An Autumn of Discontent South of the Border

Last week, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto violated the ancient if somewhat unsightly Mexican tradition of the planton, when he ordered security forces to violently disperse the massive tent-city/protest of Mexican teachers’ union from the capital’s central square. The teachers were removed so Pena Nieto could preside over a nicer looking independence day ceremony, unencumbered by visible signs of dissent. But lower- and middle-class dissent from his neoliberal transformation is all around, as this essay from a prominent former member of his party makes clear.
Pena Nieto’s election seemed to mean the return of old-regime politics in Mexico. But his IMF-friendly policies: tax reform, breaking the power of the teachers union and others, seem to signal a break from the client-patronage politics of the old Insitutional Revolutionary Party [PRI]. By far the most controversial is the proposed breakup of the state’s petroleum monopoly. Oil revenues are the backbone of the Mexican state, and the nationalization of petroleum in 1938 is a sort of founding myth of both the PRI and the modern Mexican state.

Pena Nieto’s reforms, launched with his improvised legislative minority, have set off protests by important segments of society, who have expressed their demands with real clarity and force. Marches by workers against the workplace reforms that will strip away their rights. An insurgency by teachers against their subjugation under an emergency labor law. An enormous gathering in Mexico City by the Movement for National Regeneration, MORENA, answering the call of [leftistst former presidential candidate]Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to mobilize against the Pena Nieto’s congressional initiatives on energy and fiscal policy.

The local media has done its best to manipulate, by smearing the teachers who were demonstrating for their rights and unsuccessfully trying to minimize the scale of the show of force by MORENA. But a number of outsiders have commented on the country’s agitated state.

In El Pais, Navalon writes of “the rumble in the streets.” A summary: no one understands why two such hugely important issues for Mexicans, the country’s petroleum and its public education, are being taken on simultaneously, particularly when the changes proposed are anything but cosmetic. The protests and demonstrations of the past weeks are important because with both reforms being pushed, a reaction could be triggered with unpredictable consequences. Even if they are approved with the support of the right-wing Accion Nacional Party, the educational and tax reforms could lose ground where they really must win: on the streets and in the hearts of Mexico. The initiatives could nominally advance in the legislative chambers but with no popular support. The popular ruble cannot be ignored: it is one thing to get their legislative approval and quite another to apply them, against the will of the people.

Another article worthy of note comes from The Economist, an active promoter of opening up the energy sector. The magazine describes Pena’s situation, after he launched profound fiscal and energy reforms in the following terms: besieged by the sit-ins of the teachers, the Pact for Mexico tottering under the opposition of the signatory [leftist]PRD and massive demonstrations led by Lopez Obrador seeking to derail his energy reforms. Lopez Obrador has traveled the country organizing the opposition to the privatization of petroleum. All of this added to Pena’s falling popularity due to poor economic performance, puts him in a dilemma: “The more ambitious he makes his reforms, the more they are likely to provoke such hostility. But if they are not ambitious enough, they may not be worth doing at all.”

These two analyses come from very different points on the political spectrum, and neither from our own political opposition. But they both highlight a common theme: that Pena’s reforms are “against [will of]the people” and could well be defeated in the streets. And in fact, the mobilizations being led by MORENA around the country are an attempt to organize those who oppose the denationalization of the energy sector. They are undoubtedly a majority of the country, and they are ranged against Pena’s legislative majority that represents a minority of the country. This governing group is cemented to unprincipled economic interests, Mexican and international, which have no truck with democracy.

Set against them is a movement of peaceful resistance to a government whose reform project is an attack on the stability of the country, and is based on nothing but its commitments to a foreign power and its corrupt appetites. A government that lies to the country claiming future benefits that are absurd, and that even if it can carry out its project legally, cannot do it with legitimacy. In such conditions resistance is a moral responsibility; a citizen cannot reflexively and uncritically obey. Of the numerous writers who have supported the right to peaceful resistance, I will cite only one, Habermas: “A democratic state can only expect the obedience of its citizens to the law if it rests on principles worthy of recognition, in light of which that which is legal can be justified as legitimate.”

Manuel Bartlett Diaz