Flashback: An Interview With Carlos Monsiváis

NACLA remembers the life of Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis, who died June 19. This interview with Monsiváis, titled "We Are Living in a Time of Pillage," was originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Marcial Godoy-Anativia

This interview, titled "We Are Living in a Time of Pillage: A 40th Anniversary Conversation With Carlos Monsiváis," originally appeared in the January/February 2007 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Two thousand and six has been a turbulent year for Mexico. There have been widespread social mobilizations, fierce acts of state repression in various parts of the country, growing and increasingly visible corruption on the part of politicians and big business, and an electoral and post-electoral process perhaps unlike any other in the country's history. But let me begin with the question of Oaxaca, where a nonviolent civic resistance movement is waging a highly asymmetrical battle against the state government controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the federal government and its Preventive Federal Police (PFP) and groups of armed civilians linked to the local PRI. What is your reading of the situation in Oaxaca?

I will attempt to give you one, although the complexity of this situation resists any conclusive synthesis. In May 2006, salary negotiations between the government of the state of Oaxaca and the state's primary school teachers were set to begin. On this occasion, however, Governor Ulises Ruiz refused to meet with the teachers because they were occupying the historic downtown district of Oaxaca City. On June 14, the police forcibly removed the teachers from the central square, but two hours later they re-occupied it and erected barricades around it.

As an immediate response to the police violence, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) was created as a broad coalition of teachers, NGO activists, housewives, priests and ministers, members of small ultra-left groups, professionals, workers, and community organizers from throughout the state. Their principal adversary at this point was Governor Ruiz, a not-so-savvy PRI operator accused of corruption and fraud during the election that brought him to power.

Are you saying that this movement emerged spontaneously?

In a region so rich in traditions, spontaneity is the logical response of those who simply cannot tolerate more injustice and inequality. Oaxaca and Chiapas are the two poorest states of the Republic, ravaged by catastrophic health, education, housing and employment problems. The PRI has made no attempt to resolve these problems, but instead only postpones real solutions or denies their existence. On this occasion, however, it was confronted by a very cohesive and courageous movement that simply refused to accept this state of things.

On October 28, local police and paramilitary groups attacked the people at the barricades, and chased down and beat APPO supporters in various city neighborhoods. The attack left six dead, including a reporter from the United States, all assassinated in cold blood by government forces.

On the following day, Vicente Fox, who is probably the worst president in Mexican history (and that is truly an accomplishment given his competition), and Secretary of the Interior Carlos Abascal, a rabid Catholic fundamentalist, sent federal police forces to Oaxaca to remove the APPO from the city center and the campus of the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca. APPO supporters resisted the attack, and the federal police pulled back. The confrontations resulted in the death of several APPO supporters, over 100 arrests, and left a number of police vehicles destroyed by Molotov cocktails and rocks. The APPO encampment was removed from the city center, but the movement endured, with some APPO leaders taking refuge in the Oaxaca cathedral.

As we go to press, there seems to be no resolution in sight for the Oaxaca conflict. How would you synthesize events up to now?

Here is my hypothesis. Inequality, which is the most significant and defining characteristic of life in Mexico, is no longer tolerable to those who suffer under its consequences.

Hopelessness and desperation are a part of daily life in Oaxaca. Violence in towns and villages is relentless and the criminal insolence of businessmen, the PRI government and the Fox Administration is beyond any measure and more than justifies the rage it has engendered. What we see on the ground is an unarmed and bold popular insurgency that is expressing its generalized rejection of the current situation and of the neoliberal policies that have brought it to a head. In Oaxaca, neoliberalism is anything but an abstraction. It is the economic system that forces massive migration to the United States, that provokes massive dropout rates at the primary school level, and that has led to a decline in life expectancy. Savage capitalism and neoliberalism have forced far too many to live in ignorance and under conditions unfit for human beings, buttressing the abuses and crimes of machismo along the way. The poverty in Oaxaca is a terminal situation.

Yet my sense is that similar scenarios of abandonment, misery and impunity are playing themselves out throughout the country. Do you see the possibility of a concerted, nationwide social uprising in Mexico?

I find it impossible to make those kinds of predictions without sacrificing both sincerity and sensibility. In Mexico, prophets are either unemployed or on the private payrolls of CEOs in the capital. I will share with you, however, some things of which I am certain: First, the left will never become involved in a project of armed struggle. The APPO has not done so in Oaxaca, and the movement led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador will never do so either.

Second, guerrilla groups, which do exist in Mexico, are not linked to social movements and, fortunately, their convening power is minimal. Unfortunately, however, they are expressions of profoundly troubling social realities.

