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Preying on Mexican Populism

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“The violence is not a new thing,” says Jose-Pablo Buerba about Mexico’s civil unrest and protest in recent weeks. An international political economist from Mexico City, Buerba works with heads of state around the world on matters economic. He is a native of Mexico City, where he has lived and worked these last few months.

Before his December 2014 departure from the Distrito Federal (Mexico City), Buerba had asked not to have his identity revealed in an interview he had granted me within twenty-four hours of protestors setting fire to Mexico’s National Palace door. “Please don’t,” he had requested, adding that he would “rather not get killed-off.” Now, Buerba agrees to weigh in for a follow-up interview, and to go on record about key issues that international and Mexican presses have either failed to report, or outright ignored. Specifically, Buerba’s insights nuance current depictions of the polemics surrounding Mexico’s Missing 43. Despite the fact that Buerba’s opinion elucidates the dodgier elements that continue to shape unfolding coverage, it is an opinion that remains virtually absent from the overall story.

Indeed, the violence associated with Mexican politics does not seem new. Buerba broaches the obvious, namely that the frequent sequester of and killing of people in Mexico has appeared in news almost conventionally—and for quite some time. Per the foreign perception of Mexico, violence has become a sensationalizing hallmark that the media uses to mystify the nation. Thanks to mass media, international onlookers are conditioned to “accept” Mexico as despotic and violent. But this recent “news story” happens to be cloaked in a layer cake of political prestidigitation that strongly suggests local and international coverage have been all but earnest. Specifically, the violence reported seems more than a self-sustaining newspiece; it is a red herring that helps distract and take away from other issues surrounding the Missing 43.

There was a story last year, in 2013, about a handful of young Mexicans who went to a club, were kidnapped, subjected to a ransoming, and eventually killed. Yet, when compared with the ugly fate of the 43 students that transpired only recently, relatively little came of the club-goers or their story. Buerba invokes the disparity in the coverage of these two current events didactically. Juxtaposing the two events, and the press they each received, evinces the overall media bias apropos the violence in Mexico, which it either elects to cover or not. In fact, the reason as to why the Missing 43 (and the polemics surrounding their disappearance and murder) garners maximum attention nowadays has less to do with the heinous act itself, than with those who control the media in Mexico and the US. This is not to say, however, that such a “story” does not warrant full attention. It does!

“So, why now the 43 students; why did it even make international news?” asks Buerba, rhetorically. “The real reason why it gets media attention is not because of the act itself,” says Buerba, “but because…the people controlling the media [in Mexico] are inflating the stories for their own purposes.” He cites the employment of media by powerful elites to manipulate popular sentiment and political fervor, especially through the dissemination of information/disinformation through television. “Essentially,” says Buerba, “the most important powers in Mexico are the Bible, and Televisa,” a mass media corporation. A lack of education, coupled with a “religious attachment” to television, exacerbates the problem, and it presents an inroad into the public conscience that is easily accessible to powerful Mexican media magnates.

Buerba states it is peculiar that “43 students would rise-up randomly,” and congregate somewhere for their own political reasons. Then he summons Esther Gordillo, the leader of the largest labor union in Latin America since 1989 (the 1.4-million member Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or SNTE). “Peña Nieto, when he came to power,” says Buerba, “put her behind bars because she allegedly embezzling hundreds of millions of the union’s dollars.” Gordillo has been one of the most powerful people in Mexico for the last few decades, and Buerba suggested that Peña Nieto’s actions apropos Gordillo were a political attempt to solidify his status as a “doer.” In fact, jailing Gordillo was one of the first political actions to take place within Peña Nieto’s presidency.

Peña Nieto also helped pass a contentious educational reform, along with many others. While some believe the passage of this reform would raise the standards of education within Mexico, others reacted vehemently; the new reform implies alterations to professional titles, demoting students’ and teachers’ socially, lowering their market value in the Mexican workforce. The popular reaction to the reforms indicates it was definitely perceived as a move to disempower teachers and their union. Logically, the less economic power the workers (teachers, etc.) wield, the less powerful and less threatening the SNTE is relevant to the power of the Mexican government.

Wielding influence from behind bars, Gordillo yet incited political action in her union. “She is controlling the teachers,” says Buerba, “and the teachers are protesting a lot.” Another common suspicion is that Gordillo’s union organized the would-be 43 protesters that gathered in Iguala, in the State of Guerrero, in order to protest the speech of the Mayor’s wife—who allegedly had them killed. “So, another problem with the situation in Iguala, with the 43 students who were going to be teachers, and who were supposedly going to protest,” says Buerba, “is that the populists believe the PRI—the party that doesn’t care about the people—is responsible; however, the Governor of Iguala is from the PRD, the populist party, and so people who are upset don’t see that members of their party is killing them.”

