Mexicans Try Active Democracy : Community Spirit Born in Quakes Takes a Political Shape

Carlos B. Gil is an assistant professor in the history department of the University of Washington, Seattle, on leave in Mexico City.

By all indications, the earthquakes of Sept. 19 and 20 shook the core of Mexico's political structure. The extent to which the moorings were loosened is debatable, but a consensus exists nearly everywhere in Mexico that in the hours after the quake, the residents of the capital city displayed an unprecedented sense of fellowship and self-management. The shared tragedy demanded responsible action immediately, and in the absence of a civil-defense plan, the people responded while the government bumbled.

This phenomenon of self-mobilization is now being seen as the outcropping of a sociedad civil. By this, Mexicans mean a society made up of citizens willing and able to govern themselves, free of government officials who are loyal only to an antiquated centralized bureaucracy that tolerates little citizen participation.

Even the noted educator and philosopher, Leopoldo Zea, joined the chorus detecting this change when he stated recently that "the September quakes gave origin to another Mexico, one whose conscience is more critical and demanding than before."

Alienation between the people and their government is nothing new in Mexico, of course. But the human tragedy occasioned by the earthquake has increased the people's sensitivity toward the estrangement and lessened their tolerance of it.

An organization known as the United Coordinator of Earthquake Victims (CUD, in its Spanish acronym) best represents the new "civil society." Evolving as an umbrella organization for many barrio organizations, which themselves have mushroomed since Sept. 19, the CUD has gained considerable media attention. It is unique because it is divorced from the government and the official party, yet it represents a very large group of urban people willing to fight for their own interests.

"We are people," explains young Dr. Cuahtemoc Abarca, CUD's best-known leader, "who, in response to the error, imposition and arbitrariness of government officials, seek our own organization as the tool of our necessities before the powers-that-be, which have not helped us."

CUD officials have been useful in identifying, and lobbying for, the basic needs of various neighborhoods--whether water, food, shelter or prompt building-safety inspections.

Lately, CUD leaders have also begun to voice criticism and press for demands that go beyond the immediate needs of the quake victims. Having been excluded from official commissions appointed by the president after the disaster, one of their broader demands was for a role in the city's reconstruction.

The CUD leadership has also fought fiercely for a fairer formula for compensating losses. Many members believe that the government tried to defraud them in this regard, and they have gone so far as demanding the firing of the highest officials involved in the indemnity conflict (Guillermo Carillo Arena, secretary of urban development and ecology, and Ramon Aguirre Velasquez, mayor of the federal district, both presidential appointees).

It should be noted, too, that the CUD leadership, along with most of the left-of-center political parties, has also called for the government to declare a moratorium on the country's international debt.

The administration of President Miguel de la Madrid has answered popular criticism like the CUD's with restraint, caution and sympathy. The numerous personal visits that he made to the areas ravaged by the quake were commended as genuinely sympathetic and respectful. People considered this image as consistent with his policy of "moral renovation" aimed at cleansing the corrupt Mexican bureaucracy that he inherited.

That, however, has turned out to be easier said than done. Not even the unusual power enjoyed by a Mexican president has been enough to effect reform. A handful of corrupt officials in the past administration are behind bars, but many bureaucrats, including those in law-enforcement, are reported as conducting business as usual.

A notable example may be seen in the apparent torture of several Colombians who had been arrested for alleged drug-trafficking and held without charge for 17 days in September. Their bodies, found in the rubble, bore suspicious marks, but officials blamed their deaths on the earthquake. Soon the rights of the Colombians also became a banner of the "civil society," carried high even by some members of Congress, mostly from the left.

The recent arrest of Marino Sagastogui, noted cartoonist of the prestigious newspaper, Excelsior, illustrates how old habits persist among Mexico's police officials. In the presence of his 10-year-old daughter, he was held incommunicado for several hours at gunpoint by detectives belonging to the infamous Procuraduria Judicial of the federal district. Presumably, this was in response to his cartoons criticizing the agency and its director.

Nonetheless, important expressions of the new sociedad civil continue to emerge. They include a call for election instead of appointment of federal district officials; a legislative move that may explicitly prohibit torture by Mexican police; a stirring up of the national legislature to the point that it has begun to counterweight executive action by quizzing federal-level officials in Washington-style hearings; and the possibility that leftist parties may set aside their differences and unite after many years of disarray.

It may be too early to predict whether Mexico's sociedad civil is strong enough to resist the obstinately corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy that chokes and bleeds everything that is new and promising in Mexico. The task of reconstruction is Herculean enough without the added burden of democratization. And the price of repaying Mexico's staggering debt to the United States is so high that any valiant effort to pay it may snuff out whatever chance the "civil society" may have to endure the very hard times ahead.

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