Kalashnikovs Under the Poncho

Ramón I. Centeno*

When something as rock-solid as a national stereotype changes, something profound is surely going on. The traditional (and stupid) Mexican stereotype had been that of the guy wearing a funny and large hat comfortably sleeping next to a cactus. Nowadays, apart from or instead of that we now hold a Kalashnikov under our poncho, eager to sell drugs. You can see this cultural change in movies from/about Mexico. Sixty or seventy years ago most stories where about the Mexican Revolution or its legacies. Nowadays everything moves around the War on Drugs. From the insider perspective, just see the contrast between the epic utopianism in “Vámonos con Pancho Villa” of Fernando de Fuentes and the dystopian tragedy in Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala”. From an outsider point of view, just compare our national image in Sergei Eisenstein’s “¡Que viva México!” with that of the Tarantino-style “Machete” of Robert Rodriguez: virginal authenticity vs. organic corruption.
A discreet political earthquake
When did this changing perception of the world on Mexico – from the naive good-fellows to the ruthless bad guys – start? In December 2006 the then new President Felipe Calderón declared the “War on Drugs”. The ministry of the interior at the time, Francisco Ramírez Acuña, explained the launch of the “Joint Operation Michoacán” as an effort to “finish the impunity of the criminals that are risking the tranquillity of all the Mexicans and, especially, our families.”1 Since then, the word “security” turned into one of the most important political discourse in Mexico. Again, why? In that election, the two leading candidates finished with a slight difference of less than 1%, with the defeated candidate denouncing electoral fraud, hence, leaving the winner severely weakened. His lack of an unquestioned legitimacy led him to search for means to gain political stature rapidly. His choice: launch a selective and strenuous attack on drug cartels (epitome of the “criminals”) in order to successfully present himself as the incarnation of the national interests of all Mexicans. Even worse, Calderón’s decision also meant an alignment to U.S. foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Washington immediately backed the Mexican government and hastily institutionalised this public support through the “Mérida Initiative”, a military partnership signed in 2008 to jointly undertake the “war on drugs.”
Six years later, over seventy thousand people (mostly civilians it seems) have been killed as part of this military adventure against the powerful (and also militarised) cartels. To sum-up, what started as a short-term tactic morphed into a long-term strategy aimed at political stability. If in 2006 Mexico was on the brink of joining the club of center-of-left Latin American governments, after that it rapidly became the decisive player of Washington and his friends to counter-weight Chávez’s coalition. Along with Colombia, Mexico moved the whole Central America to the War on Drugs. This sub-region, with a political dynamic opposed to the rest, has pushed rightist but well-informed analysts to ask whether there are now two Latin Americas: “one on the Pacific, another on the Atlantic.”2 This counter-tendency to the Left turn so much cheered at the beginning of the century covers more than 1/3 of the regional population as it reaches other right governments, Peru and Chile. These two along with Colombia and Mexico have recently launched (June 2012) an economic bloc to oppose Chávez’s ALBA and Brasil-led Mercosur: the Pacific Alliance, with Costa Rica and Panama as observers. The rest of Central America had anyway previously signed a favourable trade agreement with Mexico in November 2011.3 In short, the countries where neoliberalism still runs unbridled are making love to each other’s elites.
So not to anyone’s surprise, the new President, Enrique Peña Nieto will act along the lines of his immediate predecessor. Rosario Green, an ex ministry of foreign affairs and long-time regime’s adviser on international relations, recently put it this way: “If you ask me which are probably going to be his first, second, and third priority, I would say that the United States, Central America, and the Pacific.”4 Or in Peña’s words, “We have to assume, as a country, a greater role of responsibility in the different regional and multilateral organisations, and in the Pacific Alliance in particular.”5
Thus the changing perception of Mexico abroad must be read as an index of the discreet political earthquake that the country has undergone. In a trip to Cuba in 2010, I was so astonished by the precarious living conditions in popular neighbourhoods that I wondered whether I would be able to live as an ordinary Cuban. But when a Cuban asked me where I was from, he exclaimed “I couldn’t live in Mexico, too much violence!” But however bloody the last six years have been, no major political actors dared to challenge the bloodshed. Moreover, that was one of the fields in which the presidential candidates agreed: they only battled each other on how to pursue a more effective War on Drugs. In this sense, although Peña has said that his priority is “reducing the levels of violence”, he is quick to add that there “are tasks that have been followed that should be maintained and increased.”6 Talking about legalisation of drugs largely remains taboo.
