A Tale of Three Marches: Mexico’s Scattered Politics

Marchers have recently taken to the streets in Mexico on three different occasions. The marches generally represent three different groups vying for political influence. At the center of the storm is President Calderón's proposed step-by-step privatization of the nation's state-owned oil company, Pemex. The government has succeeded in driving a wedge between independent-minded unions and those being reeled into the pocket of the government in support of the privatization.

September 8, 2008

During the US Labor Day weekend, Mexicans from virtually all backgrounds and across the political spectrum took to the country’s streets to voice serious dissatisfactions with the way president Felipe Calderón is governing the country. The marches were timed to lead up to Calderon’s annual state of the union address. After marchers came out in force, Calderón canceled the usual street festivities surrounding his address to the nation, and instead delivered his report in written form by messenger.

There were three days of demonstrations. On Saturday, August 30, in a march against insecurity and impunity called Iluminemos México (Let’s Light Up Mexico) over a hundred thousand people, mostly dressed in white, marched in Mexico City. At least a hundred thousand more marched in major cities throughout the rest of the country, lighting candles and singing Mexico’s National Anthem at the end of the day. Dressed in the color of purification, they demanded (with no official discourse or specific proposals) a more effective approach to combating the grave personal insecurity besetting the nation. The lack of specifics gave rise, not surprisingly, to a variety of interpretations of what the marchers really wanted from Calderón: Increased militarization? Less impunity? No dissent? More concern for social justice?

The following day, Sunday, former Mexico City mayor and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) led a march of some 50,000 people through the streets of Mexico City (with smaller replicas of the march in other cities, featuring AMLO’s televised Mexico City speech) in opposition to Calderón’s proposed step-by-step privatization of the country’s state-owned oil company, Pemex. While many privatizations are on the Calderón agenda, AMLO has effectively rallied his followers over the past year or so around the issue of “energy security,” and so stuck to the issue of the government’s “energy reform” and the consequent openings of Pemex to foreign investment.

Monday’s marches were a bit more eclectic, but they raised demands virtually identical to those of the AMLO-led march the day before: against the rising cost of living for the poor; against the threatened and/or pending privatizations of Pemex, the state electric companies, social security and public education. The marches were organized by a number of independent labor unions that are mostly but not entirely grouped within the progressive confederation, the National Workers Union (UNT).

The union marchers were joined by campesino and civic groups organized into an umbrella coalition called the National Movement for Food and Energy Sovereignty, Workers’ Rights and Democratic Liberties. They were also joined by dissident members of the National Teachers Union (SNTE), many of whose members are working under protest, and in one case—in the state of Morelos—are on strike, protesting changes in workload, job security and social security benefits negotiated without their consultation between the head of their increasingly conservative national union and the Calderón government. The Morelos teachers briefly took over tollbooths on the Mexico City–Cuernavaca highway.

In addition to raising very real issues and expressing significant discontent, the marches reflected a larger political jockeying by influential groups taking place in Mexico. Saturday’s “Iluminemos México” was organized by a group of wealthy entrepreneurs calling themselves the Common Front Against Crime. The march participants were, more often than not, people on the comfortable side of the class divide who don’t attend street demonstrations on a regular basis.

But Saturday’s anti-crime march also had significant support from popular groups and actors on the left. It was endorsed and supported by Mexico City’s PRD mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, as well as by the group of unions that promoted the Monday march against privatization. Indeed, not all the participants were dressed in tony white linen. Non-stylish white T-shirts were also noticeable along the path of the march.

While many well-heeled participants were drawn to the march by a rash of kidnappings (along with a few brutal murders) of children from wealthy families, insecurity is a problem that affects not only the rich. (The National System of Public Safety has documented 323 kidnappings for ransom over the first five months of this year.)

According the daily paper El Universal, 2,673 homicides were attributed to “organized crime” in 2007. That number was surpassed this year by early June. And over the past two months, the paper has documented 987 such homicides, which comes to more than six murders a day. The victims of most of these homicides have been fellow-participants in “organized crime,” as rival organizations vie for power, but a growing number have been victims of kidnappings gone bad, uninvolved bystanders, and (honest) public officials.

And then there are the continued serial killings of young working-class women in and around Ciudad Juárez—though these are not always attributed to “organized crime.” The “organized crime” label is a slippery one in Mexico for two reasons: members of drug cartels and murder-for-hire hit squads have widely infiltrated law enforcement organizations. Moreover, many state and local governments have made it a practice to hire private thugs to maintain order. All this is to say that there were many motives behind participation in Iluminemos México.

The struggle for political position is especially apparent when we consider the two anti-privatization marches on Sunday and Monday. The tone of Sunday’s march was nationalistic, pro-working people, and pro-AMLO. Common banner slogans were, “Don’t give the oil to foreigners,” and “The oil belongs to Mexico.” But most of all, with chants of “Obrador, Obrador,” and “you are not alone,” ringing through the air, the tone was extremely adulatory, in support of the man who still refuses to recognize the declared winner of the disputed 2006 presidential election.

In his speech to his followers, AMLO did not deny the validity of the concerns of the other marches. He simply ignored the other anti-privatization march and commented that the legitimate concerns of the Saturday marchers against insecurity could only be addressed with joint actions against poverty, inequality, corruption, fraud, and injustice.

Monday’s marches (there were several, not all coordinated) were not anti-AMLO, but they deliberately separated themselves from party (or faction) affiliation. The organizers were clearly making a case for independent union power and influence.

The UNT and its allied unions, which organized the march, were trying to position themselves against other unions that have deliberately been moving closer to Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The unions drifting into the Calderón camp, all of which represent workers in industries threatened with privatization, include the SNTE, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SUTERM), and the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM). Thus, the anti-privatization marches were, as much as anything, attempts to gain position within the changing landscape of Mexico’s trade union movement and its fractured left.

Fred Rosen is a NACLA senior analyst based in Mexico and New York.

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