Wildcard: A revolution south of the border?

This has been Mexico’s summer of discontent, from a hotly contested presidential election to border pressures separating families and threatening cash-flows from immigrant workers in the US back to relatives in Mexico. And it looks like the Fall will be no happier. Two months after the presidential election, Lopez Obrador and his supporters continue to contest the outcome and their disruptions were enough cause an unprecedented cancellation of the traditional farewell address by sitting President Fox.

Behind this unrest is a wildcard: could the unrest grow into something much larger, a period of profound social and political disruption whose reverberations are felt to the north and south? Now, the word “revolution” seems an idea long in Mexico’s past, evoking memories of Zapata, Pancho Villa and Pershing’s expedition. But though Zapata’s image now appears on Mexican currency, unrest has never been far beneath the surface of Mexican Society. In Chiapas, the decade-old EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) led by the shadowy folk hero Subcomandante Marcos takes its name from the dead revolutionary and controls a growing number of self-proclaimed autonomous municipalities.

But unrest in Mexico isn’t just happening in indigenous areas. Last May thousands of Federal riot police battled protesters in San Salvador Atenco, a rural town on the edge of Mexico City. This was the latest in a long-simmering dispute that has included the kidnap of state officials, highway blockades, and the beating of two hapless police officers, all broadcast on Mexican TV to the embarrassment of the police authorities. Similar stories can be heard elsewhere in Mexico, the latest in a long history of civil restiveness and agitation for local control from the Caste Wars of Yucatan in the mid 1800s to the Mexican Revolution, down to events today.

Add to this restiveness the economic pressures of globalization (especially the weaknesses in the maquiladora system), the decline of Mexican oil production, a not-so-simmering drug war and now new restrictions on illegal immigrants ability to cross the US border, and the result is a volatile social cocktail. Entire villages in Northern Mexico are dependent on the monies sent back by undocumented immigrants working in the US. And the new border crackdown makes it as hard to return to Mexico as to get into the US. The result is longer separations and less frequent visits back home, adding yet more stress and uncertainty for all involved.

This is a situation that could quickly spin out of control. If the US succeeds in closing its border, the result would be instant impoverishment of millions of Mexicans and the families that depend on them. The subsequent social and political pressures would be profound. Or we could witness the reverse — unable to move beyond the current post-election dispute, a weak and preoccupied Calderon government may be unable to maintain the Mexican economy, and in the ensuing downturn, more Mexicans than ever will attempt to work in the US despite the increased risk of capture and deportation. Major social unrest in Mexico remains an unquantifiable wildcard, but it is no longer unthinkable.

The Zapatista flag