January 30, 2009

Lopez Obrador Pushes On

By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur

Capping off a January swing through northern and western Mexico, opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador drew tens of thousands of followers to a January 25 rally in Mexico City’s Zocalo square. The purpose of the ex-presidential candidate’s latest rally was to launch a new movement aimed at defending popular economic interests in a time of deepening crisis.

“Today, there is suffering because of unemployment, high prices, poverty, insecurity and violence, but above all, there is an uncertainty that is beginning to manifest itself as anxiety and frustration,” Lopez Obrador said in a speech. “All of this exists in an environment of instability, indolence, incapacity, and cynicism on the part of the authorities.”

The Mexico City demonstration followed a tour that took Lopez Obrador, or “El Peje” as he is frequently called, to numerous stops in the states of Chihuahua and Jalisco, where the former Mexico City mayor spoke about migration, economic troubles, violence and insecurity, youth problems, and the US-Mexico relationship in the era of new US President Barack Obama.

At a January 23 rally attended by several hundred people in El Pitillal, Jalisco, a working-class suburb of Puerto Vallarta, Lopez Obrador told supporters he sent President Obama a letter a few days ago that warned against cutting off the movement of people from Mexico to the US, a migration flow the charismatic political figure said was largely responsible for preventing a social explosion south of the border.

“I told (President Obama) in this letter that the migration phenomenon is not going to be solved by building walls and militarizing the border,” Lopez Obrador said. “The solution has to be cooperation between the two countries, especially aimed at the economic development of Mexico.”

The El Pitillal speech was preceded by a stirring message delivered by a teen supporter, Estephanie Villasenor. Largely turned off by politics, young people require real commitments and actions from politicians like Lopez Obrador, Villaseñor contended.

“Most people, especially young people, have forgotten the real meaning of politics, Villaseñor said. “We have to make politics a human activity that is set up to govern or lead the action of the State in benefit of society…it seems the current political leaders have forgotten about this.”

Politics, Villaseñor said, should be among the “most noble” of human activities.

Visibly moved by Villaseñor’s words, Lopez Obrador said Mexicans should not give up on political change. Many youths are tempted into the criminal lifestyle, he added, by economic desperation, by the absence of educational opportunities and by the consumerism promoted by mass media.

“Things have come to the point in our country that some young people, who aren’t stupid and know what they are doing, have proclaimed that they might live one, two or three years, but it does not matter because they do not want to continue living in the same hell, the same misery, the same abandonment,” the opposition leader said. “This forces us to reflect on the necessity of renovating public life in Mexico for all, and especially for the young people.”

Although Lopez Obrador’s most recent events have been attended by far fewer people than during the 2006 presidential campaign and post-election protests, the politician retains a core following. At political events, supporters are encouraged to sign up for a credential that makes them representatives of the “Legitimate Government of Mexico.” Lopez Obrador’s supporters contend their man was cheated out of victory in the controversial July 2006 election, which current President Calderon officially won by just over slightly 200,000 votes.

Claiming about two million people have signed up with the “Legitimate Government,” Lopez Obrador commands what is perhaps the largest, cohesive group in Mexico outside the Roman Catholic Church. Followers call Lopez Obrador “The President,” and treat him accordingly. At the El Pitillal meeting, for instance, a group of embattled landowners from Mismaloya, the set of the famed Hollywood classic “Night of the Iguana,” successfully petitioned Lopez Obrador for his backing.

According to members of the Mismaloya ejido, scores of families face pending eviction because of a land ownership dispute with a wealthy outsider stemming from dirty business dealings.

Even though he is not presently running for office (Lopez Obrador recently turned down a proposal that he run for Congress in this year’s elections.), the man from Tabasco has consolidated a movement that has emerged as a key counter-force to the political establishment. Last year, the movement succeeded in delaying the passage of bill that proposed further prying open Mexico’s national oil industry to foreign investment.

Social programs popularized by Lopez Obrador and other Mexico City mayors from his left-leaning PRD political party like monthly pensions for the elderly were later partially adopted by rival administrations headed by former President Vicente Fox’s conservative PAN party. Unveiled earlier this month, President Calderon’s anti-economic crisis program contains some actions long advocated by Lopez Obrador such as a public works program.

But Lopez Obrador keeps upping the ante in the political game. His movement has rolled out its own anti-crisis package that proposes increasing spending on social programs, cutting electricity and energy rates and implementing emergency assistance programs for migrants displaced from the United States, among other measures. To pay for an economic rescue estimated to cost more than $25 billion, Lopez Obrador proposes slashing high government salaries, eliminating official perks and tapping into excess government funds.

“We’re going to insist that all the social programs be expanded throughout the country,” Lopez Obrador said in his El Pitillal speech.

Lopez Obrador’s supporters plan street demonstrations and other activities in the coming weeks. In many ways, Lopez Obrador’s movement complements separate mobilizations planned by farmers’ and other social movements, including the possible blockade of international bridges on the Mexico-US border at the end of this month to protest Mexico’s ongoing agricultural crisis and food dependency.

Many are skeptical that Lopez Obrador can deliver on his movement’s goal of transforming Mexico.

“El Peje did not say anything new,” wrote columnist Jaime Castillo Copado of Puerto Vallarta’s Tribuna de la Bahia newspaper. “There is no doubt that basic products have gone up, but I don’t see how the Tabascan will be able to help basic products come down from the inflationary cloud that affects all of us.”

According to Castillo, Lopez Obrador’s movement is long on rhetoric and short on real solutions:

“That’s how it is as long as people keep compensating for their laziness to read and inform themselves of what’s going on in the country with cheers and applauses for a charismatic interlocutor whose trips cost dearly the Congressional representatives of his party.”

Others, however, are standing by Lopez Obrador and his movement as the answer to the myriad problems confronting Mexico. “He wants a change for the country,” said a woman at the El Pitillal rally who identified herself as Ana Bertha. “The change that agriculture needs, that education needs, and that the sciences need”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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