As U.S. President Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto prepare to meet Jan. 31 in Washington, citizen discontent and protest in both countries is reaching levels not seen in years.
As Trump assumed the Oval Office last Friday, the Mexican media quickly switched the focus of its news reporting and commentaries from the extradition of drug lord Chapo Guzman to the inaugural ceremonies and the first round of Washington protests, including the incidents of property trashing.
The Mexican media’s accent on protest deepened with the historic Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington and an estimated 600 global solidarity actions getting prominent play in both print and television outlets. Perhaps typical of the prevailing tone was a banner headline in La Jornada daily, visualized by photos of the massive demonstrations, that read “Global Repudiation of Trump.”
In virtually unprecedented fashion, U.S. expatriates living south of the border demonstrated their displeasure Jan. 21 with the new administration back home.
According to La Jornada, 600 people in the expat community of Ajijic, Jalisco, attended a rally where they hoisted placards that variously proclaimed in both Spanish and English “Women Resist,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and “Science is Real.” In Alamos, Sonora, dozens of expats chanted “Long live Mexico” and displayed signs such as “Out with Trump” and “Build Bridges not Walls,” the newspaper reported.
In Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, hundreds of “expats, snowbirds and tourists” attended a Women’s March solidarity event on the touristy Malecon, according to a posting on the local media site pvangels.com.
“I am very inspired to keep up the momentum to do what I can in my little corner of the world to help effect positive change,” wrote Georgia Darehshori on pvangels. “I love the mantra of my immigrant husband who always said, “’if it’s to be it’s up to me.’”
Mexican media outlets reported additional U.S. expat-organized demonstrations in Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and Zihuatanejo. In San Pancho, Nayarit, an estimated 1,000 foreigners and locals turned out to denounce gender violence. Support for Mexican immigrants in the U.S. was voiced at different events.
Discontent boils in Mexico
Meanwhile, popular discontent with the Peña Nieto administration over the Jan. 1 gasoline price hike of 20 percent and a long laundry list of other matters continues to manifest itself. On the weekend of Jan. 20-22, large and small protests against the “gasolinazo” and the Peña Nieto administration were held in scores of places in at least 22 of Mexico’s 32 states, with the largest demonstrations reported in Guadalajara (60,000), Hermosillo (30,000), Mexicali (20,000-30,000) and Tijuana (15,000).
On Jan. 21, in the border state of Chihuahua, more than 2,000 small farmers and their supporters partially blockaded international crossings leading into Mexico from New Mexico and Texas, according to Ciudad Juárez news outlets. Two days later, hundreds briefly occupied the Mexican side of the Santa Fe Bridge between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, allowing motorists to cross into the Texas city (where many would surely fill their gas tanks at half the cost in Juárez) without paying the bridge fare.
In Puerto Vallarta, dozens of marchers paraded along the Malecon both on the morning and evening of Jan. 22, attracting the attention of tourists and locals alike with shouts of “Out with Peña.” At the conclusion of the first rally, a speak-out was held in city’s central plaza. One man called the gas price hike “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” triggering an outpouring of grievances over the galloping cost of living, unaccountable politicians and the rule of law.
Extending their concerns beyond the price of gasoline per se, women and men touched on issues that also resounded the day before during the women’s marches throughout the world-the high cost of education, health care, social security, the environment, democracy, and a decent future for children. Like many speakers at the U.S. demonstrations last Saturday, one woman urged more citizen engagement and participation in political and social affairs.
“It’s important we organize ourselves, so more people come out,” she said. “We’re walking around like zombies. It’s time we wake up.” An indigenous man who said Spanish was his second language also took the microphone. “We are the owners of Mexico,” he pronounced. “Long live Mexico!”
Mexico’s new popular movement plans more demonstrations in the days ahead, including actions on Mexican Constitution Day, Feb. 5. The country’s constitution — along with proposals to write a new one — is getting more discussion this year since 2017 happens to be the 100th anniversary of the country’s governing document.
“We need to attend demonstrations like we attend masses, soccer matches and drinking parties. We can’t go on like this. Mexico needs us,” implored Puerto Vallarta activist Juan Villanueva. “Nobody stops this. Neither Trump nor Peña Nieto.”
A clash of elite and popular agendas
Though geography, language and political culture usually separate citizen movements in Mexico and the U.S, hints of a convergence are taking shape this year around common demands for respecting the rights of women and immigrants, celebrating the ties between two neighboring nations and assuring that the economy works for all and not just a handful of rich businessman and politicians.
Another important similarity rests in the participation of large numbers of new people and places in the protests. Scratching beyond the surface of these developments, the outlines of a binational, grassroots citizens’ agenda are perceptible.
One immediate arena where binational citizen action could coalesce is around the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) called for by President Trump. In fact, a historic precedent exists for such collaboration, as happened in the Paso del Norte borderland during the NAFTA negotiations of the early 1990s when activist organizations such as the Border Agricultural Workers Union of El Paso and southern New Mexico, the Frente Democratico Campesino de Chihuahua, and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice jointly spearheaded protests. Ironically, Donald Trump has provided an opening for a new cross-border movement.
More than 20 years after it was implemented, the issue of NAFTA is getting hot and heavy on both sides of the border. A staunch defender of free trade, Peña Nieto is poised not only to defend NAFTA but to finesse and institutionalize it as well. Hence, the president’s statement on Jan. 22 advocating a more profound integration of the economies of Mexico, Canada and the United States.
On Monday, Peña Nieto went further, responding to Trump’s cancellation of the Trans Pacific Parternship that was negotiated but not ratified by Mexico, the U.S. and other nations. The Mexican leader announced he would seek to expand free trade and other commercial relations with multiple nations. “Our priority is to consolidate ourselves as a relevant actor in order to intensify trade, investment and tourism flows,” Peña Nieto was quoted in the Mexican press as saying.
But Peña Nieto’s agenda departs in many respects from the one bubbling up from below in the brouhaha over gasolinazo. For instance, sectors of the small farmer (campesino) movement are calling for the renegotiation of NAFTA to include protection of corn from the U.S. imports that have devastated small producers of Mexico’s staple crop and encouraged them to migrate north.
On Jan. 31, the same day Peña Nieto is in Washington to talk trade, immigration and border security with Trump, campesinos will join union members and others for a mass demonstration in Mexico City against the Peña Nieto administration’s policies.
Juan Villanueva is one who is very skeptical that his president will rise to the occasion of defending national interests when he meets with Trump. The U.S. and Mexican presidents are similar in that both men are disliked by many of their fellow citizens, Villanueva contended. “I think they are going to look for cosmetic solutions to temper the ire of the people,” he said.
Trump’s election and first days in office, coupled with the fallout from the gasolinazo, are leading more and more Mexicans to urge a profound reexamination of their country’s policies, its dependence on the U.S., and the future path ahead.
“The urgent task is to seek alternatives that privilege the internal market, the diversification of commerce and the renegotiation with the U.S. to stop, as much as possible, the damages that it has already caused us,” writes columnist Olga Pellicer in the current edition of Proceso newsweekly. “The conditions to undertake this task are particularly difficult in Mexico, with a government in clear discredit, an opposition fragmented, a democracy on the edge of the precipice. The responsibility falls on organized social groups, responsible communications media, academics, nationalist businessmen, and think tanks. Few times has the urgency been felt of coming together for rethinking the national project.”
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.