Obituary: Fidel Velsquez

For more than half a century Fidel Velzquez - "Don Fidel" - ran the giant Confederation of Mexican Workers like a personal fiefdom. In return for favours for himself and the workers he controlled, he provided Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, with a docile workforce. With the PRI facing the prospect of losing control of Congress for the first time ever in the mid-term elections to be held on 6 July, Don Fidel's death, at the age of 97, gains real - and symbolic - importance.

Born into a poor family, Fidel Velsquez started his working life as a milk delivery boy. As a teenager, he fought in the last years of the 1910-17 revolution. Once the fighting ended, he became heavily involved in trade union politics. He was quick to realise that, if the new revolutionary regime were to survive, it must control the labour movement. At first, socialists and anarchists competed for influence, but in the late 1930s the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) was formed and subsequently integrated into the official party, the PRI. By 1941, Velzquez became the CTM's undisputed boss. Fiercely anti-Communist, he established links with the American Federation of Labor and worked with George Meany to combat Communism throughout the Americas.

But Velzquez's main role was at home, through the iron grip he established over the labour movement. As Alan Riding has pointed out in his 1985 book Mexico: inside the volcano, the rules were clear:

The government supports the union leaders in exchange for political loyalty, and it channels wages and other benefits to unionised workers, themselves a privileged elite comprising only one-third of the 20- million workforce, in exchange for labour tranquillity . . . Further, the labour movement has been controlled by the same group over four decades and during eight administrations. This continuity has brought stability. But the strength of his arrangement was also its vulnerability, since it leaned heavily on one man, Fidel Velzquez.

In the early years, this weakness was none too apparent to the government, for what it gained from Velzquez, now known as Don Fidel, far outweighed the price it paid for his support. In 1968, during the administration of President Gustavo Daz Ordaz, students led a series of large demonstrations in protest over the lack of political freedom in the country. On 2 October, just 10 days before Mexico was due to host the Olympic Games, the government sent in the army to break up a demonstration being held in the city's central square, the Plaza de Tlatelolco.

There were violent clashes. The government admitted that 32 people were klled in the clashes, but the true figure is more likely to have been 200-300. The situation was extremely tense, and the speed with which Don Fidel acted to prevent the unrest spreading to the rest of the country was crucial. In return for his help, Daz Ordaz agreed to a new labour code, which contained real benefits for workers.

By the early 1970s Don Fidel was strongly entrenched in power, using his own thugs to suppress dissidence in the ranks and making his own deals with factory owners. Feeling threatened, President Luis Eccheverra tried to create a new, more democratic labour movement that he hoped would be more answerable to him. But in the second half of his six-year term conflicts sharpened between the government and the private sector and Eccheverra had to turn to Don Fidel for help.

It was a pattern that was to be seen repeatedly. Don Fidel provided successive presidents with essential support, but he always demanded his quid pro quo. In 1976, at a time of acute economic crisis, he agreed to President Lpez Portillo's request that wage increases should be limited to 10 per cent, despite an annual inflation rate of 45 per cent. In return, independent trade unions were persecuted and Don Fidel extended his control over an ever larger area of the economy. Just before leaving office, Lpez Portillo expressed his gratitude. "The history of Mexico cannot be understood without Fidel Velzquez. He is an extraordinary and exceptional leader as well as an exemplary patriot and magnificent Mexican."

Under President Miguel de la Madrid, Don Fidel helped impose austerity, as demanded by the International Monetary Fund. But tensions erupted as he showed impatience with the technocratic government officials who, in his view, failed to show the necessary political sensitivity in working the system. In 1983, Don Fidel even threatened a general strike to press for an emergency wage increase. But underneath his irritation the fulminations were largely rhetorical, part of an old revolutionary ritual that disguised the union leader's key role in underpinning the PRI's dominance.

It is in the 1990s that, under a combination of economic and political pressures, that this structure of political power has started to crumble. Forced to carry out market-oriented reforms, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sold off more than 1,000 state companies. This greatly reduced the opportunities for political patronage, one of Don Fidel's well-established mechanisms for maintaining control. And President Ernesto Zedillo, who came into office in December 1994, has been forced to open up the political system, making it possible that, for the first time ever, the PRI may lose its absolute majority in Congress in the July elections.

As a sign of the times, the CTM's iron control over the labour movement is finally being challenged. Small groups of workers in manufacturing, services and education have begun to organise independent trade unions. Even more significantly, 10 unions within the umbrella organisation, the Congress of Labour, long controlled by the CTM, have formed a dissident group, the Forum of Unionism Facing the Nation. Its supporters, known as "foristas", have been organising their own, independent demonstrations, often in defiance of official orders.

Yet Don Fidel, a grumpy old man in his nineties, almost blind, who shuffled along unsteadily, sometimes requiring a wheelchair, and mumbled and drooled as he spoke, seemed invincible. No one dared to talk openly of a successor while he lived. In March this year, he was appointed for another six-year term of office. He was reported as saying, without a hint of humour, "I'm healthy enough, but this will probably be my last term. My comrades may ask me to stay on after 2004 but I think that would be too much. We need new leaders."

That is a sentiment with which most Mexicans would agree, though perhaps not in the sense he intended.

Sue Branford

Fidel Velsquez, trade union leader: born San Pedro Atzcapotzaltongo, Mexico 24 April 1900; married 1951 Nora Quintana (three children); died Mexico City 21 June 1997.

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