The Hurricanes of a Model in Crisis
Mexico's transition to democracy seems more distant than ever, with drug problems, financial scandals, and more recently the distruption of an early debate over presidential succession. Then, as the year was coming to an end, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes struck Mexico. More than a few people see these natural disasters as emblems of what is happening in society.
Before hitting Mexico, Hurricane Mitch spent most of its fury on Central America, especially Honduras and Nicaragua. The devastation is so extensive that Central America's Presidents have urged that there be a kind of Marshall Plan for the region.
Zedillo's solicitousness, people's solidarity Governments around the world sent aid to the disaster victims in Central America. Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo seemed especially solicitous in encouraging aid from several governments as well as from the Mexican people. But he was motivated more by practical than humanitarian concerns: Zedillo hoped to forestall a flood of thousands of impoverished and newly homeless Central Americans into Mexico, bringing with them the risk of spreading diseases contracted through the contaminated waters.
One anecdote reveals the limits of how "close to the people" Zedillo really gets. During one of his recent tours, he was approached by an indigenous woman carrying a small napkin on which she had embroidered an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When she tried to sell it to him, the President quickly sidestepped her, saying aloofly and half in English, "no traigo cash"—"I don't have any money on me."
Ignoring such posturing and stinginess on the part of some politicians, people around the world have responded to Central America's tragedy with true solidarity, proving that neoliberalism's inhuman blows have not hardened their hearts.
The FOBAPROA debate is still going on Nature has been cruel, but the worst disasters afflicting the majority of Mexicans today can be blamed on the government's economic policies. The FOBAPROA case, the Chiapas crisis and the 1999 budget that the government presented to Congress have already had and will continue to have devastating effects.
Controversy is still swirling around the problem of FOBAPROA, the Bank Fund to Protect Savings, which was used not only to bail out big investors after the bubble of their speculative investments burst but also to cover up illegal campaign contributions to the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In the third quarter of 1998, the financial system received a subsidy of over 380 million pesos (around US$47 million) from the federal government via FOBAPROA. The PRI and the opposition National Action Party (PAN) hammered out an agreement around PAN's proposed technical procedures to resolve the FOBAPROA case. The PAN proposal, which is to create an institute to protect bank deposits, would cost taxpayers the equivalent of about $28 million (41.7% of FOBAPROA's debt), to be paid over an as yet undefined period of time.
The PAN agreed to ensure the plan's approval in the Mexican House of Representatives on the condition that Guillermo Ortiz, the current head of the Bank of Mexico, not be on the new institution's governing board. But Zedillo was not ready to lop off his friend's head. Instead, the PRI has sought a transitional agreement: Ortiz will not be involved in the new institution during the audit—a process that in any case is being carried out without all the necessary information.
For its part, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has said that, although Ortiz is responsible, his head is not worth so many millions. The PRD bench described the PAN proposal as an attempt to legalize robbery, since it would make a state institution responsible for FOBAPROA's illegal debt. It accused the PAN of taking contradictory positions and attempting to deceive the public. While the PAN insists that nothing in its 552 billion peso ($67 billion) package will become public debt, its proposal seeks to regulate a way to transfer this debt to the new institution. In essence, its proposal is simply that the government agree to use taxpayers' money to pay for everything that cannot be recovered from FOBAPROA's overdue loan portfolio.
The corrupt get away, everyone else pays In response to this proposal, questions are increasingly being raised about why everyone should have to pay for the losses incurred by a small group of inept, crooked people. While PRI representatives respond with cynicism, PAN representatives are trying to confuse people by presenting themselves as "responsible" politicians who want to keep the financial system from collapsing, when their real objective is to get the government out of its bind.
In mid-November, Zedillo raised the price of fuel to 45% above what it costs across the border, in the United States. With this hike, and the additional revenue from taxes imposed on those higher fuel prices, the government hopes to bring in some 13.3 billion pesos with which to make the first payment on FOBAPROA's promissory notes, due in one year's time. The 1999 budget presented to Congress includes the interest that has to be paid on FOBAPROA's debt, thus treating these liabilities as though they were already public debt. It also includes steep price hikes in goods, telephone and other public services and taxes—another turn of the screw against the poor.
According to official figures, ten million people joined the ranks of the poor during the first two years of the Zedillo government. The salaries of those privileged enough to still have jobs are 60% lower in terms of buying power than they were 38 years ago. And the budget debate had not yet even begun when the prices of basic goods rose even more as a result of the higher fuel prices. In December 1998 a worker needs to put in 34 hours of work to purchase the same products in the basic food basket that could be bought in 1987 with only 8 hours of work.
