By Simon, Joel
The Nation , Vol. 252, No. 24
On May 1 Mexico's Central Plaza--known as the Zocalo--was draped in banners and covered in confetti in celebration of international workers' day. For four hours, 1 million Mexican workers filed under the balcony of the presidential palace to receive the benediction of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico's champion of the free market. In March Salinas had toured the United States with finely crafted arguments to rally support for his free-trade proposals, but at home he relied on cruder means.
Despite the fact that Salinas has cut governmental jobs, held a tight clamp on the minimum wage of under $4 a day and allowed prices of basic food staples to rise 50 percent by pulling out subsidies, workers doffed their caps or greeted the President with a friendly wave as they passed by the reviewing stand. Through the political alchemy typical of the sixty-two-year-old Mexican regime, what used to be a day for the President to honor the workers has been converted into a day for the workers to honor the President.
The parade seemed to mark the full recovery of Mexico's hegemonic political system from its low point three years ago. The 1988 election, which brought Salinas to power, was the closest, most contentious election in postrevolution Mexico, and it was in large part the urban workers, battered by a ten-year economic slide, who rose up against the government. But in his two and a half years in power, Salinas has quelled the rebellion and consolidated his political program. Even though Salina's economic reforms have produced the most profound transformation of Mexican society since the revolution, organized opposition to his politics and programs has virtually disappeared.
For Salinas supporters the lack of protest is easy to explain. They point out that after years of negative growth, the Salinas administration has brought two years of economic expansion. After a decade of austerity implemented in order to allow Mexico to make payments on its $95 billion debt, the country is getting ready to cash in its chips. Mexico's comparative advantage is its low wages--artificially suppressed for four years through an accord with labor leaders. The free-trade agreement with the United States will bring an avalanche of investment and jobs, say government officials.
"Free trade will bring new factories, new jobs and better salaries," asserted Fidel Velasquez, the 91-year-old leader of the government-allied Confederation of Mexican Workers, during a workers' day interview. "I am confident that Mexico would never sign any treaty that is in conflict with its interests."
But the workers who showed up for the labor-day parade were not necessarily there because they supported free trade; many came because their unions would have docked their pay if they stayed home. In order to keep protesters who disagreed with the government line away from the festivities, all downtown Metro stops were closed and the streets leading to the Zocalo were barricaded by police.
Meanwhile, counterdemonstrations organized by various dissident, independent unions were outnumbered by riot police. Leaders who had signed an agreement with the authorities not to begin their march to the Zocalo until 3 P.M., when the official parade ended, were widely accused of taking money from the government. Instead of fighting the government, most of the unions spend the day fighting one another, including one embarrassing struggle over a microphone.
Through a careful combination of coercion, co-optation and repression, Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) employed its age-old formula to bring out a display of public support for a policy that had been determined by the leadership to be in the people's best interests. The May Day parade, noted the prominent author and columnist Carlos Monsivais, was not a celebration of the alliance between the state and the workers but rather a public display of workers' submission and obedience to the will of the state. …