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.

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."

Seeds of a protest

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."

Since 1990, 10 South American leaders have had to step down before their terms ended, many eased out by mass protests against them, according to the Argentine think tank Nueva Mayoria. A popular uprising brought down Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003, and then almost toppled his replacement, President Carlos Mesa, earlier this year; Peru and Argentina have all seen their governments fall, with angry crowds thronging the capital. In Ecuador, Mr. Gutiérrez is the third president in a decade to be forced from office. And Haiti has seen several elected leaders brought down by mass protests.

In Nicaragua, President Enrique Bolaños put the Army on standby Tuesday night after two weeks of sometimes violent street protests against bus-fare hikes. Rival politicians are calling on him to resolve the crisis or resign.

The Latin difference

Mass marches are, of course, not exclusive to Latin America. From Kiev to Hong Kong to Beirut, demonstrators have been pushing governments. But analysts say that the waves of public protest in Latin America illustrate a coincidence in the democratic development of the continent: the weakening of authoritarian regimes and the growing self-assurance of the people - including, in the case in Bolivia, the indigenous.

Governments and militaries, to start, are far more reluctant than in the past to repress demonstrators, says Poniatowska. She is best known for her book "La Noche de Tlatelolco," about the Army's massacre of student activists in Mexico City in 1968. "That was a very different time," she says.

Marta Lagos, an economist and pollster in Chile, says, "This is all a very healthy thing. People have an idea what real democracy is, and they know they don't have it quite yet. They want governments that represent them and they will go out to the streets to get that."

But some observers see the phenomenon as negative. They say the protests may prevent democratic institutions from carrying out their functions, thus undermining judicial independence and the rule of law.

"This is not constructive participation," argues Vinay Jawahar at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "It is hard to argue that this sort of instability is good for a country." Mr. Jawahar calls the argument that people have no other recourse "opportunistic." "The idea that as soon as people are unhappy with the performance of a president they can remove him means that legitimacy begins to rely on popularity, and it is dangerous when the two are confused."

But back in Mexico, the diminutive 72-year-old Poniatowska is not worried about such risks. It's 8 a.m. Thursday and she is listening to Fox's speech on the radio. Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, the presumptive presidential candidate from Fox's party is talking about "putting the López Obrador case to one side and getting on with our work."

Poniatowska is satisfied, for the moment, that her work is done.

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

Mexico's President Fox finds his footing

Vicente Fox is back.

That's the sentiment of supporters and analysts after the Mexican president Wednesday accepted the resignation of the country's attorney general, the man who led the effort to prosecute popular Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

It was, analysts joyfully proclaimed, Mr. Fox's best performance, and perhaps the most refreshing, since he took office in 2000 after 71 years of one-party rule. It was also a public-relations coup in a country that seemed to forget it had a president with another 20 months left in office. Fox has seen his approval ratings sink from a high of 74 percent in February 2001 to the low 40s recently.

"If he does this tomorrow, and the next day, and he keeps on doing this, then he'll really be back, and he'll really be the leader of Mexico again," says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, former Mexican ambassador to the UN under Fox and now a political analyst.

"I saw a president with vision of the state, ready to make important decisions in crucial moments in this country's history, putting forward the interest of all Mexicans," says Manuel Espino, president of Fox's National Action Party.

Analysts say the massive Sunday protest march for Mr. López Obrador, who polls show is the leading contender in the 2006 presidential race, may have forced Fox's hand. An estimated 1.2 million Mexicans, even those who didn't necessarily support López Obrador, rallied on his behalf, saying the prosecution's case - that he improperly expropriated private land - was politically motivated.

- Ken Bensinger

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