Third, protest is the order of the day everywhere, and it is coming from very diverse groups and constituencies—environmentalists, feminists, workers, peasants, residents of poor urban neighborhoods, gays and lesbians, people living with HIV/AIDS, the unemployed, motorcyclists who feel targeted by the police on highways and rank-and-file police officers themselves. Never have we seen this level of collective and individual will and this level of empowerment from groups and individuals who were previously apathetic or intimidated.

Finally, the Oaxaca conflict will leave in its wake a nonviolent popular insurgency that will continue, and that will become one of the basic mechanisms for the incorporation of the popular classes into the nation.

In the aftermath of the July elections, a nationwide civic resistance movement emerged. Its activities included a six-week-long encampment on Paseo de la Reforma, the occupation of the Zócalo, simultaneous actions at Wal-Marts across the country to protest the involvement of its principal shareholders in the electoral process, symbolic sit-ins in banks, etc. The resistance mobilized over a million people on three separate occasions in demonstrations that brought the center of the city to a halt. What kinds of developments do these levels of mobilization conjure for the short and medium term?

Again, I will resist engaging in prophecy, mostly because I may end up being right. But there are some things that can be said.

For one thing, resignation in the face of large-scale electoral fraud and its "modern" variants like the 2006 election has vanished. Moral indignation is unrelenting, as are the marches and the ongoing mobilization. The ethical commitment that accompanied the vote persists. One result of the two months of intense mobilization is that the right to information and the right to wage a legitimate political struggle have been redefined as normal, everyday rights. The campaigns waged by the right and big business have failed to send citizens back to their houses or shacks. The "privatization" of public life has ended, at least at the macro scale.

Another factor is that critical capacity is on the rise, even if it is only the left that follows the process in all its details. From its self-anointed position of Truth, the right does not bother to read, but rather prefers to bathe in controlled doses of the highly restricted information coming through radio and television.

The strength of the protests is such that only a few days ago, the highest authority of the Catholic Church in Mexico, Cardinal Norberto Rivera—a right-wing politician—requested police protection from the activists who have interrupted his masses to protest his involvement in politics, threatening to suspend this most holy sacrament if repressive action is not taken.

And what has happened with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and its leader, Marcos?

From my perspective, it has been a very sad process. In 1994, the EZLN and Marcos initiated a radical shift in the national vision of the indigenous—complete with texts, attitudes, proclamations and mobilizations. They reached their climax when a million citizens awaited their arrival in Mexico City and Comandante Esther delivered her speech before the National Congress. Soon afterward, the Senate approved an indigenous law that was far removed from EZLN demands and that conceded virtually nothing to indigenous groups. Marcos and the EZLN went into isolation, and little was heard from them for a very long time. Then, towards the end of 2005, they reappeared, and Marcos began to denounce López Obrador, without any significant results, and then inaugurated the Other Campaign, with which he has traveled throughout the country. Testimonial assemblies were organized across Mexico, and the majority of those that participated proclaimed their intention to vote for López Obrador in the presidential elections. Marcos became enraged, began making puerile declarations, promised the fall of the regime and relentlessly lambasted López Obrador. At a basic level, the Other Campaign is testimonial in nature, and the texts it produces are bad and highly sectarian.

What, in your opinion, are the more worrisome characteristics of the crisis affecting Mexican political institutions? Do you think that a Constituent Assembly and a new Constitution—the re-founding of the Republic that some movements are calling for—are necessary to give democratic and in-depth solutions to the problems facing the country?

No political sector in this struggle has the sufficient strength to achieve a Constituent Assembly, or to rewrite our defective electoral laws, or to stop large-scale fraud. We are living in a time of pillage, of unpunished crimes that intensify the crisis and make the possibility of "re-founding the Republic" ever more distant. The strong mobilizations that continue around López Obrador, and the significantly weaker ones around the EZLN, are simply unable to stop the advance of a number of very nefarious processes that in the best of circumstances may be used to describe Mexico, and that in the worst, have come to define it. Let me give you a few examples.

The gravest and most destructive of these is the drug trade, which has penetrated countless institutions, falsely propped up the economy, corrupted important sectors of the federal and regional police forces, infiltrated the Army, multiplied money laundering and the expanding web of suspicions that it generates, and most tragically, caused a sharp increase in the number of assassinations. The dead usually belong to one cartel or another, many being dealers of course. They also include policemen (this year the narcos have killed over 40 in Tijuana alone), judges, journalists, etc. On the average, there are close to 10 assassinations every day, and the graphic news reports that this criminal violence generates have already been incorporated into the daily fabric of "Mexican normality."

