When Vice-President Joseph Biden travels to Mexico this week to meet with the country's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, he will not be speaking with an enlightened democratic leader but a representative of the nation's corrupt oligarchy. The widespread image of Peña Nieto as a bold reformist struggling against the forces of nostalgic reaction is about as accurate as Vladimir Putin's presentation of Bashar al-Assad as a distinguished statesman.
But the outcome in Mexico could be much more explosive than in these South American nations. While Chávez, Morales and Correa played by the rules and reached power through democratic elections, in Mexico the opposition is quickly losing faith in the possibility of achieving social change by electoral means. The fraud and vast irregularities committed during the last two presidential elections, in 2006 and 2012, has led many to look for alternative ways to express their demands.
After the failure of the neoliberal economic reforms of the 1980s to bring the peace and prosperity promised by the "Washington Consensus" to Latin America, most of the region turned to the political left in search of a more socially conscious alternative. Over the last 15 years, almost every country in the region has joined the "pink tide" of social-democratic governments, including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Peru, in addition to Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Demographic trends amplify this tendency in Mexico. Urbanization, increased education levels, greater accessibility of information technology and a boom in the youth population have led to a more conscious civil society. Although television and radio continue to be asmonochromatic and authoritarian as they were during the old days of Mexico's "perfect dictatorship", it is no longer necessary to hide in the hinterlands to develop networks of resistance – as was the case with the guerrilla movements of the 1970s. Anti-establishment organizing can now take place in the light of day.
In this context, Mexico's Peña Nieto has chosen the wrong governance strategy. Instead of reaching out to society and addressing Mexico's great problems of inequality and impunity, he has stubbornly insisted on consolidating the neoliberal project by dismantling the remnants of Mexico's social pact inherited from the country's historic revolution of 1910.
As president-elect, Peña Nieto worked with outgoing president Felipe Calderón to push labor reform through Congress that limits the ability of workers to defend themselves against unjust firing practices and expands both temporary employment and subcontracting. Once in office, the new president moved quickly to pass education reform that will allow him to summarily fire hundreds of thousands of experienced elementary and secondary school teachers throughout the country.
This attack on labor rights has a political motive. The Mexican teachers' union is the largest in Latin America, with 1.2 million members, and the unionized working class is typically one of the most important voices for the redistribution of wealth and strengthening social policy. The rural teachers from the neglected southern states of Oaxaca, Michoacán and Guerrero, who are protesting today in Mexico City, have a particularly strong tradition of community activism and political mobilization, which goes back almost a century.
Peña Nieto's second step, after weakening the working class, has been to shore up his support among Mexico's oligarchs. The president first pushed through a telecommunications reform, the central purpose of which is to allow him to better distribute the enormous and ever-expanding pie of this sector between his friends and allies. His next move is to privatize Mexico´s oil industry. Peña Nieto recently presented a proposal to reform the Mexican constitution, which would allow him to sideline Mexico's state oil company, Pemex, and divide up the country's vast oil reserves for the profit of an array of transnational oil corporations. Such a move would dangerously undermine one of the central foundations of Mexico's modern social pact, by drastically reducing fiscal revenues and allowing foreign interests to control one of the most strategic areas of the economy.
The police brutally beat numerous activists and arbitrarily jailed dozens of others, including a distinguished economics professor from Montana, Wesley Marshall, who happened to be passing through the area. Such actions have led to increased social discontent and prepare the ground for a scenario similar to what has occurred recently in Turkey and Brazil, with massive street protests.
President Barack Obama has let down the tens of millions of Mexicans who live and work in the United States by having so far failed to get his promised immigration reform through Congress. But now, he has equally failed more than 110 million Mexicans who live south of the Río Grande through his alliance with and support for Mexico's corrupt leaders – first Calderón, and now Peña Nieto.
The people of North America should not be fooled by the embraces and praises that will be exchanged this week between Joe Biden and Enrique Peña Nieto. The solutions to our common problems will not come from such hypocritical political discourse, but from creative binational citizen action.