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MEXICO
Calderon`s first 50 days
John Ross
2/8/2007
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López Obrador’s absence from public life leaves many once die-hard supporters scratching their heads.

Amidst the din of hundreds of housewives beating on pots and pans with kitchen utensils, the popular classes filled the streets of the Mexican capital Jan. 31 to express their outrage at the drastic jump in the cost of household staples such as eggs, milk and tortillas during the first 50 days of the presidency of Felipe Calderón.

The steep rise in the price of tortillas — from US$0.72 to $1.2 per kilogram — cut right to the quick of the popular economy, dramatically impacting millions of Mexicans, 21 million of whom live in poverty — on less than US$2 a day — according to the United Nations Development Program.

Although working class Mexicans eat tortillas at most meals, for 13 million children living in poverty, tortillas are the whole meal according to studies done by Dr. Héctor Borgez of the National Nutrition Institute.
The fate of Mexico’s poor is in question after Calderón’s administration announced an annual increase in the daily minimum wage by 1.9 percent, or $0.17, an increment which does not come close to matching hikes in milk, egg, meat and gasoline prices.

With the buying power of its constituents shrinking dramatically, the Mexican labor movement is demanding an emergency boost in the daily minimum wage to match the spiraling cost of living. The National Workers Union, a powerful federation of labor organizations independent of the political parties organized the January 31 protest, which was heavily attended by supporters of Andres Manuel López Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City who millions avow beat Calderón in the July 2 election (LP, July 12, 2006). López Obrador, after minimizing his public appearances for months, participated as well.

AMLO’s important role

Regardless of whether López Obrador’s return to the political stage Jan. 31 signals a sustained campaign to challenge the Calderón regime could determine the shape of Mexican politics in 2007.

Calderón is having a hard time making peace with the people who he is charged with governing. His first visit to popular communities in Chalco in the poverty-ravaged stretch from outside the capital to Veracruz degenerated into shouting matches as furious housewives screamed and snarled and sobbed at the president about the skyrocketing cost of tortillas. “Thank you Mr. President for Helping Us Starve” read banners posted along the road from the Veracruz airport. “We want tortillas - not PAN!” meaning “bread” in English, but also the Spanish initials of Calderón’s National Action Party.

Arnulfo Prieto, schoolteacher from the Totonaco sierra of the Puebla state shakes a can at a teeming bus stop. “Calderón and the governor have cut our budgets and we can’t feed the Indian children in our school” explains, “so we have to come here to beg for cooperation from the passengers.”

But during a nationally televised address from Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential palace, just 45 days into his six-year term, Calderón proclaimed Mexico to be “in order and at peace.” The nation was far more “secure and certain” than when he had taken office during a moment of widespread social upheaval just seven weeks prior. (LP, Dec. 13, 2006).

Calderón seemed oblivious of the street demonstrations and repression of the popular movement in Oaxaca, which demanded the resignation of state Gov. Ulises Ruiz. The government response to the protests, which shut down the colonial city, from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch during Calderón’s first European tour in January.

In an effort to play down popular discontent, the government, tortilla producers and vendors reached an agreement in mid-January to stabilize tortilla prices, so that the increase was slightly more than its original price.

Playing up achievements

Among the accomplishments Calderón claims for his short-lived administration are subsidies to the poor to offset escalating electricity rates, a promise of universal health coverage for disadvantaged children, minimal pensions for impoverished senior citizens, and a 10 percent across the board cut in the salaries of the federal bureaucracy. All of these initiatives were lifted almost verbatim from López Obrador’s platform who Calderón called “a danger to Mexico” during one of the dirtiest and controversial campaigns in the nation’s electoral history.

Felipe’s first 50 days have featured the most intense militarization of Mexico since the National Zapatista Liberation Army rose up in 1994. Some 27,000 troops have been dispatched into drug-cropping states from Tijuana near the US border, to Tapachula on the southern border with the mission of disrupting drug cartel operations.

The new president is utilizing the Mexican military to further his own political ends, according to Jorge Camil, a prolific political writer who suspects the deployment of troops against the drug-traffickers is a smokescreen to promote the illusion of Calderón’s legitimacy. Camil says that only the legalization of drugs can control drug violence. “This is a dangerous proposition. Just who is going to rule Mexico: Calderón or the military?” Camil wondered during a recent telephone interview, implying that the new president could become a hostage of the generals’ ambitions.

“We will not tolerate anyone who defies the authority of the state,” Calderón declared to a naval base audience in mid-January.
Camil and other political analysts see disturbing parallels between the first days of US President George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón.
Both have called in their militaries to legitimize mandates tarnished by accusations that they stole their presidencies. Bush’s declaration of a “War on Terror” following the Sept. 11 attacks and Calderón’s “War on Drugs” both serve these ends.

López Obrador’s evaporation from the political spotlight has made it easier for Felipe Calderón to claim a mandate. Since the National Democratic Convention elected López Obrador as the “legitimate” president of Mexico last September, both he and his shadow government have disappeared into the shadows.

Barnstorming the backwaters of the country, López Obrador now speaks to dozens whereas just six months ago, he was leading millions in an historic outpouring of public indignation at the election outcome.

López Obrador’s silence in respect to the ongoing repression in Oaxaca and his absence there since the uprising began last May have disillusioned some former supporters who sense that the ex-candidate has abdicated his responsibilities to the popular movement, leaving a vacuum in leadership on the left.

“Where is AMLO?” asked Alejandro Penaloza, a vender of left-wing newspapers in the old quarter of Mexico City. “[López Obrador] is hiding out with the Tarahumaras and hardly anyone pays any attention to him anymore,” he said.

 


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