The corruption of the entrepreneurial and political classes is simply beyond any measure—savage capitalism at its worst. And in 90% of the cases, the culprits are protected by political and judicial institutions. As the saying goes, "Show me an honest businessman in jail, and I will show you that he didn't have a cent."

Growing unemployment and the optical illusion of macroeconomic growth have turned large swaths of cities into battlefields on which criminal violence and social violence combine with truly horrific results, particularly for those who live in poor urban areas, where 80% of all crimes are committed.

With respect to the employment of college graduates, private universities have begun to move ahead of public institutions. The vast majority of important posts are now given to private university graduates, which further concentrates power among a small elite. The classism and racism that have always been present are now exhibited with arrogance and cynicism.

One result of Mexico's current crisis has been a growing polarization that is visible not only among the principal sociopolitical actors, but in the broader social fabric. What are the forces and cleavages around which this polarization is taking place? Where would you locate its historical antecedents?

The discourse about polarization has been, in my view, an extraordinary communicational coup. All of a sudden, everyone appears to believe it. But what is this "polarization" if not a clarification of what has always been with us? That rift between those who through diverse means take a stand against inequality and those who consider it unfortunate but inevitable. Since no one speaks of class struggle anymore, and since voicing opinions in favor of social justice has become "subversive," the myth of polarization has done its work, making it appear as if López Obrador and the left are breaking the country in half, with the prosperous and modern North on one side and the abandoned and embittered South on the other, progress versus backwardness and rancor.

This fantasy is both miserly and memorable. There are enormous areas of poverty and semi-slavery in northern Mexico (the maquiladora industry, for example). Aligning oneself with the left, moreover, is a legitimate and legal option, not a conspiracy against the rich and all their goodwill. In most instances, the left's proposals are measured and timid—better wages, a respect for ecosystems, more taxation demands on big business, etc. Yet the bourgeoisie refuses to make any concessions. They are living in the bliss of their omnipotence, and it is this cage of savage capitalism that they call polarization.

One need only look at the quantities spent on the electoral process to understand what the right and its intellectual acolytes understand as polarization. The enormous sums of money spent on useless and grotesque political campaigns are an aberration, as are the salaries of the electoral judges in charge of overseeing the process, who are paid anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 per month. Yet according to those in power, to protest is to support polarization.

What role have intellectuals played in the current political crisis and what effects do you think it will have on Mexican civic life?

In Mexico, intellectuals are attributed a degree of public importance unknown in other Latin American countries. They regularly appear on the news, and their opinions are solicited on almost all public issues. They have usually been associated with left-leaning opinions, although this has only occasionally been an accurate perception. It was the case during the student movement in 1968 and again during Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas's presidential campaign in 1988. Most of the time, however, public intellectuals tend to oppose radical positions and throw their support behind the government in power until it is no longer possible to do so.

Thus, for example, from the outset, a broad sector condemned López Obrador and the left for being "populist, intolerant and enemies of the law," and magnified the visible and sometimes egregious errors of López Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). At the same time, and against all evidence, this sector refused to criticize the right and the National Action Party (PAN), describing as "picturesque" the profoundly stupid and illegal actions of President Fox. When faced with concrete evidence about the rapacity, the fundamentalism, the acts of repression and the abuses of power by the right, these intellectuals simply shrugged their shoulders, denied the evidence and continued their attacks on the left, which according to them is responsible for all the problems in Mexico. Because they had the majority of the news media at their disposal, these intellectuals did have a significant impact, particularly on the middle classes, and not because they induced them to vote for PAN candidate Felipe Calderón, but because they appealed to their disdain for the poor as common ground.

Lies and slander have been flung through essays and articles on both sides—by those addicted to the PAN and by our own sectarians in the López Obrador camp. But this exchange is unequal. The left has two major publications, the daily La Jornada and the weekly Proceso. Its adversaries or enemies control the rest.

One wonders about the consequences of this situation. Up to now, the level of intellectual debate has been quite precarious and heavily marked by the repetition of slogans, and on the right, by a delirious and limitless hatred of López Obrador. What is certain is that it will take a long time to establish a useful and rigorous intellectual debate. But if a conclusion is in order, let me just say that as a result of such overwhelming support from intellectuals, the Mexican right has invigorated its intolerance and its desire to extinguish the left definitively, just like that.

And what about the media, which has been a key and constant battleground from the outset? As you said earlier, one of the results of the high levels of mobilization has been that the right to information has been woven into the fabric of everyday rights. Do you believe that the large media consortia constitute an entrenched enclave of unchecked power? What implications does this have for Mexican democracy? What role do you think the struggle over information and media will play in the years ahead?

