by Pat Cabell
On July 1st, 2012, the day of Mexico’s recent presidential election, I visited the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, hoping to encounter a painting by Remedios Varo. A surrealist painter fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Varo was among the many notable exiles to make their home in Mexico City during the mid-20th century. I hoped that through one of her Cimmerian dreamscapes I might learn something about the political situation she experienced in the aftermath of the massive Mexican revolutions of 1910 to 1929. It was during the prime of her career following the end of WWII that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), inheritors of the Mexican Revolution, strayed decidedly off-course to embrace a particular brand of oligarchic and authoritarian governance. Their 71 years of uninterrupted rule ended in 2000, but as I arrived at the museum that morning their return to power, in the context of an increasingly bloody “Drug War,” was already presumed. As it happened, Varo’s paintings were not on display and much of the museum was closed off, so I made my way into an open exhibit entitled Suspecho, which serendipitously enough was concerned with the convergence of drug cartel-related violence and the larger socio-cultural shifts taking place in Mexico. On display in this exhibit was the clear relationship between media technologies and the inability of the Mexican media to properly represent the 60,000 murders that dominate the country’s headlines – the fundamental issue at stake in the election – with any depth or causal understanding . The works selected all meditated on deeper issues relating to the propagation of information in the era of postmodernism, but they posed an immediate political question: how can the drug war be conceived as a logical piece in the whole picture of Mexico’s current political crisis, without immediately reifying it as a spectacle in the graphic dailies, or in a politician’s ready-made sound bite pledging to provide protection?
As a participant in public education struggles at the University of California, I coupled my summer efforts at improving my Spanish with an education from the nascent student movement that rose up to confront Mexico’s broken political process. The lessons: the 2008 crisis in the global capitalist system is playing out in distinct national contexts, owing in large part to the variegated historical experiences of the 20th century. Mandates for capitalist restructuring made by elites across the globe (“austerity measures”) are located within particular social compositions and distinct political mechanisms, whether in Egypt, Iran, or China. The Mexican events demonstrate that though such “local obstacles” have to be wrestled with and passed through, this process is part of a more universal struggle against the global conditions of capitalism. As Arab Springs and Occupy movements inevitably continue to appear, they may be expected to remain tactically and politically distinct uprisings against capitalism (some more explicitly) with the potential elements to constitute a post-capitalist society.
What Was the PRI?
Many of the glaring problems in Mexican society today, from government corruption to staggering inequality, are rooted in the country’s transition from social democracy to neoliberalism, symbolically completed on January 1st, 1994 with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).1 The populist policies with which the PRI had initially solidified its base were subsequently rolled back and attacked by the very same party, in the years before and after NAFTA’s implementation. However, the one trait that provides a common link through the PRI’s seven decades in power was its ability to contain the forces of the revolutionary left, from which it formally took power in 1929. The alliances of distinct classes and social blocs that had powered several insurrectionary volleys in the years after 1910 were henceforth pitted against each other by the PRI’s wily political machine. Patrimonial networks and social spending were used to recuperate portions of the disillusioned base and geographically removed regions otherwise vulnerable to the politics of autonomy. It was in fact under the leftist regime of Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s that the centralization of power was first solidified through the use of political favors and economic rewards, on one hand, and direct suppression of political opponents, on the other. In the new global configuration that followed the end of World War Two, the trends were accentuated.2
In 1968, on the heels of an economic downturn and the outbreak of revolutionary movements across the Third World, a student movement arose with an as-yet unsurpassed level of coordination and popular support, challenging the government’s increasing authoritarianism and reformism. The youth of the ‘68 generation identified with an internationalist, rather than state-protectionist, socialist culture, and their ability to pull off massive strikes threatened to undo the PRI’s strategic isolation and immobilization of the labor movement. Two bloodbaths successfully truncated the student movement, in 1968 and then in 1971; they have been officially denied or underreported by each administration in office to this day. In the immediate aftermath some survivors formed armed guerrilla groups, though these were neutralized by 1975. In the long term, the crackdowns validated popular militancy, which has persisted on the fringe in some states, and memory of the massacres is deeply embedded in the cultural psyche. Indeed, the recent student protests revived memory of the potential of 1968, as well as attention to the government’s history of violent repression.
