November 10, 2006

In Oaxaca Crisis, Mexico City Explosions are a Dangerous Escalation

By Louis E. V. Nevaer
New America Media

New York City – The explosions that rocked Mexico City luckily didn’t hurt anyone, but they raised the stakes in the campaign to remove Oaxaca state Governor Ulises Ruiz.

Radical students, who have clashed with police on the university campus in Oaxaca City, vowed not to relent their campaign against their governor until he resigns. Ruiz for his part has vowed to remain in office – despite calls from President Vicente Fox, a non-binding resolution from the Mexican Congress, and his own party leaders – not to remain in office.

The standoff resulted in federal forces occupying Oaxaca City last Sunday. Ruiz’s provocateurs incited violence that left three people dead, including an American activist who was documenting the standoff. For Fox, that violence and the explosions yesterday bring Oaxaca’s troubles to his doorstep, during the final three weeks of his six-year term.

Mexicans have historically cringed from political violence. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 resulted in a bloodbath, and the political system that emerged in the decade afterwards centered on the consolidation of power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which would rule uninterrupted for seven decades. “El que se enoja, pierde,” meaning, “He who loses his temper, loses,” was the maxim under the PRI. More a political machine than an ideological party, the PRI was flexible enough to provide room for conservative businessmen and communist ideologues alike. “During most of the twentieth century Mexicans sought to resolve their conflicts internally, going to many extremes to avoid any semblance of violence,” said Robert Brenner, a European diplomat who’s worked in Chiapas and is knowledgeable about Mexico. “Mexicans managed to accommodate conflicts and change in a remarkably peaceful environment.”

The paradox of democracy is that it’s impossible to dictate things. Although Fox, the Mexican Congress and PRI party officials wish Ulises Ruiz would just resign and leave the scene, no one can order him to do so.

“If only this man would take the next plane to Paris and stay there in permanent exile,” said Raquel Romero, director of human rights organization Mesoamerica Foundation. This is a reference to Porfirio Diaz, the Victorian dictator who was deposed at the beginning of the 20th century and lived out the last of his days in luxurious solitude in France.

For Mexicans, especially for Oaxaca’s civilian and student activists – that Fox cannot simply order Ruiz to resign is especially frustrating. His predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, was able to order recalcitrant governors – collectively known as the “dinosaurs,” since they were seen as creatures from Mexico’s pre-democratic past – to resign one after the other. In 1995 when Victor Cervera came to office, through electoral fraud, enough power (and outrage) had been diffused sufficiently throughout Yucatecan society that by 2001, for the first time in modern history, the PAN’s Patricio Patron was elected. A charismatic young man, who established his credentials as mayor of Merida, the state’s capital city with more than a million residents, he embarked on a modernization program that includes posting the state’s finances on the internet, for anyone to scrutinize, catapulting Yucatan State from the 19th century to the 21st, in 36 months.

Other southern states have not fared as well, despite Zedillo’s heavy-handed methods. Despite two “interim” governors in Tabasco State – Jose Maria Peralta (1987-1988) and Manuel Gurria (1992-1994) – the PRI’s hold on this oil-rich state continues unchallenged, to the detriment of the Tabascan people. In neighboring Chiapas, democracy has had a tougher time still: President Zedillo went through four “interim” governors in six years before he quieted the unrest. It took the election of Pablo Salazar, of the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, in 2000 before the Maya people began to feel confidence that state government would address their needs.

The standoff between the people of Oaxaca and their governor Ulises Ruiz will escalate in ways detrimental to the PRI. By refusing to step aside, Ruiz has broken the cardinal rule of Mexican political culture: The interests of the individual never stand in the way of social peace. This is the equivalent to Al Gore not ceding to Bush or Richard Nixon refusing to leave office. Radical students who claim responsibility for the bombings in Mexico City and the grenade attack in the Pacific resort of Ixtapa – hours before Mexico’s president-elect Felipe Calderon’s arrival – have forced Fox’s hand. The direct affront in the nation’s capital – and where Mexico’s president-elect was traveling – means that federal authorities will be unable to let Ruiz remain as governor of Oaxaca.

“The stakes have been raised in an unprecedented way,” Brenner, the U.N. diplomat said. “Ruiz is now persona non grata in the Mexican political system.”

Radical students have placed the PRI’s credibility on the line: One way or another they must find a way for Ruiz to agree to resign, preferably by boarding the next flight to Paris.

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