Never before has the contrast between the World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual clambake of the capitalist class in Davos Switzerland, and the World Social Forum (WSF), created a decade ago to beat back the corporate globalization of the Planet Earth, been quite so stark.
While the moribund masters of the universe met on their ice mountain in the midst of the most chilling world-wide depression in a century, largely triggered by the overweening greed of those in attendance, tens of thousands samba'ed in the tropical heat of the Amazon city of Belem to celebrate the demise of capitalism. Among those on hand at the WSF dance party were presidents Chávez of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, and Brazil's Lula da Silva. Lula who is usually a devoted Davos-goer eschewed this year's funerary event to avoid the stench that inevitably results from rubbing shoulders with mummies.
"The God of the Market has been broken," the one-time São Paulo metalworker proclaimed to tens of thousands in Belem. Writing in the Mexican daily La Jornada, Luis Hernández Navarro pointed out that it was precisely the social forces represented by the WSF that propelled Latin America's social democratic presidents into power.
Indeed, the only two Latin heads of state to attend the caviar and champagne-laced charade in Davos were Colombia's widely-disparaged Álvaro Uribe and Mexico's questionably-elected president Felipe Calderón, both of them Washington's darlings – not even freshman U.S. president Obama, who recently lambasted the machinations of the same breed of bankers who gather each year on the ice mountain as "shameful," showed up in Switzerland, an event that his predecessor in power George Bush never missed.
Felipe Calderón's trip to Davos got off on an inauspicious foot. On the very day he flew out to the WEF, Bank of Mexico president Guillermo Ortiz confirmed that his country was in full-blown recession. For months, Calderón and his obscenely obese Secretary of Finance Augustin Carstens have characterized Mexico's economic health as only suffering from "a little cough" ("catarrito"). According to Bank of Mexico prognostications, the Aztec nation will suffer negative growth in 2009 (.8% to 1.8%).
The news hit Felipe like an ice ball from hell.
Seeking to put a happy face on his country's dismal future, Calderón championed Mexico's 1.5% 2008 growth rate but fooled few. Mexico's anemic performance last year put it in 24th place out of 24 Latin American economies in the International Monetary Fund's rankings, even behind Haiti, the economic basket case of the Americas. The IMF is predicting 1.1% growth for Latin America in 2009 and, like Ortiz, calculates that Mexico will fall into negative numbers.
The Mexican president's delusional optimism in the face of so bleak an outlook played to incredulous audiences at Davos. Calderón also sought to blunt the recent blockbuster report of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that Mexico is a potentially "failed" state by handing out trinkets like baseball caps bearing the ambiguous legend, "It's All In The Trust." The giveaway ("magic spikes" to keep the mummies from slipping on Davos's icy streets were also distributed) came during a session at which Calderón flogged Mexico's chances of weathering the current economic turmoil. The Mexican president's talk was slugged "Riders On The Storm," a title plagiarized from the Doors' 1971 apocalyptical anthem about a cowboy spree killer – lead singer Jim Morrison was reportedly heard thrashing about wildly in his Paris grave.
As a bonus attraction, Calderón teamed with former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, now head of Yale University's Institute for Globalization Studies, in an act conducted entirely in broken English that verged on tragicomedy. Zedillo, who coined the term "globalphobics" in reference to WSF types at the 1996 Davos get-down, revealed that the bank bail-out he sponsored during Mexico's mid-1990s meltdown and dubbed FOBAPROA, has drained 20% of his country's gross domestic product (GDP), bragging that the 400 trillion peso outlay was triple that of what the Bush-Obama bail-out has cost U.S. taxpayers.
As might be anticipated, the Calderón-Zedillo act did not play well on the homefront. While the Mexican presidents cavorted with the living dead in Davos, a half million of their compatriots were marching through the streets of Mexico City to protest the economic wreckage the neoliberal ethos has wrought here. On January 25, former left presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador from whom Calderón stole the 2006 election, and his Movement to Defend Mexico's Oil & The Popular Economy assembled upwards of 200,000 in the great central Zocalo plaza. Five days later, farmers and trade unionists matched that outpouring to denounce the damage done by the current crisis.
