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May Day March Betrays Rifts in Mexican Ruling Party

May 2, 1996

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ For more than a half-century, Mexican presidents counted on workers like Jose Abel Evangelista to march on May Day in support of pro-government labor unions and the authoritarian ruling party.

On Wednesday, Abel marched on schedule in Mexico City with fellow autoworkers bused in from the state of Hidalgo. But this time he brought a sobering message for President Ernesto Zedillo and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI.

``Now we don’t feel so obliged to render obedience to the PRI or the government,″ Abel said. ``Times have changed. We’re here to demonstrate our opposition to government policies.″

Abel and more than 100,000 other dissident workers and leftists owned the streets here Wednesday. Zedillo, meanwhile, retreated to a low-key event indoors at the headquarters of a pro-government labor group.

Such open rebellion from what had been a bastion of the Mexican regime spells trouble for the PRI.

The ruling party, in power since 1929, has been shaken in the past year by economic crisis, defeats in regional elections and scandals involving the family of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Now, with congressional elections only a year away, the PRI faces the loss of formerly reliable union voters who are fed up with Mexico’s seemingly perpetual cycles of recession.

Wednesday’s marchers defied pro-government union patriarchs who had canceled an official May Day parade for the second year since a December 1994 peso devaluation slashed wages and threw more than 1 million people out of work.

The protesters demanded wage increases, job security and an end to privatization of state-owned enterprises. Ten unions affiliated with the official pro-government labor movement participated.

The four-hour march was peaceful, although a handful of protesters burned an American flag outside the U.S. Embassy. Two groups began from separate points and ended at the city’s central square, the Zocalo.

There, in years past, the Mexican president would have reviewed an adoring throng from a balcony at the National Palace.

Zedillo was denied that ritual. In his speech to the Labor Congress, the president lauded workers and said the economy was on the mend.

``Today we have the first signs that your efforts have been worth it,″ Zedillo told the labor officials. ``We have the first signs that we are on the road to recovery (and that) _ although still very moderately _ production is beginning to pick up.″

But many workers remain angry over the perceived inability of the government _ in tandem with official unions _ to blunt the crisis. Last year inflation topped 51 percent and the economy shrank 6.9 percent, the sharpest contraction since the Depression.

The government projects 3 percent growth for 1996, but inflation was still rising early this year _ 8.3 percent from Jan. 1 to the end of March. Paychecks have not kept up.

Marchers said the government is losing credibility.

``This is a historic march,″ said Bertha Lujan, of the independent Authentic Workers Front. ``It is a symptom of the crisis in the political system. One of the pillars of the PRI _ the official union movement _ is crumbling.″

That movement, headed by 96-year-old Fidel Velazquez, scrapped the official parade last year for the first time amid concerns of possible violence. Velazquez this year denied that the labor movement would be divided.

Armando Trejo was not so sure. The 44-year-old telephone worker joined other members of his union in defying Velazquez’s call to stay off the streets. Trejo said he was unsure how long he could support the PRI.

``There isn’t any clear option,″ Trejo said. ``If there were a serious party that represented the workers, it would be much better.″

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