Mexico’s Stormy Winter of 2017


The cost of January. It’s an old Mexican saying that describes the bitter time when debts of December holidays, school fees and taxes come due. In 2017 the cost of January was one for the history books, ushered in with a 20 percent gasoline price hike pushed by President Peña Nieto’s administration and approved by the Mexican Congress.

Popularly dubbed the “gasolinazo,” the hefty price hike was followed by mass looting in several cities. But another response, captured by the slogan “I protest, not loot,” was exemplified by peaceful protests waged by tens of thousands of Mexicans across the country. “Out with Peña Nieto” became another slogan striking a chord.

In Baja California, where ire over the gasolinazo converged with mass opposition to a new state water law portending higher rates and privatized services, the movement acquired an almost insurrectionary flavor.

Luis Hernandez Navarro, an editor for La Jornada daily and longtime analyst of social movements, termed the protest wave “unprecedented” in character, splashed with spontaneity and “regional protests each different than the others.”

Underpinning the anti-gasolinazo movement was the fear that higher gas prices, stemming in part from Mexico’s growing reliance on US refined gasoline, would translate into higher costs for other goods. Indeed, higher costs were soon registered in everything from staple tortillas to bus fares to newspapers.

Other events jarred the nation. On Jan. 16, five people, including two foreigners, were killed in a shooting at a nightclub in the trendy resort of Playa del Carmen south of Cancun. Next day, gunmen attacked the state prosecutor’s office in Cancun and engaged in running gun battles with authorities during broad daylight, leaving four victims dead. The violence exposed the seamier side of international tourist destinations, where illicit drugs are consumed like candy by some foreign tourists, and inevitable gangland disputes erupt.

Occurring in the Riviera Maya, the two deadly incidents struck terror in the glitzy heart of the Mexican tourism industry, which accounts for 8% of the gross domestic product. Contributing to January’s economic jitters were historic plunges in the value of the peso and a World Bank projection of growth under 2% for this year.

The national psyche was further rattled last month when a male student at a private school in Monterrey shot and wounded three classmates and a teacher before killing himself. While gun violence is rampant in Mexico, most of the carnage is connected to narco-tainted conflicts and deliberate school shootings are almost unheard of here. Mexicans asked themselves: “Are we becoming like the US?”

As a turbulent month progressed, accused underworld kingpin Chapo Guzman was finally extradited to the United States. Normally, the extradition would have been a top if not the most covered story for days, but the 59-year-old drug lord was upstaged by another billionaire businessman.

President Trump’s executive orders and promises on building a giant border wall, deporting undocumented Mexican immigrants and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement sparked a political firestorm in Mexico, the cancellation of a January visit with President Peña Nieto and the biggest revival of Mexican nationalism in decades. Trump’s suggestion to Peña Nieto that US troops could be deployed in Mexico to fight drug gangs only fueled the furor.

The Mexican Congress, National Governors Conference and private sector leaders all fell behind their president while political cartoonists, media personalities and sports stars lampooned Trump.

Conservative or middle-of-the road figures like former president Felipe Calderon and former foreign secretary Jorge Castaneda, even proposed that Mexico reconsider its cooperation with the US in the drug war and in detaining migrants, demands voiced for years by human rights activists. Social media activists, meanwhile, urged a boycott of US products and firms doing business in Mexico, posting the logos of Walmart, Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other gringo companies all over the web and asking consumers to avoid spending their pesos with such outfits.

Trump’s ascension elevated the US-Mexico relationship to center stage in Mexican politics, reshaping the political terrain for the 2018 presidential and congressional elections. The US president’s actions not only deeply insulted the dignity of a proud nation but reopened old wounds dating back to the Texas secession and the 1846-48 US war against Mexico as well.

For the first time in years, stories are circulating in the Mexican press affirming that the US illegally possesses chunks of Mexican territory, including California’s Channel Islands and the oil rich waters surrounding them. In separate media interviews, Chihuahua Senator Patricio Martinez claimed his research reveals that the US holds more than 200,000 acres rightfully belonging to Mexico along the borders of Sonora and Chihuahua.

The reporter approached a group of locals at a family restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, probing about recent gasolinazo-connected price increases. “Are you with Trump?” a man asked. The conversation then focused on the Alamo and the 19th century US seizure of the northern swath of Mexico.

Trump diverted attention away from the gasolinazo crisis, arguably giving a slight boost to Peña Nieto, who had an 85% unpopularity rating according to a Jan. 11 poll published by Excelsior daily. By Jan. 30, Excelsior tagged the president’s negative ranking at 79%.

Writing in Puerto Vallarta’s Tribuna de la Bahia newspaper, columnist Roberto Almaguer Vega noted the shift, ridiculing the submission of the political class to the president. “Corncob Hairs (a derisive name for Trump in Mexico) has legitimized (Peña Nieto), with the herd instinct of a good part of Mexico,” Almaguer wrote.

Many Mexicans aren’t taken in by the Trumpazo and the Mexican elite’s reaction to the new occupant of the White House who threatens to unravel the NAFTA economy from which the upper class has benefited. Protesters are again back in the streets demanding a reversal of the gas price increase, the ouster of Peña Nieto, fundamental political and tax reforms, and justice in human rights atrocities like the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students in 2014.

“We applaud the fact that (Peña Nieto) didn’t go the (Washington) meeting because of the construction of the wall.” Teresa Guerra, secretary general of the Puerto Vallarta branch of the Mexican Telephone Workers Union, said at a recent rally. “It’s the only thing we can approve of about our president. We don’t have much hope for the country. He needs a good team for advisors so the country takes a good path that benefits Mexicans.”

Guerra read from a 12-point manifesto endorsed by the telephone workers and dozens of other unions and social movements. Developing alternative energy resources, reclaiming food sovereignty and excluding agriculture from a renegotiated NAFTA are among the policy changes proposed by the groups. The manifesto urges a complete overhaul of the Mexican government so it’s “different from the style of the (US) government that doesn’t listen to its citizens who demonstrate or the distinct expressions of public opinion.”

Currently, the Peña Nieto administration is convening different actors for a process aimed at hacking out Mexico’s positions in the renegotiation of NAFTA. A big question is whether the popular grievances voiced in the streets will be included in the official posture Mexico adopts with Washington.

Kent Paterson is a freelance writer who divides his time between Mexico and the southwestern Unied States.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2017

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652