Javier is trying to grind out a living on the streets of Mexico City playing his harmonica for restaurant patrons for a few coins. It was tough enough to find work before the global economic crisis hammered Mexico, but now it is almost impossible.
He talks about trying to find construction work, which he has done before. "But it is difficult, real difficult," he says, "they say even the city government is firing their street cleaners and cutting their salaries." He talks about going north to try his luck in the United States. "But it's hard there too," he admits. As he thinks about his family, his eyes dart with the worry and desperation shared by many of his fellow Mexicans.
The crisis could finally push Mexico over the brink, into disaster. According to the country's weekly news magazine Proceso, "unemployment, increasingly costly public services, family debt, and desperation because of hunger" as a result of this crisis, "are causing increasingly violent reactions. The fed-up clamor in a wide array of the population, that is now becoming more evident, could soon become what, although some see it as far-fetched, many think is entirely possible: A social explosion." Premonitions of this social explosion are fed on a regular basis by well-publicized acts of violence, perceptions of a dramatic growth in criminal activity and, on a more hopeful note, the recognition that many political, social and labor activists are trying to organize this discontent to push for real changes in the structure of Mexico's economy, especially its core neoliberal policies that many on the left believe to be at the root of the crisis.
Even before the crisis unleashed its economic horror on Mexico in 2008, the Mexican economy was in shambles, and according to some, already in crisis. "In the last few decades we have talked about nothing else but crisis," says Marco Antonio Velázquez of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC). "Whole generations have been brought up with the country in crisis." The havoc wrought by neoliberal policies and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been well documented, especially the displacement of millions of small farmers and the devastation of the domestic manufacturing industry. Before 2008, of every 730,000 young people entering the formal labor market, only 80,000 found employment. Many have taken refuge in the informal economy, where 60% of the active working population attempts to eke out a living with jobs that typically have no guaranteed salaries or benefits. However, what speaks most directly to a failed economic model is the enormous number of Mexicans who migrate to other countries - mostly, of course, the United States - to look for work. An annual average of over 500,000 Mexicans have migrated to the United States since 1994. No other country in the world expels as many people per capita as Mexico. By any measure, the country was already in crisis. The current crisis is like a kick in the head to an economy that was already down on the ground.
According to the most recent quarterly numbers, Mexico's economy contracted 10.3% over the three-month period April-June 2009. When compared with the 1% contraction in the United States during the same period, it speaks to the old saying: "When the U.S. sneezes, Mexico catches pneumonia." According to Velázquez this is truer than ever under NAFTA, which has increased the percentage of Mexican exports that go to the United States. "Never has Mexico been so dependent and vulnerable to the economy of the U.S." Indeed, Mexico has not had this deep an economic dependence since the colonial era with Spain.
According to official statistics, 700,000 jobs were lost between October 2008 and May 2009. High prices for the basic food basket continue to be daunting, especially to those earning the paltry minimum wage of five dollars a day. According to the Mexican Association of Municipalities, "95% of the municipal governments in the country are now bankrupt." In 2009, remittances sent home by Mexicans working abroad declined for the first time in years, directly affecting the well-being of the poorest communities across the country - communities that depend on that income for survival. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that the "economic marginalization and destitution" caused by the crisis in poor countries in the world, "could lead to political and social instability."
The response of Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, to the crisis has spurred protest across the country, exacerbating the possibility of instability. Central to Calderón's 2010 budget proposal to fight the crisis is a 2% tax on food and medicine, both of which are currently exempt from taxation, and increases in the prices of electricity, gas, and water. Pushing the initiative, packaged to "combat poverty," Calderón said, "If we arrive at a point where poor families consume less water, without sacrificing their well-being, consume less electricity, we are going to help these families save money, but we are also going to save our own budget, because each kilowatt that is not consumed represents a subsidy that we don't have to pay." Protestors across the country say these measures will disproportionately affect the poor, who spend the bulk of their income on these basic needs.
The protests continue. The proposed 16% budget reduction to the small-scale agricultural sector, which already has scarce funds due to neoliberal policies, has propelled campesino farmers to plan marches throughout the country to protest these "crisis measures." Demonstrations against the government's response reached their most comical point in San Luis Potosí where 600 protestors attacked the state governor with eggs complaining of rising unemployment and prices. The yolk-covered governor ordered many arrested on charges of sedition and inciting a riot.
There are a thousand flares of resistance throughout the country that show a "deep awakening to the situation," but they are all "dispersed" according to National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) professor Marcela Orozco. "There has to be cohesion to effect real change." Added along with more established movements in Chiapas and Oaxaca, "this could result in a social upheaval. But it has to be an upheaval that changes the economic model." RMALC's Velázquez underscores Orozco's point: "The current economic crisis has proved that neoliberalism is dead. That's why we're saying: to get out of the crisis is to get out of NAFTA. That is the task ahead of us as a country."
RMALC, along with many other organizations, coalitions, movements, and even some political leaders in Mexico will be trying to organize the cohesion necessary to form a critical mass to change the economic situation by changing the economic model. "We are in the same exact situation in Mexico as we were in the early twentieth century with Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship," says Velázquez. "Díaz, like modern neoliberalism, sold off the country to foreign companies while the vast majority of the population lived in misery. Díaz, like Calderón, militarized the country and ruled with an iron fist." The mixture of misery and militarization was explosive.
Javier, on the streets of Mexico City, is aware of the cycles of Mexican history. Under the Díaz dictatorship the Mexican Revolution exploded in 1910. One hundred years before that, the famous grito or yell of the radical priest Miguel Hidalgo unleashed a war in 1810 in which Mexico would wrestle its independence from Spain. In both cases Mexico was entrenched in the economic agendas of foreign powers, like today it finds itself with NAFTA. "They say that we're due for another revolt in 2010," Javier says. His eyes slightly spark when he says this. It's the kind of spark that says that something has to give, something has to change, there are too many people like him with not much more to lose.
Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate.