75,000 Protest Tortilla Prices in Mexico

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 2:56 AM

MEXICO CITY -- About 75,000 trade unionists, farmers and leftists marched through downtown Mexico City on Wednesday to protest price increases for basic foods like tortillas _ the staple of Mexico's poor _ and to demand a change in economic policy.

The march represented a challenge to President Felipe Calderon's market-oriented policies and one banner read "Calderon stole the elections, and now he's stealing the tortillas!" Others waved handfuls of the flat corn disks and chanted "Tortillas si, Pan no!" a play on the initials of Calderon's National Action Party, the PAN, which also means "bread" in Spanish.

In a press statement, Calderon's office said the president shares the protesters' concerns and pledged to "continue taking all necessary actions to maintain price stability for basic goods and services, (and) punish all types of hoarding and speculation in the markets."

But it was also a setback for his archrival, leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who protest organizers prevented from speaking at the demonstration in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza. He held his own rally afterward, and most of the crowd stayed to hear him.

"Mexico needs a transformation of the magnitude of the (1910-1917) Mexican Revolution," said Lopez Obrador, who demanded wage increases, subsidies and fixed prices for basic foods, and the cancellation of a clause in trade agreements that would lift restrictions on imports of corn and beans starting in 2008.

Marchers had mixed opinions about whether the protest against rising food prices should have any connection to Lopez Obrador, who has declared himself Mexico's "legitimate president" after losing last year's presidential race by less than 1 percentage point.

Some bore placards of Lopez Obrador wearing the presidential badge of office.

"El Peje is the obvious leader of the poor," said housewife Carmen Rosete, 50, calling Lopez Obrador by his nickname, a reference to a combative fish from his home state of Tabasco.

Corn farmer Servando Olivaria saw it another way. "This is a spontaneous people's movement, with no political affiliation," Olivaria said. "Lopez Obrador can participate, but he should not head the march. He should not even speak about it."

The fiery former Mexico City mayor was known for his ability to mobilize millions in support of his allegations that the July 2 election was rigged. But since Calderon has taken office, Lopez Obrador's self-declared alternative government has almost faded from view.

The leftist leader tried to make a major public comeback by offering to lead the tortilla march, but was forced to back down.

"The idea is that we concentrate on the general objectives of the march and not on personalities," Gerardo Sanchez, president of the Permanent Agrarian Council, said on W Radio Tuesday.

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