At the best of times, Mexico is barely on the radar of its wealthier NAFTA partners, a trend that has continued even as the new American President denigrated the country and its people over the past year.
While millions marched in the United States and throughout the world to show their outrage at the election of a wannabe strongman and chauvinist who reportedly called a breast-feeding woman “disgusting”, Mexico was seeing its largest protests since 43 students from a rural teaching college went missing in 2014.
These protests are receiving almost no coverage in the mainstream media in either the United States or Canada. While many Mexicans also rallied to raise their voices against Trump on January 21st, they received very little solidarity across their northern border as they face a growing crisis brought about by rising fuel prices.
The “Gasolinazo” protesters did not content themselves with marching through empty streets but engaged in direct actions like occupying government run gas stations and giving out fuel, temporarily shutting down the border at Tijuana to southbound traffic, blockading thoroughfares throughout the country and even shutting down oil supply centers, most notably in Rosarito, a normally tranquil town in Baja very popular with American retirees and tourists.
While there have been hundreds of arrests, some looting by criminal opportunists and at least four deaths, the latter tragic in any reading of the overall situation, Mexico’s corrupt and often incompetent security forces must take a share of the blame for any violence that occurs.
It’s also become quite common for media throughout the world to call damage to property “violence,” an Orwellian fabrication that has been widespread in local Spanish language media throughout the crisis. This diminishes the real thing when it actually occurs.
Then there is the case of at least 1500 fake social media accounts “spreading panic” and in some cases calling for widespread looting, according to Mexican authorities. At this point, we have no idea where these instigators came from but, with history as our guide, one possible theory is that state actors are involved to de-legitimize the protests.
Many other Mexican citizens took to the internet to make their feelings known with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. In one clever action, a user on Google Maps changed the names of the official Presidential residence Los Pinos into “The Official Residence of Corruption” (Redencia Oficial de la Corrupcion) as well renaming the Senate (“Chamber of Rats”) and the Congress (“Congress of Deplorables”).
Mexico’s ongoing privatization
The term “Gasolinazo,” taken up as the name for the widespread dissent, in the past referred to an annual increase in the price of fuel, usually 2-3%, that Mexican governments would mandate to cover budget shortfalls. This policy fix was obviously never popular with the majority of the country’s citizens but a small increase of this kind had never led to the kind of discontent we’re seeing now.
The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, bears a great deal of the responsibility for the ongoing unrest. His energy “reforms” have enraged a broad swath of the population and include price increases of around 20% on gasoline, 15% on diesel fuel and 4.5% on electricity. The fuel price hikes will not only target drivers but the vast majority of citizens who rely on public transportation. They are also likely to raise the cost of staples like tortillas that most families rely on to feed themselves.
Putting the price hikes in context for ordinary Mexicans, as reported by Telesur, the increases caused the price of gas to go “as high as 20.1 percent to 88 cents per liter (just over a quarter gallon), with diesel at 83 cents – the equivalent of 12 days of a minimum wage to fill a tank of gas, compared to the U.S.’s seven hours”.
At nearly the same time, Mexican Senators received an $11,000 Christmas bonus and also get fuel vouchers so they won’t feel the pinch of what are essentially austerity measures packaged as reforms.
Pena Nieto, who leads the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), a party that has ruled Mexico for all but a decade since the Revolution of 1920, had promised in 2015 that his plans for energy reforms would put an end to rising fuel prices through the magic of the free market. The President has also claimed that the price hikes are necessary to preserve what’s left of the country’s tenuous social safety net.
“That’s the neoliberal hypocrisy,” Mexican economist Carlos Cabrera recently explained to Al Jazeera, “We’re a petroleum producing country; now that the prices are going up, that should theoretically benefit Mexico, it should generate more income, so it’s ridiculous that they are putting these costs on our backs.”
Change on the horizon?
This privatization of industries that were once technically owned by all Mexicans has been ongoing for decades. The sale of Telmex, the Mexican telephone monopoly, to Carlos Slim by former President Salinas created a fortune that has made Slim one of the richest men in the world while almost half of all Mexicans live in abject poverty (and still pay ridiculous premiums for both landlines and cellular service).
President Trump railed against Mexico during his campaign, even going so far as to claim that Mexican politicians are somehow smarter than their American counterparts, something that the hapless Pena Nieto has shown time and again to be false.
It’s now becoming clear that the energy reforms were designed to open up the country to American and other oil companies who will be further enriched through the exploitation of previously nationalized oil reserves and will no doubt become major donors to the PRI and other mainstream political parties.
The Mexican fuel price increases are set to remain in effect until February 3rd, when price controls will be removed altogether.
The hope of the Mexican left seems to be that a new party, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration) led by the popular former Mexico City Mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will win the 2018 presidential election. It may very well be that Donald Trump could act as a partial catalyst to an Lopez Obrador victory, the kind of historical irony that would no doubt be lost on him and his nativist followers.
However, Mexican voters have every right to fear that elites in the country will do whatever it takes to ensure that MORENA loses and that the fire sale of state assets continues. After all, its a widely held belief that Lopez Obrador was cheated in two previous elections running under the banner of another party.
One thing I discovered during almost a decade of living in Mexico during the late 90s to early 2000s is that there is a lot the rest of North America can learn from the Mexican left, which continually rises under the often harsh repression of the country’s elites as well as the widespread violence resulting from its neighbor’s pointless “drug war.” This is visible every day in places like Chiapas where the Zapatistas have achieved defacto autonomy for some of the hemisphere’s most vulnerable people.
Protest during the Trump era needs to be about more than coming up with the cleverest sign and listening to wealthy celebrities make speeches. Direct actions like those we have seen at pipeline protests, the occupation of public spaces for extended periods and engaging in other acts of civil disobedience, up to and including general strikes, are options that will actually hurt elites in the one area they care about: their pocketbooks.
I do understand that there will be many who disagree with disrupting business as usual, preferring that protest remain a weekend affair, more self help than collective action. There are also many risks involved as we saw in Standing Rock, where peacefully disruptive water protectors were met with escalating violence.
It will require even more courage when facing security forces emboldened by perceived support from political figures like Donald Trump and his scary fundamentalist Vice President Mike Pence, who hopes to follow the example set for by Dick Cheney while in office. We must also be wary of so-called liberals who want to coopt our movements for their own personal and political gain only to ignore our voices once in power.