The major figure to complete the PRI’s embrace of Washington’s neoliberal mandate was Carlos Salinas, president from 1988 to 1994. His electoral victory in 1988 over Cárdenas’s son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who ran on reforming the PRI, was a blatant fraud. The circumstances of his election alone leave Salinas as one of the most reviled figures in Mexico today, though he is close to the 2012 election winner Enrique Peña Nieto, and still wields considerable power within the PRI party structure. Under his administration, foreign capital was granted widened access to Mexico’s supply of loosely regulated labor, coinciding with an increase in the maquiladoras churning out cheap commodities just across from the US border. His policies also spawned Mexico’s massive media monopolies including the likes of Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and Televisa, which now owns 75% of the country’s television access. Wealth disparity subsequently grew rapidly, exacerbating the country’s class formations. A group of 100 mega-elites now own approximately 85% of the nation’s wealth, while somewhere near half of the population lives beneath the poverty line. At the same time, the post-NAFTA access to a bevy of international products and “luxury” items has shaped middle-class consumer habits and cultural identifications to resemble those of First World markets. This has led some investors and analysts to praise Mexico’s rising economy, the Financial Times even now hailing the country as the preferable destination for international manufacturing as it leaves China. Yet such analyses ignore both the rampant inequality that these economic shifts have increased, as well as the chaotic political situation which has come to be a necessity for continuing down this path.
Such inequality has of course created a more hostile political environment, and following the debacle of 1988 Cárdenas went on to form the left-splinter PRD, subsequently shifting the country’s party demographics. Meanwhile the economic reforms installed under Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo, his successor, have been continued, but by a new party more conducive to the ecumenical image desired by international investors. Elected in 2000, the National Action Party (PAN) promised that their cozy relationship to Washington would result in a widening of prosperity, while simultaneously retaining a traditional Catholic base with rhetoric of cultural conservatism. PAN left behind the PRI’s faint gestures towards labor and agriculture, instead substituting appeals to stability, democracy, and, of course, free trade. Twelve years later, the purported benefits of a US-economic partnership have yielded a minimal increase in the spending capacities that sustain belief in a middle-class. However, the moral appeal of a president who would kiss the Pope’s hand is now vastly trumped by pledges of security.
“DF” Center Stage
The country’s shifting demographics following 1988 can be seen in the ascendance and autonomy of Mexico City. Cárdenas became the capital’s first elected mayor in 1997, and the PRD have increased their margin of victory with each successive election. Spending projects have improved the city’s notoriously bad transportation and pollution, while socially progressive legislation such as the legalization of abortion and gay civil unions speak to the contrast forming between the city and rest of the country. Despite the capital’s greater portions of social spending, distinct class divisions are visible within the city, reflecting the identity of the Distrito Federal (DF) as a financial landing strip on the map of the global economy. In the country’s financial center several colonias are marked by cosmopolitan boutiques, gated communities, and expensive nightclubs. Alternatively, many industrial barrios and sprawling shantytowns on the city’s outskirts lack basic services; one in three city inhabitants lack regular access to water. The federal government has in turn focused its spending on rural areas, so that the capital increasingly relies on local rather than federal funding.
Walking up the sidewalk on Avenida Insurgentes, the city’s main North/South thoroughfare, one is confronted by a variegated stream of human traffic, evoking the “20 million stories” of the DF’s inhabitants, and echoes of the famous extranjeros who walked these blocks in the last century. Jack Kerouac fell in love with a prostitute; Varo’s English-born surrealist collaborator, Leanora Carrington, flamboyantly dressed at age 90 feeding stray dogs around Colonia Roma; MN Roy, founder of both the Indian and Mexican Communist Parties, whose one-time home in Roma is now an exclusive nightspot called “Roy”; Burroughs, Trotsky, Breton, Castro, Durruti, Bolaño, Pynchon, B. Traven, John Reed – each tale fascinating and unrepeatable. Loitering in the Zócalo, the city square, during the large protests that preceded the election, I was impressed by the pragmatism and savvy of the muchachos/as (many no older than 14) who formed a large part of the protests. Their grasp of Mexico’s political history was nuanced, while disillusioned: they held hopes for social revolution, and saw the entire electoral system as part of the problem. Nonetheless, most unhesitatingly advocated voting for the Left party, to contribute pressure to the system’s restructuring.
About 10 million “stories” – human lives – in the DF are lived in slums. Indeed, Mexico City boasts the world’s third largest slum population after Mumbai and Dhaka.3 The indignity many now experience in the United States of having to beg for a job is multiplied exponentially in the lives of many Mexicans who sell wares such as CDs, chewing gum, or one of an innumerable array of trinkets, an unbroken stream of begging for a few pesos at a time. I made a friend who lost her parents at eight years old and survived the street on her own by selling orange juice, until she turned 18 and found better work. Stepping in to organize this pauperized mode of survival for some time has been the drug cartels, who are thus the Mexican mafia. Cases like the city’s fleet of independent bus services have revealed that the cartels play a large coordinating role in providing small businesses with protection, and, additionally, extortion. Vivid accounts of slum-life by Mike Davis and Jan Breman are able to “enter” the slum in a way that many foreigners, or for that matter Mexicans with money, cannot. What’s more, the conclusion of Davis’s Planet of Slums – that militaries are being re-organized for purposes of “urban engagement” – now appears partially confirmed by the Mexican military’s build-up and escalation of the cartel war.
