It may be just about the most inspiring sight imaginable: hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the main square of some capital city, demanding democratic self-rule. “They’re doing it in many different corners of the world,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week, “places as varied as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and, on the other hand, Lebanon, and rumblings in other parts of the world as well. And so this is a hopeful time.”
It is a process in which the United States claims more than an observer’s role. The business of America, says President Bush, is spreading democracy. “The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people, you must learn to trust them,” Bush said in his inaugural address this January. “Start on this journey of progress and justice and America will walk at your side.”
Unless, of course, you’re Mexican.
Apparently, there are several kinds of capital city rallies. There are those in Kiev, where multitudes turned out to protest the subversion of a national election and the attempted murder of the opposition leader. There are those in Beirut, where people gathered to protest the murder of an opposition leader and to demand self-determination. These were outpourings that our government encouraged.
And there was the one last Thursday in Mexico City, where 300,000 protesters filled the Zocalo, the great plaza in the middle of the city, to show their outrage over the decision of their Chamber of Deputies to keep that nation’s opposition leader from running for president next year.
The government had not murdered the opposition leader, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador; it merely proposed to imprison him — and thereby disqualify him for the presidency — because someone in his city government disregarded a court order to stop construction of a short access road leading to a hospital, over land that was acquired by Lopez Obrador’s predecessor but whose ownership was still in dispute.
For this the congressional deputies from Mexico’s two conservative parties — President Vicente Fox’s PAN and the PRI, which had governed Mexico for six decades before Fox was elected in 2000 — voted almost unanimously last Thursday to strip Lopez Obrador of his official immunity, with the clear goal of imprisoning him and knocking him out of the 2006 presidential race.
Not coincidentally, all polls show Lopez Obrador — standard-bearer of the left-leaning PRD — to be the front-runner in that contest.
And what was the response of our government? Did we invoke the president’s mighty line that leaders of government with long habits of control must learn to trust their people? Did we tell the crowds gathered in the Zocalo that America walks at their side?
Not quite. While Condi Rice waxes eloquent about our concern for democratic rights in Central Asia and the Middle East, the most the Bush administration has managed to say about democracy in the unimaginably faraway land of Mexico has been the comment of a State Department spokesman that this is an internal Mexican affair.
Democracy may be all well and good, but Lopez Obrador is just not Bush’s kind of guy. As mayor of Mexico City, he’s increased public pensions to the elderly and spent heavily on public works and the accompanying job creation. He’s criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement as a boon for the corporate sector and a bust for Mexican workers. (As economist Jeff Faux has documented, while productivity in Mexican manufacturing rose 54 percent in the eight years after NAFTA’s enactment, real wages actually declined.) He’s opposed to Fox’s plan to privatize Mexico’s state-owned oil and gas industry — a stance that probably doesn’t endear him to the Texas oilmen currently employed as president and vice president of the United States.
Worse yet, Lopez Obrador’s populist politics and smarts have made him the most popular political leader in Mexico today. The much touted “free-market” economics of President Fox have done nothing to improve the lives of ordinary Mexicans. Lopez Obrador’s victory in next year’s election would mark a decisive repudiation of that neo-liberal model. Coming after the elections of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and Hugo Chavez (repeatedly) in Venezuela, it would be one more indication, a huge one, that Latin America has rejected an economics of corporate autonomy, public austerity and no worker rights.
So, democracy in Ukraine? We’ll be there. Lebanon? Count on us. Kyrgyzstan? With bells on. Mexico? Where’s that? Maybe they should move to Central Asia, change their name to Mexistan and promise to privatize the oil. That’s the kind of democracy the Bush guys really like.