May 20, 2005

Mexicans Want Democracy, But More

By David Bacon

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans want democracy, but more than that.

Over a million people filled the streets along the historic route of Mexican social protest on May Day - marching from the Angel of Independence to the Zocalo, and then filling the enormous square at the city’s center. This was the largest demonstration in the city’s history, a great peaceful outpouring crying out, not just for formal democracy at the ballot box, but for more. The multitude demanded true choice in the country’s coming national elections, but they wanted more than that too. People took to the streets to demand a basic change in their country’s direction.

Mexico has produced a unique political movement, uniting the population of the world’s largest city, estimated at 21.5 million, with the 9.2 million Mexicans now living north of the border. And this exile population - so large that every person walking to the Zocalo now has at least one relative in the US - also wants change. Two sets of demands, voiced at the same time, posing the same basic questions, are becoming one.

Last month, the country’s President, Vicente Fox, attempted to impeach Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Fox’s attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, accused Lopez of using the city’s power of eminent domain to take land for an access road to a new hospital, in defiance of a court order. The charge was a pretext, a political move to prevent him from running for president in 2006. The attempt backfired when growing public outcry instead forced the attorney general to resign three days before the march of the million.

Lopez Obrador is undoubtedly Mexico’s most popular politician. “He runs a boom government,” explains Alejandro Alvarez, an economics professor at the National Autonomous University, “which promotes public works in the midst of economic paralysis. Despite the corruption scandal that ensnared his aides, he is basically hon-est. He criticizes the voracity of the banking system and Fox’s free trade policies, he has an austere style in a country accustomed to the excesses of imperial presidents, and above all, he shows solidarity with the poor.”

As president, however, Lopez would hardly be a radical on the order of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who on May Day declared socialism his country’s goal. This was also Mexico’s official ideal of the 1930s and 40s, but a socialist direction is not the alternative Lopez Obrador has in mind. 

In the eyes of millions of Mexicans, Lopez Obrador represents a chance to scrap the present economic policies of Fox’s National Action Party. Despite being lauded as the party that broke the 71-year stranglehold of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the PAN strategy of basing economic development on privatization and foreign investment is indistinguishable from the PRI before it.

The government itself estimates that 40 of the country’s 104.5 million people live in poverty, 25 million in extreme poverty. Mexico has become an exporter both of the goods made by low-wage labor in foreign-owned border factories, and of labor itself, as millions of people cross that border looking for work in the north.

The march of a million Mexicans is a clear demonstration that movements protesting those policies are growing. According to Alvarez, “the social movements of the last two years have been, in the countryside, openly against NAFTA, and in the city, against privatization and the dismantling of the welfare state.” This is the upsurge in popular sentiment that Lopez Obrador hopes to ride into office, and the reason why he represents such a problem, not just for Fox, but for the Bush administration as well. Mexico, under the impetus of this movement, will go in the direction of Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, and even Venezuela - rejecting the free trade model, and economic control from Washington.

“What people want is justice,” says Rufino Dominguez, coordinator of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations, a group that organizes indigenous people both in their home communities in Mexico, and as the latest and largest wave of migrants coming to the US. “To us, democracy means more than elections. It means economic stability - our capacity to make a living in Mexico, without having to migrate. It means a halt to the continued violation of human rights in our communities. It means having a government that attends to the needs of the people. We’re tired of governments which put other interests first.”

Integrating Mexico’s exile population into the country’s political process is a fundamental part of its movement for democracy. Those pushed out by these economic forces want the right to participate in deciding whether or not free trade policies, responsible for their forced migration, should be changed.According to Jesus Martinez, a professor at California State University in Fresno, “Mexico has undergone a process of democratic transformation since the 1980s, but it is still incomplete. Mexicans living abroad, who represent 16% of the electorate, still have not been granted the right to vote. That’s part of the inclusion that has to take place.”

Mexico’s exile population is excluded from the political process that governs peoples’ lives in the US as well. Undocumented migrants (estimated at over 4 million people) are excluded from all US social benefit programs.

Although excluded from the US electorate, popular pressure to guarantee migrants the right to vote in Mexican elections has been growing for two decades. Last year, Martinez was elected a deputy to the Michoacan state legislature, representing his state’s residents living abroad. He was a candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the party of Lopez Obrador. “In Michoacan, we’re trying to carry out reforms that can do justice to the role migrants play in our lives,” Martinez says. “We have the most pro-immigrant governor in the state’s history, who has finally treated migrant concerns as a priority.”

On a national level, however, the PAN and PRI have resisted change, while simultaneously claiming interest in the vote of Mexicans living abroad. Fox and the PAN congratulate migrants for sending home remittances to their families, which last year totaled $17 billion. This money now sustains entire communities, easing pressure on the government to find funding for education, healthcare, social services or economic development. Employers in the US likewise find the present system convenient, since they have no obligation to pay the cost of maintaining the communities from which their workers come.

But convenience comes at a price. The Mexico-based political machines which produced the votes which kept the PRI in power for decades, and which now support the PAN as well, have little influence or control over the votes of people living thousands of miles away, in another country entirely. And Mexicans living in the US have little reason to be loyal to a political class that created the conditions forcing them to emigrate.

PRI and PAN control the national congress, and while they voted over a decade ago to permit Mexicans in the US to vote, they only set up a system to implement that decision at the end of April.

It is a very limited implementation. Voters will require a credential that can only be obtained in their home communities, and will only be able to vote by mail in 2006.  Some observers believe that of the 9.2 million Mexicans living in the US, fewer than half a million will actually cast ballots.

“It is limited,” concedes Dominguez, “but it is the fruit of many years of fighting by organizations here in the US. It’s not all we wanted, but it’s a beginning.  And most important, now that they’ve passed the law and started to create a process, there’s no going back.”

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