What's down the road for Mexico?

IN NOVEMBER CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES WILL TAKE PART in a familiar electoral ritual that may or may not lead to another handover of government from one political party to another. It is commonplace to U.S. citizens that this process will be peaceful and free of political corruption.

In July, Mexico will likewise engage in an electoral contest that also promises to be peaceful and honest. But the probable turnover of power in Mexico will hardly be commonplace.

Mexico, the United States' third largest trading partner and second largest export market, is, for the first time in more than 70 years, on the verge of a political handover of power that is revolutionary in all respects, save force of arms.

Three parties are vying for control of Mexico in what will arguably be the nation's first truly free elections. Since 1929, Mexico has been in all practical respects a one-party state, governed by the powerful and—most acknowledge by now—irreparably corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI.

Dawn of a new era?
Public dissatisfaction with the PRI suggests that its iron grip on power may finally be breaking, but few take that possibility for granted. Irregularities during recent primary voting in Mexico's southern states, where the PRI's hold on power is strongest and the flash points for conflict and chaos are hottest, suggest that the "reformed" PRI is still capable of the vote fraud, violence, and intimidation that has kept it in power throughout most of the 20th century.

How messy the transition of power from the PRI to another party may be is an ongoing worry among Mexican intellectuals. "There is a political and social system that is dying," says one human rights advocate, "and another that is waiting to be born."

"There is a lot of tension, and a lot of concern about the state of civil society in Mexico," says Tom Quigley, the director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) in Washington. "This election will be the bellwether of what we can expect for the future of Mexico."

"It is a new age," agrees Ignacio Cuevas, assistant director of the Centro Nacional de Communicación Social (CENCOS) in Mexico City. CENCOS was created by the Mexican bishops to provide an alternative source for news and opinion in a Mexican media market once completely dominated by the PRI.

To Cuevas, change in the Mexican political system is inevitable simply because the long patience of the Mexican people has been completely exhausted by the intrigues, waste, and drug corruption maintained over decades of PRI rule.

"[President Ernesto] Zedillo and the PRI don't have another option," Cuevas says. "The people don't believe in the system."

Evidence of the disenchantment is widespread, including persistent public doubts about official explanations of the 1994 assassinations of two high-ranking politicians. But public unrest was perhaps most spectacularly demonstrated last year by the student-led takeover of UNAM, Mexico City's National Autonomous University.

A protest that began when education officials tried to apply modest fees to the university class system quickly evolved into a broad student demonstration against the Mexican political system, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the threat students believe the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) pose to their individual futures and Mexican sovereignty.

David Ramírez, a 20-year-old engineering student guarding a makeshift picket a few weeks before police put an end to the strike, embodies the frustration and fatalism of many young people in Mexico who see little in their future but a lifetime of national and personal subordination to global economic interests. Asked if after five months he had grown tired of the strike, he shrugs and says, "What does it matter to lose a few days if it gains you your whole life?"

Border ties that bind
With a population of nearly 100 million, Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world and the second most-populous country in Latin America after Brazil. Poverty and unemployment continue to drive Mexicans away from the nation's rural communities, and now about 70 percent of Mexicans live in urban areas. Cities bordering the United States, where most of Mexico's manufacturing and assembly plants, known as maquilas, are located, have undergone sharp rises in population—sudden growth that has not been matched by proportional increases in public services.

The continuing flow of Mexican and Central American migrants across the border into the United States is only the most obvious reason U.S. citizens need to remain alert to the political and socioeconomic conditions of their closest southern neighbor. Separated by language, culture, and an increasingly militarized border, the U.S. and Mexico nevertheless cannot escape each other geographically. Now, because of trade agreements, they cannot escape each other politically and economically.

The scope of U.S.-Mexican relations includes extensive commercial, cultural, and educational ties that, according to the State Department, lead to nearly 290 million legal crossings between Mexico and the United States each year. More than 500,000 U.S. citizens live in Mexico, and more than 2,600 U.S. companies have operations there. The U.S. accounts for 60 percent of all direct foreign investment in Mexico.

The USCC's Quigley says U.S. and Mexican citizens share many practical concerns, including how to address the problems of migration and environmental degradation along the 2,000-mile border. But U.S. Catholics, he says, should also heed the call issued by Pope John Paul II in his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. This letter, which followed a special synod of bishops of the Americas, calls for greater communion and solidarity among all Catholics in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico, as the entry point for migrants from throughout Latin America, demands special pastoral attention.

As Mexico stands on the precipice of a new political era, it confronts the familiar and seemingly intractable problems of poverty, the treatment of its indigenous peoples, undocumented migration, and corruption and human rights abuses among its political and criminal-justice bureaucracies. There is much that bodes well for the future of Mexico, much that points to an economic future that may liberate it from its "developing world" status.

But there is also much, including increasingly active guerrilla movements deep inside Mexico, that point to older historical patterns of social unrest and political chaos.

Instability in Mexico has inevitable consequences north of the border, and North Americans disregard it at their peril.

"[U.S.] Catholics have a great stake in the stability and the progress of democratization in Mexico," says Quigley. He expects that the importance of Mexican-U.S. relations will only grow as the U.S. Latino community—the fastest growing population in the U.S.—achieves political maturity.

Global-economic glitches
Already Mexican and U.S. church organizations and diocesan and parish groups reach across the border to address a gamut of shared social and economic concerns, says Quigley. "Globalization is not a choice," he says, "it's a fact."

The economic integration effected by NAFTA has produced winners and losers on both sides of the border. "What the church has done," says Quigley, "is shown its continuing interest in helping those most disadvantaged by globalization and in calling those most advantaged by globalization to their responsibilities."

Mexico maintains a per-capita income of just $4,360, but even that depressingly low figure does not adequately illustrate the depths of poverty. Factory workers in the nation's booming maquila industry can earn as little as $3 a day, and the majority of Mexico's large indigenous population subsists virtually outside of the monetary economy entirely.

Official reports indicate that unemployment among Mexico's 37-million workforce is as low as 2 percent, but those figures only include "economically active" workers. Unofficial sources describe government employment statistics as "untrustworthy." They say the harder reality is that almost half the nation's workforce is unemployed or "underemployed," surviving in the so-called informal economy as streetside merchants and temporary workers.

These workers have endured a dramatic devaluation of the peso, which has cut their purchasing power 40 to 50 percent since 1995. According to the World Bank, the fallout from the 1995 banking and currency crisis in Mexico has reversed much of the gains made against poverty over the past two decades.

"I think the most important thing in Mexico is the difference between the rich and the poor," says Cuevas. "There are a few who live like the U.S. or Europe with many opportunities and a good education and cars and many things, but the majority are poor. . . . Many people do not have enough to eat." Thousands of children, abandoned by impoverished parents, live on the streets of Mexico City.

Cuevas complains that the tradeoffs implicit in NAFTA have not benefited Mexicans as a whole, discouraging the growth of domestic industry, opening the nation's agricultural market to global competition it cannot survive, and driving thousands into low-paying maquila work that does not offer a living wage.

Father Enrique Maza, S.J., a prominent Mexican writer and the founder of the influential newsweekly El Proceso, worries that the free-market model of development—adopted in the late 1980s after years of pressure from the U.S. and the IMF and pursued vigorously since then—will continue a process of exclusion of Mexico's poor and indigenous people.

"In 1990, 17 percent of the country had a high degree of marginalization," says Maza. He puts that figure closer to 20 percent now, even six years after the purported economic boom engendered by NAFTA, and "another 30 to 40 percent of the population live in poverty. This is the reality we are living in, and it has translated into social chaos. Millions of Mexicans are on the move to the cities and to the United States."

Reform or chaos
If the successor to outgoing PRI President Zedillo does not better share the national wealth and improve public services in education, health, and nutrition, many worry that Mexico could slip into the political and social chaos that typified its past when desperate peasant armies took up arms against the political and social order. In an alternative scenario, some suggest that a new cycle of Mexican caudillo or strongman politics could rise from the chaos, launching Mexico into another period of authoritarian rule. All anyone knows for sure is that the elections in July will be the turning point of Mexico's new order.

The PRI faces a very real challenge to its rule from the charismatic candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), Vicente Fox. PAN is a conservative party with broad support among middle class voters. Unlike PAN's previous candidates, Fox has populist appeal that has been able to draw the support of Mexico's working class.

Representing the Party of the Democratic Revolution is one of its principal founders, former Mexico City mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Cárdenas has twice run for the presidency and many say would have certainly won one—if not both—elections, had not PRI machinations stolen the elections from him. But Cárdenas has been steadily losing ground in opinion polls and is no longer considered a serious contender.

If the conservative-centrist Fox, a former president of Coca-Cola Mexico, is able to win in July, he will face the daunting challenge of guiding the often shaky $415 billion Mexican economy and broadening the economic rewards of increased trade throughout Mexico's populace. That should be easier to do if the economy is able to maintain the impressive growth rate of 4.6 percent it enjoyed in 1998, but there are no guarantees that even a booming economy will mean a better standard of living for Mexico's poorest.

Tax evasion is a pastime for the wealthy in Mexico, and Fox faces restraints on domestic social spending imposed by the structural-adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

Meanwhile increased military spending on Mexico's drug war and efforts to contain insurgencies in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero will further strain the federal government's resources. Fox may find it fiscally and politically impossible to better distribute any accumulating wealth through improved government social services.

Simmering violence
Cuevas would like to see a new administration find additional resources for social welfare through taxation but worries any additional money the state may acquire will be spent on "security" issues. The crime rate is a national obsession in Mexico. Improved security is "pointed to as a solution for the moment," he says. "But what Mexico needs is better education and nutrition."

Mexico has made substantial strides in education. In 1994, an estimated 59 percent of the population between the ages of 6 and 18 were enrolled in school. But such gains remain tenuous. Two million children still do not have access to basic education, and Mexico's "compulsory" education level of 12th grade remains more a social aspiration than a realized standard.

To many, the true government response to poverty can be glimpsed in its reactions to a number of indigenous rural uprisings that have scattered across the Mexican map in defiance of the nation's stride into modernity. "Many of the solutions that the government takes against poverty have been police or military solutions and solutions of authority and exclusion," says Maza.

Referring to the 1994 indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Maza says sarcastically, "Only after 500 years, when they finally shot a bullet, did we find out that Indians exist and that they want to eat three meals a day." He worries that after years of negotiation, Mexico is leaning toward a military solution to the unrest in Chiapas to "shut out the pain of the Indians."

The use of security to restrain a restive people is not limited to the indigenous communities or the countryside. Human rights activists say political disappearances and summary executions are more widespread in Mexico's modernized north than the U.S. public is led to believe. They charge that scores of community activists, dissidents, and journalists have been "disappeared" or assaulted by security forces in recent years.

Father Ernesto Cortez, S.J. is the director of the Jesuit-sponsored Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico City. His is the kind of work that in other countries invites accolades but in Mexico can attract death threats. His center has tracked continuing human rights abuses, including torture and summary executions of indigenous people in Guerrero and Chiapas.

These human rights violations are a "sign of civil instability," according to Cortez.

"The process toward democracy [in Mexico] is not consolidated," he says. "As a result we see more resistance and militarization" in response to civil unrest.

The center's work has not gone unnoticed. Cortez has personally received several death threats over the phone, in the mail, or left pointedly in his desk drawer, as have a number of the center's attorneys. One staffer has been abducted and terrorized on two separate occasions, apparently by Mexican security forces. Human rights advocates like Cortez say it is imperative that political pressure to improve economic and social conditions in Mexico is applied from outside the country, from the United States and Europe.

He wryly observes, "Sometimes we find it is better to talk to people in Washington or Geneva because it seems the Zedillo government understands things better in English than in Spanish."

Cortez casts a wary eye on the growing military relationship between Mexico and the United States. Over the past decade, the U.S. has supplied Mexico through sales or aid with as much as $400 million in military training and hardware—including "surplus" troop-carrying Huey helicopters, tanks, riot control gear, and C-26 transport planes. Critics of these arms transfers say that's too much offensive hardware for a country that is technically at peace with all nations save some of the indigenous "nations" within its own borders.

"A lot of these arms come justified as being intended for drug fighting," says Cortez. "This is the public reason [the U.S. and Mexican governments] give. But it's very easy for these arms to be used for other reasons, such as counterinsurgency aimed at indigenous communities."

Economic rights
But the principal violator of human rights in Mexico, according to Rafael Alvarez, an attorney for the center, is the economy.

"For us, economic rights are human rights. Civil organizations in Mexico consider the right to work, a decent salary, education, and health as fundamental human rights. And in Mexico there are ongoing and massive violations of these types of rights by the political decisions of the free market—foreign businesses, international financiers, and free trade accords."

For Maza, solutions to the problems of inequity and poverty in Mexico cannot be reached without the active participation of consumers and workers in the United States.

How to create networks between consumers and workers in the U.S. and Mexico that can get beyond U.S. worry over lost jobs and declining wages remains a challenge. "How do we raise consciousness without raising acrimony?" he asks, adding "And what can we expect of Catholic business [people]?"

The answer to his question may be found hunched over a drink at a hotel bar near Mexico City's lively Zona Rosa. "Thomas" is a small part of one vision of Mexico's future, an embodiment of the ongoing campaign to make Mexico a part of the global economy. A German national, Thomas lives in Colombia and works for a U.S. company that's currently transferring him to a new position in Mexico City.

"We've got facilities all over the world," he says of his company. "In Asia, in Europe, in Mexico—even in Rockford, Illinois," he says. Adding sotto voce, "We're getting out of Colombia; it's too much of a mess."

Thomas admits that Mexico has its share of problems, too, but he is downright cheerful over the prospects offered by NAFTA and the economic and political opportunity he thinks it represents. "This is the first time that a Third World country is an equal partner [in a trade agreement] with a First World country."

Thomas says North Americans have a "moral obligation" to help their neighbors to the south, and he thinks NAFTA is all the help they need to rise out of poverty in the long term.

"Sure, in the short term you'll continue to have problems of cheap labor [in Mexico] and cheap goods getting into the U.S. . . . but in the long run Mexico will grow up to be a partner, and then you have a big possibility to invest in this country.

"You have a hundred million people here," he says, shaking his head in grinning awe at the vision of that vast consumer market. "You could make more money than you can imagine."

How that imaginary money is generated and how it will be distributed will be the critical tests of the maturation of civil society in Mexico. Economic and political advocates there say it will also be a test of the networks of solidarity they hope can be created between the people of the U.S. and Mexico, an alternative interconnection of religious and civic interests to parallel the progressing interconnection of U.S. and Mexican corporate and political interests.

"We won't reject globalization," says Cortez. "It's a fact. But we can't just have a globalization of the economies; we believe this globalization must include a globalization of justice." 

Kevin Clarke is Claretian Publications' managing editor for online products. Last September he participated in the first-ever North American regional meeting of the International Catholic Union of the Press in Mexico City, which studied the effects of globalization on communities in Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

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