Student Protests in Mexico Mirror Arab Spring Demonstrations, Uprisings
Thousands of university students took to the streets of Mexico City Wednesday demanding greater freedom of speech in the country and protesting the PRI’s possible return to power.
It was the third-largest student protest in less than a week, and it has prompted some journalists in the country to wonder if Mexico is going through a political transformation similar to the “Arab Spring” that began 18 months ago.
But what exactly do these students want, and where will their movement go?
How It All Began
The organizers of Wednesday’s protest were students from the Universidad Iberoamericana and other academic institutions in Mexico City, who advertised the event through the Twitter hashtag, #YoSoy132.
Several of them appeared on TV Network Televisa a day before the protest to explain their motives.
“We don’t think that the media [in Mexico] are providing fair coverage of events,” student leader Maria Jose Lopez said.
“Our main goal is to seek greater democracy within Mexican media,” said fellow activist, Rodrigo Serrano.
The name, “YoSoy132” alludes to a group of students from the Universidad Iberamericana, who heckled PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto during a recent visit to the university that chased him off the premises.
After the incident, PRI leaders accused the Iberoamericana students of being intolerant, inconsiderate “stooges” paid to protest against Peña Nieto by the leftist PRD party.
This argument — especially the accusations by PRI officials — blanketed the airwaves on television giants Televisa and TV Azteca and took up tons of column inches in papers that tend to favor the PRI, like El Sol, which went as far as to label Peña Nieto’s visit to the Iberoamericana a “triumph” for the candidate.
Students claimed that their run-in with Peña Nieto was a spontaneous protest, which was not paid for by any political party. But their views initially obtained little coverage on Mexico’s mainstream media.
On Tuesday, student activist Sandra Partago, said that media coverage related to the Peña Nieto incident encouraged students to carry out protests that called for the “democratization” of Mexican media.
“It was a watershed moment, when we woke up on May 12 [the day following the candidate’s visit to the Iberoamericana] and saw how the media had manipulated [information about] what had really happened,” Partago told Televisa journalist Carlos Loret, who had the students appear on his morning talk show after they staged a protest in front of the TV station’s headquarters.
Partago, Lopez and Serrano said that their movement was not targeted at any of Mexico’s political parties, although they argued that Televisa was favoring PRI candidate Peña Nieto in its news programs and opinion shows.
To make a point that their movement is “nonpartisan,” the leaders of the #YoSoy132 movement, asked their followers to not carry any posters in favor or against any of Mexico’s political parties to Wednesday’s march.
Anti-PRI posters and chants against Peña Nieto were abundant at Wednesday’s march -- perhaps an indication that some of the protesters have a broader agenda than the organizers.
Ana Gomez, an international relations student at the Iberoamericana, jumped up and down with her friends at the base of Mexico City’s Independence Monument screaming “El que no brinca es Peña,” which translates roughly to “If you don’t jump, you are Peña.”
Gomez did not approve of Televisa’s coverage of the Mexican elections, but she also said that she attended the march because she was worried that the PRI could return to power in Mexico.
“We are manifesting ourselves against what was 70 years of a [PRI] regime that was against liberty, against freedom of speech,” Gomez said. “We don’t want that back.”
Carlos Suarez, a UNAM student was more blunt.
“I don’t want the PRI to win these elections, that’s my goal” he said when asked about the purpose of the protests.
According to political analyst Hector Faya, one factor that unites Mexico’s student protesters is their frustration with the “monopolization” of Mexican politics and media.
This phenomenon is best represented by Televisa –- the company that along with TV Azteca controls 95 percent of Mexico’s TV market. It’s also evident with PRI, the party which ruled Mexico unchallenged for seven decades, and now has a good shot of winning the July 1st elections.
Another apparent issue that unites the protesters is that many see Televisa and the PRI as part of the same political machine that is ruling the country. The TV channel and the political party have fervently denied that they are in cahoots with each other.
But documents obtained recently by Proceso magazine that suggest Peña Nieto paid Televisa for favorable media coverage while he was governor of Mexico State have stoked fears about an unholy alliance between the TV channel and the political group.
Political analyst Genaro Lozano says there are other elements of Pena Nieto’s campaign and the PRI’s style of politics that frustrate Mexican citizens and have encouraged some of them to take to the streets.
“His campaign is one of the best marketing products that Mexico has seen in the last few years,” Lozano wrote in his weekly column in Reforma newspaper. “His ads are well made and his Web platforms are the best.
“But what we don’t like are his proposals…what we don’t like is that they talk about achievements that Peña Nieto claims as governor of Mexico state that do not correspond to hard facts,” he added.
“What we don’t like is that there is little transparency in how he uses campaign funds. What angers us is that [the PRI] hides the authoritarian practices of its state governors in Veracruz, and Coahuila,” Lozano goes on, mentioning that Veracruz is one of the deadliest places for journalists in the world, while Coahuila’s former governor Humberto Moreira is mired in a corruption scandal that involves faking documents to obtain loans, for the - now bankrupt - state government.
Impact of the student protests
Student protestors may be frustrated with the PRI, Televisa and corrupt practices like those mentioned by Lozano. But curiously, many are not calling on their peers to vote for another party, like the PAN or the PRD.
Hector Faya says that this lack of an electoral strategy, and the fact that protests are concentrated in Mexico City, suggests that the student movement is not likely to have a big impact on election outcomes.
But the student protests could have an impact on the country by influencing candidates’ political agendas.
Hector Faya points out that the Peña Nieto’s campaign had already reacted to students’ demand for media democratization.
In a 10-point “democratic manifesto” issued earlier this week, Peña Nieto promised to create an institution run by civil society groups that would monitor public advertising expenditures and track contracts between the government and media groups.
The proposal seems to be targeted at those who fear that the PRI and other parties in Mexico have bought favorable coverage in the Mexican media.
“Peña Nieto has a very quick campaign team,” Faya said.
Meanwhile, students are working on proposals to monitor the use of campaign funds by political parties.
They also plan to demand that all TV channels in Mexico show the next debate between the country’s presidential candidates as the first debate was shunned by TV Azeca and Televisa and replaced by a soccer match and the talent show Pequeños Gigantes.
With their protests, students have already obtained more airtime on Televisa.
“In Televisa we value youth and listen to their opinions. We will always be open to them,” the channel’s CEO Emilio Azcárraga tweeted earlier this week.
There are approximately 30 million people in Mexico under the age of 29, almost a third of the country’s population, comprising a “market segment” that is too large for Televisa or for the country’s politicians to ignore.
Student protests so far have been limited mostly to Mexico City and confined to political subjects like media coverage.
It seems that they have not yet reached their full potential.
Faya, who is also a professor at the Iberoamericana, hopes that students will come up with proposals that will help their movement elsewhere in the country.
“I think this movement says good things to us about our students,” Faya said. “They know when they are being manipulated.”
Photos: Rogeria Barbosa (AFP); Univision.