What's at Stake In Mexico City

By Enrique Krauze
Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mexico is a country that is, all at once, pre-modern, modern, anti-modern and postmodern. This situation can have certain advantages, as those who appreciate the cultural mosaic of Mexico know, but there are times when it can be not just difficult but explosive.

Last Monday (the anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which lasted 10 years and cost a million lives) modern politics in Mexico was silenced by an alliance between the pre-modern and the anti-modern in a postmodern spectacle that could lead to widespread social revolt and that has impeded the country's democratic progress. Andrés Manuel López Obrador -- the charismatic caudillo who has come to believe himself Mexico's messiah incarnate -- gathered his faithful for his anointment as the "legitimate president" of Mexico.

Even though he has lost much support because of his post-election behavior, López Obrador still controls several organizations that have shown themselves capable of paralyzing a part of Mexico City with demonstrations and sit-ins. They consist of state employee unions, peddlers of the informal economic sector, unofficial taxi drivers and hundreds of radical groups.

Where do they get their money? Until now the budgetary sources of the Federal District of Mexico City have sufficed, managed at the discretion of López Obrador's PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party), just as it was taught by its elder brother, the old ruling PRI. These groups mingle with anti-modern militant movements, which aren't exactly guerrilla forces but do represent a kind of "soft revolution."

It is a mobilization of salaried contingents that not only will harass incoming President Felipe Calderón and his cabinet but will also try to disrupt everyday life for inhabitants of the country's most sensitive regions. This will be under the guise of a supposed "peaceful resistance" against the "usurpation" that many people still think took place in July's razor-thin election but that López Obrador and his party (who won impressive victories in the legislature) were unable to prove in the courts.

This soft revolution is an enemy of democratic life and may even make dead letters of laws eventually passed in the National Congress. If the PRI (the third force but the counterbalance on the scales of Congress) decides to support Calderón and his National Action Party (PAN) in the reforms that the country needs to create jobs, López Obrador's militants will still be able to boycott them by taking to the streets to block traffic and disrupt business. In its extreme version, it might try to replicate what's been happening over the past six months in Oaxaca, where a revolutionary group of teachers, infiltrated by the residual guerrilla forces that have always existed in the mountains of southeastern Mexico, has been reenacting on a small scale the scripts of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

There remains the possibility of the restricted, legitimate use of public force, but this is an extremely delicate point in Mexico because of the trauma of the student massacre of 1968. Thus the goal of López Obrador's movement will be to make the country ungovernable and to achieve the eventual resignation of Felipe Calderón. It's unlikely that he'll succeed, but not impossible.

Part of the solution to this delicate situation lies in the hands of President Calderón. If he quickly shows himself to be the leader that his predecessor, Vicente Fox, neither could nor wanted to be, Calderon will be able to remove the shadow of illegitimacy and establish the foundation for a stable government. He needs to surround himself with a capable cabinet that will carry out measures in the most sensitive areas (security, employment, corruption). Calderón seems to be an intelligent politician, has parliamentary experience and has his priorities straight. But I'm convinced that much-needed concord depends on more than him.

In this regard, the left bears the greatest responsibility, especially that part of the left with ties to the PRD in the Federal District government and various state governments, the representatives and senators of Congress, and a multitude of journalists, academics and intellectuals. These people need to distance themselves from the caudillo and modernize their ideological platform along the lines of European social democracy.

There are precedents for this kind of transformation. In Spain, when Felipe González came to power in 1978, he renounced Marxist dogma and embraced the market economy, which was a condition for the country's eventual entry into the European Community and the impressive development that it has since achieved. In Chile, socialism evolved toward modern ideas and has presided over a period of impressive growth and social well-being. These are two very successful reforms, both of them counter to the anachronistic "21st-century socialism" of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. But in both Spain and Chile, the process of maturing took place after civil wars and dictatorships. It would be a tragedy if Mexico had to go through that hell for its left to modernize. Unfortunately, at this moment at least, the possibility of such a transformation seems remote. I once said that the last Marxist in history would die at a Latin American university. I still believe it.

The postmodern spectacle that took place in the historical center of Mexico City is bizarre and ominous but also very serious. This is not a British "shadow cabinet," in which individual opposition politicians scrutinize various parts of the party in power. López Obrador has said power belongs to him alone, in the name of the people. He is serious about his plans: to force the resignation of Calderón and take power by proclamation, that ritual out of the Mexican past. The perfect date would be 2010, the 100th anniversary of the revolution.

If this nightmarish scenario actually happened, the implications for the United States could be ominous too: a stream of refugees that would dwarf the current illegal migration, pushed by the collapsing Mexican economy, capital flight and spreading Oaxaca-style violence.

The United States would do well to remember that there is a country, not on the Persian Gulf but on the Gulf of Mexico, that has taken a giant step toward political maturity by adopting a democratic system in the space of just one generation -- and has done so practically without historical experience. And it would do well to find tangible, direct ways to support Mexico's economy, just as the European Union supported Spain. Build bridges, not walls. Winning Mexico for democracy is the same thing as winning democracy for all of Latin America -- no small triumph in today's world and the world to come.

Enrique Krauze is the author of "Mexico: Biography of Power" and editor of the magazine Letras Libres. This article was translated by Natasha Wimmer.


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