Mexico's Dark December

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The beginning of a new series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. Not all will be this political, but it's a political time.

Ulises ya cayó y sigue Calderón –graffiti, Cuernavaca zócalo

Depending on who you ask, Arizona’s southern neighbor is either in the first stages of a nationwide class war, or just up to business as usual. Either way, December 1st looms large on the 2006 Mexican calendar. This Friday, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa is set to be sworn in as the next president of the United States of Mexico.

As with any issue, this is worth asking the taxistas about. “A grey December awaits us,” said Augustin, a middle aged taxi driver on the day that the PFP (Federal Preventative Police) entered Oaxaca city in an attempt to retake it from the APPO (Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Peoples), a movement that has controlled the city since late summer. “Things have never been this tense.”

The Oaxaca issue is the most visible flashpoint in a struggle that has been part of Mexico’s landscape since time immemorial—the peoples’ friction against a wealthy and corrupt ruling class. Primarily, the movement seeks the removal of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a member of the historically omnipotent PRI party. It is widely accepted that Ruiz is a corrupt and heavy-handed ruler, which has been evident in his dealing with the APPO. Disappearances and murders by plainclothes police officers are now common place. Ruiz is the kind of politician that many hoped would be obsolete by now, a throwback to the 1970’s and 80’s when corrupt politicians acted openly with impunity.

However, coming into 2007, Mexico is a different country. In 2000 Vicente Fox became the first president to come from a party other than the PRI. Both he and incoming Calderón are members of the PAN, a rightist pro-business party. Faced with the situation in Oaxaca, Fox displayed a startling outward indifference for many months. He waited until the situation had escalated incredibly and sent in forces in late October, his other options mostly unexplored and therefore exhausted.

Fox may have been just a little distracted. He unabashedly supported Calderón’s bid for the presidency, to the point of using millions of dollars of public funds in pro-PAN TV advertising. When the vote came back too close to call on July 2, all of Mexico’s political mind became preoccupied with the contested election. The leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has not conceded gracefully. Since lifting his occupation of Mexico City’s center in early September, his movement has lost momentum that it seeks to regain on December 1st by staging a series of massive protests. Obrador declared himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico on November 20th and has announced the creation of a parallel national government. As of yet these moves haven’t had a definite effect, but that may well change in December.

The two movements—the APPO in Oaxaca and the lopezobradoristas in Mexico City—have been quick to declare common cause against what they see as corrupt government. It can be read in the graffiti that seems to be growing from every cement crack all over the country: “Ulises has already fallen and Calderón will follow him.” Faced with a political landscape at least as volatile as that of the 1960’s, what will Calderón do when he takes charge? And what will happen December 1st?

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” says another taxista working near Mexico City. “It’s pure blah blah blah, same as always. The dog who barks loudest doesn’t bite.” He may be right. Several key dates have passed this fall without the predicted outbreak of violence and revolution. September 5th the election was called for Calderón by a national court with PAN sympathies. September 16th, Mexican Independence Day, Obrador backed down and allowed the army to stage its traditional parade. October 27th, the PFP moved into Oaxaca and an expected national outcry wasn’t nearly as strong as it might have been.

On the other hand, all of these events could be seen as stepping stones down a path that leads to more drastic events. “Just think about it,” comments Margarita, an elementary school teacher in her 60’s, “1810, Mexican Independence. 1910, the Mexican Revolution. 2010, who knows? A class war?” The possible signs are obvious: Oaxaca, the election, severe economic disparity triggering mass migration, Fox’s squandering of a magnificent and unique opportunity for change and the ensuing widespread disillusion, and the wave of left-leaning governments winning power across Latin America.

From whichever angle it is considered, December 2006 looks to be a key month in the recent history of Mexico. It’s as if millions of hands are extended to the sky all across the country, holding its reassuring blue mass over their heads. On December 1st we’ll see how many decide to drop their hands and pick up arms, in whatever form they come. And more importantly, we’ll see if without their support, that blue sky falls.