The First Crisis of the 21st Century

Maurice Walsh on Mexico’s Troubles

The man wore jeans and a white singlet, and sat in something resembling a summer house. He’d been sitting with his legs apart, an ancient rifle lying across his thighs, but he stood up and approached us with a lazy stride that concealed his wariness. To look at his gun you wouldn’t think it, but this man was the first line of defence for the peasants who had invaded the ranch called Chamic. The property lay near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, and belonged to the two Bonilla brothers, landowners well-known locally. The day before we arrived, a band of peasants had surprised the Bonillas in a nearby village as they sat at breakfast over bottles of coke. They were brought to the farm at gunpoint, imprisoned, and held as hostages on their own land.

The kidnapping of the brothers caused outrage among other landowners in the area and news of the event quickly spread throughout Chiapas. Of the many assaults and indignities suffered by the propertied classes at the hands of their peones since the Zapatista rebellion of last year, this one stood out. The fighting had stopped after 12 days and the guerrillas returned to the jungle to wage their war by e-mail. But they have continued to sow disorder throughout Chiapas and the whole of Mexico has been unnerved. By day, emboldened peasants, many of them landless, rush onto some local farm, occupy the owner’s outhouses and run up tattered flags, painted with the image of Emiliano Zapata, the lost hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. At night, armed men, some of them in military uniform, force traffic to a halt by rolling rocks and boulders into the path of drivers on quiet backroads, then demand money.

Standing by the fence at Chamic, we waited for the peasants to send out their leaders to talk to us. They didn’t emerge until it was dark. Encircled by relaxed, cheerful men with children and dogs, we walked to a barn, to which all the people living on the land had been summoned. We squeezed past a white Chevrolet jeep in the entrance, the property of the Bonillas, and a sinister reminder that they were being held somewhere nearby – maybe even within earshot. A child stretched across its mother’s lap, coughed, then cried. The two leaders of the occupation sat behind a table at the front of the room, ready to answer questions.

They refused to allow us to see the brothers but assured us they were being well treated and were fed every day with whatever could be found for them. The bigger of the two men had an air of great authority, but held back as his slight colleague talked about the peasants’ struggle against maltreatment and low wages. He likened their situation to an illness which demanded medicine. He spoke of how Zapata had been reborn and how they admired him and Che Guevara because both had given their lives for the good of the poor. He pointed out that the ranchers had their pistoleros, hired guns to do their bidding, but he did not seem to fear an attack. They didn’t want a fight, he said: there were women and children on the farm. A little later, he said they were all prepared to give their life for the land. He spoke in an even voice, as if he believed the slogans but was tired of them; and when we got up to leave it took us by surprise that he leapt to his feet and roared ‘Viva Zapata!’ The men and women, and the children, hidden in the half-light of the barn, responded with their own deep murmur like a crowd in a chapel: ‘Viva Zapata!’

This encounter took place before Christmas, when the notion that Mexico was part of the First World was still both the proud boast and the official doctrine of the American-educated technocrats who a few years ago rose to the top of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. (The PRI has not just been the governing party, but virtually the sole guardian of power in Mexico since 1929.) It was a notion propagated abroad with much success by President Salinas, and it was easy, when arriving in Mexico and seeing endless billboards and new branches of Dryclean USA, to be seduced into believing it. You could think, for a moment, that the Indian children who begged in the street, and the peasants protesting about rural injustice, would soon be transformed into contented citizens of a modern democracy.

I live in an old Jewish neighbourhood of Mexico City, comfortably middle-class but not showy; there is plenty that might seem to uphold the First World myth. It is a quiet street that circles a park, and is lined with seven or eight-storey apartment buildings, most of them built thirty or forty years ago. In the morning, at this time of year, the smog comes down gradually; the sun doesn’t shine, it just sort of filters through the dense dirty-brown haze. There’s a lot of traffic, and men pass up and down the streets shouting out their trades, offering to repair your curtains or fix your plumbing. The man who sharpens knives has a distinctive whistle. Others push carts full of sweet oranges, which they squeeze mechanically to make juice for passers-by coming from shops and offices. On the busier streets there are shops selling expensive office furniture, bookshops and cafés which offer music recitals on Sunday mornings, beauty salons frequented by women driving new American cars, and restaurants run by pony-tailed young proprietors that serve international delicacies and Chilean wine at prices which, even in November, were higher than they would have been in New York. The supermarket on the corner is open late and in the evening the street clatters with the noise of trolleys full of American stuff – from yoghurt to painkillers – being pushed here and there.

