Protesters Frustrated With Fox

From Associated Press

Union members, left-wing activists and farmers by the thousands marched to the capital's central plaza Thursday for a collective show of opposition to the president's plans to raise taxes on food and medicine and sell state-owned assets.

The crowd, estimated by police at 80,000, packed major avenues from Mexico's independence monument to the city center. The march had been billed as Mexico's largest in years, but the turnout fell short of the 150,000 predicted by organizers.

The march was largely peaceful, with demonstrators chanting, "Our country is not for sale!" Still, authorities dispatched thousands of police to guard against possible violence, arresting at least four people in the afternoon along Reforma Avenue, the capital's main drag.

The protest reflected growing frustration with President Vicente Fox and proposals that have led to increasing political paralysis and a sharp drop in the peso against the dollar.

"The only solution will be a national strike, to stop them from selling what little we Mexicans have left to the foreigners," said Rosalia Prado, a middle school teacher dressed in the yellow colors of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

Speaking Thursday about the marches from Michoacan state, Fox said: "We should all enjoy Mexico's unprecedented new climate of liberty.... Freedom of expression and the right to protest are never going to be blocked by my administration."

Fox recently commented that the country "is doing wonderfully" -- a statement that sharply contrasted with the current economy, and led one local newspaper to run a sarcastic headline, "Another Day Here In Wonderland."

Protesters, who converged in the city's central plaza, mostly oppose the president's proposal to eliminate a sales tax exemption on food and medicine and to allow more private investment in the state-run electricity sector to ease power shortages projected for the future.

Ramiro Gomez, a rancher from Chihuahua, showed up riding a horse to protest the government's free-market policies.

"We have an abandoned countryside," Gomez said. "Nobody is making money, now production is paralyzed and many of the producers have emigrated. We want national sovereignty in food, and to consume only Mexican corn, beans, wheat and meat."

Marchers included movie production workers whose jobs are threatened by Fox's proposal to sell off a state-owned movie studio.

"We risk becoming a subsidiary of Hollywood, and losing our identity as Mexicans," said German Ramirez, a set builder.

Juan Molinar, a congressional leader from Fox's conservative National Action Party, defended the sales tax increases, calling the exemptions for food and medicine "a huge subsidy for purchases by the wealthy, with money that could be spent helping the poor."

Molinar said the National Action Party is willing to compromise on the tax changes, but Fox has had little success at lobbying lawmakers. His party is a minority in both houses of Congress.

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