June 24, 2012
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Noon.
In front of the Cathedral of the patron of the city, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institutional) is staging a main electoral event in its effort to retake the province which had been giving it vast electoral support until 1998, despite the inadequate services its population was receiving in return.
After the Zapatista uprising of 1994 though, and especially after the massacre of Acteal that followed, the PRI has been steadily losing ground here. Ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections and under the leadership of Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI is making its final attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people. The stage is well placed in the square, huge shiny banners of the party’s candidates are hung around it, while an army of PRI supporters dressed in red shirts advertising the party’s candidates are spread strategically all over the place.
Before the speeches, the party has prepared a fiesta for the pueblo: live music, a stadium-like presenter, and even a Michael Jackson-type of show. The party’s electoral machine is also working hard: distributing T-shirts to the poor who have gathered around selling their products. But wait a minute — on the other side of the square, just in front of the cathedral’s entrance, another event is taking place: a protest event. And no, it is not the Zapatistas! It is the most vibrant and hopeful movement of the country at this moment: #YoSoy132.
YoSoy132 is the most dynamic student movement this country has witnessed since 1968, when the PRI authorities ordered the massacre of another student movement in Tlatelolco. Its name means ‘I am the 132’ and refers to an incident that occurred at the Ibero-American University of Mexico City, during a speech of Peña Nieto: the institute’s students protested against Nieto, demanding for him to get out and reminding him of the violence that he ordered to repress the protests in Atenco in 2006 that left two people dead, hundreds hit by the police, and 26 women sexually assaulted.
The Ibero-American University protests were undermined by the media, which described the PRI presidential candidate’s visit at the University as a success. But, of course, the relevant videos spread quickly through the social media, and the strategy that Peña Nieto used to undermine the incident again was to claim that the protestors were not real students, and that they were even supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Peña Nieto’s main opponent.
It was a very serious hit for the PRI candidate’s image, who has been depicted by the media as ‘the new face of PRI’, distancing him from the party’s authoritarian past. The students replied with a video, in which 131 of them showed their student IDs, once again beating the PRI electoral machine’s propaganda. The students’ response gained momentum and soon a nationwide solidarity movement was born: #YoSoy132 — I am the 132nd.
The movement made its scale-shift through diffusion and brokerage and has reached all the corners of the country and abroad, even the most distant ones, like Chiapas. University students and young people, yet not only those, have embraced the movement which started as a protest against the manipulation of information by the mass-media and has now developed into a movement for democratization of the country, transparency of the media, free and fair elections, opposition to the government’s neoliberal policies and human rights violations. It is described as a leaderless, horizontal movement for real democracy, similar to the ones we have witnessed in Greece, Spain, Egypt, the US and elsewhere.
Part of this movement was the colorful and joyful protest I witnessed today in San Cristóbal. Mainly young people, some of them from UNACH, gathered early in front of the cathedral and started preparing their banners, hand-made by themselves (in contrast to the excessive Hollywood-like electoral campaign they contested), informing the people around in Spanish, but also in indigenous languages (Tzotzil and Tzeltal) about their movement and its demands.
They also spread leaflets that reminded us that 14 million young people are going to vote for the first time in these elections, almost as many as in 2006 gave Felipe Calderon his contested victory in 2006, and urging the youth not to be apathetic and to go and vote because their vote matters.
What was particularly interesting, and what reminded me of processes we have also witnessed in Athens and Barcelona, was the fact that before the protest event took place, there was a general assembly in which the protest strategy was discussed, with a consensus being established for peaceful protest, without disturbing the PRI’s event, and without confrontation with anybody that would try to provoke the protesters.
“We reply with arguments”, was the strategy. “Our word is our weapon”, as their compatriots, the Zapatistas would have put it. The protestors also held banners in solidarity with Rosa Lopez and Francisco Santiz Lopez and Alberto Patishtan Gomez, all victims of authoritative state practices and police violence.
Nobody knows whether the #YoSoy132 movement will face the fate of its predecessor of 1968, or what form the movement is going to take in the future. Most probably it will not manage to have any significant impact on the upcoming elections. Yet it seems that this young, dynamic, and promising movement is here to stay, and that’s good news for Mexico as a whole. #YoSoy132Tambien!