From the Gasolinazo to Vibra México: the trivialization of resentment

After decades of outrage and violence, exclusion and inequality, what is taking thousands of Mexicans to the streets is an oil hike and Trump’s executive orders. Español

Alejandro Vélez
14 February 2017

Anti-Trump march in Mexico City. Benedicte Desrus SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

I have a friend who is always uncomfortable when I tell him about the discoveries of clandestine graves, about the cases of murdered migrants or the latest outrages of Mexican politicians. But his discomfort has nothing to do with that thick and opaque bubble of indifference which many Mexicans equip themselves with. On the contrary, I think that the distinctive grimace he puts on when we talk about it all comes from indignation. In fact, he often says, jokingly – albeit with some seriousness -, that he does not understand why nobody has taken up arms and gone up to the mountains like the maquis did under the Franco regime in Spain. Not without reason, I must say: it does seem that our threshold for outrage is so high that we can endure tens of thousands of forced disappearances and hundreds of open and unopened clandestine graves; state governors incurring debt as if there were no tomorrow; journalists fleeing the country or resorting to self-censorship in order to survive; state governments buying fake AIDS tests or giving fake chemotherapy to children; or the bulk of the political class using their public function as their piggy bank.

San Fernando, Playa Vicente, Allende, Ayotzinapa, the Casa Blanca, Tanhuato, Apatzingán, Nochixtlán, Tlatlaya, the ABC Kindergarten, Casino Royale: these are all  milestones that should have spilled the vase that Mohammed Bouazizi smashed in Tunisia by immolating himself after his fruit vendor cart was confiscated, which led to the resignation and flight of dictator Ben Ali. Apparently though, the Mexican vase is larger and also watertight. So, I would not have dared to fathom that what would get the Mexicans out in the streets would be an oil hike – the damned gasolinazo.

I recollect learning in one of my Politics classes that the citizens’ most sensitive part is his or her pocket and that, when voting for or assessing a politician, the question asked is always this: "What have you done for my wallet?" In this, the Peña Nieto administration has not been more or less benignant than previous ones, but the unquestionable, gigantic corruption cases that have surfaced during his tenure have unveiled the political elite’s indifference towards the most basic and pressing problems of Mexican citizens, such as making ends meet. In the case of the gasolinazo, the fleeting indignation may be the result of yet another broken promise by the federal government, which carried out a flawless propaganda campaign to sell us the sweetness of an "energy reform" that would lower the price of gas, electricity and oil in the medium term. A few months later, the same propaganda apparatus repeated right and left that the increase was not attributable to the reform, but rather to the rise in the international price of petrol - thus shifting the blame abroad. Some secretaries of state even threatened to close schools down and cut social programs if the price adjustment did not come into force.

Many people took to the streets to protest. In fact, they keep on doing so. Marches, roadblocks, occupations have been the norm since the beginning of this year. Social mobilizations have taken place where none had happened before - they were in their thousands in Mexicali, for example. It looked as if oil could achieve what the dead and the missing had been unable to. "Give us more oil" would the war cry, to Yankee Daddy's approval. It seemed that the spark was lighting the fuse.

What happened next? First, the government – once again - used counterinsurgency procedures and infiltrated the protests. Taking advantage of the people’s anger and outrage, it led them to violence or, at least, to the perception of violence and ensuing chaos. On January, 3, several self-service stores, pharmacies, supermarkets and appliance stores were looted in the State of Mexico and Mexico City. The mass media - as could not have been otherwise - magnified what happened. The same happened on social networks: I received at least three messages from groups on Whatsapp warning not to go out in the streets because things were going to get ugly. "You better lock up, here they come", the police were telling historic center residents. The question we did not ask was: who is coming? The anarchists, the violent, vandals... the protesters: deviants from the social order and the consensual normative patterns, as Howard Becker would put it.

Identifying those who embody deviance - the scapegoats, as Albert Cohen says -, enables you to build the hologram of a threat the primary purpose of which is to generate fear. That day I went to the movies with a friend and the taxi driver who drove her back to her home refused to get into the "dangerous" neighborhood of Tizapán, in San Ángel, because there were rumors going around that the Electra store on Revolution Avenue was going to be looted. But rumors do not spread by themselves: Alberto Escorcia did some research on who was behind the hashtag #LootWalmart and a number of rumors and fake news, and found a group of 500 false Twitter accounts - trolls, that is. Needless to say, after publishing his feature, Alberto was duly threatened.

