INTERVIEW WITH U.S. PROGRESSIVE JOURNALIST KURT HACKBARTH ON MEXICAN POLITICS AND THE AUGUST 1, 2021 POPULAR CONSULTATION
(published in the August 11, 2021 issue of MEXICO SOLIDARITY BULLETIN)
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, right at the start of his administration, famously issued three simple commandants to elected Morena officials: “Do not steal, do not lie, and do not betray.” Previous presidents from the PRI had operated by a different set of precepts. They stole, lied, and betrayed with impunity.
In our interview this week, Kurt Hackbarth explains how those corrupt practices enabled the PRI to stay in power for most of a century. PRI presidents stole public dollars to enrich their friends, who promptly filled PRI campaign war chests with good chunks of those same dollars. Lying about vote tallies also helped ensure PRI rule, as did betraying those who challenged PRI corruption — as well as innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time — through torture and murder. An ugly story.
US politicians have down through the years routinely feigned horror at the level of violence in México. But these same pols simply shrug at the source of the weapons that enable that homicidal violence: US gun companies. Corporate profits apparently matter more than lives lost. Defending the “right to bear arms” trumps any defense of democracy.
AMLO has now filed suit against US gun companies for failing to conduct background checks on gun sellers in México. The chances of that suit actually winning in US courts? Close to zero. But like the August 1 Mexican referendum on whether criminally corrupt ex-presidents should face prosecution, the gun-seller suit serves a purpose. Bringing the suit lifts up the complicity of US gun companies for all to see.
The Mexican people have had enough of corruption. They have voted overwhelmingly for AMLO and his do-not-steal-lie-betray governing principles. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they understand, cannot thrive without them.
The bilingual freelance journalist Kurt Hackbarth, a naturalized Mexican citizen, writes from a left perspective. His analyses of Mexican politics provide a welcome antidote to the “news” we read in the mainstream US and Mexican media, as he shows in this q-and-a we just did with him on the significance of the national referendum held earlier this month on bringing past Mexican presidents to justice.
Power plays by self-enriching politicians — at the people’s expense — have been as common as mud down through history. Do you see anything unique about México’s history of political corruption?
Political corruption has always existed, but we’ve had corruption on steroids since the peso crashed in 1982. The IMF bailed out México at that time, but the price was agreeing to “structural adjustments” that cut public services off at the knees. Over the following two decades, we saw the wholesale privatization of state agencies: trains and transport, oil, banks, iron and steel. Hundreds of state-owned industries were sold to the buddies of Mexican presidents, creating a new strata of multimillionaires.
These newly minted millionaires executed “state capture”: The presidents made their friends rich and the rich made the presidents — through massive and illegal campaign contributions. What made this so horrendous was that state capture was coupled with state terror, to keep the impoverished and angry population under control. The Actael massacre of indigenous people in Chiapas, the countless dead from Calderon’s war on drugs, the disappearance of the 43 teaching students of Ayotzinapa — the list goes on and on. All of these horrific episodes had connections to high people in office. Military and paramilitary groups, as well as drug cartels, did the dirty work, in exchange for being allowed to operate with impunity.
This moche — “chop off” — system didn’t just involve presidents. Congressional representatives participated, too, ensuring that everyone got a cut. The Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, for instance, donated $4 million to the campaign chest of former president Enrique Peña Nieto. Part of that then went to pay off legislators to pass energy “reforms” benefiting Odebrecht. A Congress-for-hire.
In 2018 AMLO made tackling corruption the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. How important was that to his victory?
Critically important. AMLO did not go so far as to name capitalism itself as the problem, but he did effectively equate corruption with neoliberalism. And the people were fed up with the rule of the PRI/PAN that was causing ordinary families to live in fear of physical and economic violence.
We were in the Zócalo the night AMLO won the election. We felt a sense of relief and joy, a feeling that the country was being lifted out of a supremely dark time. Compare those 2018 celebrations to Calderon’s inauguration in 2006, when he had to sneak in the back door of Congress, do a 30-second express inauguration in the midst of chaos, and be hustled back out. Or to 2012, with Pena Nieto’s inauguration. They had to wall off Congress, and protestors faced terrible repression.
On August 1, Mexicans voted in a national referendum, a consulta, on whether former presidents could be prosecuted for the crimes they committed. If Mexicans feel so deeply about fighting corruption, why did only 7 percent of the population turn out for the consulta?
Morena wanted the consulta to be held on the same day as the midterm elections on June 6, but conservative forces would not allow it. It was a big ask to get people to go back to the polls just two months later, in a first-ever referendum barely promoted and mostly ignored by the media.
The National Electoral Institute, the INE, also sabotaged the vote, claiming it didn’t have enough money to open more than a third of voting precincts. According to the election app, I was supposed to vote at the same precinct I’d voted at in June, but when I got there, I found it closed — with no signs telling me where to go. I had to get back on the app to find the new location. Not everyone had the wherewithal and technology to do that.
What then do you see as the significance of the consulta? Did it amount to a defeat? How will it influence future politics?
The consulta inaugurated participatory democracy. For the first time, people were asked their opinion on a critical policy matter. The mainstream press, the INE, and right-wingers who called voters “clowns” all opposed even holding the referendum. Yet 6.5 million people still voted — and 95 percent of them voted “yes.”
Yes, the turnout did fall far short of the 40 percent of the electorate needed to make the vote binding, but I see other reasons to view the voting as a victory. The turnout was highest among poorer, rural, and indigenous areas in the South. In some places, like Tlalpa, Guerrero, the turnout hit 98 percent!
In areas like Palenque and Ocosingo in Chiapas, in Zapatista territory, turnout also ran high. The Zapatistas have intermittently called for voter absentionism in recent years, but they mobilized to a degree for the consulta. Perhaps that’s because the demand for the consulta came from below, from those who’ve suffered most from corrupt rule.
The consulta, most significantly, has put the crimes of past presidents back in the public eye and re-opened debate. The victims of massacres spoke out, and a justice movement has been re-invigorated, with a rally a week after the vote, for example, at the Zocalo in México City to demand there be no immunity for crimes against the people.
The right did not win anything by boycotting the consulta, as nothing is stopping the Justice Department from going ahead with corruption prosecutions. If it doesn’t, a people’s tribunal or truth commission could become extra-judicial vehicles for accountability. We’re seeing renewed energy to bring corrupt ex-leaders to justice, one way or another.