Far from absolving the president of any ties to Mexico’s current strife, Buerba cites Peña Nieto’s policy an undisputable yet ignored piece of the puzzle: “What people don’t understand about Peña Nieto is that he has been able to pass eleven structural reforms unlike presidents before him.” In this light, some argue that Peña Nieto has truly endeavored to better Mexico, and that he follows through with his policies. Of course, this is a contentious claim in Mexico and elsewhere. “Now,” says Buerba, “people don’t see this because all they see is the 43 students, and they hate [Peña Nieto].” Moreover, the problem is not just one of violent, state-sponsored oppression; it is one of antagonistic economic struggle.

Peña Nieto’s reforms have affected Mexico in many ways. Yet, not all forms have received an equal response from the public. “Most businesses are seeing the fiscal reforms as a bad thing,” says Buerba, adding, “they only see the micro-economics.” Small businesses in Mexico have to pay more taxes now, “but what they don’t realize,” says Buerba, “is the upside of the macroeconomics at work: paying higher taxes might eventually make the whole country better.” The energy reforms are a much more concrete example that justify the logic behind Peña Nieto’s policy. Buerba asserts that, “The energy reform is set to make PEMEX—Mexico’s state-run petroleum company—a more productive firm; without the energy reforms, PEMEX will not have the resources necessary to exploit all the resources that Mexico has.” Thus, collecting new taxes seems an attempt to cover what PEMEX is losing, including salaries, and to allow it the space to become as competitive as possible for the supposed benefit of the people. But when the public at large sees taxes go up “30 to 40 percent,” they also perceive the looming specter of a corrupt government trying to rob them even more.

“The most important part of all this is the telecommunications reform,” says Buerba. He signals Carlos Slim’s monopoly on market share, represented by tens of millions of Mexico’s telecommunications customers. “He can charge whatever he wants,” says Buerba, “and Televisa is similar.” To liberalize the sector, Buerba claims that Peña Nieto’s reforms were anti-monopolistic in theory, favoring a much more competitive market of multiple companies vying for customers and adjusting prices in accord with competition. But what these already powerful firms see is that Peña Nieto and his reforms constitute a direct threat to their business profitability.

Buerba suggests a crucial aspect of the current state of unrest and strife in Mexico pertains specifically to the fact that violence has mutated into such a scandalizing focal point for news reporting national affairs. A port of entry into the backstory of the Missing 43, questioning the emphasis on violence and civil unrest yet encompasses the need to question why international media—especially that of the United States—has taken it up so readily and vociferously. There has been a widespread exposition of photos and videos of Mexicans decapitating and burning effigies of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Due to a conflict of business interest, and the direct intervention of the Mexican government in the private sector and its telecommunications monopolies, Buerba surmise, “The media is behind all of this, and it shows who has real power in Mexico.”

Understanding the media coverage of the violence also requires understanding the powerful figures that lurk behind the propagation of images and video. Certain reports hold that Slim is one of the largest stakeholders for the New York Times, and that he could own roughly a fifth of the New York Times Company come 2015. Buerba asks, “How many articles are published in the New York Times are about Peña Nieto’s incompetence?” He adds, “It’s not a coincidence; they want him to lose popularity at home and abroad, and to oust him, essentially.”

In all, the tragedy of events remains unmuted. Clearly the Mexican public, as well as that of other nations, is upset by wanton violence. Moreover, the gathering of the 43 students/protestors, or of anyone else for that matter, ought not routinely warrant any form of corrupt, political violence or deadly retribution—no matter who is behind it. If organizers and students are commissioned, and subsequently murdered to maintain a power that leeches off the Mexican status quo, then questioning the motives of those behind political demonstrations also becomes imperative. For that matter, the repercussions from policy or reforms that in some way get students and demonstrators killed, are also suspect, and they should be subjected to democratic scrutiny. The same applies to the media’s coverage of violence in Mexico, and the reasons behind the press it receives. If not, then justice remains a chimera, and the struggle between suspect powers is the only thing the media helps to further. Not to explore the reasons why certain stories, images and videos get published, and not others, obfuscates the real news in its absolute complexity, and which seldom gets disseminated in the international press or media.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.  

 

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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