Imported goods were the true symbols of the Salinas era, the sensual incarnation of low inflation, free trade and sound money. On Sundays in the Parque Mexico, a block from the supermarket, fathers dressed with determined informality in new running shoes and T-shirts toss an American football at their four-year-olds, or watch their daughters steer battery-operated toys through groups of teenagers on rollerblades. It’s not really a question of new wealth. Much is made of the appearance of more than twenty new Mexican millionaires in Forbes, but Salinas was eager to tell everyone that under his paternal gaze their expectations could soar freely. He was adored abroad, and the Presidential press office made a collage of all his appearances on international magazine covers. The headlines across his bald head (‘One Tough Hombre’) were like valentines from enthralled suitors ready to throw their dowries at Mexico.

Not long ago a fine portrait of Emiliano Zapata appeared on a new ten-peso note. His flamboyant moustache intact, the revolutionary who was killed by the Revolution stares impatiently from the right-hand side of the note. On the left are a pair of peasant hands, brown and rough, clutching a few cobs of corn. When you turn the note over, a man on horseback wearing a sombrero – presumably the same Zapata – stops in a cornfield to lay his hand on the shoulder of a peasant who seeks his counsel. Although the PRI has moved further than ever from the fairy story of the Revolution over the past few years, the need to give currency to Zapata’s image – or to give his image to currency – is a clue to how, beneath the glittering rhetoric of modernity, the old party has sought to cling to its emotional origins.

Since the debt crisis of 1982, when Mexico defaulted on its huge borrowings from foreign banks, the PRI has been in a state of suppressed shock. The plans of the technocrats – neo-liberal economic reform, free trade and friendly relations with the US – left the Party confused about its beliefs, while the quest for a modern economy demanded some lessening of its political grip. However, the grandiose project of the Salinas era enabled the PRI to keep its desperate anxieties private. Until, that is, Zapata was brought back to life by the peasant guerrillas in Chiapas. Within months of the uprising, the PRI’s Presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated on the campaign trail. And after his replacement, Ernesto Zedillo, had safely negotiated the election in August, one of the Party’s most important officials was shot dead as he left a Mexico City hotel. The investigations into the two murders turned up conspiracy theories and lurid confessions of plots by reactionary politicians in league with drug traffickers. Within the last fortnight, Raul Salinas, the brother of the former President, has been arrested in connection with the murder of José Francisco Ruiz Massicu, the PRI’s general secretary.

The Presidency in Mexico is a modern monarchy, and the change of leaders every six years carried the promise of a new era to come and an old one buried. So there was great relief last December when President Salinas handed over the red, green and white sash to Ernesto Zedillo, whose winning slogan was ‘Zedillo means well-being for your family.’ Everybody was impressed by his inaugural speech: he didn’t avoid mentioning the uprisings and assassinations; he confronted everything as if deeply aware that these things were troubling and must be sorted out. He seemed a dour man, with suspicious, slightly frightened eyes and a reputation as a brilliant technical economist; he was also said to be ready to take on the reactionaries and to make the PRI more democratic. He had worked his way up from poverty, and was said not to employ servants in his house out of moral conviction.

I was in the United States when the devaluation came a few days before Christmas. At first it appeared to be an adjustment, then the peso began to fall spectacularly against the dollar. Only when I returned to Mexico City did I realise how angry people had become, how deep was their sense of betrayal. Already Salinas was being blamed for concealing the alarming debt that he had run up by showering foreign investors with government bonds in return for dollars. Those who once believed he was a modern Moses leading Mexico into the First World lambasted him as a traitor, who just wanted a job for himself at the head of the World Trade Organisation. Every day things got worse, and every day the peso bought fewer and fewer of those delicious imports. Hairdressers in Idaho and shopkeepers in Toulouse, seduced by some stockbroker into investing in the emerging markets, were selling in panic. The television announcers maintained an air of jaunty reassurance as they reported the latest crash of the Bolsa. When President Clinton announced a huge package of loan guarantees (Washington believed Mexico was about to default on its debts) there was euphoria. But that only lasted a few days as thoughts of the recession took over. The head of the IMF said Mexico was the first crisis of the 21st century.

A few days after Valentine’s Day, there were fresh stalks of maize emerging from the plots inside the entrance to the Bonilla brothers’ farm. The Mexican Army had just entered Chiapas to force the Zapatistas from their territory. The guerrillas had fled for the hills, leaving washing on the line and food still cooking in the pots. But the peasants on the farm of the Bonilla brothers said everything was tranquilo. Nobody had come near them yet.