I believe we are living in the last great moment of the dictatorship of the media and its marketing machine. In 2006, the mass media and private television in particular set out to manipulate anything and everything, and in certain measure, they succeeded. Following an initial moment of false neutrality, and beginning with President Fox's poorly staged attempt to strip López Obrador of his immunity and his right to run for the presidency, the media pounced on the left with vitriolic and slanderous attacks and hate-driven campaigns. They denied López Obrador airtime, refused to show images of his mass demonstrations, and promoted the mediocrity of Felipe Calderón. In what is perhaps the stupidest and most cynical political campaign ever to succeed, they persuaded many who had much to lose with a right-wing victory that López Obrador would take everything from them.

I say the last great moment of the dictatorship of the media and its marketing machine because new technologies and the popularity of the Internet are undermining many of the media's traditional mechanisms of social control. In 2006, a cultural and political battle erupted on the Internet—a battle that quickly turned into a proto-fascist assault by the right and a mobilization of ingenuity and creativity on the part young people on the left. The kinds of media manipulation we are used to will persist, but its images and ruses are worn and deteriorated and bound to deteriorate even further. A great part of the future depends on the politicization of the ever-expanding resources of the Internet.

Turning to Latin America as a whole, what, in your opinion, are the most urgent problems and challenges facing the region? What social movements do you think will gain strength in the coming years?

What we see in Latin America today—with timid exceptions, of course—is not so much the mistrust of the state, the law or politics. It is something much more profound. What we are seeing is an awareness of the fact that institutions have been created to be at the exclusive and unconditional service of governing elites and no one else.

There is a notion held by the majority that their citizenship does not exist, that institutions very rarely function as they are supposed to, and that it is fraudulent to call the set of traps set for electors and taxpayers a state. This has serious consequences. Perhaps a key one is the continuous deferral of establishing real political priorities and the ongoing concealment of the big issues that threaten to become great tragedies. Among these are geopolitics of water and the depletion of freshwater aquifers, pollution, ecocide and the destruction of species, unemployment and the depletion of faith in the future on the part of new generations, the onerous competition of Chinese manufactured goods, the digital abyss, the departure of maquiladora industries, the terminal blow that awaits rural communities if economic remittances decline as a result of immigration policies, and the specter of economic crisis in the United States.

In this context, the social movements that will gain strength are those that focus on empowerment, on the creation of social and political power that is accessible to people. These may be concerned with quality-of-life issues, employment, cultural critique, the rejection of elections that are decided by the money and power of the oligarchy, and the struggle against intolerance, sexism and homophobia. Let me give you an example. Last November, the government of Mexico City approved legislation that recognizes civil unions—"societies of cohabitation," as they are called—which will benefit gay and lesbian couples as well as other sectors of society. Similar legislation has already been enacted in Buenos Aires and in Colombia. To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, it is impossible to oppose an idea whose time has come, and I believe the rights of sexual minorities to be one of those irreversible ideas. I also think movements for bioethics, euthanasia and the environment will move forward along similar trajectories. This is the optimistic side of my sparse predictions.

Before the July elections, it was common to hear speculation that with a López Obrador victory in Mexico, Latin America's so-called left turn would reach the southern border of the United States. How do you read Latin America's current political landscape? What do you think of Hugo Chávez and his discourse on Latin American integration? Where would you locate Mexico on this map?

With the information at my disposal, there is one thing of which I am certain: The popular classes in Latin America understand that neoliberalism has already been rejected. Whether or not they associate it with the name, they understand that this obsession with denying workers absolutely everything, even a preposterously inadequate minimum wage, has been irreversibly displaced from the hegemonic position it once occupied. It is in this territory that Chávez operates. He is not the president of Venezuela because of his theatrical antics, his militarism, his religious conservatism or his intolerance. He is the president of Venezuela because his adversaries—along with the supreme idiocy of aligning themselves with Bush and attempting a military coup—belong to an ideological current that actively detests the poor. And the poor are the majority.

The impulse behind other Latin American leaders is further removed from the structures of traditional caudillismo. Here I think of Michele Bachelet, Lula despite everything, Kirchner, Evo Morales. And in Mexico, where the right appears ever triumphant, we see the emergence and growth of a left that is much more real than those we have known in the past, a left that is smarter and that is bringing more robust ideas and proposals to the table. Without pretense to seeing the future, I think Latin America will either continue along the path of a democratic left or become a succession of ruins without tourists at the service of the worst kinds of exploitation.


Marcial Godoy-Anativia is a Harlem-based anthropologist. He serves on NACLA's Board of Directors.

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