“What we are witnessing here is a phenomenon of the ongoing transformation of the role played by youths in Mexican society,” says 28-year-old Ernesto Armendáriz, “because traditionally, young people are stigmatized in Mexico as a sector that is politically immobile or a sector that is politically apathetic.”
Much like their counterparts north of the border, young people in Mexico are generally disregarded in national affairs due to the perception by their society that they are politically mute and complacent.
As Armendáriz suggests, however, recent events signal an undeniable sea change in the participation of youths in determining and charting the future course of politics in Mexico. This was exemplified most forcefully during a nationwide campaign against a political ploy by the government and its allies to prevent the most popular politician in Mexico, center-left Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador—locally referred to by his initials as “AMLO”—from running in the 2006 presidential elections [See Desafuero].
Armendáriz is the national coordinator of the Red Nacional de Jóvenes con AMLO (National Network of Youths with AMLO), an independent citizen group formed by Mexico City youths in August 2004 in the wake of the first protests against government efforts to block the Mayor’s candidacy. The group’s first goal, explains Armendáriz, was to defend the Mayor by “linking together organized and non-organized groups of youths for the purpose of joining the nationwide campaign of civil resistance.”
The Mayor’s opponents accused him of ignoring a court order restricting the city’s power to build a hospital access road through disputed land. President Vicente Fox and members of his National Action Party (PAN) joined with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to strip the Mayor of his immunity from prosecution. The process of stripping the immunity afforded to all holders of public office in Mexico is called a desafuero.
With a successful desafuero and an indictment, López Obrador would most likely have been legally barred from running for president. The overtly political maneuver elicited widespread repudiation from a broad swath of Mexican society that has grown tired of the unabashed politicking and corruption plaguing governmental institutions. “People mobilized against the desafuero, because they plainly saw it for what it was—a grave injustice,” contends Armendáriz.
The government eventually scrapped the move amid widespread indignation and relentless demonstrations throughout the country. (An April 24 march in Mexico City drew an estimated 1.2 million people.)
Youths mobilized in great numbers against the desafuero, but Armendáriz plays down their role. Although he notes that young people constitute a majority of the country’s population, he prefers to mark the victory as one shared by all Mexicans. “We participated and made our contribution just like every other sector,” he emphasizes. “We’d never in any way consider ourselves to be some kind of vanguard or give more merit to our participation.”
Many analysts have placed the latest wave of political invigoration sweeping Mexico squarely within the trajectory of ongoing efforts to push the pace of the country’s slowly developing democracy. Direct comparisons have been made to the turbulence of the 1960s during which students and workers militantly called for political reforms. The flashpoint of this activism was the 1968 massacre of more than 250 student-protestors in the Tlatelolco building complex in Mexico City by the PRI government with Washington’s support.
Fr. Joel Magallán, executive director of the Asociación Tepeyac de New York, a Mexican immigrant advocacy group, acknowledges the differing historical contexts, but notes some similarities with 1968. Particularly in reference to youths, Magallán notes, “Back then, students were fighting for democracy, but they lost because they were killed. Now they’re doing the same thing, but in this case the government tried to use legal means—the desafuero.”
Armendáriz of the Red Nacional believes that since 1968, all of Mexican society has been slowly recovering a sense of power through social mobilization, which increasingly helped loosen the PRI’s ironclad hold on government. “The motivation to come out into the streets now is in an entirely different context,” says Armendáriz, “but comparing the sense of indignation felt by the Mexican people, I think, is correct … not just with 1968, but other events as well.”
He’s alluding to the aftermath of the earthquake that rocked Mexico City in 1985 when demonstrations erupted against the government’s ineffectual response to the disaster. The grassroots activism that emerged from the rubble is widely credited with helping edge forward the country’s nascent civil society.
The presidential election of 1988 was another watershed moment in Mexico’s contentious democratic development. The victory of the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, against left-wing candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas is still regarded as markedly fraudulent. Despite the fraud, it was a close race, and it instilled in Mexicans a glimmer of hope that a non-PRI candidate could be elected. In the 2000 presidential election, this became reality with the election of Vicente Fox, ending over 70 years of one-party rule by the PRI.
Armendáriz also points to the massive protests in 1994 against the government’s military offensive against Zapatista rebels in southeast Mexico as a formative moment for social mobilization and democratic participation. “On top of recovering that historical agency of previous struggles, the people have again told the government, ‘¡Ya basta!’ (enough already!),” says Armendáriz repeating the Zapatistas’ insurgent motto.
As a generation, Mexicans now in their teens and twenties witnessed these profound changes in politics and society firsthand; their political formation occurred within this context of widening democratic spaces. Consequently, younger Mexicans are less tolerant than older generations of the machinations typical of their country’s notoriously corrupt political system.
For Mexicans living abroad, the battle over the desafuero had particular salience because the 2006 elections will mark the first time they will be able to cast ballots from abroad. Joel Magallán of Tepeyac cited this as an important factor that led to high turnouts at protests held at Mexico’s diplomatic missions in the United States. In New York City, Tepeyac joined with Mexican student groups from local universities to demonstrate against the desafuero.
At one march, they carried a small white coffin with white flowers to the Mexican consulate signifying the pending death of Mexico’s young democracy were the desafuero to succeed. The “funeral” procession ended on the steps of the consulate, where they left the coffin. “When a young child dies in Mexico—like our young democracy, in this case—it’s customary to use a white coffin for the burial,” explains Magallán.
Magallán has noticed that the involvement of young Mexican immigrants in the campaign against the desafuero as well as their general interest in the politics of Mexico partly depends on how recently they migrated to the United States. “The youth who have come to us in recent years are much more familiar with the struggle for democracy,” remarks Magallán. “Whereas those who left a long time ago sometimes think the PRI is still in power,” he adds only half-jokingly.
Armendáriz proudly takes note of the student groups and other youth-centered organizations in the United States that have made the youth-oriented component of the anti-desafuero campaign transnational. But again, he’s careful to emphasize that although the participation of youths has been a unique factor in the campaign, young people only make up one sector of the larger struggle for Mexico’s budding democracy.
Still, Armendáriz views their participation with great optimism, and his group will continue to bring attention to youth-specific problems, particularly regarding access to quality education and jobs. “I think this all speaks very well of young peoples’ greater degree of political consciousness and their desire to participate,” he says. “I mean, it’s true, youths have always been very excluded, and they are spontaneously trying to reinsert themselves politically into society. I think recent events have really helped this along.”
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