|from North American Congress on Latin America
Mexico: Is a Social Explosion in the Wings?
JAVIER IS TRYING TO grind out a living on the streets of Mexico City
playing his harmonica for restaurant patrons for a few coins. It was
tough enough to find work before the global economic crisis hammered
Mexico, but now it is almost impossible.
He talks about trying to find construction work, which he has done
before. "But it is difficult, real difficult," he says, "they say even
the city government is firing their street cleaners and cutting their
salaries." He talks about going north to try his luck in the United
States. "But it's hard there too," he admits. As he thinks about his
family, his eyes dart with the worry and desperation shared by many of
his fellow Mexicans.
The crisis could finally push Mexico over the brink, into disaster.
According to the country's weekly news magazine Proceso,
"unemployment, increasingly costly public services, family debt, and
desperation because of hunger" as a result of this crisis, "are
causing increasingly violent reactions. The fed-up clamor in a wide
array of the population, that is now becoming more evident, could soon
become what, although some see it as far-fetched, many think is
entirely possible: A social explosion." Premonitions of this social
explosion are fed on a regular basis by well-publicized acts of
violence, perceptions of a dramatic growth in criminal activity and,
on a more hopeful note, the recognition that many political, social
and labor activists are trying to organize this discontent to push for
real changes in the structure of Mexico's economy, especially its core
neoliberal policies that many on the left believe to be at the root of
Even before the crisis unleashed its economic horror on Mexico in
2008, the Mexican economy was in shambles, and according to some,
already in crisis. "In the last few decades we have talked about
nothing else but crisis," says Marco Antonio Velázquez of the Mexican
Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC). "Whole generations have been
brought up with the country in crisis." The havoc wrought by
neoliberal policies and the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) has been well documented, especially the displacement of
millions of small farmers and the devastation of the domestic
manufacturing industry. Before 2008, of every 730,000 young people
entering the formal labor market, only 80,000 found employment. Many
have taken refuge in the informal economy, where 60% of the active
working population attempts to eke out a living with jobs that
typically have no guaranteed salaries or benefits. However, what
speaks most directly to a failed economic model is the enormous number
of Mexicans who migrate to other countries - mostly, of course, the
United States - to look for work An annual average of over 500,000
Mexicans have migrated to the United States since 1994. No other
country in the world expels as many people per capita as Mexico. By
any measure, the country was already in crisis. The current crisis is
like a kick in the head to an economy that was already down on the
According to the most recent quarterly numbers, Mexico's economy
contracted 10.3% over the three-month period April-June 2009. When
compared with the 1% contraction in the United States during the same
period, it speaks to the old saying: "When the U.S. sneezes, Mexico
catches pneumonia." According to Velázquez this is truer than ever
under NAFTA, which has increased the percentage of Mexican exports
that go to the United States. "Never has Mexico been so dependent and
vulnerable to the economy of the U.S." Indeed, Mexico has not had this
deep an economic dependence since the colonial era with Spain.
According to official statistics, 700,000 jobs were lost between
October 2008 and May 2009. High prices for the basic food basket
continue to be daunting, especially to those earning the paltry
minimum wage of five dollars a day. According to the Mexican
Association of Municipalities, "95% of the municipal governments in
the country are now bankrupt." In 2009, remittances sent home by
Mexicans working abroad declined for the first time in years, directly
affecting the well-being of the poorest communities across the country
- communities that depend on that income for survival. The
International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that the "economic
marginalization and destitution" caused by the crisis in poor
countries in the world, "could lead to political and social
The response of Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, to the crisis has
spurred protest across the country, exacerbating the possibility of
instability. Central to Calderón's 2010 budget proposal to fight the
crisis is a 2% tax on food and medicine, both of which are currently
exempt from taxation, and increases in the prices of electricity, gas,
and water. Pushing the initiative, packaged to "combat poverty,"
Calderón said, "If we arrive at a point where poor families consume
less water, without sacrificing their well-being, consume less
electricity, we are going to help these families save money, but we
are also going to save our own budget, because each kilowatt that is
not consumed represents a subsidy that we don't have to pay."
Protestors across the country say these measures will
disproportionately affect the poor, who spend the bulk of their income
on these basic needs.
The protests continue. The proposed 16% budget reduction to the
small-scale agricultural sector, which already has scarce funds due to
neoliberal policies, has propelled campesino farmers to plan marches
throughout the country to protest these "crisis measures."
Demonstrations against the government's response reached their most
comical point in San Luis Potosí where 600 protestors attacked the
state governor with eggs complaining of rising unemployment and
prices. The yolk-covered governor ordered many arrested on charges of
sedition and inciting a riot.
There are a thousand flares of resistance throughout the country that
show a "deep awakening to the situation," but they are all "dispersed"
according to National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) professor
Marcela Orozco. "There has to be cohesion to effect real change."
Added along with more established movements in Chiapas and Oaxaca,
"this could result in a social upheaval. But it has to be an upheaval
that changes the economic model." RMALC's Velázquez underscores
Orozco's point: "The current economic crisis has proved that
neoliberalism is dead. That's why we're saying: to get out of the
crisis is to get out of NAFTA. That is the task ahead of us as a
RMALC, along with many other organizations, coalitions, movements, and
even some political leaders in Mexico will be trying to organize the
cohesion necessary to form a critical mass to change the economic
situation by changing the economic model. "We are in the same exact
situation in Mexico as we were in the early twentieth century with
Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship," says Velázquez. "Díaz, like modern
neoliberalism, sold off the country to foreign companies while the
vast majority of the population lived in misery. Díaz, like Calderón,
militarized the country and ruled with an iron fist." The mixture of
misery and militarization was explosive.
Javier, on the streets of Mexico City, is aware of the cycles of
Mexican history. Under the Díaz dictatorship the Mexican Revolution
exploded in 1910. One hundred years before that, the famous grito or
yell of the radical priest Miguel Hidalgo unleashed a war in 1810 in
which Mexico would wrestle its independence from Spain. In both cases
Mexico was entrenched in the economic agendas of foreign powers, like
today it finds itself with NAFTA. "They say that we're due for another
revolt in 2010," Javier says. His eyes slightly spark when he says
this. It's the kind of spark that says that something has to give,
something has to change, there are too many people like him with not
much more to lose.
Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate.