`Don Fidel' - cement of Mexican politics
FIDEL VELAZQUEZ, considered one of the most powerful labor leaders in the world, seems out of place in the 1980s. His gravelly voice, gold watch, fat cigar, and tinted glasses make him seem like a 1930s labor baron in ``The Untouchables.'' But the white-haired labor patriarch - known all over Mexico simply as ``Don Fidel'' - is still the glue that holds the Mexican political system together.Skip to next paragraph
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For 46 years, Mr. Vel'azquez has held an iron grip on the influential Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM) - a coalition of almost 9,000 unions throughout the country.
Every six years, presidents come and go. But Don Fidel remains, forging anew the social pacts between workers and bosses, between the unions and the new presidential administration. These pacts have ensured stability and peace - even when Mexico seems on the brink of falling apart.
``The situation we now confront is the most difficult of my career,'' says Vel'azquez, his mumbled monotone filling a plush conference room outside his office in the Mexican capital.
As more than 70 people - from sombrero-topped farmers to pin-striped businessmen - wait outside for an audience with him, Vel'azquez patiently talks about the sharp economic blows workers have endured in the past five years.
Inflation has soared to 130 percent. Food and transport subsidies have been slashed. Unemployment has doubled, to about 18 percent. Half of all Mexican workers now either earn less than the $3.10 minimum daily wage or have no job at all; and the other half, while fortunate to have a steady paycheck, have watched its real earning power shrink by nearly 50 percent.
But Mexico's ``time bomb'' has not exploded. There have been no national strikes, no widespread protests.
Close observers offer one principal reason: Don Fidel, even in the twilight of his career, ably treads the fine line between workers' growing demands and the government's austere economic policy.
In return for receiving political posts for CTM activists, minimum-wage increases, and a continuance of the government's broad social security net, Vel'azquez grudgingly accepts the austerity policies, even though they damage his workers' economic conditions.
``I don't think there's another country like this,'' says Vel'azquez. ``Despite the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we still have spaces to advance. The national unity has not been broken. Social peace has been maintained.''
Then, as if tossing out an afterthought, he adds: ``All within the limits of what the situation permits.''
For Vel'azquez, the phrase is more than a superfluous idea. It reflects his formula for preserving social stability: Never ask for more than the government can give.
In these days of austerity, Vel'azquez hasn't asked for much. Indeed, as the crisis has nearly crushed the working class, the cure - belt-tightening reforms twinned with a push toward international markets - has reduced the role of unions.
Yet the CTM remains the foundation of Mexico's political system - largely because of an unusual alliance Vel'azquez formed nearly half a century ago. He made the CTM an arm of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the broad-based ruling coalition that has yet to lose any national gubernatorial election.
``Mexico is perhaps the only capitalist country in the world where the union movement is integrated into the ruling party,'' says labor specialist Javier Aguilar, marveling at the workers' tranquillity during this period of wrenching recession.
Wages for the CTM's 4.5 million members - roughly half of Mexico's unionized workers - may not be keeping up with inflation.
But, as Vel'azquez is quick to point out, confederation workers can still count on the government for housing, cheap food, loans, and (though he fails to mention it) even jobs for relatives.