On May 22, 1993, soldiers from the Mexican army accidentally ran across a guerrilla training camp in the jungles of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. One army officer and one civilian were killed in the clashes that followed, according to the military. The incident was given prominent coverage in La Jornada, a popular, moderately leftist Mexico City daily. The reports of a skirmish were greeted with some skepticism in Mexico, but Gen. Rigoberto Castillejos Adriano, a sub-commander in the National Defense Secretariat, indignantly defended the army’s account in a letter featured on the front page of the July 11 La Jornada.
Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. government had been concerned about the possibility that the revolutionary ferment in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua might spread into Mexico, a country with vastly greater economic and strategic importance to the U.S. than Central America. But what turned out to be the first clashes between the Mexican military and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) of southern Mexico met with almost complete silence the U.S. mainstream media (and in much of the alternative media).
In January 1994, after the Zapatista army had seized four cities in Chiapas and headlines throughout the world, New York Times Mexico correspondent Tim Golden (1/3/94) offered a sort of explanation of how he and his colleagues had missed one of the top stories of the post-Cold War era: “Officials… denied then that there were any rebels,” Golden wrote.
Selling the Salinas Revolution
The real problem was not Mexican officials but the U.S. media’s enthusiasm for what Latin Americans call the “neoliberal project”–a program of austerity, privatization and unrestricted trade that the U.S. political and corporate elite has been promoting throughout the hemisphere since the regional debt crisis of 1982. Mexico was a model for this policy, and there was simply no room for stories that might show the darker side of the “Mexican miracle”: the 30 percent drop in income experienced by almost half of the Mexican population from 1987 to 1994; the evidence of repeated, blatant electoral fraud by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI (Extra!, 11-12/94): widespread human rights violations; or the first signs of a guerrilla insurgency.
In November 1993. a few months after the media had failed to report the first Chiapas clashes, the U.S. Congress prepared to vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a pact that would tighten U.S. economic ties with Mexico. During the six days from November 8 to November 13, the New York Times and the Washington Post each devoted some 20 articles to the NAFTA debate, more three a day.
The general tone was set by Washington Post Mexican correspondent Tod Robberson (11/11/93). Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then Mexico’s president, had created “the boldest and most far-reaching program of change since the country’s revolution early this century,” Robberson wrote, “Salinas has instituted sometimes painful measures to dismantle socialist-style central planning and open Mexico to free markets, private enterprise and foreign trade.” The Salinas revolution “has served as a model for much of the rest of Latin America.”
Robberson quoted Denise Dresser, a Mexican political scientist and NAFTA enthusiast: “Salinas is keeping all classes happy. Big business has the insurance of financial stability and access to foreign capital. The middle class is happy because he has given them unbounded access to U.S. imports while bringing inflation down. And the poor have Solidarity”—a huge slush fund dispensed to PRI stalwarts.
After the trade pact had passed–while indigenous campesinos in Chiapas were putting the finishing touches on their plans for insurrection–the New York Times‘ Anthony DePalma wrote (12/5/93): “Mexico has loved a strong leader since before Moctezuma.” The PRI’s virtual monopoly on power has “produced an enviable record of stability for a Third World country…. Mostly Mexico has been at peace” (12/5/93).
Overlooking the Peso Crisis
In 1993, the U.S. media missed the Zapatista story. The media’s major accomplishment in 1994 was managing to overlook Mexico’s growing currency crisis. (See sidebar.) It was no secret in Mexico that the peso would have to fall. The economic program of the center-left opposition candidate for the presidency, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, warned of the peso’s overvaluation.
“In 1992 and 1993 the current account deficit was more than S20 billion (7 per cent of the gross domestic product),” explained Cardenas’ June 1994 program (which was distributed free to reporters). “It is obvious that an economy that doesn’t grow, and that requires external financing of such magnitude year after year just to keep from collapsing, lacks long-term viability.”
Mexican economists issued similar warnings; even street vendors and panhandlers in Mexico City were happy to tell foreign observers of the August elections that the currency was in trouble. But U.S. journalists preferred to get their economic analysis from Wall Street investment bankers.
For example, the New York Times explained (9/27/94) that a September labor/management/government pact was “good news for investors” since it “stresse[d] continuity and stability.” The article cited Jorge Mariscal, Latin American equity research head for Goldman, Sachs & Co., who explained that without similar pacts in the past, “it would have been extremely difficult to have had the real-wage declines that Mexico went through” from 1987 to 1994.
Goldman, Sachs was the No. 1 U.S. underwriter of Mexican equities and bonds from 1992 through 1994. Its former co-chair, Robert Rubin, was named secretary of the U.S. Treasury in December–just as U.S. taxpayers suddenly discovered that they were about to pay tens of billions of dollars to rescue the U.S.-inspired policy of “free market, private enterprise and foreign trade.”
Taking Aim at Alternatives
Although Mexico is virtually a one-party state, Mexicans have better access to alternative news than do most people in the U.S. Two of the most popular mass-circulation publications, the daily La Jornada and the weekly Proceso, combine responsible reporting with non-sectarian, left-of-center analysis. Decent reporting is also available from two dailies, Reforma and El Financiero, with a more conservative bent. And the Mexicans have become masters at computerized communication: The Wall Street Journal noted with admiration (7/5/94) that the Zapatista rebellion “began on the edge of a rain forest in the poorest part of the country. Yet within days, the insurgents or their supporters had signed on to the Internet and used its collection of electronic bulletin boards to broadcast the rebel manifestos around the world.”
The Mexican government may be trying to close down this alternative. A researcher for Equipo Pueblo, which regularly provides accurate economic information on the Internet through its weekly Mexico Update, has been linked to the Zapatistas by the official news agency Notimex; this accusation came on the same night that an arrest order was issued for the rebels’ alleged leader, Rafael Sebastian Guillen. Another important Internet source, Jorge Santiago Santiago. was named by the government as an EZLN commander and arrested for treason on February 10.
Alternative news through Internet is causing concerns in the U.S. as well. “Critics charge that the Internet is being used by Zapatista supporters to distort recent events,” the Washington Post warns, without naming the critics (2/20/95). “Some users with access to Chiapas-related computer bulletin boards have posted messages urging measures to weed out untruthful entries.” Given its record on Mexico, the U.S. press may not welcome competition from indigenous campesinos “on the edge of a rain forest.”
David L. Wilson works with the Weekly News Update on the Americas and the New York Nicaragua Solidarity Network.
Mexico’s central bank started off 1993 with almost $25 billion in foreign reserves, which seemed more than enough to prop up the peso and get the PRI through the August 21 national elections. But the plan fell apart as political turmoil in Mexico and high interest rates in the U.S. sent dollars fleeing across the border.
A central bank report from February 2, 1995 estimates that Mexico lost $1.5 billion due to the EZLN uprising at the beginning of 1994, and another $10 billion from the March 23 assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta. How did the U.S. media react to the flight of dollars? “Mexico is a fundamentally stable country,” the Wall Street Journal wrote (3/25/94). A New York Times editorial (3/25/94) advised that “panic would be exactly the wrong response.”
The bank estimates that nervous investors pulled another $3 billion out of the country in the aftermath of the September 28 assassination of PRI general secretary Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. As the greenbacks fled, the Washington Post wrote (11/8/94): “NAFTA…has been in effect for 10 months, and so far it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do…. A sharp increase in investment in Mexico…contributes to growth and stability there.”
When the peso finally collapsed on December 21, the reserves had fallen to about $6.5 billion. Two weeks later, a Wall Street Journal headline admitted (1/6/95): “Oops! Peso Forecasts Were Off the Money.”