BEN CHACKO hears Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador outline his left-wing Morena party’s plans to transform his country
MEXICO is not a safe place to be a trade unionist. Workers labour under restrictive “protection contracts” and attempts to organise unions independent of the bosses can result in beatings, arrests or worse.
It’s not a safe place to be a journalist either: nine have been killed so far this year alone. Human rights activists and social justice campaigners are frequent victims of lethal violence.
The sheer scale of this violence is often ignored. Last month Jan Jarab, representative of the United Nations’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico, reported that an astonishing 30,942 people had disappeared in the country in the past nine years.
Investigators uncovering a steadily mounting number of clandestine graves in the country believe that figure is a massive underestimate, reckoning over 100,000 people have vanished in a decade.
These are the victims of a country where the rich can break the law with impunity but the majority suffer a “regime of privilege and corruption,” according to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leader of Mexico’s National Regeneration Movement (Morena), the most popular governor of Mexico City in its history and twice a candidate for the Mexican presidency.
With plenty of evidence of vote-buying, fraud and breaches of election law during the 2012 contest that saw Enrique Pena Nieto win the presidency, many see it as an election that was stolen from Obrador — but he is gearing up for another bid next year.
I was lucky enough to sneak an invite to Obrador’s address to a mostly Mexican audience at the London headquarters of Britain’s biggest union, Unite, this week and hear him set out his vision for a “real transformation” of Mexican politics.
Mexico has multiparty politics now, even if Pena Nieto heads a party that monopolised power for seven decades until 2000. But the existence of more than one party is not democracy, Obrador warns.
“The democratic transition has been a trick,” he asserts. “We have a system controlled by the parties, not a real democracy but government by a small minority that only represents itself.”
His dismissal of “the parties” points to the fact that he doesn’t see Morena as a party at all. Founded as a social movement, it only registered as a political party in 2014 but already has 35 seats in the chamber of deputies.
With its roots in the poorest sections of Mexican society, it is fundamentally opposed to the “system” that has run Mexico for its own benefit for so long.
He promises a revolution that will not be afraid to take from the richest in order to reverse decades of falling living standards for the poorest: “When your politicians talk of austerity they mean cuts to working people’s pay and to the services they rely on,” he points out.
“But we also talk of austerity. For us, austerity will be about ending the privileges of the governing class.”
These perks make Mexican politicians the most privileged on Earth: the monthly pension of a former president is five million pesos (more than £215,000).
At the same time in the years since the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta) treaty came into force, the value of Mexicans’ wages has collapsed.
The real value of the minimum wage is now one-fifth of what it was. Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner — also at the meeting — says the results of the deal have been a disaster for ordinary Mexicans: “Two million farmers lost their jobs, while the United States continued massive agricultural subsidies to support its exports.”
Cheap, subsidised food from across the border was a catastrophe for farmers, but it didn’t do other workers much good when the value of their wages was plummeting.
“While in China real wages have been growing, the purchasing power of our people has been reduced,” Obrador notes.
Mexican workers were bullied into accepting poor pay and conditions because of the ever-present threat that their jobs would be relocated to China, especially in the car industry where many firms had already relocated plants to Mexico from the United States in order to exploit lower pay and weaker trade unions.
But despite year-on-year rises in pay for their Chinese “competitors,” Mexican wages kept falling.
“Purchasing power was reduced, with the excuse always that we had to avoid inflation,” Obrador says. The result is widespread immiseration, and whatever the economists might say about growth as lines on a graph, “you cannot have a rich country with a poor people.”
The crippling impact of Nafta, both on US manufacturing workers and on millions of Mexicans, highlights a more general problem in the way international trade deals are done.
Gardiner addressed the point in his own contribution to the evening. Nafta is important because it has given us “two decades of data” on the effects of such treaties on jobs and pay, he argues, pointing out that Nafta was itself the inspiration for successors including the EU-US trade deal TTIP and the Canada-EU equivalent Ceta.
All three exemplify “a race to the bottom in a beggar-my-neighbour contest that produces no winners,” he argues. And among Nafta’s most poisonous innovations was the investor-state dispute settlement clause, copied in later treaties.
For decades parties on the “establishment” left have gone along with such disempowering treaties, swallowing unsubstantiated claims that they would create jobs and prosperity or seeing them as the unavoidable background music of “globalisation.”
But what made having Gardiner and Obrador in the same room so invigorating was the knowledge that, on both sides of the Atlantic, this is changing.
“In the Labour Party we reject the idea of granting multinational corporations their own, separate, private judicial system through which they can sue host governments for what they deem lost profits,” Gardiner affirms. He adds that now even bodies such as the IMF are reluctantly waking up to the fact that the mass revolt against neoliberal politics in Europe and the Americas is not some conspiracy, but the “genuine response of ordinary people to the negative impact of unregulated trade on their lives.”
The left had also too long been lulled by “non-binding social clauses in EU legislation,” ignoring the the devastating practical impact of the treaties themselves, he believes, citing as an example the impact of TTIP on the environment: despite publicly acknowledging that TTIP would be “dangerous for natural resources and for biodiversity,” the European Commission ploughed ahead with the deal without any changes whatsoever.
“What is the point of doing an assessment if it doesn’t give you pause for thought as to what you are doing?” Gardiner demands.
Both Obrador and Gardiner realise that real change is going to have to be international: “unequal power relations in global value chains” mean that developing countries will struggle to raise labour standards if first-world buyers continue to dictate prices and terms.
This makes the international trade union work conducted by Unite among others especially important, as workers in similar industries can band together — “joining hands across nations and oceans,” as Unite leader Len McCluskey put it to the room — to fight for internationally recognised labour standards where otherwise global corporations are able to pit workers against each other to drive them down.
His colleague Tony Burke detailed the work Unite has done within Workers Uniting and the solidarity it has shown to persecuted Mexican trade unionists such as miners’ leader Napoleon Gomez, now living in exile in Vancouver and in fear for his life for his fight for the rights of his members. Workers Uniting has produced a detailed report on the abuse of trade unionists in Mexico which Burke presented to the meeting. His speech is available on the Morning Star’s website.
That labour movement internationalism must work together with political change such as that we are seeing in the Labour Party and which Morena represents in Mexico.
“Jeremy Corbyn inspires us and gives us hope,” McCluskey says, and “Andres also gives us hope.” This, surely, is what lies behind the wild enthusiasm Corbyn alone among British politicians meets wherever he goes, and which was replicated that evening at Unite HQ as the evening ended and young Mexicans, many students, crowded round to hug Obrador, to shake his hand and to have their picture taken with him.
Obrador was not short on detail on his movement’s economic plans: cuts to the perks at the top would be matched by a drive to raise salaries in the public sector and guarantee the rights of trade unions — with an independent judge made responsible for upholding labour rights against the executive — to ramp them up across the board.
He would renegotiate Nafta — but not as Donald Trump plans to, and indeed Obrador holds that Pena Nieto has no moral authority to represent Mexico in any renegotiation.
The reshaping of such treaties could be based on different principles, he and Gardiner both maintain, if the left is bold in this moment of crisis for the liberal world order.
“Trade and investment are not ends in themselves,” Gardiner has it; “they are means towards a higher social, economic and environmental purpose.
“Just as your renegotiation of Nafta gives you an opportunity to reassess how our agreements meet that purpose, so our withdrawal from the European Union presents Britain with the chance to develop a progressive trade and investment policy that puts working people at its heart.”