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In Mexico, social unrest reflects rising expectations

Local protests have become overriding themes in the disputed presidential race.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2006


In April a sit-in among steelworkers in the west turned deadly. The next month came violent demonstrations outside Mexico City.

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Now, thousands of dissidents in the southern state of Oaxaca have taken over this pretty colonial capital, shattering windows of hotels, spraying buildings with revolutionary graffiti, and causing the city to cancel its most famed festival of the year.

Over the weekend, gunmen attacked a radio station in Oaxaca that had supported a mass movement calling for the resignation of the governor.

While these flare-ups are driven by local circumstance, they share their origins in class friction and distrust of authority. These issues have long been part of Mexican society, but have now become overriding themes in the still-disputed July 2 presidential election.

"We are seeing a big awakening," says Wilfrido Mayren Pelaez, a Catholic priest in Oaxaca City who has been mediating between the strikers and the state government.

"People have changed.... Across the country, we are seeing that in different ways and with different expressions."

Protests over disparities are not new to Mexico's political landscape. Its 1910 revolution was sparked in part by peasants and the working classes seeking to overhaul the inequities exacerbated by the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship.

But many say that social tensions have reached a fever pitch, in part because of expectations and realities formed by the unraveling of 71 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose reign ended with President Vicente Fox's victory in 2000.

"In the case of Oaxaca, what we are seeing now is something that has been boiling for decades," says Rossana Fuentes-Berain, a political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "It is emblematic of frustrations people feel in parts of the country."

The clashes in Oaxaca, which is closed off by metal barricades that are spray-painted with threats aimed at Gov. Ulises Ruiz, are taking place against the backdrop of the disputed presidential election.

The 2006 race, the closest in history, has the free-trade advocate Felipe Calderón winning with a little more than half a percentage point over Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an outspoken advocate of the poor – and has split the country along geographic and class lines.

In Oaxaca, an annual protest by the teachers' union morphed last month into a mass movement calling for Governor Ruiz's resignation when he ordered state police to clear out strikers from the teacher's union, who have been leading an annual protest for higher wages for 26 years.

The government response represents a heavy-handedness that observers say the people of Mexico will no longer accept. The repression, which included tear gas, angered union groups, farmers, and radical political organizations alike. They have banded together to demand his resignation, sleeping in shifts in the central plaza, or zocalo.