Democracy, But More




O

ver
one million people filled the streets along the historic route of
Mexican social protest on May Day, marching from the Angel of Independence
to the Zocalo and then filling the enormous square at the city’s
center. This was the largest demonstration in the city’s history,
a great peaceful outpouring crying out, not just for formal democracy
at the ballot box, but for more. People took to the streets to demand
a basic change in their country’s direction. 


Mexico
has produced a unique political movement, uniting the population
of the world’s largest city, estimated at 21.5 million, with
the 9.2 million Mexicans now living north of the border. This exile
population—so large that every person walking to the Zocalo
now has at least one relative in the U.S.—also wants change. 


This
Spring, the country’s president, Vicente Fox, attempted to
impeach Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Fox’s
attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, accused Lopez of using
the city’s power of eminent domain to take land for an access
road to a new hospital in defiance of a court order. The charge
was a pretext, a political move to prevent him from running for
president in 2006. The attempt backfired when growing public outcry
forced the attorney general to resign three days before the march. 


Lopez
Obrador is undoubtedly Mexico’s most popular politician. “He
runs a boom government,” explains Alejandro Alvarez, an economics
professor at the National Autonomous University, “which promotes
public works in the midst of economic paralysis. Despite the corruption
scandal that ensnared his aides, he is basically honest. He criticizes
the voracity of the banking system and Fox’s free trade policies,
he has an austere style in a country accustomed to the excesses
of imperial presidents, and above all, he shows solidarity with
the poor.” Lopez’s most popular acts so far have been
to pay a small pension to all the city’s aged residents and
provide school supplies to its children. 


As
president, however, Lopez would hardly be a radical on the order
of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who on May Day declared socialism
his country’s goal. This was also Mexico’s official ideal
of the 1930s and 1940s, but a socialist direction is not the alternative
Lopez Obrador has in mind. Alvarez notes that while he built a second
deck on the main freeway circling the city for Mexico City’s
horrendous traffic, he capped the budget for the subway system on
which most poor residents depend. Lopez’s program for redeveloping
the historic city center is oriented towards business promotion,
even to the extent of expelling the Mazahua indigenous street vendors
there. “He adopted [former New York Mayor] Giuliani’s
‘zero tolerance’ policy to improve personal security,
but at the cost of violating individual rights and shelved the investigation
into the death of [indigenous rights attorney] Digna Ochoa in the
face of grave inconsistencies in police procedure,” Alvarez
adds.



Compromise
or no, in the eyes of millions of Mexicans, Lopez Obrador represents
a chance to scrap the present economic policies of Fox’s National
Action Party. Despite being lauded as the party that broke the 71-year
stranglehold of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party
(PRI), the PAN strategy of basing economic development on privatization
and foreign investment is indistinguishable from the PRI before
it. Both parties’ austerity policies have held wages down and
discouraged independent union organization, while opening Mexico
to imports from the U.S. The flood of cheap corn—a staple crop
of millions of small Mexican farmers—has multiplied by 15 times
during the 12 years the North American Free Trade Agreement has
been in effect. As a result, income has declined over the last two
decades. 


The
government estimates that 40 of the country’s 104.5 million
people live in poverty, 25 million in extreme poverty. 


Mexico
has become an exporter both of the goods made by low- wage labor
in foreign-owned border factories and of labor itself, as millions
of people cross that border looking for work in the north. 


The
march of a million Mexicans is a clear demonstration that movements
protesting those policies are growing. According to Alvarez, “The
social movements of the last two years have been, in the countryside,
openly against NAFTA, and in the city, against privatization and
the dismantling of the welfare state.” This is the upsurge
in popular sentiment that Lopez Obrador hopes to ride into office
and the reason why he represents such a problem, not just for Fox,
but for the Bush administration as well. Mexico, under the impetus
of this movement, will go in the direction of Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina,
Uruguay, and even Venezuela—rejecting the “free trade”
model and economic control from Washington. 


“What
people want is justice,” says Rufino Dominguez, coordinator
of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations, a group that
organizes indigenous people both in their home communities in Mexico,
and as the latest and largest wave of migrants coming to the U.S.
“To us, democracy means more than elections. It means economic
stability—our capacity to make a living in Mexico, without
having to migrate. It means a halt to the continued violation of
human rights in our communities. It means having a government that
attends to the needs of the people. We’re tired of governments
which put other interests first.” 


