Mexico: An Insurrection of Reason? – Commentaries on Denise Dresser’s talk at UC Berkeley
by Alejandro Reyes
Article written for (and censured by) the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley
Mexico’s electoral democracy, belatedly born only six years ago when the single-party system that ruled the country for seven decades finally fell, is undergoing a serious credibility crisis. Suspicions of electoral fraud and a growing social movement led by center-left PRD former candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador have left the world wondering about the health of the infant democracy. At the same time, Mexico ‘s society is more fractured than ever, with deep antagonisms dividing the right and the left, the rich and the poor, the north and the south, and a profound social discontent setting the stage for what promises to be an unstable and explosive sexenio.
Speaking at UC Berkeley, political analyst Denise Dresser pointed to the presidential campaigns of both Felipe Calderón of the conservative PAN and Andrés Manuel López Obrador as responsible for creating the antagonisms that led to the current crisis. In her analysis, both candidates catered almost exclusively to their hard base, neglecting other sectors of society. As a result, neither candidate was able to obtain a significant majority.
Behaving as a skillful “professional politician,” Felipe Calderón opted for a campaign of contrasts, portraying himself as the “candidate of stability.” Although Vicente Fox’s government did not bring about the changes that most people expected, in many people’s eyes it was an improvement from the violence, corruption, and economic crises brought about by prior PRI governments. Calderón therefore positioned himself as the only candidate capable of maintaining stability, while presenting long lists of proposals to go beyond the paralysis of the Fox government.
More importantly, however, Calderón engaged in a virulent campaign of fear, embodied in a highly successful slogan that is in great part responsible for today’s divisions in Mexican society: “López Obrador, a danger for México.” By cleverly associating the PRD candidate with both old-time populism and Manichean images of “radical” world leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Calderón managed to awaken fear—and hatred—in many Mexicans, who saw in him the possibility of a return to instability. People who however moderately had benefited from Vicente Fox’s presidency felt the urge to defend their privileges against the impending danger of a supposedly radical left that would bring about economic and social chaos.
However successful Calderon’s campaign of fear might have been, it nonetheless failed to recognize the concerns of millions of Mexicans who felt that the PAN’s neoliberal economic policies not only did not benefit them, but drove them to increasing hardships. Nor did it recognize the many Mexicans for whom the discourse of hard-handed solutions set off ominous alarm bells of a return to repression. Many of those people saw López Obrador as a hopeful alternative.
Yet López Obrador’s combative discourse of “privileging the poor” alienated the middle and upper classes. Furthermore, this discourse was not backed by an articulated project capable not only of redistributing wealth but also of generating it. In Dresser’s view, the PRD candidate would have done well to “slide from the radical left to the pragmatic center,” and she gave as successful examples the electoral victories of Tony Blair, Ricardo Lagos, and Felipe González.
As the crisis deepens, both sides, according to Dresser, are doing the worst thing possible. Felipe Calderón and the PAN, on one hand, believe that by simply ignoring the opposition or stimulating hatred toward it, the problem will disappear. By so doing, they fail to recognize the legitimate grievances of a significant portion of the population. On the other hand, López Obrador’s radicalization is seen by Dresser with troubled perplexity. She sees his apparent transformation into a “revolutionary” social leader as a danger to the PRD and a source of unnecessary social instability. In the final analysis, Dresser seemed to suggest that the only sensible option for expression of social discontent is strictly institutional. What is needed, she said, is indeed an insurrection… but an “insurrection of reason.”
As reasonable as that may sound, it is unclear what form that insurrection might take or how such “insurrection” would satisfy the demands of those who feel cheated by what they perceive as a fraudulent election and, most importantly, those who are being driven to despair by economic policies that are destroying their means of survival. Dresser asks some important questions which, however, are left unanswered, and are therefore rhetorical: “If elections are never reliable, what other process is Mexico going to have to represent and empower its citizens? … If we cannot believe in anything anymore, are we left no other option but to believe only in López Obrador?”
Yet there are important social movements in Mexico which have been asking those very questions since well before the elections. The Zapatista’s “Other Campaign” has been actively experimenting for a year now with alternative ways of empowering citizens through an innovative articulation of local autonomies and an ongoing reinvention of participative democracy. And although the merits of that approach may be questioned, what surprises is the fact that Dresser should not even mention it.
Yet perhaps it should not be so surprising. Dresser’s position reflects the views of what she calls “ Mexico ‘s moderate left.” It is an illustrated, middle-class left that understands well the workings of the power structures but that has difficulty perceiving popular movements as legitimate struggles. More importantly, it is a left that cannot imagine “the people” as capable of being protagonists of their own history.
Particularly indicative of this were Dresser’s comments on the situation in Oaxaca . According to her, “Oaxaca began as a legitimate movement of teachers asking for wage increases; it has now turned into something else. The movement has been infiltrated by very radical groups for whom education is far removed from their intention, which is to remove the governor.” These words show a worrisome lack of understanding of what is perhaps one of Latin America’s most important social movements today. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, which commands the movement, is made up of over 350 social organizations, a few of which may be characterized as “radical,” but that represent the diversity of Mexico’s society. Therefore, to speak of “infiltration” implies that certain groups should under no circumstances have a right to democratic participation. More troubling, however, is Dresser’s apparent understanding of legitimacy. While teachers demanding wage increases are seen by her as legitimate, a broad social movement with ample popular support that aims at removing a violent, corrupt, and fraudulently elected governor is not, despite the fact that Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution states that “the people have the inalienable right to alter the form of their government.” Furthermore, her unequivocal condemnation of the movement’s takeover of a TV station and several radio stations fails to recognize the significance of the struggle for access to the media and the brutality of state violence to control the flow of information. It is important to note that this struggle started with the destruction of the teacher’s radio station by the state police, continued with paramilitary attacks against Radio Universidad, and has recently escalated to state-sponsored killings.
Failing to analyze the deeper significance of grass-roots movements like Oaxaca and issues such as repression, the right to information, and self-determination leads us to a very narrow understanding of democracy and closes possible doors to deeper structural change.
Denise Dresser is a professor in the department of Political Science at ITAM in Mexico City and columnist for the newspaper Reforma and the weekly Proceso. She spoke at UC Berkeley on September 5, 2006, as part of the US-Mexico Futures Forum series.