The model is breaking down Zedillo appears confident that his budget proposal will pass, and proclaimed that he will accept the political responsibility for its design. A group of PRI legislators expressed their discomfort over the political cost involved in approving it, but were promptly disciplined. The PAN announced that it would not agree to the proposed tax hike, which even private enterprise opposes, while the PRD called for a national strike against the fiscal package.
The PRD argued that poverty and misery already afflict 60 million Mexicans, while the wealth of the nation doesn't reach even 2% of the population. It also described the proposal to allot 25 billion pesos to cover FOBAPROA's interest payments as extremely unjust.
The government is bent on pushing the tax hikes through despite this opposition from all quarters. The Secretary of Government dismissed the possibility that the higher taxes and the new price increases would lead to social upheaval. Meanwhile critics have described the 1999 budget proposal and the obstinate government attitude as clear evidence of the breakdown of a model of government that refuses to recognize its limits and inequities.
The PRI representatives got so nervous that the secretary of the treasury stepped in to assure them that they have nothing to fear. To try to calm them down, he pointed out that the FOBAPROA scandal had no serious repercussions on the 1998 local elections. Grouping together the results of all 15 local elections held this year, the PRI got 47.3% of the vote, the PAN 28.9% and the PRD 17%. What happened was that the PRI recovered municipal votes in the large state capitals while the PAN was the big loser. Based on this, the PRI is making optimistic predictions for the next presidential elections. Other analysts, however, have begun to suggest more nuanced readings, noting that the state party in fact lost votes in absolute terms. They also argue that if FOBAPROA has not yet cost them votes among the electorate it is simply because people's pockets have not yet been hit by the case. The price hikes occurred after the elections. Furthermore, the electorate behaves differently in local and federal elections.
A drugged economy On another front, the Federal Electoral Institute's General Council finally decided to investigate PRD charges regarding the PRI's 1994 presidential campaign financing. It has been proven that trusteeships with financial engineering mechanisms to benefit the PRI were set up through the Banco Unión. This bank, owned by Cabal Peniche, a big PRI contributor who fled justice when accused of tax evasion, provided loans to fictitious companies as a cover for channeling the money to the PRI, and of course these defaulted "loans" later found their way into FOBAPROA. Ernesto Zedillo's election was tainted by such illegal maneuvers.
The PRD offered proof that Peniche had contributed US$30 million to PRI coffers, in addition to a 50 million-peso remittance. This was a scandalous violation of legislation on campaign spending limits, personal contributions to political parties and reports on party spending. The fraudulent origin of these funds is a whole other factor in the scandal.
The Federal Electoral Institute's decision to investigate the PRD's denunciations led the PRI to withdraw its representative from this autonomous institute and launch a campaign to lynch the electoral council members. The fact that the state party has resisted the investigation, to say nothing of resorting to its old tactic of buying votes in the local elections held over the course of 1998, illustrates that Mexico's political panorama is still a spectacle of involution. The notion of a free vote is again under attack in what is a perverse phenomenon: the state party buys votes from the very people it has impoverished with its economic policies, so that with the support of these votes it can intensify these same impoverishing economic policies. It is no exaggeration to say that the goal of a transition to democracy is still very distant.
Even the annual report of the Geopolitical Drug Observatory, published in France, charged that the Mexican economy has been "drugged" and that what was once described as the state party's "perfect dictatorship" is being held captive by the disorder and violence of an early debate over presidential succession.
Chiapas: misery and mistakes One of the Zedillo government's biggest debts has to do with its failure to follow through on agreements regarding indigenous rights and culture that it signed with the Zapatistas. Zedillo has simply refused to comply with the agreements. A group of PRI senators in the "Galileo group" used a recent study of Chiapas to show that social deterioration not only persists in this state, but has gotten worse in indigenous regions. The figures are shocking: 90% of Chiapas' population lives in poverty, 75% of them in extreme poverty. They live alongside a politically reactionary oligarchy that is unable to modernize the state and is ready to defend its privileges at any cost. The study notes that the government's development projects may well form part of a war strategy.
The group of senators called on the government to rise above its stubborn refusal to recognize its errors and seek a new way to solve the Chiapas conflict. The disasters caused by the hurricanes that struck Chiapas this year revealed many of these errors. The government has boasted of making huge investments in the area, but when the effects of the flooding were analyzed, it was impossible to see where this investment had gone.
