On this day, 45 years ago, hundreds of peaceful protestors were massacred by the government in Mexico City. With worsening poverty, repressive government and no democratic outlet, all the conditions are in place for another colossal clash between the state and popular opposition. Mexico’s rulers ought to be worried.
In the lead up to the anniversary of the bloodshed, the capital’s central plaza, the Zócalo, has been once again the theatre of mass unrest. Striking teachers had been occupying the square for five months in resistance to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed education reform, which threatens to privatise much of the school system and dismiss thousands of its employees.
In preparation for Mexico’s Independence Day last month, 3,000 riot police backed up by military units forcibly removed thousands of demonstrators from the square. Many of those who got in the way or refused to move were violently beaten, arrested and incarcerated.
Thus, on the evening of the celebrations, the square was packed with security forces. They, and the watching media, were treated to a surreal spectacle of the President celebrating the revolutionary heroes “who gave us a homeland and freedom”, only days after the police had violently removed protesters from the same spot.
A year to remember
1968 has a special significance in Mexico. As in the US, France, Czechoslovakia, Brazil and many other places, the year witnessed an upsurge in political activism among young people.
The scale of the movement was unprecedented and rocked the foundations of Mexico’s then one party state. The protests were initially led by students in Mexico City, who reached out to and began to unite with blue collar workers, trade unions, peasant organisations and indigenous people’s movements. They featured overwhelmingly peaceful calls for greater democratic participation, an end to police corruption and brutality, greater equality for women and marginalised people.
The government reaction – just two weeks before Mexico was to host the Olympic Games – was completely disproportionate to the movement’s demands. The deaths in Mexico City heralded the beginning of a dirty war against popular opposition movements in which at least 1,200 people were disappeared by state authorities.
Like the nationalist celebrations of Independence Day this year, the media spectacle of the 1968 Olympics proceeded unhindered, despite the repression and violence which had taken place only days earlier.
It was a defining moment in contemporary Mexico as it marked the awakening of a spirit of rebellion and class consciousness that has never disappeared, despite the violent and repressive tactics of successive administrations.
Since 1968, the legitimacy of each political administration has waned as governments have introduced market-based economic reforms which exacerbate inequality, as they have privatised public services and as they have encouraged foreign direct investment.
The more the state violently represses the social movements which arise to counter the state’s assault on the poor and working class, the more the population becomes disenchanted and frustrated with traditional electoral politics.
One major survey found only 31% of Mexicans polled felt they could trust their government, little more than a decade after the country’s much lauded (but vacuous) transition to democracy. Many of the grievances highlighted by the student movement are as real today as they were in the 1960s and in many cases, have become more intense, with over half the population living in poverty.
Indeed, as the current teacher strikes demonstrate, democratic dialogue with government is increasingly difficult. As Mexico’s social movements are fragmented and disparate, it is incredibly difficult for them to organise a national opposition which can contest the neoliberal programme espoused by the two main parties (the PRI and the PAN).
In the previous two general elections, there were serious allegations of electoral fraud directed at both parties by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), then led by Mexico’s only left-leaning presidential candidate, Andrés Manual López Obrador.
The sense that, regardless of the votes cast, the traditional moneyed elites of the PRI and PAN will always steal the election has led to a profound distrust of electoral politics. And given that popular opposition movements are met with violent repression – an aspect of government tactics which has a depressing continuity – Mexico could be on the brink of a major political uprising.
Taking to the plazas
The government has recognised this possibility. The increased militarisation of the country under the pretext of combating narcotraffickers and organised crime is partly a response to this worry.
In 1968, the paternalistic authoritarians who made up Mexico’s ruling elite saw the political activism of young people in France and the US and were petrified that it might spread. Today, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the popular resistance in Turkey and Brazil terrify the nouveau riche Mexican oligarchy.
In Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the population was able to take political complaints to the ballot box with considerable success. In Mexico, however, a democratic opening cannot be achieved via fair and open general elections. This is likely to lead to an explosive environment in which grievances will be expressed in the plazas and on the streets, not at the polls.
Mexico has the highest levels of inequality among all OECD members, leaving it ripe for unrest. Were a unified movement to emerge which could articulate the socio-economic concerns of the majority of citizens, the 1968 movement, which then so alarmed the establishment, would appear quite mild in comparison.
Most Mexicans wait in hope for such a movement; their leaders wait in fear.