Mexico: Quo Vadis?

Many Mexicans remain convinced that the 2006 race was riddled with vote counting "irregularities" and that official tallies were simply rigged and manipulated to favor "Uncle Sam's man," Felipe Calderón (right). (Photo: Omar Torres / AFP-Getty Images)

2006 has been without doubt a tumultuous year for Mexicans. The crisis in Oaxaca that began with a peaceful teachers' strike in the city's Zocalo, or main square, finally boiled over into a violent confrontation this fall.

Nationally, an election mired in virtually slanderous exchanges between the leading candidates descended to mudslinging in the media. Andrés Manuel López Obrador was portrayed as a dangerous radical left-winger by his leading contender. Yet the former mayor of Mexico City who masterminded the "secundo piso" or second level massive elevated highway, which was opened just weeks before election day, is hardly seen by many as a Trotskyite as the neo-conservative and neoliberal National Action Party (P.A.N.) spinmeisters portrayed him to be during the presidential campaign.

This distorted image fooled few of Obrador's supporters it seems. In fact, this less than edifying scare-mongering tactic may have backfired, as the election was so close in the end. On my post electoral visit, the atmosphere in Mexico City reminded me of the deep and pervasive sense of disappointment — almost grief — many felt after Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was deprived of a victory in 1988 during my first visit to the country.

A Stolen Election?

Many Mexicans remain convinced that the 2006 race was riddled with vote counting "irregularities" and that official tallies were simply rigged and manipulated to favor "Uncle Sam's man," Felipe Calderón. In that sense this year's campaign, after a relatively clean 2000 race, was a regression back to the good old days when the rule of "Herod's law" reigned on the political scene. (This was brilliantly depicted and satirized in a Mexican film by that same title.)

Calderón must take advantage of a brief reprieve in popular dissent to impose his neoliberal agenda. The popular fervor on the left despite the hundreds of thousands of Obrador supporters who converged on the streets of the capital to protest the election results has faded for now. It may revive again in 2007.

Subcommander Marcos of December 1994 Chiapas uprising fame, despite his "trendy" alternative presidential candidacy, has drifted into obscurity. Yet southeastern Mexico remains in the headlines as the continuous and unresolved crisis in Oaxaca attests. Wisely, the newly elected (or appointed rather, by Mexico's supreme judicial body) President Calderón has not made the same mistake with Oaxaca as his predecessor President Vicente Fox did.

Fox, at the time, boastfully declared after his inauguration in December 2006 that he would solve the simmering Chiapas crisis "in 15 minutes." The unrest in the southern states is nothing to sneeze at as history has shown. Chiapas, or the issue of glaring inequality and poverty in the South compared to the industrial North, may come back to haunt the federation again.

As his tenure begins, the newly elected president is a weak man in the sense that his legitimacy in office has been challenged by the populace, the Congress and perhaps even some within his own party. He begins his six-year term handicapped by a democratic "credibility gap."

Calderón has sought to assert his power though military force by cracking down on the drug lords that operate with absolute impunity in the country. How effective his spectacular campaign will be against the ongoing drug wars remains to be seen. Calderón's efforts, however worthy they may be, are likely to be hobbled by the historically murky and well-documented links that exist between the Mexican drug cartels and the ruling elite of the country.

On the foreign front, Mexico, which bridges South and North America, despite the ravages of NAFTA on its farmers and producers, is still an ardent believer in "free trade." Calderón will probably try to revive this dead horse or attempt to rekindle fervor in the Free Trade of the Americas process.

But with many Latin American states such as those members of Mercosur forming their own regional club and with Venezuela's roadblock in place, it might be a futile effort. The Free Trade Area of the Americas talks are for all practical purposes just like their World Trade Organization counterparts, on a "fast track" to nowhere. He may attempt to pursue Fox's pet project, the Plan Puebla-Panama (for regional development), but foreign cash to fund the planned mega projects of new dams, highways, factories, etc. is scarce in Mexico these days. Most resources have headed to other, more competitive, receptive and politically stable "emerging markets" in the East.

Caldron will likely be very busy restoring business confidence in the nation. Some economists believe that despite its impressive oil earnings the Mexican peso is due for a re-evaluation — or put more crudely, devaluation. The currency's future stability in the wake of the messy and nasty campaign and a declining dollar worldwide will challenge the American educated and trained technocrat's ability to steer the nation forward. Calderón may pay heed to the popular expression "Mucho trabajo pero poco tiempo" ("lots of work but little time") to do what has to be done.

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