Let them eat cake: The bonfire of Mexico
Divert your attention away from the Ebola crisis or the wars of the Middle East because right next door, Mexico is beginning to quake. For weeks now, protests and unrest have swept through large swathes of our southern neighbor, putting into question the stability of Enrique Pena Nieto's dictatorship, ahem, presidency. It is perhaps the first sign of a social explosion in a country mired in inequality, corruption, and decay all held together through a capitalist mirage. For years, if not centuries, the Mexican aristocracy has watched from the windows of its own Versailles, gazing at the crowds and fires below. The gates were stormed once during the 1910 Revolution, and they may very well be stormed again, as they should be.
The current spark of public rage was set off on September 26 in the state of Guerrero, when 43 students from the town of Iguala went missing following a protest against raising tuition fees. Students gathered to protest the government's plans to hike tuition fees to levels that would make education entirely unaffordable for the working class.
Police commandos fired on the protesters in the downtown, killing six. Afterwards, 43 remaining students were taken into custody soon after, and have not been seen since. Their exact whereabouts remain a mystery, but according to confessions from arrested police officers affiliated to local narco gangs, the students were handed over to local drug assassins by the police, according the New Yorker. Allegedly, the students were then killed, tossed into a ditch, and incinerated. Iguala's mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife Pineda Villa, initially fled the country as rumors of their corruption and conspiracy stormed their illustrious Bastille. As of November 4, they have been arrested and accused by Mexico's Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karan, as "masterminds" of the students' disappearance.
But there arrest has not been enough to calm down the raging streets. Demonstrators are demanding the students either be safely returned or their exact fate be revealed. Thousands have gathered in Mexico City, with protesters attempting to set alight the large doors to the Presidential Palace. At a Friday press conference, Karan admitted the students' bodies were burned to a point in which forensic evidence could not identify the bodies. Karan gained no fans when he slumped out of the public's adamant questioning at an earlier press conference by simply stating, "Alright, I'm tired." The public's furious demand for answers sparked a trending social media protest movement on Twitter, #I'mTired.
And yet the real subtext of the current unrest has more to do with Mexico's deeper, wider social problems. This is not the first time students have been the victims of state terror for speaking out. On October 2, 1968, Mexico had one of its most notorious tragedies when students gathering in Mexico City's Tlatelolco square, demanding greater social equality in the spirit of the global protests of the time, were gunned down by the army. An estimated 300 students were killed in a day still commemorated by the country's Left every year.
The 43 disappeared students belonged to a rural college where radical teachers educate the local poor for free. The school's walls are plastered with the faces of revolutionary icons such as Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata. This adds a more direct meaning to the disappearances: If radical voices speak out in Pena Nieto's Mexico, they will be drowned in blood.
Iguala's youth are only the latest victims to be incinerated by a furnace of violence that has engulfed the country since 2006, when former right-wing president Felipe Calderon initiated a military campaign to stamp out the drug cartels. But as has always been the case in Mexico, the ruling class nothing to do with the state.
As journalists like the late Charles Bowden and Anabel Hernandez have documented in books like "Murder City" and "Narcoland," organized crime has become so embedded in the Mexican army and local police. So much so that there is virtually no functioning, state system of law and order anymore in most of the country. In fact, at the recent marches taking place in Mexico City, the crowds have been chanting "the state is dead."
Since Pena Nieto was elected in 2012, there has been little advancement for the country's poor which total 52 percent of the population according to the World Bank. Mexico, which is actually the number one oil provider for the United States, has not been able to provide electricity to its rural schools, where dismissed, peasant communities don't even bother to purchase shoes as reported in a recent New Yorker report. It is a society where skin color still serves as an indicator of rank (as in most of Latin America), because it is a lasting brushstroke of the Spanish Conquest which left those of Spanish descent in power over the conquered indigenous societies.
Pena Nieto himself looks like an older Calvin Kline model, his wife is a light-skinned former soap opera bombshell for one of the country's largest TV networks, which broadcasts watered down garbage and pro-government "news" on a daily basis. Their daughter recently attended a red carpet event, when asked about the missing students she said, "We're here to have a good time." For the Mexican masses, this has turned into a quote akin to Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake."
And as cities and towns boil, one of the country's top independent reporters (the only trustworthy kind) Carmen Aristegui, has revealed the scoop on the presidential couple's $7 million mansion was remodeled with state funds. Pena Nieto is also quickly privatizing Mexico's oil sector, with major foreign companies eagerly waiting with fork and knife.
The Mexican people now face the choice of either being trapped within a rotting system or reclaiming their history. Mexico is no stranger to revolt, the 1910 uprising was the first great revolution of the 20th century. It was never fulfilled because its main icons, leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, were assassinated by the kind of politicians who still run the system today. Many have decided to take their chances emigrating to the United States and flee the violent chaos.
Like their neighbors in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the Mexicans protesting must form popular, revolutionary parties to take power and sweep away the old order. And if the situation is so dire that such moderate moves are not possible, then they must revolt in full to save their country. What will save Mexico is not outside intervention (although we are their favorite drug clients), but the establishment of a genuine, popular democracy, radical in its structure.
A possible foreshadowing came in 2006, when the capital of the state of Oaxaca became ground zero for a mass uprising against the state's local, corrupt government. Like the Paris Commune of 1871, the Oaxacans kicked out the police and overthrew the capital city's government, taking it over themselves and running it together through a popular, elected government. So radical was the moment that documents later revealed that the CIA became nervous that the Oaxaca rebellion would spread like fire. Unfortunately it did not, and security forces invaded the city to smash the people's government.
But there lies a possible seed, a possible germ of the future. The Mexican people now stand together in a sorrow that is birthing a great rage. May they resist, and in doing so they may provoke tremors that will reverberate far north. As the 19th century Cuban poet Jose Marti once wrote, "Now is the time of the furnaces, and only the light can be seen."