People power rattling politics of Latin America
This week, Mexico was the latest to experience a new civic activism.
First came the indignation, then the street protests and the disapproving comments from foreign countries. It culminated last Sunday with an estimated 1.2 million Mexicans marching silently through center of the capital. But President Vicente Fox moved to defuse the political crisis Wednesday night by accepting the resignation of his attorney general, who had been leading the criminal case against popular Mexico City Mayor and 2006 presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Chalk up another victory for Latin American people power. In the 1990s, what politicians feared most was apathy. But lately, Latin Americans from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador - much like the citizens of Ukraine and Lebanon - have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Civic protest is emerging as an increasingly effective - if controversial - political tool.
The power of the megaphone has been amplified by new organizing technologies: e-mail, Internet chat rooms, and text messages make it easier to contact, inspire, and bring people together quickly. The pro-López Obrador rally in Mexico City Sunday, for example, was coordinated via e-mail, with smaller protests in Los Angeles, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris. The ever-larger demonstrations are mostly peaceful, usually self-controlled, always televised - and more often than not successful.
"This is something new, if only in terms of the breadth, strength, and frequency of these movements lately," says Laura Carlsen, Mexico representative for International Relations Center, a civic-advocacy group. "Latin America's populations are increasingly looking for options and have decreasing patience with the promises of the past ... especially economic ones."
Yesterday, Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico's best-known contemporary writers, awoke with a smile. Mr. López Obrador had turned up a month ago on her doorstep in a faded colonial neighborhood and asked for help. The leftist politician was in trouble. He needed a team, he explained, to help coordinate demonstrations, and he wanted her, an author who has dedicated her life to capturing the voices of Mexico, on it.
She signed up, spending her days planning with market hawkers, union workers, the unemployed, and university students. They created signs and they thought big. Sunday's rally was one of the largest protests ever seen in this city. "We were, in our own way, very loud," says Poniatowska with a smile. "And I think we have changed the situation."
Fox did not mention López Obrador or the protests in his speech Wednesday. But, he said, "As head of state, my duty is to promote national unity. My administration will not stop anybody from running in the next federal elections."
Fox had previously said López Obrador should face charges for ignoring a 2001 court order to stop building a road on private land to a hospital. Earlier this month, Mexico's congress voted to strip López Obrador of the immunity his office provides. A conviction in the land case would have made a presidential bid illegal.
A similar story of public outrage spun out earlier this month in Ecuador, where people took to the streets chanting and banging pots and pans - and demanding the resignation of President Lucio Gutiérrez, who had illegally dissolved the Supreme Court. Within a few days, the president fled the country.
"The demonstrations got bigger and bigger. The whole city seemed to be out on the streets and the process took over," says César Montúfar, executive director of Participación Ciudadana, a Quito civic organization involved in the recent protests in Ecuador. "In a country with weak institutions and illegitimate and corrupt leaders, citizens became actors in the only way they could."
Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, sees the phenomenon as a "redefinition of civil society," able today to stand up to traditional elites.
"Ten to 15 years ago, many of these countries were just coming out from under dictatorial rule and civil society was weak and disorganized, and it took a while for civil society to restructure itself," says Mr. Roett. "Today, their high expectations have been disappointed, and the people are saying ...we are democratic and independent and we can assert ourselves."