FEATURE/Kent Paterson

Citizen Movement Challenges in Mexico

A joke circulating around Mexico goes something like this: Two people are talking and one tells the other: "The three main candidates for president, the one from the PRI, the one from the PAN, and the one from the PRD, all get on a jet together." "And?" "The jet has engine trouble and crashes. Who survives?"

"I dunno." "The country, stupid!"

Black humor aside, the joke expresses the cynicism and abstentionism sweeping broad sectors of the country's population, which sees no real solutions coming from the political parties that will vie for Mexico's presidency and Congress on July 2.

However, in response to the disaffection with the parties, and in opposition to political fatalism, a new citizen's movement is slowly building to take the reigns of power away from the political class.

Called Citizen Action for Democracy and Life, the movement brings together about 600 labor, community, human rights, rural, and ecological groups. Without a doubt, it is the broadest coalition to emerge in Mexico during recent years.

"This is a citizen's movement that intends to de-party democracy," says Jorge Sanchez, a Citizen Action organizer and activist with the Center for Promotion and Community Advisement in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes.

Echoing a common complaint, Sanchez contends that Mexico's much-touted democratic transition has been narrowed to privileges for political parties at the expense of other forms of popular organization. For instance, electoral reforms that required the mass media to give more space to political parties did not result in better coverage of independent movements, which are still regularly marginalized or ostracized by the big television and radio networks. In fact, the electronic media led the charge to politically lynch striking students at Mexico City's National Autonomous University.

"This is a half-way democracy," says Gerardo Enriquez, an activist with Citizen Action and the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN). According to Enriquez, widespread disgust exists at the amount of money -- about $150 million just in public financing -- expected to spend in this year's federal elections. "Everything is sugarcoated and done with public money," adds Enriquez, "through the media, the state apparatus, and the financing of the Federal Electoral Institute with public money."

In order to bring Mexican political life back to the grassroots, representatives of the highly respected, non-partisan Civic Alliance meeting with the FZLN, the Center for Promotion and Community Advisement (CEPECOM) and numerous other organizations last year to create a force -- Citizen Action -- to counter the weight of the nation's political parties.

Currently, the group is trying to get media coverage of a wide-ranging reform agenda that it also wants to get the candidates and parties to adopt. Sanchez says the document, titled "Citizen Power," reflects the genuine demands and sentiments of a broad cross-section of Mexico's 100 million people. "The purpose of the agenda is to create a strong citizen's movement that obliges discussion of the principal demands," explains Sanchez, "because today in the electoral arena, the only thing that is talked about is what the candidates or parties think are the demands of the population."

But Citizen Action is facing an uphill battle. As the presidential election draws near, the candidates and parties are commanding more media attention, quite often at the expense of the issues. Nonetheless, Citizen Action activists envision the organization as surviving beyond the 2000 election and acquiring a strategic importance in Mexico's political future. Alliances are already being formed with other social movements, such as the farmers' protest that was held last fall in Mexico City to demand an end to the economic crisis devastating agricultural producers.

A key role in the movement is being played by women. "The participation of women has been very notable in the development of the citizen's agenda," says CEPECOM's Maribel Rosa. "Women are the ones who are closest to the cuts in family income, the question of nutrition and the education of the children. From these experiences, we're assuming our role of going public with our demands. Along with other women, we're constructing our own political spaces and proposing solutions."

Implicity and explicitly, Citizen Action challenges prevailing notions of what constitutes democracy. According to Sanchez, democracy involves far more than elections and campaign snapshots. And he poses an unusual example: "Planting orchards in a rural community apparently has nothing to do with democracy. But when we examine the issue in depth, we discover that it has to do with breaking the monopoly of the world food supply. This little effort, then, has enormous potential for several reasons. First of all, it struggles against monopolization. Secondly, it struggles for better community nutrition. Thirdly, it improves the economic situation of the population. And fourthly, it creates solidarity markets between producers."

For Sanchez and other members of Citizen Action, planting democracy in Mexico means burying the economic model of unrestrained free markets and foreign trade that has been unleashed on Mexico since the early 1980s. It also implies breaking the stranglehold of single-issue politics that have kept Mexican social movements isolated from one another for decades. "Apparently, all this has nothing to do with democracy," he chuckles. "But we're looking for an integral conception that cuts to the heart of the matter, which is the system of neoliberalism. This is a very important goal."

Kent Paterson is a writer based in Albuquerque, N.M., reporting from Mexico.

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