No
one understands the price of corporate trade policies better than
those who have paid them, leaving their homes and traveling thousands
of miles in search of work. “We know the reasons we have to
leave,” Dominguez asserts. “Over 5,000 of us have died
trying to cross the border….” 


The
Frente’s leader in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, Juan
Romualdo Gutierrez Cortez, an elementary school teacher, emphasizes
that “migration is a necessity, not a choice—there is
no work here. Education is linked to development. You can’t
tell a child to study to be a doctor if there is no work for doctors
in Mexico. It is a very daunting task for a Mexican teacher to convince
students to get an education and stay in the country. Children learn
by example. If a student sees his older brother migrate to the United
States, build a house and buy a car, he will follow.” 


Integrating
Mexico’s exile population into the country’s political
process is a fundamental part of its movement for democracy. 


According
to Jesus Martinez, a professor at California State University in
Fresno, “Mexico has undergone a process of democratic transformation
since the 1980s, but it is still incomplete. Mexicans living abroad,
who represent 16 percent of the electorate, still have not been
granted the right to vote. That’s part of the inclusion that
has to take place.” 


Mexico’s
exile population is excluded from the political process that governs
peoples’ lives in the U.S. as well. Undocumented migrants (estimated
at over 4 million people) are excluded from all U.S. social benefit
programs. The U.S. Congress recently decided to make obtaining a
drivers license almost impossible. Even the act of working is a
federal crime, despite the fact that big sections of the U.S. economy
are totally dependent on migrant labor. 


Legal
or not, Mexican migrants cannot vote to choose the political representatives
who decide basic questions of wages and conditions at work, the
education of their children, their healthcare or lack of it, and
even whether they can walk the streets without fear of arrest and
deportation. 


Although
excluded from the U.S. electorate, popular pressure to guarantee
migrants the right to vote in Mexican elections has been growing
for two decades. Last year, Martinez was elected a deputy to the
Michoacan state legislature, representing his state’s residents
living abroad. He was a candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary
Party (PRD), the party of Lopez Obrador. “In Michoacan, we’re
trying to carry out reforms that can do justice to the role migrants
play in our lives,” Martinez says. “We have the most pro-immigrant
governor in the state’s history, who has finally treated migrant
concerns as a priority.” 


On
a national level, however, the PAN and PRI have resisted change,
while simultaneously claiming interest in the vote of Mexicans living
abroad. Fox and the PAN congratulate migrants for sending home remittances
to their families, which last year totaled $17 billion. This money
now sustains entire communities, easing pressure on the government
to find funding for education, health care, social services, and
economic development. Employers in the U.S. likewise find the present
system convenient, since they have no obligation to pay the cost
of maintaining the communities from which their workers come. 


But
convenience comes at a price. The Mexico-based political machines
that produced the votes that have kept the PRI in power for decades,
and which now support the PAN as well, have little influence or
control over the votes of people living thousands of miles away
in another country entirely. Mexicans living in the U.S. have little
reason to be loyal to a political class that created the conditions
forcing them to emigrate. 


PRI
and PAN control the national congress and, while they voted over
a decade ago to permit Mexicans in the U.S. to vote, they only set
up a system to implement that decision at the end of April. 


It
is a very limited implementation. Voters will require credentials
that can only be obtained in their home communities and will only
be able to vote by mail beginning in 2006. Some observers believe
that of the 9.2 million Mexicans living in the U.S., fewer than
half a million will actually cast ballots. 


“It
is limited,” concedes Dominguez, “but it is the fruit
of many years of fighting by organizations here in the U.S. It’s
not all we wanted, but it’s a beginning. And most important,
now that they’ve passed the law and started to create a process,
there’s no going back.” 


Dominguez
believes that in a close election, barring fraud, the votes of 500,000
people could determine Mexico’s next president. This prospect
is as frightening to both PRI and PAN as the candidacy of Lopez
Obrador. Not only might there be a candidate proposing a change
in Mexico’s direction, but a sizable number of people with
good reasons for voting for him.





David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer.