21st-Century Mexico and Oaxaca
End of An Era: Vicente Fox Unseats the PRI
During 1998 and 1999 the focal point of opposition to the PRI’s three-generation rule had been shifting to relative newcomer Vicente Fox, former President of Coca-Cola Mexico and clean former PAN governor of Guanajuato.
Fox, who had announced his candidacy for president two years before the election, seemed an unlikely challenger. After all, the minority PAN had always been the party of wealthy businessmen and the conservative Catholic right. But blunt-talking, six-foot-five Fox, who sometimes campaigned in vaquero boots and a 10-gallon cowboy hat, preached populist themes of coalition building and “inclusion.” He backed up his talk by carrying his campaign to hardscrabble city barrios, dirt-poor country villages, and traditional outsider groups, such as Jews.
In a relatively orderly and fair July 2, 2000, election, Fox decisively defeated his PRI opponent Labastida, 42 percent to 38 percent, while PRD candidate Cárdenas polled a feeble 17 percent. Fox’s win also swept a PAN plurality (223/209/57) into the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies lower house (although the Senate remained PRI-dominated).
Nevertheless, in pushing the PRI from the all-powerful presidency after 71 consecutive years of domination, Fox had ushered Mexico into a new, more democratic era.
Despite stinging criticism from his own ranks, President Zedillo, whom historians were already praising as the real hero behind Mexico’s new democracy, made an unprecedented early appeal for all Mexicans to unite behind Fox.
On the eve of Fox’s December 1, 2000, inauguration, Mexicans awaited his speech with hopeful anticipation. He did not disappoint them. Although acknowledging that he couldn’t completely reverse 71 years of PRI entrenchment in his one six-year term, he vowed to ride the crest of reform, by revamping the tax system and reducing poverty by 30 percent, by creating a million new jobs a year through new private investment in electricity and oil production, and by forming a new common market with Latin America, the United States, and Canada.
He promised, moreover, to secure justice for all by a much-needed reform of police, the federal attorney general, and the army. Potentially most difficult of all, Fox called for the formation of an unprecedented congressional “Transparency Commission” to investigate a generation of past grievances, including the 1968 massacre of student demonstrators and assassinations of, among others, a Roman Catholic cardinal in 1993 and a popular presidential candidate in 1994.
Vicente Fox, President of Mexico
Wasting little time getting started, President Fox first headed to Chiapas to confer with indigenous community leaders. Along the way, he shut down Chiapas military bases and removed dozens of military roadblocks. Back in Mexico City, he sent the long-delayed peace plan, including the indigenous bill of rights, to Congress. Zapatista rebels responded by journeying en masse from Chiapas to Mexico City, where, in their black masks, they addressed Congress, arguing for indigenous rights. Although by mid-2001 Congress had passed a modified version of the negotiated settlement, and the majority of states had ratified the required constitutional amendment, indigenous leaders condemned the legislation plan as watered down and unacceptable, while proponents claimed it was the best possible compromise between the Zapatistas’ demands and the existing Mexican constitution.
On the positive side, by mid-2002 Vicente Fox could claim credit for cracking down on corruption and putting drug lords in jail, negotiating a key immigration agreement with the United States, keeping the peso stable, clamping down on inflation, and attracting a record pile of foreign investment dollars.
Furthermore, Fox continued to pry open the door to democracy in Mexico. In May 2002, he signed Mexico’s first freedom of information act, entitling citizens to timely copies of all public documents from federal agencies. Moreover, Fox’s long-promised “Transparency Commission” was taking shape. In July 2002, federal attorneys were taking extraordinary action. They were questioning a list of 74 former government officials, including ex-President Luis Echeverrí, about their roles in government transgressions, notably political murders and the University of Mexico massacres during the 1960s and 1970s.
But, Mexico’s economy, reflecting the U.S. economic slowdown, began to sour in 2001, losing half a million jobs and cutting annual growth to 2.5 percent, down from the 4.5 percent that the government had predicted. Furthermore, a so-called “Towelgate” furor (in which aides had purchased dozens of $400 towels for the presidential mansion) weakened Fox’s squeaky-clean image.
During 2002 and 2003, the Mexican economy continued its lackluster performance, increasing public dissatisfaction. In the July 7, 2003, congressional elections, voters took their frustrations out on the PAN and gave its plurality in the Chamber of Deputies to the PRI. When the dust settled, the PRI total had risen to 225 seats, while the PAN had slipped to 153. The biggest winner, however, was the PRD, which gained more than 40 seats, to a total of about 100.
The best news of 2004 was not political, but economic. The Mexican economy, reflecting that of the United States, began to recover, expanding at a moderate (if not robust) rate of about 4 percent, while exports to the United States also increased.
By mid-2005, despite only modest political gains and with his term mostly spent, critics were increasingly claiming that Vicente Fox was a lame-duck president who had run out of time to accomplish what he promised. But Fox, despite a hostile congress that almost continuously blocked his legislative proposals, could claim some solid accomplishments. During his first five years, he had pushed through significant gains in indigenous rights, national reconciliation and government transparency, drug enforcement, U.S.–Mexico immigration policy, social security reform, housing, and education. Moreover, in addition to nurturing a recovering economy, no one could deny that Fox had kept exports robust, the peso strong against the dollar and had clamped the lid on inflation.
Unfortunately, despite President Fox’s efforts at the national level, serious political trouble surfaced in Oaxaca in mid-2006. It started mildly enough. In May 2006, Oaxaca’s statewide teachers union went on their perennial strike for much-needed higher wages. They accused PRI governor Ulises Ruiz of diverting millions of dollars in education funds to his controversial pet public works projects. Soon, hundreds of teachers were camping out in the zócalo and staging daily political rallies. Their rhetoric increasingly focused on the credibility of Governor Ruiz, who consistently refused to negotiate with them.
By mid-June, when teachers began barricading streets around the zócalo, Ruiz sent in his police, who brutally manhandled the nonviolent middle-class demonstrators. The protest escalated quickly. The teachers allied themselves with their left-leaning supporters, forming an umbrella protest organization, the APPO (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), and added the demand that Governor Ruiz must step down.
During the summer months of July, August, and September, the protests turned violent. Highways were blocked, buses were burned, a radio station was occupied, and several people were shot to death. By October, downtown Oaxaca City resembled a ghost town. Tourism had evaporated, and consequently, all businesses, including hotels and restaurants, had shut their doors.
The focus then shifted to Mexico City, where teachers, negotiating with federal authorities, got their requested wage increase. Furthermore, the federal Chamber of Deputies voted overwhelmingly that Governor Ruiz must vacate his office.
In late October, President Vicente Fox, spurred by the killing of an American news reporter, acted. He sent a brigade of federal troops and police to Oaxaca, who removed the street barricades and dispersed the protestors while inflicting only minimal injuries. The local townspeople, breathing a sigh of relief, turned out, and in two days they swept up the mess, painted over the accumulated graffiti, opened their businesses, and filled the streets, buying flowers to celebrate the November 1–2 Day of the Dead holiday.
At this writing, in February 2008, the teachers have gotten their raise and returned to work, and peace has continued for an entire year in Oaxaca. Although it’s still usually quiet around the zócalo, visitors are beginning to return. Merchants and restaurateurs are serving an increasing flow of customers, and hotels are placing lodging discounts on their websites and accepting reservations.
And lastly, what’s very important for visitors to realize is that, through all of the recent political trouble, the people of Oaxaca have overwhelmingly remained appreciative of visiting travelers and are now increasingly looking forward to again sharing their celebrated handicrafts, delicious cuisine, and beloved fiestas with all visitors who come to their lovely city and surrounding valley.
The Election of 2006
During the first half of 2006, as Vicente Fox was winding down his presidency, Mexicans were occupied by the campaign to elect his successor. Most headlines went to the PRD candidate, the mercurial leftist-populist Andres Manuel López Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City. Trying hard not to be upstaged was the steady, no-nonsense PAN candidate, Harvard-educated centrist-conservative Felipe Calerón, a leading light of President Fox’s cabinet.
On Sunday, July 2, 2006, 42,000,000 Mexicans cast their ballots. In an intensely monitored election marred by very few irregularities, unofficial returns indicated that voters had awarded Calderón a paper-thin plurality. Four days later, after all returns were certified, the Federal Electoral Institute announced the official vote tally: only about 22 percent for the PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, with the remaining lion’s share divided nearly evenly, with 38.7 percent going to Obrador and 39.3 percent for Calderón. This result, the Federal Electoral Institute ruled, was too close to declare a winner without a recount.
Besides the close Obrador-Calderón vote, the election results revealed much more. Not only were the 32 electoral entities (31 states and the Federal District) divided equally, with 16 going for Obrador, and 16 for Calderón, the vote reflected a nearly complete north-south political schism, with virtually all of the 16 PAN-majority states forming a solid northern bloc, while the 16 PRD-voting states did the same in the south. Furthermore, the election appeared to signal a collapse of PRI power; with no state (nor the Federal District) giving either a majority or a plurality to Robverto Madrazo.
A howl of protest came from Obrador and his PRD followers after the election results were announced. They claimed the PAN had stolen the election. They jammed the Federal Electoral Institute with lawsuits, alleging a host of irregularities and ballot stuffing incidents, and demanding a complete recount of all 42,000,000 ballots. They yelled, marched, blocked Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma and camped in the zócalo central plaza.
For a month, the questionable ballots were gathered and examined exhaustively by the Supreme Election Tribunal, an impeccable panel of federal judges. They found that the recount shifted the margin by only by a few thousand votes away from Calderón to Obrador. On September 6, the Federal Electoral Institute declared Calderón the president-elect by a margin of about 240,000 votes, or a bit more than one-half of a percent of the total vote.
Obrador and his supporters screamed foul even louder and threatened to ignore Calderón and/or block his presidency. On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, Obrador convened hundreds of thousands of his supporters in the Mexico City zócalo that declared him the legitimate president. In the succeeding days, the PRD’s obstructionist tactics reached an outrageous climax when a handful of PRD senators and deputies made such a ruckus during a joint session of the federal legislature that they prevented the President of Mexico, for the first time in history, from delivering his annual state of the union address. Mexican voters, watching the PRD’s melodramatic tactics on television, began, in increasing numbers, to say enough was enough. National polls showed that more than two-thirds of Mexicans disapproved of the PRD’s protest behavior. By October, many of the PRD’s leaders agreed, further isolating Obrador and his rump government to a footnote in Mexican history. Mexico’s new democracy, given a gentle shove forward ten years earlier by President Ernesto Zedillo and nurtured for six more years by Vicente Fox, seemed to have again surmounted a difficult crisis and emerged stronger.
An important result of the 2006 election, initially overshadowed by the intense struggle over the presidential vote, but potentially crucial, was the federal legislative vote, in which PAN emerged as the biggest winner by far. The final results showed that voters had given PAN candidates strong pluralities of 206/127/106 over the PRD and PRI, respectively, in the 500-seat federal Chamber of Deputies, and 52/29/33 in the 128-seat Senate, with the remainder of seats scattered among minor parties. This result may bode well for Mexican democracy. With some cooperation (most likely from the PRI) Felipe Calderón may be able to use his party’s pluralities to further the national political and economic reform agenda Vicente Fox promised six years earlier, but could only partially deliver.
Calderón Takes Charge
As he prepared for his December 1, 2006 inauguration, Felipe Calderón not only appeared to be moving ahead with many of his predecessor’s original proposals, but he also seemed to be reaching out to the PRI and the PRD with some new ideas. These, although containing many of PAN’s pro-business pro-NAFTA ideas, also appeared to borrow considerably from the liberal-populist agenda of Obrador and the PRD. Only much-needed cooperation will allow their country to make progress toward the bright but elusive vision of a just and prosperous motherland for all Mexicans.
Calderón wasted no time getting started. He immediately attacked Mexico’s most immediate problem by declaring war on Mexico’s drug lords. Right away he replaced most of the federal police chiefs, many suspected of corruption. He then put the Mexican army in charge of his war on drugs, eventually assigning 30,000 Mexican soldiers to seek and destroy criminal drug networks, especially in the most drug-infested states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Sinaloa and the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Nuevo Laredo, where criminal drug gangs had been assassinating incorruptible judges and local police officials and officers.
Peace Reigns in Oaxaca
Concurrently, Felipe Calderón dealt head-on with the violent elements of the Oaxaca political protests. Within a month of his inauguration, Oaxaca police, using a minimum of force, rounded up dozens of the protest ringleaders and sequestered them far away in a Michoacán prison to await trial. To the relief of Oaxaca people, the remainder of the APPO demonstrators were never again allowed to push their protest to the city center, thus bringing peace to the lovely downtown heart of Oaxaca. Peace, at this writing, still reigns in downtown Oaxaca.
Calderón Visits the United States
Despite Mexico’s immediate security problems, Felipe Calderón found time to tend to the Mexican economy and politics, both national and international. Under his steady hand, during 2007, the Mexican economy continued to bubble along at a moderate annual growth rate of about 2.5 percent, inflation was kept at a low 4 percent, and the peso retained its value below 11 pesos to the U.S. dollar.
On the world stage, President Calderón made his first international trip, initially to California for three days, then east to the Midwest and New York. On February 13, 2008, he addressed a joint session of the California legislature, emphasizing cooperation. “Collaboration and shared responsibility,” he said, were the keys to joint California–Mexico progress. In the same address, he thrust himself into the U.S. immigration debate by declaring that “Mexican and Mexican-American workers are a large reason for the dynamic economy of California,” and that Mexican “immigration should be legal, safe, and organized.”
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition