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Mexican protests attest to huge disparity.

MEXICO CITY - While President Ernesto Zedillo went before the nation Jan. 15 to announce that Mexico was paying off the remaining $3.5 billion. due the United States from the 1994 White House bailout of Mexico's collapsing economy, Jorge Luis Magana, 36, and Vanancio Jimenez, 22, lay starving on a traffic island in front of the government's National Human Rights Commission.

The two men from the oil-rich southeastern state of Tabasco were among more than 300 street sweepers and garbage collectors protesting in various ways their July 1995 layoffs by the municipal government of Villahermosa.

Since October, the men and several dozen of their fellow garbage workers, had been occupying the wide median, engulfed by 10 lanes of freeway traffic that roars through the posh San Jeronimo neighborhood where the Human Rights Commission is located.

These protests, waged by one of the most marginalized groups of people in Mexican society, are indicative of a broader stream of civil disobedience that has accelerated in the aftermath of the 1994 uprising of Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. From Tijuana in the north to the sunny tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula in the south, Mexicans have been filling plazas and occupying government buildings in a seemingly endless string of public opposition to government economic policy and corruption.

Neither the watchful gaze of human rights monitors nor a large portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe - the protector of Mexico's poor - kept government forces from trying to dislodge the protesting garbage collectors last month.

On Jan. 19, dozens of riot police commanded by an army general swept through the encampment, clubbing protesters, tearing tents and carting Magana Jimenez and another striker to a nearby hospital for forced intravenous feeding. Representatives from the Mexico City mayor's office called the raid humanitarian," claiming it enforced health regulations. Mexico's interior secretary, meanwhile, said the forced eviction was carried out "in the spirit of solidarity" with the garbage workers.

The next day, however, the protesters had re-created their camp on the median. They held out for a few more days, ending their 100-day fast only after receiving a shaky pledge from the government that their reinstatement would be considered.

Although the city of Villahermosa insists the workers were discharged to "modernize services," the garbage men and women say the real motive was their refusal to perform menial labor - like shining shoes and washing dogs - in the homes of city bosses. Although Villahermosa garbage workers and street sweepers organized in 1989 and won a salary increase to about $90 a month, they were still required to work 11l to 18 hours a day without overtime pay. These meager monthly wages qualified them to join 21 million Mexicans - a full quarter of the population - who according to the World Food Organization live in "extreme poverty."

The strike that ended in January was not the street sweepers, first. Since 1989, the Tabascans have made four trips to Mexico City, once walking the whole way - a 45-day trip. In February 1996, Mexico City police rounded the workers up and forced them on a bus back to Villahermosa. One man was killed in the clash. On other occasions, the garbage workers spattered public buildings with their blood and even stripped bare -- except for baseball caps - and streaked through Congress to publicize their plight.

Underpinning the majority of these protests during the past three years is discontent with the harmful effects the government's management of the economy has had on the majority of the Mexican people living in post-NAFTA Mexico. For example, a worker who has been on the garbage trucks since age 13, struggled with the irony of Zedillo's decision to pay off the U.S. loan -- a bailout necessitated by the plunging Mexican peso and depletion of the country's reserves in 1995 as a result of the massive withdrawal of international capital.

"Imagine!" he said. "There are people starving here just a few kilometers away from where the president lives, and he is going to give this exaggerated sum to the gringos."

The Zedillo payback was received with enthusiasm on the other end of the economic ladder. The $3.5 billion tendered to U.S. President Bill Clinton pays off $12.5 billion provided by the United States in a December 1994 rescue package. Liquidating the debt means that Mexico no longer has to deposit its foreign oil revenues in the Wall Street branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank or report all vital economic intelligence to the U.S. Treasury Department -- two precedent-setting stipulations of the bailout agreement.

The payback, three years ahead of schedule, also got President Clinton off the hook for an unpopular political move in extending the loan, and it represented a surprise inauguration gift. Clinton is expected to visit Mexico sometime before crucial midterm elections here in July of this year.

We did the right thing for Mexico and the right thing for the U.S.," Clinton said after receiving a Jan. 15 phone call from Zedillo. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin pointed out that the bailout proved a "good business deal" - the U.S. Treasury picked up $580 million in interest on the loan.

After the repayment, The Wall Street Journal spoke of a new confidence, in Mexico. Zedillo simultaneously declared an end to Mexico's national economic emergency. Many doubted that we could survive this crisis. Our task now is to consolidate the recovery," Zediko said. Mexican Finance Secretary Guillermo Ortiz reminded reporters that the early payback will save the government $100 million a year in service charges.

But chances are that such savings will not find their way down to the garbage workers. With the sixth most disparate income levels in the world outside of Africa, according to a World Bank study, Mexico is not a land where money trickles down.
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Author:Ross, John (American tribal leader)
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 28, 1997
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