Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 195 | Octubre 1997



Baby Steps Towards Democracy

After the change experienced in the country after the electoral process, the key questions that remain important and should orient the opposition now that it has a greater share of power are these: how many participated? in how many places? about which concerns? Only when the answers to these three questions is “the majority” will Mexico have arrived a true democracy.

Human Rights Center Miguel Agustín Pro

Krauze called it a "foundational performance" some minutes after it concluded. Others termed it "the country's novelty." And though they sound a little overblown, both expressions point to something we Mexicans experienced during the ceremony of the Third Report of President Zedillo's government on September 1.

For the first time ever in the country's post-revolutionary history, the legislative branch addressed the President of the nation informally, as an equal. This ushered in the desired possibility of equilibrium and dialogue between the branches of the Republic, one more step in the long path towards democracy.

Zedillo's Speech

The Presidential Report was different, too. Very different in form and somewhat different in content. In form, the change was in the hour of presentation, and in the disappearance of the liturgy that attempts to exalt the presidential figure to the detriment of the dignity of Congress. There were no "interpelations" of the opposition and no "court ceremony" in the Government Palace. We did not see the Chief of the Presidential High Command behind the President. The traditional special invited guests—the diplomatic corps, private enterprise leaders, ecclesiastical dignitaries, presidential family members, military brass, etc.—did not attend. The absence of placards and slogans, and of soldiers forming barricades along the President's traditional motorcade, was noticeable. No cadets from the Military School accompanied the President. Very much a new look.

Despite all this novelty, however, Zedillo did not measure up to what the citizens are demanding and what the national moment requires.

His speech took only an hour and a half, and had a simple five-point outline: 1) Contextual preamble, alluding to the elections, the electoral reform and an ethic of responsibility; 2) foreign policy; 3) domestic policy, basically corruption and lack of public safety; 4) economic, social and cultural policy: education, health and social security, housing, rural areas, employment and finances; and 5) a conclusion with future projections.

The President recognized, for example, and realistically, his government's serious weaknesses in terms of public security, pursuit of crime and administration of justice. But he offered no new ideas to overcome these problems other than a budget increase to the institutions that must deal with them.
Apart from such obvious acknowledgements, the rest of the presidential speech was commonplace, full of abstract principles about sovereignty and social justice. And though he stressed the issues of health and education, the tone in which he spoke of all the economic, social and cultural rights sounded too optimistic.

What Zedillo Did Not Say

The President's speech had serious and inexcusable gaps. Chiapas was absent, as was Zedillo's failure to fulfill the San Andrés accords between the government and the EZLN, even though by that time the Zapatista's decision to begin a march to the capital on September 9 had already been announced. The notable omissions included any reference to indigenous rights, to the armed groups, demographic policy, the advance of AIDS or the human rights situation. Other, no less conflictive points were also missing from the President's message: the most recent privatization failures with the bank and teamster "rescue", or the expired portfolios, for example.

A call to make the current economic policy a state policy was illusory, despite the measured tone that the President used to make the proposal. That economic policy is precisely what has broken the state consensus and that of the country's different political actors, and not because there is disagreement about Mexico's need for economic growth. What is being questioned is the method of growth and who specifically will grow and profit.

It appears that the President of Mexico still believes that the benefits of the growth of monopolistic businesses will be distributed to all Mexicans by magic—"like a waterfall," say the policy's formulators—without broad and precise compensation mechanisms and without income redistribution policies.

Interesting Night Before

Two contextual elements lent a special interest to this speech. One was an agreement reached between the PRI and the alliance formed by the different opposition parties—PAN, PRD, PVEM and PT—in the hours before the presidential presentation. The opposition parties ceded respect to some changes in the format of the presidential speech, and the PRI recognized the legitimacy of the procedures used by the congressional opposition when inaugurating the 57th Legislature. Although it was an extemporaneous and irregular session, the PRI representatives joined it. The confrontation prior to this agreement had led to a very delicate legal-constitutional situation, so it was fortunate that an agreement was reached.

The other element that created expectation and interest was the speech responding to the President's report, which is traditionally presented by the president of Congress. This time, since the mission fell to Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), the PRI wanted to veto him, fearing attacks and disrespect towards Zedillo.