Whatever interaction exists between the lower and upper classes in Mexico City, then, is mediated jointly by the military, in a broad sense, and by financial exchanges. Beyond the buying of commodities from the street and the sparing of change, wealthy Mexicans navigate the city so as to avoid areas where they are likely to be robbed. Indeed, rather than gentrification, for which no real word exists in Spanish, the movement of wealth through the city’s zones is based on the mapping of status: here, a secure neighborhood with high prices; here, a place to go for bargains; there, a place never to be entered by the wrong people. Despite this strategy, the city’s robberies occur mainly in a small cluster of areas such as Tepito, “el barrio bravo,” into which tourists often mistakenly wander from the nearby city center.
“Hot Spots” of the Drug War and Regional Distinctions
Mexico’s divisions between “town and country,” and broadly between regions, stem originally from the process of Spanish colonialism during the 16th and 17th centuries. Spain’s conquest of the great valley to the capital’s north was swift, decimating these more spread out and nomadic tribes, and Nueva España’s religious and educational development was here subsequently concentrated. In the south, the densely populated remnants of empires like the Maya and Zapotec were more resistant to integration, though Catholicism, Jesuit liberalism, and enlightenment rationalism would all be influential here in particular ways. Meanwhile, the central plane that includes the capital relatively obtains to the region’s mezcla traditions. The capital of Nueva España that became Mexico City was originally built upon the existing city of Tenochtitlan, an area that had for centuries been the cultural and political center of Mesoamerica. However complicated the integration of the two cultures, the revolutions of 1810 and 1910 both drew on the capital’s mezcla character in promoting notions of national identity. To this day, Mexico remains a country with deep racial biases directed against the indigenous, darker-skinned population. All of these divisions extend to politics: the poorer states of the South traditionally received the least amount of federal support and economic development from the PRI, who focused on favoring their base in the northern industrial states. Recent years have seen a new push in the South for capital integration, investment in natural resources, and expanded mining activity – projects that have been resisted by local communities opposed to further denigration of their quality of life.4 The broad peasant-worker alliances under Zapata and Pancho Villa that powered the Mexican Revolution remain the last time that major portions of the North and South united to advance a political cause.
Another aspect of the developing town-and-country dynamic has been Mexico City’s relative immunity from the violence of the cartel war. Crime in the capital has dramatically decreased, while during the same period the political process in the North has been subsumed by the war over lucrative trafficking lines into the US. A slew of assassinations of journalists, activists, politicians, and security figures points to the overwhelming influence the cartels hold over these states. In the coastal tourist destinations as well, the high volumes of money and traffic moving through ensure that the regions remain battlegrounds for cartel influence.
Despite the uneven distribution of violence from the cartel war, the staggering number of murders over the last six years have touched most people in the country personally and become a focus of cultural discourse. The Suspecho exhibit at the Museo de Arte Moderno offers a unique perspective on the war through the prism of art in the postmodern world. The exhibit’s stated themes: new technologies, communications/media, and un/representability. Many of the pieces featured meditate on the explosion of access to information with the rise of the internet and the mass reproduction of images. However, some intimation of violence is present in each piece, problematizing how violence can even be properly represented, and at the same time suggesting that a certain bloodletting is implicated in these technologies themselves. A large wall, covered in a series of magazines with strips of pages successively ripped a few lengths apart; one cannot hope to read or discern any of the images, but the medium of tearing consistently regurgitates three themes: illegible ink, sexualized images, and gore. Bodies of victims are often displayed here on newspaper covers alongside women in exploitative photos, but the causes of the violence resist representation. While violence is easily absorbed by the spectacle, representation of the system itself is impossible. The artists in this series turn the in/visibility of violence into a search for the system that brings these elements together.
The work of Teresa Margolles approaches this question from a different vantage point, that of the necropolitica (death itself as a medium of political engagement). One of Mexico’s most famous contemporary artists, Margolles has often included in her work belongings from a cartel victim’s time of death, bringing the murders to an uncomfortable closeness. One such presentation was a steam tunnel that viewers would walk through, and upon exiting learn that they had been breathing steam from the clothes worn by anonymous victims.
