MEXICO CITY—On May Day 1.2 million people filled the streets of Mexico City, the largest protest demonstration in Mexican history. This great, peaceful outpouring cried out for formal democracy at the ballot box, true choice in the country’s coming national elections and a basic change in its direction.
“People want justice,” says Rufino Dominguez, coordinator of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations, a group that organizes indigenous people both in Mexico and the United States. “To us, democracy means more than elections. It means economic stability—our capacity to make a living in Mexico, without having to migrate, and a government that attends to the needs of the people.”
The marchers were defending the Mexican political leader most likely to hear those demands. Last month, Mexico President Vicente Fox attempted to impeach Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, undoubtedly Mexico’s most popular politician. Fox’s attorney general accused Obrador 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 public outcry instead forced the attorney general to resign.
“Lopez Obrador criticizes the voracity of the banking system and Fox’s free trade policies, and he has an austere style in a country accustomed to the excesses of imperial presidents,” explains Alejandro Alvarez, an economics professor at the National Autonomous University. “Above all, he shows solidarity with the poor.” Mexico City now pays a small pension to all its aged residents, and provides school supplies to its children.
Lopez is not a radical on the order of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who on May Day declared socialism his country’s goal. Lopez’s plan for redeveloping the city center is business-friendly. He capped the budget for the subway system, on which most poor residents depend. Compromise or no, however, in the eyes of millions of Mexicans, Obrador represents a chance to scrap the present economic policies of Fox’s National Action Party (PAN).
PAN’s strategy for economic development relies on promoting privatization and foreign investment. Its austerity policies have held wages down and discouraged independent union organization, while opening Mexico to imports from the United States.
As a result, income has declined. The government estimates that 40 million 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, would go in the direction of Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, and even Venezuela—rejecting the free trade model, and economic control from Washington.
No one understands the price of free trade policies better than those who have paid it, leaving their homes and traveling thousands of miles in search of work. Juan Romualdo Gutierrez Cortez, an indigenous leader and schoolteacher in the southern state of Oaxaca, emphasizes that “migration is a necessity, not a choice. You can’t tell a child to study to be a doctor if there is no work for doctors in Mexico. 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.”
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. Those pushed out want the right to participate in deciding whether free trade policies, responsible for their migration, should be changed. These Mexicans living in the United States have little reason to be loyal to a political class that created the conditions forcing them to leave.
The national congress voted over a decade ago to permit Mexicans in the United States to vote, but only set up a limited system to implement that decision at the end of April. Observers predict that of the 9.2 million Mexicans living in the United States, fewer than half a million will cast ballots. Dominguez, however, believes that in a close election, barring fraud, those votes could determine Mexico’s next president. This prospect must be as frightening to President Fox as the candidacy of Lopez Obrador. Not only is a candidate proposing a change in Mexico’s direction, but a sizable number of people have good reasons for voting for him.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is The Children of NAFTA (University of California Press, 2004). e