The Step Zedillo Did Not Take

It is evident that in his report Zedillo eluded the issues and tones that would have made the political atmosphere within Congress and outside of it even more tense. Muñoz Ledo did the same by maintaining a respectful and correct attitude, but also by avoiding going to the bottom of the fundamental issue: the relationship that the legislators want with the executive branch. He only proposed equity, equilibrium, respect and fraternity as norms of conduct by the Houses of Congress toward the Presidency.

Muñoz Ledo did pull together issues that the citizens wanted to hear: peace in Chiapas, the rule of law, bank debtors, the authoritarian tendencies still present in the national political scene, and change in the economic model.

There was merit in the President not claiming credit for the country's democratic advances. He and all of us know that the transition we citizens are going through in Mexico is in spite of and against the party and administration currently in office. Zedillo is hardly the Adolfo Suárez of Spain's transition or the Frederick De Clerck of South Africa's transition. He and we know that he has not been a President who has pushed forward democratic change. On balance, he has suffered through this and has acted like the pointer on a scale.

Because of this, it would have been insulting had Zedillo claimed for the PRI the glory of democratic achievements after his party's Congressional representatives ridiculously tried to keep the opposition from using the majority in Congress that they won in the elections.

The September 1, 1997, ceremony marks the end of "imperial" reports. Beyond the content and the omissions, the republican nature was transcendental on this occasion; an opposition congressperson giving the floor to the citizen President, a President who listens to the opposition, a pluralistic and autonomous Congress, an opposition with a state vocation...

Social Policy: Errant Step

There is still a long road of political transition left to travel, however, and this ceremony was only one step along it. The next great challenge will be to continue deepening state reforms and rectifying social policy.

The horizon is worrisome in social policy terms. Before the July 6 election, President Zedillo and his economic Cabinet took another step, but that time along the path that Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Zedillo's predecessor, had marked for them. They walked directly in Salinas' footsteps when they inaugurated PROGRESA (Education, Health and Food Program), a worthy heir to his PRONASOL program.

Social Development Secretary Carlos Rojas Gutiérrez assured again and again that the new program "against poverty" will not be a paternalistic charity program, nor will it be diverted from its initial objectives toward electoral ends, which was an implicit recognition that PRONASOL had been all those things.

What Guarantees?

But who will guarantee that PROGRESA does not become like that, and how? When PRONASOL was implemented, the PRI government had an absolute majority in both Houses and its political power was virtually total. Even in that context and those circumstances there was corruption in the program. Now the PRI and the government have lost a good bit of power to the opposition, the President himself had to head up the PRI campaign, poverty and social discontent is on the rise and the next presidential elections are already on the political horizons. Who and what will guarantee that the new governmental assistance program will be used appropriately and not be diverted?
But this is not the most important. The key thing is that PROGRESA will not touch—nor could it—the causes of extreme poverty in Mexico. It can only be a palliative, an aspirin for a society suffering the cancer of extreme poverty. It will only mitigate some of the effects of that poverty a little bit. The budget for this program is 1.2 billion pesos, which is supposed to "wipe out the vestiges and overcome poverty," in three areas: education, health and food.

Three Pesos a Day

In terms of education, the program seeks, according to Rojas himself, "to improve education and the quality of teaching; to give scholarships linked to school attendance for each child from the third year of primary to the third year of secondary; and to acquire school supplies." Regarding health, there is talk of a basic package of services—especially care and prevention—including the prevention of child malnutrition. And in relation to "food complements," aid in the form of 90 pesos monthly will be channeled through mothers of families.

The optimistic government accounts assume—it is actually an explicit confession!—that 17 million Mexicans are living in extreme poverty. Other organizations say there are over 20 million, but even using the lower number, surprise is justified: the Mexican government thinks it can "substantially improve" the food conditions of this population by giving 90 pesos a month, which comes to 3 pesos a day, to every mother? If the reality of these Mexicans were not so tragic, one might think this was a tasteless joke. Three pesos a day! That's less than US$0.50!

"First the poor were made"

To "substantially improve" these people's educational conditions, the Mexican government—also very generous here—will offer monthly scholarships of 170-200 pesos to needy children. If "there will be substantial improvement" in a family's eating habits with 3 pesos a day, 170-200 pesos a month should be enough to build schools where there are none, repair and improve those that already exist, train teachers and improve salaries, build libraries, sports fields, finance study trips, etc., etc. The same can be said for health aid. All of this, assuming corruption does not detour the 1.2 billion pesos from getting to its destination untouched.

PROGRESA, the populist, charity-oriented—and we hope not also electoral—palliative, is in reality the government's implicit confession that its neoliberal model, in and of itself, is totally unable to end, or even reduce, Mexico's extreme poverty.

There is an old verse of popular tradition, created on the occasion of the inauguration of a charity hospital, that could be applied to welcome PROGRESA: "Mr. Juan de Robres/with unequaled charity/got this hospital built/ ...and first made the poor."

Like a Hitchcock Movie

The pending tasks are enormous. The massive participation of Mexican society in the July 6 elections, the declarations of the different participating parties, the professionalism and efficacy of the media and the role played by the electoral authorities and the Executive demonstrate a level of civilized political action unprecedented in the nation's history. It augurs far-reaching possibilities for the exercise of democracy in Mexico.

Democratic optimism overflowed in the country after the elections. That optimism still persists, and for good reason: the citizenry managed to defeat a powerful state party machine. Even that same day, however, everyone recognized the enormity of what remains to be done. Jorge Alonso, electoral councilor in Jalisco, confessed after the elections that he felt like he was in a Hitchcock movie, just after defeating the great monster: happy, but fearful that, if the protagonists turn their backs for just a second, the monster can reappear. In reality, presidentialism still does control the Senate, the judicial branch and all the state secretariats.

Where Are the New Steps Leading?

The electoral victory and the positive steps reflected by the initiation of the legislative activity constitute progress toward democracy. No one doubts this and everyone is congratulating each other. But where should the steps now be directed? The key to a democratic transition is that these advances be used strategically, within a process of accumulating democratic forces.

From this perspective, it is not just an issue of demonstrating that the opposition is capable of governing. It means, above all, focusing efforts in three central directions:
* Towards rupturing state corporate structures and building in their place a culture of participation and plurality.

* Towards broadening the alliances of different social sectors that have democratic interests.

* Towards creating a cohesive identity of the social subject that can promote a new federal pact.

The Steps Still to Be Taken

Everyone agrees that a democracy requires conditions that are still lacking in Mexico:
* A low level of social exclusion (the neoliberalism applied in Mexico and worldwide is essentially exclusionary).

* Effective control of the elected by their electors (in Mexico "delegationist" practices and concepts still prevail).

* Congruence between legislation and reality. That is to say, full implementation of the rule of law.

* A low level or total absence of authoritarian and repressive practices by the state.

* The possibility of mediation and management of social conflicts, oriented towards consensus- building.

* A guarantee of alternative information about issues that society needs to decide on.

* Protection by the justice system of society's weakest and most vulnerable groups.

* A true balance of powers.

All of these characteristics of a democratic society are far from present in the Mexican social fabric. Social inequalities and political fragmentation work against democracy. The key questions that remain valid and should orient the opposition parties now that they have more participation in the power structures are: how many of them participate? in how many places? about how many issues? Only when the responses to these three questions are: "the majority," will Mexico have reached democratic normalcy.

The Zapatistas Also Take a Step

A successful electoral process does not automatically make any society democratic. While there cannot be democracy without democratic electoral processes, democracy cannot be reduced to a series of mechanisms or procedures.

Democracy is a disputed concept. Its concrete significance is being defined in every situation at every moment. At this century's end it is the turn of the majority, of the poor and excluded, to define and make democracy their own.

Omitted in the President's speech, but present more than ever in Mexico's new reality, the indigenous Zapatistas also decided to take a step toward democracy, one that signifies participation and not exclusion.

On September 9, 1,011 members of the Zapatista National Liberation Front (EZLN) began a march to the capital, which should end on October 12 in the Plaza del Zócalo, where they will demand the demilitarization of Chiapas and fulfillment of the San Andrés Agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture.

Along the way they will be joined by thousands of indigenous people from other areas of the country. The Zapatistas travel with their faces covered with black kerchiefs, but unarmed. "They want to test whether there is democracy in Mexico or not," say those who are accompanying them on this historic march.

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