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Mexican labor patriarch dead at 97

June 22, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Fidel Velazquez, the iron-handed labor patriarch who dominated Mexico’s union movement since the late 1930s and helped keep the ruling party in power, died Saturday, his doctor said. He was 97.

Often criticized for his authoritarian grip on a labor movement he steered largely along pro-government lines, ``Don Fidel″ typified a style of politics that may not outlive him.

``Don Fidel knew how to reconcile the special interests of workers with greater interest of the nation,″ President Ernesto Zedillo said in a statement of condolences.

His death could weaken the ruling party’s grip on Mexico’s labor movement. In recent years, a wave of independent union groups has emerged and, with Velazquez’s death, they may become more powerful.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has held power without interruption since 1929, is also facing a growing challenge from opposition parties and has lost several governorships, state congresses and major mayorships in recent years. Analysts say Velazquez’s passing could hasten PRI’s decline.

Velazquez began failing late Friday and died the following morning, his doctor, Salomon Jasqui Romano, told Mexico City radio stations. Velazquez had been hospitalized for severe gastrointestinal infections.

As head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers, Velazquez will be remembered as a kingmaker and a power unto himself in the byzantine world of Mexican politics.

Ten presidents came and went _ and he had a big hand in getting seven of them elected _ but Velazquez remained. He opposed some of those presidents, but his threatened strikes were usually bargaining chips in the struggle for power within PRI.

Velazquez’ temporary successor in the top post at the union confederation is Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine, who is also strongly pro-government and has served two terms as a legislator for the ruling party.

Union leaders downplayed the likelihood of an internal struggle for power within the 6 million member confederation. Alcaine’s continued leadership would have to be confirmed by a CTM assembly to be held in February 1998.

``Even if this doesn’t mean a collapse of the CTM, it does mean that it will no longer be the decisive word for the working class,″ said Manuel Lopez Obrador, leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Alcaine, 78, who began his union career at the Federal Electricity Commission, is a leader of Mexico’s Electrical Workers’ Union.

Despite his failing health and advanced age, Velazquez continued to hold sway over the Confederation of Mexican Workers, the country’s largest union.

Often using a wheelchair or cane and slurring his words, Velazquez still held regular news conferences and and represented Mexico’s workers at ceremonies where wage and price agreements were signed.

Those agreements, which set limits on wage increases, are largely viewed as responsible for a precipitous drop in average Mexican wages since the 1980s.

Detractors accused Velazquez of stifling dissent in the union movement, and during his tenure the CTM, as his federation is known, resorted to violence to break dissident and wildcat strikes.

In Velazquez’ final 15 years at the head of the CTM, Mexican workers saw minimum wages drop by nearly 70 percent, to the equivalent of dlrs 3.30 per day in 1997, one of the lowest wage rates in Latin America.

But even his detractors concede his role in shaping the society that emerged from the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution.

``He was a symbol, not just of continuity or the `strongman’ tradition, the Mexican Revolution or the regime of the PRI. He was a symbol of the hunger for power,″ said Mexico City author Carlos Monsivais.

``If Tammany Hall could be seen in one person in Mexico, it would be Fidel Velazquez,″ Monsivais said, referring to the back-room politics that were common in the United States at the turn of the century.

Supporters and friends claimed he was a patriot, an honest man, a pillar of the ruling system, a democrat and a realist.

Velazquez helped the ruling party keep Mexico politically stable and that contributed to an unheralded 5.5 to 6 percent annual economic growth from the early 1940s up until 1982, when the nation’s economy took a nose dive.

Still, even in the good years, very little of that wealth trickled down to the majority of Mexicans, as the rich got richer and the poor poorer.

Velazquez is survived by his wife of 46 years, Nora Quintana, and three children.

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