Middle-class minds
When in 2006 The New York Times covered the allegations of electoral fraud made by the opposition candidate, two main forecasts were reflected. One the one hand, “political analysts like Robert Pastor of American University said the history of the Democratic Revolutionary Party of Mr. López Obrador and his own scrappy political instincts could easily lead him to take this fight to the streets.” On the other, Pamela Starr, at the time a Latin American expert for the Eurasia Group, got it right: “she expected Mr. López Obrador to “make a lot of noise” but to concede defeat quickly.” Why? In her view, that politician “had learned from the election that his confrontational political style frightened away supporters in a country where people are overwhelmingly poor, but hold conservative, middle-class sensibilities.”7 Here lies the secret of how she guessed correctly: Mexicans have one social class in their pockets while other in their minds.
This truth is so deep that it even biases Mexican social sciences. Just look at Roger Bartra, a leading sociologist for whom Mexico “is a middle-class society already”. How come? His answer: if it is well true that 40% of the population is poor, “the remaining 60% is part of the middle-class.”8 Let us put aside the astonishing fact that he ignores the tremendous gap between the poor and the rich.9 There is more. As if refuting Bartra, a study in 2011 revealed that 81% of the Mexican population believes to be middle-class although only 32% earns more than one thousand dollars a month.10 Thus one can conclude that the Mexican working classes are middle-class in aspiration. It is not “the middle-class” the subject of contemporary Mexican political discourse: the families-to-be-saved-from-drugs? So when Bartra argues that in Mexico “the middle-class is already hegemonic”11 he is providing a correct insight that nevertheless cannot be substantiated with statistics as he thinks, but can only be explained as an ideological phenomenon Bartra himself is a victim of.
When in 1975 a Communist student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) confronted President Luis Echeverría, he was happy to clap enthusiastically and shout: “I’m the first one to applaud that”, when the activist explained the auditorium the need to “incorporate the proletariat into the revolutionary process.”12 Later in the 1980s the “revolutionary nationalism” was still dominant in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI). In his speech before the election he won for governor of the Nayarit State in 1981, Emilio M. González was confident enough to declare this as part of his “doctrine”: “I believe in the Mexican Revolution, I support the revolutionary nationalism… I am anti-imperialist.”13
Here the parallel with Stalinism is revealing. The PRI, just as the Soviets since Stalin, needed a repressive political apparatus that allowed it to guarantee a monopoly of power, while building its legitimacy on acting on behalf a people’s Revolution. Octavio Paz, Mexican poet, Nobel laureate on literature, maybe put it more clearly when defined the classic PRI’s regime as a “philanthropic ogre.”
This PRI was sensible to popular demands, due to the fresh memories of the Mexican Revolution (yes, with capital letters), from which after a long process emerged a regime that legitimated itself as the personification, product, representative, and guardian of that heroic deed. The PRI managed its relation with the popular classes (and with the bourgeoisie at some extent) through corporate structures: that is, organisational vehicles whose leaders are promoted from above, with no chance for any insider opposition. These resemblance of all this with Stalinism is no coincidence. For example, the main worker’s-aimed apparatus -the Confederation of Workers of Mexico (CTM)- was designed with most of its anti-democratic features in the 1930s by the Mexican Communist Party, which soon handed over its leadership to the PRI, by Moscow’s orders to support the Mexican regime at that time “at all costs”. In other words, the corporatism of the PRI is a tradition originated in a welcomed Soviet embedding in the post-revolutionary institutionalisation of Mexico: the down-to-earth form of “revolutionary nationalism” rhetoric of the classic PRI.
