A year has passed since the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to political power under the leadership of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The PRI’s electoral campaign was adorned with sensational promises that life for the majority of Mexicans was about to improve. A year later, however, it is clear that those assurances and promises were as hollow as those of Peña Nieto’s neoliberal predecessors in the National Action Party (PAN).
In his first year, Peña Nieto has overseen an array of unpopular neoliberal reforms in the education system, in the banking sector, and in telecommunications. Furthermore, his proposed energy reform will open up the state-owned oil company, Pemex, to foreign investment for the first time since nationalization in 1938.
The new government is currently expanding the pattern of neoliberal reform that was so readily adopted by its PAN predecessors. The PAN, following an electoral victory in 2000, intensified and deepened the free-market reforms initiated by the PRI in the 1980s and 1990s. The process, underway since 1982, is now taking a radical turn that threatens to impoverish many more Mexicans for decades to come.
That is, unless the extensive selling off of public assets to domestic and international private investors meets with widespread political resistance and activism from civil society. While the current context is radically different from that of 100 years ago, there are nonetheless some parallels with the period just before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution—the largest and probably most significant social upheaval (alongside Cuba in 1959) in twentieth-century Latin America.
More recently, many of the revolutionary upsurges throughout the globe—in the Ukraine, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia—were in response to political and economic inequalities, corruption, lack of democratic accountability, and the slavish adherence of the major political parties to the precepts of the free market. These movements have been characterized by cross-class activism and the recognition that many diverse and distinct social groupings share a common interest in overthrowing the elites in power and reorganizing the socio-economic and political hierarchy.
The disempowerment of the middle classes, along with the alienation and marginalization of Mexico’s rural and urban blue collar and informal sector workers, could similarly lead to a volatile context in which political grievances are expressed not through the ordinary electoral channels favored by elites, but in the streets, the barrios, and in the countryside. The neoliberal project in Mexico, as elsewhere, has achieved a totalizing dominance over almost every aspect of everyday subsistence, work, and even leisure time. And yet the apparent power of the current order also makes it increasingly vulnerable to popular activism, dissent, and political mobilization.
For example, this year saw teachers striking for several months and occupying Mexico City’s central zócalo in protest of the reform and partial privatization of the education system—a development that terrified the PRI leadership, whose response was as disproportionate as it was heavy-handed. Predictably, the government chose coercion and force instead of dialogue and negotiation.
In Guerrero, a number of activists have grouped together to form an armed guerrilla movement for what they claim is self-defense against government forces. “The war on the population has intensified,” the group noted in a public statement. “[T]hey massacre those they consider enemies of the government...when all we ask for...is to live in a country with the right to lead a dignified life.” The group the Armed Revolution Forces—Liberation of the People (FAR-LP) similarly cited state-backed violence, forced disappearance, torture, and murder of political activists as prime motivations for embarking on a campaign of armed struggle.
Similarly, the growth of armed vigilante auto-defensa groups throughout areas most affected by criminal violence is a response to the climate of impunity exploited by criminal gangs and the fact that drug cartels and the police are often one and the same. The rise of such groups is a dynamic that undermines the authority and legitimacy of the federal government and its purported strategy in fighting organized crime.
Social activists and international and Mexican human rights organizations have also voiced anger and frustration at the increment in all manner of violent crime since the new president took office. The sexenio of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, provoked what is probably the most brutal and violent period since the Mexican Revolution, a conflict that left over a million Mexicans dead. In the past year, the level of violent crime has increased, a fact that further betrays the glossy PR rhetoric that characterized Peña Nieto’s electoral campaign. If the current carnage continues, it is quite possible that Mexico will witness as many or more violent deaths than during the civil conflict of a century ago.
Peña Nieto’s continued dismantling of the post-revolutionary state’s national companies and social programs and imposition of austerity measures on the public sector in favor of increasing rights for and concessions to international business elites has led to stunted economic growth. Even the country’s Business Coordinating Council (CCE)—a group that champions the free-market—came to a rather gloomy conclusion about Peña Nieto’s first year. And COPARMEX, the national confederation of employers that advocates on behalf of big business and entrepreneurs, pointed to the lack of public spending as a principal reason for Mexico’s recent anemic economic performance.
Widespread corruption and the deteriorating security situation have aroused disquiet from business leaders that foreign corporations will invest elsewhere. This turnaround is a striking development, given that Peña Nieto was the presidential candidate most favored by big business.
Prior to Calderón’s militarized strategy—which he claimed was fighting organized crime—popular support for the army’s prestige was relatively high. In the wake of at least 100,000 deaths and a further 26,000 disappearances in the last few years, the army’s legitimacy has waned considerably. Indeed, the growth of peace movements like that led by poet and social activist Javier Sicilia is evidence of the breakdown of trust in the country’s major institutions. The notion that the army and the authorities are perpetrating human rights abuses on a huge and systematic scale might have seemed radical a decade ago. Now, however, it is a view that is increasingly aired in mainstream debate.
The first anniversary of the return of the PRI saw thousands of protestors marching through Mexico City’s centro historico, articulating ongoing frustrations with the consolidation of thirty years of neoliberal policies. The privatization of Pemex is at the forefront of these concerns. Mexico is the world’s tenth-largest producer of crude oil, but it is quite possible that its massive reserves, if opened up to private exploitation, could see it producing much more—a fact not lost on American leaders and planners intent on making the United States less dependent on Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil.
Marchers threw rocks at the windows of the building of Mexico’s largest and most influential broadcaster, Televisa, identifying its role as an uncritical supporter of Peña Nieto and the PRI. And the role of Televisa and other mainstream media as propaganda organs of government was similarly central to the beginning of a new movement of student activism, Yo Soy 132, which came to prominence in 2012 and which severely undermined the credibility of Peña Nieto’s electoral campaign.
The returning PRI, in its continuation of business as usual, has succeeded in alienating further swaths of the population from its drastic neoliberal agenda. Slightly over 100 years ago, the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz achieved similar ends, incurring the ire of landless peasants in Morelos and Chihuahua, miners in Cananea and Puebla, manufacturing workers in Mexico City, middle class professionals in Mexico City, and industrialists and business leaders in Monterrey. The Porfiriato was wedded to a model of industrial development based on an export economy, expansion of markets, and capitalist modernization. It provoked gaping inequalities in distribution of arable land and saw foreign investors owning 60 per cent of the economy while wages for the average Mexican worker plummeted. Attacks on the press were frequent, and labor organizing and dissent were criminalized and violently repressed.
The extremes of Porfirio Díaz and his vision of economic “stability” and “progress” ultimately led to the outbreak of revolution in 1910-11, a civil conflict that spanned the best part of the following two decades. In the wake of the revolution, the party that consolidated power as the PRI made momentous concessions in order to offset the possibility of further rebellion. Thus the land reform and guarantees of labor rights in the 1917 Constitution and the subsequent nationalization of the oil industry were protected until the onset of neoliberal reforms imposed by a new leadership of party technocrats in 1980s and 1990s.
Now, the ongoing demolition of once-constitutionally protected rights and guarantees under the present return of the PRI is a clear indication that the Peña Nieto leadership differs little from its more recent predecessors. It is quite possible that the potentially explosive context that the PRI continues to exacerbate and refuses to address will culminate in an organized political rebellion of the sort presently witnessed elsewhere throughout the globe and the kind that shook Mexico a century ago.
Peter Watt teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the book, Drug War Mexico: Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books 2012).