Among the crisis indicators: 6% inflation, the highest in ten years, and 340,000 jobs lost on Calderón's watch – he campaigned as "the president of employment." Just what Mexico's unemployment numbers are is deeply obfuscated. Government bean-counters at the National Statistical and Geographic Institute (INEGI) claim it is no more than 4%, but under INEGI parameters, anyone who worked for more than an hour in the informal economy during the previous week is considered employed. Utilizing such criteria, the emblematic apple sellers of the 1930's Great Depression would not be determined to be jobless.
On the other side of the ledger, Enrique Galván who authors La Jornada's "Money" column calculates that 70% of the nation's 45 million-strong workforce does not have a steady job. A maquiladora industry that assembles consumer goods for the ravished U.S. market and which generated a million jobs in the best of times has gone kaplooey and the Big Seven automakers (including Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Volkswagen) have shut down their plants for the duration of the downturn.
Meanwhile, workers' pensions, privatized under Zedillo, have gone up in smoke with those paying in losing up to 30% of their retirement funds in the past six months. To compound the devastation, the peso has sunk to record lows, having been devalued by 32% since last August 4, when it weighed in at 9.87 against the dollar. (At this writing, 14.78 pesos will buy you one dollar Americano and the exchange rate is climbing for 15.) Nonetheless. Mexico's banks, rescued by Zedillo's 15-cypher bailout and subsequently sold to transnational financial conglomerates registered a 38% profit increase in 2008.
The current blasted economic landscape here bears striking similarities to another period of devastating downturn a hundred years ago: The 1907-08 depression was trip-wired when commodity prices collapsed and money dried up, casting tens of thousands of Mexican workers into the streets and accentuating the monstrous divide between rich and poor. To counter working class rage, dictator Porfirio Díaz cranked up repression, massacring hundreds of striking textile workers in Río Blanco, Veracruz and miners in Cananea Sonora. Synchronistically, workers at Cananea, the eighth largest copper pit in the world, have been on strike for the past 18 months in spite of Calderón's efforts to break the walkout.
Despite the shattered economy and his deep-rooted unpopularity after 34 years in power, Diaz decided to run for re-election in 1910, stealing the vote that June and jailing opposition leader Francisco Madero, a role model for López Obrador. To celebrate his "victory," Porfirio Diaz threw a huge party to mark Mexico's first 100 years of independence from Spain, expending the nation's entire social budget on useless monuments, many of them lined up along Mexico City's Champs D'Elysie, the Paseo de la Reforma. The pageantry culminated on Independence Day, September 16 with the installation of a gilded Angel of Independence on that glittering boulevard. Two months later, the Mexican revolution, led by Madero, exploded, and Díaz was forced to flee the country.
Just before Felipe Calderón took off to tete-a-tete with the dead in Davos, amidst patriotic bombast and flowery fireworks, the Mexican president announced the construction of the Arc of the Bicentennial to be inaugurated September 16, 2010, commemorating both the 200th year of Mexican independence and the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican revolution. Following the Porfirian model, the Arc of the Bicentennial, whose cost was unannounced, will be built at the foot of the Paseo de la Reforma.
Mexico's political metabolism seems to break out in insurgencies every 100 years on the 10th year of the century. In 1810, the country priest Miguel Hidalgo launched the struggle for independence from the Crown. In 1910, Francisco Madero ignited the fuse of the epoch Mexican revolution.
At this writing, there are less than 330 days until 2010.
John Ross will be in California for the next weeks. His health permitting, these dispatches will continue at ten-day intervals until he returns to Mexico. Ross's forthcoming book "El Monstruo - True Tales of Dread & Redemption in Mexico City" will be published by Nation Books in late 2009. If you have further info write johnross[AT]igc.org or visit www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com