Nevertheless, with the ascendance of the neoliberal technocrats within the PRI, best represented by Carlos Salinas, who ruled Mexico from 1988 to 1994, the definitive dismantling of classic PRI started. Never again did the party talk about “revolutionary nationalism”, “anti-imperialism” or its commitment to “the Mexican Revolution”. When in 2000 the PRI finally lost the presidency, it was at the hands of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), giving another blow to the ogre’s philanthropy. What are the current implications of all this? By diminishing and setting aside the once explicit vehicles through which to monitor and channel the popular “feelings” and demands, Mexican political elites severed the link of the regime with most of the people. Therefore selective violence is more widely used to face societal malaise. The War on Drugs’ madness is also partially explained by this: the cartels do not clearly have whom to negotiate impunity with (as in the past).14 With no communication vehicles to/from power, the outcome of clashes between Mexican social actors is more unpredictable and so violence a bigger possibility at every situation.
In short, the neoliberal vision treated (‘rationally’ from its point of view, of course) corporate structures as annoying obstacles to the optimal functioning of the market. In reality, the elites, by sweeping away organisations that were not replaced with something ‘better’, only left a vacuum between the regime and the classes. The so-called middle-class hegemony is rather the defeat of working-class structures. They were in the hands of PRI, of course, but now most of them just do not simply exist. Only few of them were democratised from below, for example, the teacher’s union in Oaxaca. But that is the sad exception, not the rule. The new rule is working-class atomisation, which fuels the illusions of being better off via individual social mobility. Why? Without these middle-class illusions there is nothing, no place for hope.
The dinosaur was still there
Not so much time ago, any future PRI’s comeback seemed inconceivable. Its 2000 defeat seemed irreversible and its death, just a matter of time. The next PAN-led twelve-years interregnum marked a political earthquake that even affected cultural outputs, as said above. So how to read this change when the PRI is again on the driver’s seat after being declared terminally ill? Its return possibly signals an interrupted political continuity, which was resumed after a while… with something happening in between. No doubt a new political equilibrium was reached, although some old actors are again on stage… performing a different script.
One is intuitively tempted to see such PRI revival through old good Marx’s lenses: “first as tragedy, then as farce.” In this sense, a new (farcical) PRI government would only be its last empirical test before its definitive death. However intellectually appealing this image might be, it seems more appropriate resorting to Latin American magical realism: “When [s]he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”15 The uncomfortable truth is that the PRI-nosaur never left though we loved to think so: and no remainder philanthropy is left in its genes. The neoliberal version of the old ogre is here to stay.
After all, even in his years out of the Presidency, the PRI never ruled less than half of the Mexican states, and in 2012 is governing 20 out of the 32. We have finally woken up from the illusion and when the truth was becoming apparent, the student movement #YoSoy13216 emerged in the middle of the 2012 electoral campaign. Peña Nieto had been the unacknowledged official candidate of Televisa, the main TV broadcaster in the country. Opposing this, a new generation of activists rebelled against the capitalist monarchy in the Mexican media. (Certainly, what are the merits of Televisa’s CEO Emilio Azcárraga to lead that company? Is it he the most suitable professional to deliver information to he Mexicans? No. He is simply “the heir”, as in any kingdom that deserves decapitation.) But here, as in a sad reminder of the prevalent middle-class sensibilities -let us compare to phenomena such as Occupy Wall Street- #YoSoy132 was also a deep critique to capitalism… without noticing it: was not it a condemnation of the private property over all that, which for being part of the common interest, should not have to be owned by a single individual?
