Noche Mexicana” (The Mexican Night) September 15th, the eve of Independence Day and the time-honored “Grito” of the country priest Miguel Hidalgo who back in 1810 let fly the cry that launched the nation’s war of liberation from Spain: “Viva Mexico! Let’s Go Kill Some Gachupines!” (“Spur-riders” i.e. the Spanish.)

Other patriotic occasions commemorated in September include the Day of the Heroic Children (“Los Ninos Heroes”) September 13th, honoring a group of young cadets who in 1846 rather than to submit to the Yanqui invaders advancing on the capital wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag and threw themselves from the balustrades of Chapultepec Castle.

Wrapping oneself in the flag is popular camouflage in September.  Presidents, politicos, party hacks, and other assorted scoundrels cloak themselves in the national colors to push their respective agendas.  Even the “putas” (prostitutes) working the streets of the red-light La Merced district wave little Mexican flags to attract patriotic customers.

But aside from the patriotic feeding frenzy, September 2008 seems likely to be a month of definitions in the murky political ambiance that has prevailed here since President Felipe Calderon’s questionable 2006 election.

Last April, Calderon sent a proposal on to congress that would privatize the state-owned oil company PEMEX.  Although the President insists the measure does not include privatization, the proposal openly calls for “the association of private capital” in the state corporation’s exploration, refining, distribution (pipelines), and transportation divisions.

With the connivance of the once-ruling PRI (71 years) whose red, green, and white party colors are the same as the flag, Calderon’s rightist PAN party fast-tracked the initiative but was foiled when leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), from whom Calderon is thought to have purloined the 2006 vote, mobilized his base to block passage.  13,000 women dressed as “Adelitas”, woman soldiers during the 1910-1919 Mexican Revolution, surrounded the Senate of the Republic while inside the precinct, lawmakers from the Broad Progressive Front or FAP seized the tribune for 13 days, paralyzing the legislative process.

71 days of debate followed during which experts, academics, engineers, lawyers, PEMEX officials, business persons, trade unionists and Mexican Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina (chemistry) paraded before the Senate Energy Commission to diss or acclaim the privatization proposal.  A popular referendum (“consulta”), held in August, turned out 2.6 million voters, 98% of them against the president’s plans for the oil giant.

In addition to the Calderon project, the PRI has submitted a proposal that it maintains prohibits the privatization of PEMEX although 28 out of its 49 clauses are identical to the Calderon-PAN document. Also submitted to the Energy Commission: proposed legislation drawn up by 120 “Sabios” or wise men and women, amongst them prominent scientists, intellectuals, writers, and artists, that attacks wholesale corruption within the PEMEX corporate structure  – if such corruption were to be eliminated, the “Sabios” posit, PEMEX would have no need for private capital.

All three initiatives wrap themselves in the Mexican flag.  Petroleum is a patriotic fluid in Mexico, expropriated from Anglo-American owners and nationalized by President Lazaro Cardenas in 1938.  Indeed, Lopez Obrador and his colleagues accuse Calderon of betraying “La Patria” (The Fatherland) by seeking to sell off the nation’s oil industry.

With Congress called back into session September 1st as the Mexican Constitution dictates, the privatization legislation will be the first order of business for both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

Historically, September 1st is an ultra patriotic date when the Houses of Congress are swaddled in the national colors and the President delivers his State of the Union address (“El Informe”) to the nation.

When the PRI commanded congress, September 1st was a day of maximum obeisance to an imperial presidency.  The head of state, always a PRIista, would address the legislators, droning on for hours to tout his administration’s puffed-up accomplishments.  Afterwards, the political class, foreign ambassadors, Bishops of the Catholic Church, and other invited dignitaries would queue up for the obligatory “besamanos” (“kissing of hands”.)

But these séances also exposed the President to the catcalls of the opposition, derogatory banners, walkouts, and worse – turncoat leftist Ruth Zavaleta, ex-president of the Chamber of Deputies, claimed last week that Lopez Obrador’s deputies had once smuggled a case of Molotov cocktails into Congress.

