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Here and there: a tale of two protests

28 April 2014

I’m not sure how long the Washington Post’s  Joshua Partlow has been in Mexico but it can’t have been very long, since his reportage had Kabul datelines late last month.  At any rate, he seemed taken by surprise that demonstrations are an everyday occurance in Mexico, even in the rather pricey environs of Coyoacán:

Democracy here is practised in the street and very much out loud. Seemingly every day someone is protesting something, chanting grievances, thrusting banners, announcing “yes we cans,” even if they probably can’t.

Mexican soccer players have worn paper bags over their heads to protest unpaid wages. Topless women with blue handprints painted over their breasts have marched for women’s rights. Jugglers, dancers and clowns have raged against a new rule banning animals from circuses.

They protest Mexico’s oil policies. U.S. immigration rules. Rising subway prices. Education reform. They have marched in opposition to the drug lords’ rampant killing and kidnapping, and in opposition to the arrest of said drug lords. They block toll booths. Airports. Highways.

There are thousands of protests each year in Mexico City alone: Hunger strikes. Prayer vigils.

He needs to get used to them if he’s going to live here.  People have a right to “struggle” in their common interest… and do.  Every day.  The A.M traffic reports not only give you the weather and accidents, but warn commuters of any planned demonstrations… just a fact of life in a capital city.  This isn’t Washinton DC (which, like any national capital, can expect more demonstrations than most towns) but it is a city where drive time AM radio includes not just the traffic and weather report, but the demonstration report.

Demonstrations are much less common outside Xico, Veracruz, where — as Esther Klein Buddenhagen writes for “From Xico” —  there is a “rural population of farmers and small shopkeepers and herders,” … but the principle is the same… it’s called DEMOCRACY … and sometimes the issues are similar as well.

Parlow’s new neighbors are protesting a recent decision to install parking meters.  Not being famers and small shopkeepers and herders, but people who own private automobiles, some in toney Coyoacán simply can’t fathom the idea of paying “about 60 cents an hour throughout a neighbourhood where residents have been accustomed to parking free.”

Esther’s low-time neighbors are upset that the only bus company is raising its rates on local routes to about 4 dollars.. instead of an agreed upon 1.80 (US).  Esther puts that in context, noting that the  average minimum wage in the region is about 90 pesos a day (6.79 US), meaning a worker would be paying close to 60 percent of their daily income just for transportation from one mountain village to another.  Partlow doesn’t give any indication of the income level of his neighbors, but it is included among those areas of Mexico with the highest standards of living on the planet… about equivalent to Germany (and with a lower GINI gap than the United States).

Not to say Partlow’s neighbors might not have a legitimate issue.   Some object to parking meters on aesthetic grounds, given the historical signficance of the area,  and, as it developed, installation of the meters has been temporarily suspected until impact studies are completed by INAH (the Spaish acronym for the National Institute of Anthropology and History) and Partlow doesn’t note that meters are being installed in similarly auto-rich, but space poor wealthy areas like Polanco and Roma Sur (also over the protests of local car owners), nor that there is a web of public transportation available at subsidized prices in Mexico City.  He missed the huge (and much more disruptive) protests when the metro and metrobus fare was raised to five pesos (about .04 US) … where overall, the average income is said to be about 7000 dollars a year and despite the higher wages and standard of living… the jump from 3 to 5 pesos was a jolt to people’s pocketbook.

What I noticed also about the two protests was that in Socialist-run Mexico City, the residents are objecting to a classic capitalist, or perhaps “Libertarian”, solution to a social problem.  Parking space is limited, automobile ownership has grown expontentially in Mexico, and it’s a “user fee” rather than a tax.  Whereas in Veracruz, what those poor “herders and small shop keepers and farmers” are demanding is a capitalist solution  The state grants concessions for the bus companies, and the protesters are favoring the classic capitalist solution… more competiton.  They demand a more open market for bus service, which would, in their view, bring the cost of travel down to a more reasonable (though still outrageously high) 25% of the average daily wage.


A couple of “take-aways” from the tale of two protests:  that even a very good writer like Partlow is bound to miss the “whole story” when focusing on any specific event — we learn that Mexicans tend to demonstrate for any number of reasons, and articulate their rationales for their protests quite well, but very little about the transit issues of a complex country.  We can’t… when thinking about any public issue in any part of the world, depend solely on the “official” stories, but need to hear from those voices (almost literally in the wilderness) like Esther’s.

It also means that in a complicated country like Mexico, and when thinking about a broad issue like transportation, one size does not fit all, and assumptions on how a given social class will act in any given situation, when based on our assumptions about economic theory, are nonsensical…poor people might very well see a “capitalist” alterantive and richer peoople a “socialist” one when it fits their needs.

And, of course, it means that there is no one Mexico, and one should never assume that any one writer, or one source, has the whole story.  Not even me.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. A.C. Doyle permalink
    30 April 2014 12:37 pm

    Not to be pedantic, but I believe you meant 0.4 USD.

    And not to be pedantic again, but I believe the modern incarnation of Libertarianism (meaning, rich solipsistic greedy not-nearly-as-clever-as-their-three-dollar-words-make-them-believe Northern racists who like to get high and have premarital sex) is more oblivious than any form of political economy of the past 500 years as to that whole pesky Tragedy Of The Commons dealio. If the parking meters pay their fees to the city, it’s not a Libertarian solution; only if the meter fees go to a rich racist’s private portfolio would it be deemed properly Randian.

    • 30 April 2014 12:47 pm

      I’m using “libertarian” in the classic sense, not the U.S. political party sense. U.S. exceptionalism seems to apply to political terminology as well as everything else. Only in the U.S. is “liberal” and “left” considered synonyms and not antonyms.

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