Are we experiencing a Latin American Spring?

Are we experiencing a Latin American Spring?

“Alerta, alerta, alerta que camina la lucha estudiantil por America Latina!!”
“Attention, attention, the student struggle is walking through Latin America!!” – it has been chanted during the meetings of the students movement in Mexico just as it did in many countries in South America (e.g. Colombia, Argentina and Chile) during the protests in November last year – demanding high quality education for all in Latin America.

Known as the most popular political figure of 2011 in Chile, Camila Vallejo Dowling, the leader of the most important students movement in her country after the protests of 1968 recently made a visit to students in Mexico.

The Chilean movement demanded education with quality and free of charge for all. Last year Vallejo’s popularity exceeded the Chilean president’s, Sebastian Piñera, even one year after the rescue of the 33 miners put his popularity at the very top of his career.

The students movement partially succeeded, forcing two ministers of education to step down in less than five months, which caught the attention of media from all around the globe and established a dialogue with authorities.

“Students won’t achieve changes on their own. Our movement didn’t make material changes since we did not have the support of all the people” Vallejo said during a meeting she held with the recently emerged Mexican students movement #YoSoy132 (#iAm132) at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City.

“We are here to promote the internationalism of the Latin American fights that are turning into the world’s hope” said Natalia Cuevas, another member of the Chilean movement.

#YoSoy132 is the movement that is bringing headaches to Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that governed Mexico for 71 years, before Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) came to power with ex-president Vicente Fox in 2000 and current president Felipe Calderón in 2006.

Peña Nieto is a good looking politician and the ex-governor of Estado de Mexico, who is also known as the Justin Bieber of politics in this country. He has been accused as the responsible of the so called civil unrest in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, where a 14 year-old boy died, 211 people were arrested, several women raped and many more suffered physical and psychological abuse by federal and local police to control a demonstration against the construction of what would have been the second terminal of the airport of Mexico City.

Peña Nieto, who during the presentation of his book in December couldn’t list three books that have inspired his life, has also been described by the Russian newspaper Pravda as a protégé of the United States.

The newspaper claimed that if Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the left wing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) wins, “the plan Merida, supposedly coordinating the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, and in fact controlling nearly all spheres of the government, will be threatened”.

Meanwhile, The Guardian published a power point presentation containing the media package Peña supposedly had bought in 2005 to be covered at the national level on Televisa, the most important media company in Mexico.

PRI and Televisa denied the accusations, asking The Guardian to apologize. However, the British newspaper responded with more arguments that supported their position saying it is Televisa who should apologize with Mexicans for actively promoting one particular candidate.

#YoSoy132 started after Peña Nieto – according to several surveys the candidate with the best chances of winning the Presidency in the July 1st elections – visited the private Universidad Iberoamericana, a university for upper-middle class youngsters on May 1st, to present his proposals. Students attending this conference prepared big banners that were confiscated by the security staff of PRI, after they were offered $20 and urged not not to ask any questions.

After he finished his speech, students demanded an explanation about what happened in Atenco in 2006. Apparently Peña Nieto was not regretful of his role during the events, reiterating that his actions were part of a determined action to reestablish peace and order and saying that he made use of the legitimate right of the Mexican State to use public force.

The answer made the audience angry and Peña Nieto had to flee the stage with hundreds of students from the Jesuit university coming after him, screaming “Murderer, Murderer!” and “We are all Atenco!”.

Days later, the anger turned into fury when several newspapers, radio stations and TV channels did not consider that event relevant. The general message instead was that the people attending it were paid by the PRD to attack Peña Nieto. Others put him on their cover with the caption: “Peña Nieto succeeded in Universidad Iberoamericana”.

In less than 24 hours 131 students from the university uploaded a video on YouTube showing their student ID, confirming that they were students and that they were not paid by any party.

The video went viral among users on Twitter and Facebook, leading people identified with the video to create the hashtag #YoSoy132 (I am 132).

Just during the weekend after his visit, students from the most important universities in solidarity with the students of Universidad Iberoamericana demonstrated against the way the media covered the protests against the imposition of Enrique Peña Nieto for the presidency.

According to the index of democratic development 2011, which is measured each year by the center of political analysis POLILAT along with the German Foundation Konrad Adenauer, Mexico has the worst level of freedom of speech of the region, due to the low diversity of information and the rate of journalists being killed.

One weak ahead of the presidential elections the students have brought a very uncomfortable environment to a hitherto very boring presidential campaign. Many compare this movement with the one of 1968 when thousands of students were killed by Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (PRI) to tackle the arrival of communism.

Although there has been a lot of violence and repression against the protests, the movement is becoming very strong. The media is trying to boycott it along with a campaign against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (PRD) who in many independent and academic polls has been placed as the favorite to win the upcoming elections.

The movement meanwhile has called for a historical independent debate among candidates that took place at the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos del Distrito Federal organized by them and  broadcasted only on radio and YouTube. As expected, the only candidate that declined the invitation was Peña Nieto who said the debate was not going to be impartial.

Students have surprised society with their knowledge and usage of social networks, which has proved to be a very useful and decisive tool for these elections since 30% of the voters are young Mexicans.

#YoSoy132 has shown that Mexicans are not satisfied with the system of corruption, censorship and repression. If the movement does not achieve its main goal, which is to avoid the imposition of a President, it will very likely become a very strong opposition to PRI, where workers and other segments of society could join to form a stronger and broader movement against the regression of democracy in Mexico. A more consistent and organized movement would then result in a more contagious demand for students in other latinamerican countries.

“You are not alone in this fight, they will continue killing flowers but they will not kill the spring”, Camila Vallejo tweeted after her departure.

Alexis Angulo 

Alexis Angulo is a student at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and an independent journalist. He has worked as an international reporter for the Mexican newspaper Excelsior and as a consultant for Open Society Foundations in Europe.