Page 24


This publication is available in microform from University Microfilms International. Call toll-free 800-521-3044. Or mail inquiry to: ‘ University Microfilms International. 300 North Limb Road. Ann Arbor. MI 48106. ti Autumn of the Patriarch The Decline of Mexico’s Nonagenarian Labor Boss Signals the End of an Era BY BARBARA BELEJACK Mexico City THERE’S NOT an awful lot to do in Mexico City during Semana Santa, as the week before Easter is known. The haves go to Acapulco or Houston; the havenots sleep in bus stations as they slowly make their way back to their pueblos after a visit to the capital. For anyone who decides, hey, I can stay at home and still enjoy crowds estimated at two-million-plus, there’s always the Passion Play at Ixtapalapa, an eastern borough of Mexico City, far from Vip’s and Sanborn’s. Throughout Mexico there are Passion Plays, but Ixtapalapa draws the most press and the biggest crowd. Besides, this year Christ was a 21-year-old economics student who says the biggest problem in the world is injustice. That takes care of Friday. On Saturday, Scibado de Gloria, traditionalists have two options: water-tossing or Judas-burning. Water-tossing involves plastic bags of water tossed on unsuspecting passersby, a somewhat risky option since the city has a water shortage and water-tossing can earn you a stiff fine. Burning papier-mache effigies Judases is not necessarily more environmentally correct, but there is a certain aesthetic appeal to it, along with the obvious political possibilities. One of the more highly publicized incidents of Judas-burning took place outside the Modelo Brewery where workers involved in inter-union disputes torched Judases sporting big cigars, dark glasses, and the basic David Byrne, big-suit, big shoulders, Talking Heads look. The fashion plate was none other than Fidel Velazquez, Don Fidel, Mexico’s longtime labor boss. While disgruntled workers cheered, their “maximum leader,” went up in smoke. The media, of course, has long been obsessed with the other Fidel, but it’s only fair Barbara Belejack, a frequent contributor to the Observer, is a freelance journalist living in Mexico City. 12 MAY 18, 1990 that Mexico’s Don Fidel get his share of media attention. After all, he was once considered the most important man in the country, one of the most important leaders in Latin America. After all, the man turned 90, April 24, and still gives weekly press conferences mumbling platitudes such as “if it’s good for it’s good for the nation.” Don Fidel is one of the hemisphere’s enigmatic figures, the last of the patriarchs. He was born with the century, witnessed the Mexican Revolution, and started his union career as a milkman. He escorted Samuel Gompers during a 1924 trip to Mexico and later befriended George Meaney. If you had a one-peso coin \(virtually worthless and now ened a strike, you’d be rich. If you had a ton of gold for every time he acted on that threat, you’d be poor. To say that Velazquez has been a lifetime organization man is an understatement. He is the party the PRI, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party in its classical three-sector version \(labor, campesinos, and the myserious other known as “organizaciones popustudent movement did not make too many inroads into labor’s rank and file. Student protestors were branded as communists, preparing the way for the massacre at Tlatelolco on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games. Despite his age, Velazquez knows how to adapt to the region’s changing political landscape. Opponents are no longer “communists,” they are “drug-traffickers.” But there is at least one intra-party faction determined to modernize the PRI and when they openly criticize party “dinosaurs,” everyone knows who they are talking about. In case we missed the point, several weeks ago the government newspaper, El Nacional, ran a caricature of a dinosaur with a big cigar, dark glasses, and the Talking-Heads look. Don Fidel has said he will not run for automatic re-election as head of the CTM in 1992. He recently amended that declaration, saying he will not necessarily stick around until 1992. Yet, Don Fidel has continued to keep alive the incredible inter-connection of business, labor, and government. On the micro-level he has been the master of thd art of compromise, traveling constantly to resolve some dispute in the Yucatan, Tijuana, or Tamaulipas, where “Fidelitos” in Reynosa and Mata moros have proven especially troublesome to the maquiladora industry. For many years the system seemed to deliver, says Colegio de Mexico labor analyst Francisco Zapata. Added to the basic wages of Mexican workers is a system of health benefits and in some cases food and housing subsidies. The health care may not be the greatest, but the total package “made the worker feel that in spite of everything, he got something from the system, he was participating in the progress of the country.” Union democracy, electoral politics, seemed too abstract for most workers. In the July 6, 1988, presidential election Velazquez again fulfilled his end of the bargain, reluctantly for the party’s candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. But the rank and file failed to deliver the votes, not only to the party’s presidential candidate, but to organized labor candidates. Labor lost 20 percent of its congressional delegation and one senatorial seat. Today Don Fidel’s power “is more symbolic than real,” and the man is “more a spokesman for government than labor,” says one “western diplomatic source. And Raul Vazquez, a labor specialist with a businessoriented think tank explains that 1988 “put an end to Fidel’s political force.” Before 1988, “it was taboo to speak about a successor to Don Fidel,” he says. “Now, it’s a popular pastime.” The man most often mentioned is a 77-year-old senator and former Nayarit governor named Emilio Gonzalez. The more interesting question is what will Gonzalez inherit? Salinistas \(supporters of away with the traditional three-sector party structure, but the CTM and other labor heavies will not go quietly. Although organized labor may actually represent only about 5.5 million workers \(no one wants to estimate the actual count of the sub-employed, semistill represents key industries. Top union leaders “have molded themselves in the image of Fidel,” explains Zapata. “Only they’re meaner.” Neither party “modernizers” nor independent-minded workers are likely to easily shake them off. “The rank and file are trying to act alone,” Zapata says, “but the CTM doesn’t let them. People are afraid, they take little steps forward. They’re afraid of reprisals. They have a long historical memory.” In the meantime, they burn Judases. rvirwe.,Aitkomowvt,