A popular 2010 work by one of Mexico’s most important journalists, Anabel Hernández, does not balk in delivering a systemic, if conspiratorial, portrait of the drug war. Hernández and her colleagues’ efforts stand out all the more importantly for maintaining a critical voice in the context of increasingly brazen attacks against the media. In a tirelessly researched expose, Los Senores del Narcos presents a picture not dissimilar from the one found in Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic a decade earlier: namely, that the government is not fighting a war against the cartels, but rather as a partisan for the particular benefit of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. If these allegations are correct, the cartels would be just one more billion-dollar business that the government has partnered with, in this case offering the service of its military. As the publisher of the Reforma newspaper group said recently, “the nation faces a whole series of ‘cartels,’ of which the drug-trafficking ones are only a minority.”
A similar conspiratorial take animates a film released in the months before the election. Colosio is a JFK-style thriller that tracks the investigation and cover-up of a PRI reformer who was a shoe-in for president in 1994, until his assassination in Tijuana a few months before the election. A watershed year in Mexican politics, 1994 saw the launching of NAFTA, the beginning of the Zapatistas rebellion, and ensuing repression against the Mayans of Chiapas. The film most blatantly connects that era to the present with an ensemble of ruthless killings of those who get in the way of the Colosio cover-up. The murders are committed with a style of impunity reminiscent of drug-related deaths that today can be seen daily in country’s headlines. In a moment of true irony, the previews before the film featured a PRI/Green Party campaign ad that depicted the “magical” transformation of toxic liquid flows into streams of pure water. The image was mirrored in Colosio’s final shot, a long pan through a stream bloodied with the final victim of the government’s cover-up. The scene’s intention is clear: from 1994 on, blood has continued to flow, and will keep coming until the truth can no longer be killed off. The irony of the PRI/Green campaign ads is that the PRI’s social agenda is so regressive that it has sought out an “environmental” image; admitting, in short, that it’s focus is on something entirely external to the “merely social.” However, the last scene of the feature implies that the greatest environmental impurity has become the blood of the Mexican people itself. This is the corrective to a wide array of Green politics – the only meaningful environmentalism today is synonymous with the advancement of social justice.
Contrasts to South America
Mexico is more than twice the size and population of the rest of both Central America and the Caribbean. Its border with the US is the dominant entry point for migrants from Belize to Panama. Migration through Mexico plays a crucial role in the flows of money, commodities, and labor; an estimated 20-30% of El Salvador’s economy is composed of remittances from citizens in the US. Because of its size and border, the attention Mexico receives from both the media and global elites often dwarfs that of the rest of the region. Economically unique as well, it astoundingly “exports more manufactured products than the rest of Latin America combined,” according to the Financial Times.
South American countries, with the exception of Colombia, have overwhelmingly elected left and populist candidates over the last two decades, taking an alternative economic path to the Washington and IMF-led model. The political process in Central America and the Caribbean, on the other hand, appears stunted in the position of a “transition to democracy” following the brutal civil conflicts, coup d’états, and CIA proxy wars that spanned the 1980s. For activists in the US, these conflicts marked the great failure of the anti-Vietnam War movement to reconstitute itself as a popular resistance to a continuation and reconstitution of US military imperialism. The much diminished numbers that built the anti-nuclear movement and groups like CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) were forced to concentrate on forms of direct action and raising awareness, in lieu of large numbers to bring to the street. This activism was at the same time effective and tragically inadequate. Some gains could be noted by the end of the 1990s: protection of journalists, human rights tribunals, reporting of attacks on trade unionists, and the re-entry of left political parties in elections. Yet in the last few years many of these trends have been significantly reversed. Rates of poverty have jumped, most pointedly in the Caribbean, but on the continent as well. Influence of the drug cartels is spreading consistently, and with it violence for communities in their way. The US has continued its anti-democratic influence, including direct or tacit support for coup d’états in Haiti, Honduras, and Paraguay. Finally, protection for journalists and human rights workers has decreased while impunity for war criminals has gained, such as in Guatemala where a general implicated in war crimes against indigenous Mayans during the civil war is now president. As a result, migration to the US is strongly on the rise, accompanied by the usual xenophobia and reactionary ideas about the ills of immigration.
Why these different trajectories for Central and South America? It is undeniable that a dependent region south of the border is the preferred geopolitical arrangement of US elites and their international partners. The drug trade has become an essential component of Mexico and Central America’s economy, and undoing it would necessarily involve a renegotiation of the countries’ subservient relationships with the US.