The dramatic question is: Why did PRI come back to power? Certainly not only due to two failed PAN administrations. At a large extent, because they kept their presence among the popular classes, their larger-than-life expertise. Their corporatist tradition (their “popular contact”) although weaker is still effective: and they have no serious opponent at this level. Reluctantly both the PAN and PRD-led coalition have tried to copy PRI’s master model. Overall, the PRI has proved the most experienced and trustable guardian of Mexican crony capitalism. This party had enough machinery to spread its promise of order as opposed to Calderón’s mess. And Televisa’s complimentary support was not insignificant at all.
If this was not enough, the day of the election there were many reports of vote buying by PRI operatives. And although it is true that the electoral system showed ineptitude to deal with these allegations, it is truer that having a flawless electoral body is a waste of time if it is only destined to count corrupted ballots. Maybe the lesson is that PRI can only be defeated in its terrain: with “the people.” Otherwise any novel and well-intentioned democratic institutions, such as the Mexican ones, will eventually be under siege by the regime, still anchored in PRI’s legacies.
However, if one goes to “the people”… is to say what? Any answer to this question reveals how sterile is supporting the ex PRI’s cadre and two-times PRD presidential candidate López Obrador whose political program can be fairly described as a utopian neoliberalism “with a human face.” And this is the other explanatory variable in regards to PRI’s reinassance: the so-called leftist PRD has consistently showed a remarkable inability to present an alternative to both neoliberalism and the war on drugs. This party has largely been reduced to parasitic politics: an attitude of “wait and see” the actions of both PRI and PAN in order to criticise them without offering anything instead. The need of an alternative unveils a political void that can only be filled by a new left. Will this happen? PR
* Ramón I. Centeno is a PhD Researcher at The University of Sheffield, Department of Politics.

1. PRESIDENCIA DE LA REPÚBLICA. 2006. El Gabinete de Seguridad presenta informe de acciones sobre la Operación Conjunta Michoacán. Available: http://bit.ly/RjH7Ba [Accessed 29 October 2012].
2. OPPENHEIMER, A. 2011. ¿Dos Américas latinas? La Nación [Online]. Available: http://bit.ly/rEizYS [Accessed 30 October 2012].
3. REUTERS. 2011. México y cinco países de CA firman nuevo TLC que unifica pactos previos. La Jornada, 23 November.
4. OPPENHEIMER, A. 2012. México, EEUU y Latinoamérica. En Nuevo Herald [Online]. Available: http://bitly.com/S9xGFD [Accessed 29 October 2012].
5. PEÑA NIETO, E. 2012. Latinoamérica, una tarea pendiente para México. El Tiempo [Online]. Available: http://bitly.com/PQFJci [Accessed 29 October 2012].
6. Interview by Damien Cave, The New York Times, June 2012, http://bit.ly/XOhZbC.
7. MCKINLEY JR., J. C. & THOMPSON, G. 2006. Conservative Has Slight Edge in Mexico Vote. The New York Times, 4 July 2006.
8. BARTRA, R. 2011. No hagas mañana lo que puedas dejar para pasado mañana. Letras Libres [Online]. Available: http://bit.ly/UbqDvH [Accessed 29 October 2012].
9. The richer 10% holds 38.7% of the national income, while the poorer 10% barely 1.8%.
10. VERDUSCO, A. 2011. Cree ser clase media 81 por ciento de la población, pero sólo 32 por ciento lo es. Milenio [Online]. Available: http://bit.ly/oCcPCc [Accessed 29 October 2012].
11. Bartra, op cit.
12. See amateur video in: http://bit.ly/YgayZX
13. See amateur video in: http://bit.ly/WWrzKy
14. ESCALANTE GONZALBO, F. 2009. ¿Puede México ser Colombia? Nueva Sociedad, 84-96.
15. This is a (very) short tale by Augusto Monterroso.
16. This tag was the Internet’s identity that the participants adopted, meaning “I am the 132th”, in supportive response to a video where 131 students defended their protest against Peña Nieto.

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