But the government should not be awarded all the medals. They are not so smart. For Doria Vélez – an expert who also happens to be my sister -, the active agents in the protests were not only members of organized violent groups infiltrated by the federal government. Some other political forces probably did the same, to try and damage the image of the president, as if it were possible to pull down Peña Nieto’s current unpopularity any further. She believes that there were also petty thieves, opportunists and people who, faced with the possibility of getting a TV screen, a computer or an electronic component, did not think twice and joined the marches. The main grievance being that they, the politicians, have everything – including oil vouchers - and the rest of the citizens have nothing, or almost nothing - unless you can get yourself a small booty out of the march. I am not saying this derisively: I do understand perfectly well those who sell their vote for five hundred pesos, a water tank or building material. In Mexico it is hard to explain to a foreign observer that during a candidate's visit, a family can earn more than in several months of honest work.

Be this as it may, the ghost of ungovernability materialized and protests were, yet again, criminalized. But an exogenous shock shoved them from the front to the inside pages: the troubling start of Donald Trump’s presidency. No one thought that his campaign diatribes against Mexico and the Mexicans would get translated into executive orders in his first days at the White House. It took us more than two days to realize that the president of the free world, to use the end of the Cold War expression, was going to behave like a school bully, and that Mexicans - and the Muslims - would become his obsession. International circumstances were thus offering the Mexican government an opportunity to bury the gasolinazo, to wrap itself up with the flag and, at least in words, face up to an external threat. But what could we expect from the only government that invited Trump as a candidate? It failed us once more. Twitter diplomacy ended up being too much for those who have ruled the country as if it were a reality show or a soap opera – an epic fail, the memes would say.

Given the lack of leadership, the external threat has painfully crystallized in the Mexican imaginary and has led to reactions ranging from the somewhat constructive (such as offering asylum to Syrian refugees) to the fairly silly ones (calling not to consume American products and reviving the Made in Mexico program). Moreover, a march has already been convened to demand "respect for Mexico". This march, called Vibra Mexico, is supported by business, university and civil society organizations. It calls on Mexicans “to defend their rights, demand good government and celebrate the pride of being Mexican". It also asks them to dress in white.

I do not want to criticize Vibra Mexico before it happens, but it brings me memories of the business-convened marches in 2004 and 2008, which ended up being like alternative days in the country for the wealthy along Paseo de la Reforma. Even so, I welcome the fact that those who did not take to the streets after the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, who do not join in the marches of the mothers of the disappeared every May 10, or after the gasolinazo, are doing so now. The only thing that worries me is whether this type of march will not in fact sidestep and stifle the indignation and rage that has been piling up at – much more than Trump’s executive orders - the incommensurable social costs of ten years of war and decades of poverty, exclusion and inequality.

By this I do not mean that shopwindows should be smashed or ATMs burnt down at every march, much less that tomatoes be hurled at politicians as the pathetic Arne aus den Ruthen is calling for – while being unable, as the saying goes, to see the beam in his own eye. What I mean is that it is perhaps best to go back to defending the ressentiment[1] like Austrian philosopher Jean Améry did after being released from the Nazi concentration camps. Améry says that this ressentiment should not be considered an immediate and irrational response to the horrors that he experienced, but as a process that began when he left his last concentration camp, and grew with the attitudes and policies that were developed in the two decades after the end of the war. For Thomas Brudholm[2], what Améry calls ressentiment is, in short, nothing more than the irrefutable result of the failure of the state and society to show its victims that the past is being recognized and that full responsibility for its consequences has been assumed.

To go back to Mexico, it is clear to me that neither society nor the state has had the courage to acknowledge not only the social damage of the last 10 years, but the damage accumulated since the dirty war. This means that we have millions of citizens with a ressentiment that usually surfaces in dribs and drabs at demonstrations such as the Ayotzinapa or the ABC Kintergarten ones. Sometimes this ressentiment turns into rage when the demonstrations are violently suppressed. Which reminds me of my friend Ahmed Salah's book You Are Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution, in which he recalls that during the first occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo they spent two hours throwing stones at the police to defend themselves from the tear gas and the rubber bullets. Salah reflects on that moment and says that although he believes in resolving conflicts through non-violent means - I actually met him in a workshop on journalism and non-violence -, he believes that activists should at least defend themselves against the mafiosi who try to kill them. For Salah, activists are these crazy people who do the same things all over again hoping for a different result.

The key to getting a different result is organization. We have a lot to learn, and to unlearn, from the 15-M, the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, the Greek protests, the Orange Revolution. Obviously, we must also be self critical of our own processes: I Am 132, the Other Campaign, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, and even the marches where everyone is dressed in white. It seems to me that it is our only option if we are to avoid the trivialization of the ressentiment and prevent it to turn into a feeling of an uncontrollable revenge like the one that is causing a rebirth of fascism in so many countries in the world.

[1] I prefer the term in French because Améry uses it in preference to German or English in Beyond Guilt and Atonement. Besides, he uses it in clear reference to Nietzsche.

[2] Thomas Brudholm, Ressentment’s Virtue: Jean Améry and the Refusal to Forgive. Temple University Press, 2008. p. 116. 

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