While the politics of the PRD cannot be classified as revolutionary or opposed to the perpetuation of capitalist relations in Mexico, its politicians diverging considerably from groups like the EZLN, the party does at the same time symbolically stand as an opposition to the long tradition of impunity and anti-democratic, US-backed administrations. In 2006, as a full-scale rebellion against the government was underway in Oaxaca, the television duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca launched a smear campaign against the PRD presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). In the aftermath of 2006’s contested election, and for the six years prior to last month’s election, documents confirm that they continued to illegally undermine public support for AMLO and disseminate propaganda for Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign.
Another film released in the months before the recent election depicts how popular rock bands had been censored by the PRI because of their music’s political content. Gimme the Power presents a cultural history of the PRI’s last decades in power, narrating the conflict between the government and the era’s rock bands whose concerts and music were banned. Focusing on “Molotov,” a group with a huge contemporary following, the film serves as a briefing on recent culture wars that have influenced the outlook of today’s youth.
As the 2012 election approached, young people faced increased unemployment and the devaluation of their education, a situation which the election’s predicted winner was expected to worsen. The PRI campaign, in real terms, was reducible to a regional containment of the drug war through strategic compromises and the dismantling of the few remaining public unions and state institutions built during their first tenure. Given the likelihood of protests against these policies, many emphasized the past use of repression by the PRI, and by Nieto himself while governor of Mexico State. At a time when innovative solutions and progressive change seemed necessary to combat worsening social conditions, young people found that the political system was defaulting into a regressive mode of corruption and non-transparency. Opposition rallied against the political system’s most blatant features: a closed media system, “extra-democratic” measures chronically taken by parties, impunity for those implicated in corruption, and the lack of access to the political process for workers, the disenfranchised, and the left more generally. For these reasons, the student movement that appeared in May drew upon these basic demands: rejection of the PRI’s re-imposition, dismantling of the television duopoly, and legal/democratic improvements to the electoral process.
The movement emerged following a Nieto speech at Iberoamericana, one of the capital’s prestigious Jesuit universities, where students protested and heckled the “television candidate.” The PRI attempted to save face by blaming the protest on outsiders and paid provocateurs. Using social media, 131 students posted videos showing their ID cards, which in turn spawned thousands of solidarity statements by others denouncing the PRI machine (carrying the hashtags #yosoy132 & másde131). Although led by students, indignation at the PRI’s tactics ran across different segments of society. The rebellions that have moved from Egypt to Europe to the US helped motivate the belief that it would take massive numbers in the streets to dislodge the current political structure. The fundamental error of media outlets such as NPR who report that the PRI is a center-left party is that the PRI’s major attribute is its suppression of the Left. This is why massive numbers in the streets revolted in the context of an electoral process. While protests have continued well after the election, students are no longer the leading demographic, but instead one group among many who feel indignity at the political system. While many of the country’s very poor stayed clear of the #yosoy132 protests, their numbers were present at a massive AMLO rally in June as well as more recent marches piqued by alleged electoral fraud.
As the Mexican student movement stands at a crossroads – planning for protests against Nieto’s inauguration in December, but more generally deliberating on its future and the possibility of traversing class, cultural, and regional divides – global attention has moved on to outbreaks of resistance in other parts of the world. However, we would do well to consider the complex of forces that may determine future conflicts south of the border. Capital is placing greater hopes on the productivity of Mexico, and US imperialism seems bent on securing these investments. If we pay attention to the plight of Latino immigrants in the US, the chance of better-paid work is revealed to come attached with serious drawbacks: businesses take advantage of the status of undocumented workers, and structural racism pervades the education and prison systems. The United States employs a massive second-class labor force, only occasionally dispensing the honor of citizenry. These conditions can only breed further resentment against the distribution of resources and privileges, and offer a truly barbaric vision of the havoc the global economy wreaks daily, from one country to the next.
Pat Cabell is a graduate student at UC Davis. He has written for Lana Turner Journal.
1. The following historical account is drawn from several sources, but particularly influential have been Aufheben’s “A Commune in Chiapas?,” written in 2000 and therefore limited to the first PRI episode, and Tony Wood’s “Silver and Lead,” New Left Review 70 (July-August 2011) and “Latin America Tamed,” New Left Review 58 (July-August 2009), invaluable for their data and analysis of sociological trends.
2. Political assassinations of left aspirants of course plagued the revolution itself, with Zapata’s murder typifying the way that left challenges to state power were repressed. Cárdenas’s legacy for the PRI in this regard is important because it combined repression and social programs into an ideologically unified project. His continuation of the Cristero Wars was representative of this type of demographic triangulation. Indigenous peasants allied with the Catholic Church were fought as a conservative force attempting to reinstate the monarchist Diaz regime, yet his land reforms simultaneously benefitted large portions of the peasantry. See Anita Brenner, The Wind that Swept Mexico: the History of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1942 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972).