Difficult peace talks At the end of November, during celebrations to mark the 88th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, the new generation of Zapatistas met with representatives of civil society organizations to search for peace. At the same time, the rulers were busy defending their anti-popular measures—ones worse than those that had sparked the revolution in the first place.
The peace talks between the EZLN and the government had broken down over the government's refusal to fulfill the San Andrés agreement signed in early 1996. Instead, Zedillo's government decided to wage war against the indigenous communities that had supported the Zapatistas. The Acteal massacre in December 1997 was part of this strategy. Despite national and international demands that the government disarm the paramilitary bands made up of PRI members that have caused the displacement of so many indigenous people in Chiapas, the government has harassed groups of international observers, persecuted indigenous people demanding autonomy and supported the paramilitary bands. Its pressure led to the resignation of CONAI, the commission to intermediate in the peace talks headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz.
Finally, the Commission for Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA), the legislative commission collaborating in the dialogue, managed to contact the Zapatista leadership, which set up a meeting in San Cristóbal on November 20-22, during its talks with civil society organizations. Several days before this meeting, Subcomandante Marcos gave an interview to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the EZLN's founding. Marcos stressed that the Zapatistas have learned to listen to civil society groups and recognized that they have made some mistakes, including hasty judgments of some social and political actors. The Zapatistas see two issues as fundamental: resolving the indigenous question and making the transition to democracy. Marcos has concluded that the government is determined to maintain its economic model without losing any sleep over the political costs of its decision.
Hurricanes and poverty Zedillo could not care less about the transition to democracy. In contrast, a group of actors that are often portrayed as in the minority—civil organizations—are demonstrating that they can build another agenda for the transition, based on the problems of the poor. The dialogue between the Zapatistas and these groups does not aim to create a program of government, but rather a program for the nation.
This year the government tried to wear down the Zapatistas' discourse, so they responded with silence for a long time. This made the government even angrier and it wore itself down with a monologue of intolerant power.
The Zapatistas spoke again when the time was right. They have sought to send a message not only to people's heads but also to their hearts. Commenting on the floods caused by several hurricanes in Chiapas this year, they noted that the rains swept away not only roads, but also the government's pretense that its investments in Chiapas have resolved all the social problems there. Once the stage set fell, the colossal poverty and misery of people who supposedly no longer lived like that became patently clear. In response to the PRD's referendum on FONAPROA, the Zapatistas suggested that it is also important to ask what people who disagree with the government should do.
In civil society's hands With respect to talks with the government, the EZLN has been perfectly clear: the talks cannot resume until the government unequivocally chooses to resolve the conflict through peaceful means, which implies fulfilling agreements and abandoning all hopes for a military solution. To the government's tiresome accusation that the EZLN is responsible for holding up the talks in order to influence the presidential elections in the year 2000, the Zapatistas have responded that it is not an issue of a particular candidate being elected, but of particular conditions being met. Although the PRI may win the elections using its traditional methods, it will then face a problem of legitimacy, which the PRI is in short supply of, together with credibility. The Zapatistas believe that democratic spaces will be opened up not by the political class but by civil society. They also know that Zedillo's economic model will further deteriorate political relations. In this context, the Zapatistas have renewed their commitment to civil society to explore all possible means to peacefully resolve the conflict.
Success and a mission The EZLN's meeting with the legislative commission COCOPA was not an amiable one. COCOPA felt that the EZLN was treating it as a counterpart rather than as an organization collaborating in the talks. But the rough edges were finally smoothed over and an agreement was reached to meet again. The government attempted to send proposals through COCOPA but the EZLN refused to receive the letters, pointing out that COCOPA is not a mediator. The government tried to publicize this as evidence that the EZLN doesn't want to talk. It also claimed that the civil society groups participating in the talks are not representative—as though the government should be able to define who makes up civil society! The meeting between the civil groups and the EZLN, however, was a success. Representatives from 28 of the country's 32 federations and some 400 different organizations participated, along with observers from 18 countries. The meetings were open and inclusive. Over 3,000 people, most of them young, discussed forms for a national referendum on indigenous rights.
The indigenous people's representatives explained how they not only shared the pain that dampened their land and sky throughout this period of cyclones and hurricanes, but discussed with each other how to create another, better world, one that would give room, respect, an ear and a voice "to the others we all are." Civil society was mobilized for this meeting, and another mobilization is being prepared for the referendum: the EZLN will send a man and a woman to each of the country's municipalities, making up a contingent of nearly 5,000 indigenous Zapatistas on a political mission. After this, a demonstration will be organized to give out the results of the national referendum with civil society, and another to take these results to Congress.
Zedillo finds the Zapatistas intolerable The Zapatistas see all these actions as part of the people's struggle for democracy and justice. They analyzed how the government has made a business out of its war against indigenous people. They demonstrated how, each time a sign appears that raises the hopes for peace, the government—or the army, which has 60,000 soldiers in Chiapas— creates provocations to stifle the search for that peace and tries instead to annihilate the EZLN. Indigenous people are harassed on a daily basis. They have to put up with a campaign of lies and pretences against them. Attempts are periodically made to buy their dignity and their shame. The Zapatistas have been attacked in a war of extermination, but have resisted by organizing collective work to solve their food, health, education and housing problems. The communities' few resources are used not to buy arms, but to organize projects to improve their material conditions, and not so they can live better, but so they can go on resisting and fighting until the rights of all indigenous people in Mexico are recognized.
The indigenous Zapatistas showed that Zedillo's government can't tolerate the fact that a handful of indigenous people have dared defy its empire of lies and corruption. They denounced the fact that Zedillo's campaign propaganda promised Mexican families well-being, but his government has actually offered "austerity," another name for poverty. Neoliberal policies promised bonanza and brought catastrophes. Unemployment has risen, prices are higher than salaries, small and medium-sized businesses are going bankrupt. Plans are made only to save the rich, as in the FOBAPROA case. The Zapatistas warned that the government might change the name of this plan but not its objective, and that all Mexicans were being obliged to pay for FOBAPROA in order to bail out the rich.
The Zapatistas already negotiated with the government, to the point of reaching an agreement in 1996, and they want to see it fulfilled. The government did not comply with it yet now wants to see the Zapatistas come back to the negotiating table with no guarantees. The Zapatistas are insisting on the path of genuine dialogue, but say that to return to it, the government has to honor its agreements, get the army out of the communities and back into their barracks, disarm the paramilitary bands and free the political prisoners. The government pretends it wants dialogue but then vents its cruelty in a war against indigenous people that it resents for not being submissive. When the war began in 1994, civil society stepped in and obliged the parties to seek the path of peace through dialogue. The Zapatistas want a peace that resolves the very social problems that led them to take up arms, a peace with justice, democracy and dignity. Now, four years later, civil society is a key force in the search for this peace. Analysts have shown how dialogue has a prominent place in the government's rhetoric, but not in its concrete actions. The government's willingness to talk has been subordinated to its war strategy. By dialogue it understands surrender, not negotiation. But the EZLN's dialogue with civil society has helped stave off the war.
The EZLN's power to mobilize The EZLN's meeting with civil society demonstrated once again its power to mobilize people, and pleased the Zapatistas greatly. They praised the fact that civil society, this force that so exasperates governments and political analysts, refused to stay hunkered down. They proved that people are already more critical and active. They insisted that the solution will not come from above, but will be built from below and with those from below. New social and civic movements, with a variety of different banners, have begun to push for another way of doing politics, to struggle not just for representative democracy, but for direct democracy. For these movements, the problem is not who will be the next President, but how to end the authoritarian presidency and the state-party system. With these goals, they know they are different and are fighting for the right to join together with others without giving up what makes them different.
In their conclusions to the meeting, the participants called on the legislative commission COCOPA to comply with its institutional democratic mandate and concentrate on pushing through and defending its own bill on indigenous rights and culture, which is an acceptable interpretation of the San Andrés accords. They denounced the unconstitutional use of the armed forces in this war. In response to the militarization policy, the civil society represented there proposed following other paths in the search for peace: getting the army out of the communities, freeing political prisoners, providing displaced people with the conditions necessary to return to their homes, presenting those who have been "disappeared," establishing a tribunal against impunity, putting peaceful civic resistance into practice, and redirecting military spending towards programs that create jobs, self-supporting development and social welfare. They demanded that a new mediator between the EZLN and the government be established immediately, one that is pluralistic and morally principled, with a national and international presence. And they praised the EZLN's "sensitivity" in contrast with the increasingly aberrant deafness of those in power in response to the nation's demands and feelings.
Mexico's gruff volcano The poorest of Mexico's people have taken a pounding this year, both from nature and from harsh neoliberal policies. Every day there is increasing evidence of something an old politician warned about a long time ago: Mexico's gruff volcano is being provoked. Fortunately, faced with the stupidity of their rulers, groups of civil society have been emerging that are imaginatively looking for a peaceful social change that brings democracy, justice and dignity, and that will calm the volcano's rumblings.