This September 1st, this ostentatious ceremony was finally laid to rest.  The “Informe” itself was delivered to Congress unread in a plain green box and Calderon had to buy commercial spots on the nation’s two-headed TV monopoly to broadcast his State of the Union address to the citizenry.

The privatization of the national petroleum industry is certainly not the only item that separates the right from the left as Mexico nears the bi-centennial of its Independence in 2010, a mega-patriotic event.

Mexico City’s abortion on demand law (in the first trimester of pregnancy) has been a bitter bone of contention between the capital’s left-leaning government and the Roman Catholic Church and its historical allies in Calderon’s PAN party.  Last January, Calderon’s attorney general and the ombudsman of the National Human Rights Commission filed an appeal with Mexico’s Supreme Court to have the abortion legislation declared unconstitutional. According to Bernardo Barranco, a dissident Catholic journalist and radio commentator, the nation’s most powerful prelate Cardinal Norberto Rivera has been personally lobbying the justices to revoke the abortion law under pain of possible excommunication.

On successive days this August, 12,000 photographs of women who support abortion on demand were displayed upon the floor of the Zocalo, the great plaza at the heart of Mexico’s political body, to represent the 12,000 women who have availed themselves of the procedure since it was introduced in 2007.  The photographs were followed by 12,000 crosses placed there by abortion foes, and finally, by huge black mourning bows (“monos”) when on August 28th, the Supreme Court voted eight to three to uphold the constitutionality of Mexico City’s abortion on demand law.

Cardinal Rivera became so agitated at the Court’s decision to legalize abortion that he ordered all church bells in Mexico City to be rung for an hour in protest – the tolling of church bells is a traditional form of protest for the Church when it feels aggrieved by civil authorities.

The right-to-lifers and Calderon’s right-wing PAN struck back on August 30th when they staged a huge “white” march through Mexico City to protest left-wing mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s porous performance in safeguarding the city’s rich following the kidnap-murder of the young scion of a sporting goods fortune.  Tens of thousands  (80,000 police estimated, 400,000 organizers insisted) tramped through the city, holding lighted candles “to illuminate Mexico” and flying white balloons advocating the death penalty (Mexico has no death penalty.)  The rightists paused in front of City Hall to “invite” Ebrard to resign.  The “white” march was a repeat of a much larger protest orchestrated by the PAN and the Church in 2004 against the then-wildly popular mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The morning after the right-wing white march, leftist Obrador summoned tens of thousands of his supporters to the Monument of the Revolution to discuss plans to block Calderon’s privatization scheme when it comes up for a vote in congress.  In keeping with the season, the humongous Monument, home to the tombs of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, was draped in what appeared to be a kilometer of red, green, and white patriotic colors.

Although reluctant to give out logistical details, AMLO presented 66 brigades numbering several hundred activists each that are prepared to commit civil disobedience if the PAN and the PRI try to ramrod privatization of PEMEX through Congress – nationally, Lopez Obrador informed the huge crowd, 200,000 brigadistas are signed up to block highways and shut down cities to defend Mexico’s “petroleo.”

Characterizing the white march as a feint to distract attention from the coming showdown over the nation’s oil, AMLO convoked his supporters to assemble in the Zocalo September 15th to emit Padre Hidalgo’s Grito of Independence, the same night Calderon is expected to offer his Grito from the presidential balcony of the National Palace in the same plaza.

Sweating a crumbling economy (even Haiti’s economy is expected to outgrow Mexico’s this year), massive dissatisfaction with his administration (50,000 workers and farmers marched in Mexico City September 1st), and an ugly political climate, last Sunday (September 6th), Calderon opted to get away from it all and took a long bike ride around the grounds of Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, out in Chapultepec Park.  Perhaps distracted by his troubles, the dubiously elected president hit a bump and went flying head over handlebars, fracturing his shoulder and contusing his knee.

The mishap has incited much mirth around the counter at the Café La Blanca, a landmark in the old quarter of the capital.  “The least we can do is take up a collection to buy the President some training wheels,” chuckles greeter Daniel Torres, “it’s our patriotic duty…”

JOHN ROSS is wrestling with “The Left Hand of El Monstruo – A Left History of Mexico City From the Pleistocene to Next New Year’s Eve” (new working title.) Check out or write if you have further information.

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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