Century-old union boss gets thumbs up for six more years

Mexico's trade unionists pondered naming him leader for life. But some thought that might be overdoing it. So they gave themselves the option of replacing him when he's 102 years old.

Fidel Velazquez, grumpy 96-year-old leader of the powerful Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), has been appointed to a ninth straight six- year term as Secretary-General.

No- one dared oppose him. If he lives long enough, that will take him through to the year 2,004. "I'm healthy enough. But this will probably by my last term," Mr Velazquez said without a hint of humour, after the confederation's General Assembly voted to keep him on when his current term expires next year. "My comrades may ask me to stay on after 2004, but I think that would be too much. We need new leaders."

In the presence of "Don Fidel," as he is widely known, no reporter dared to titter. At the confederation, few even talk of possible successors. The one name occasionally whispered, longtime trade unionist Emilio M Gonzalez, is 82. Mr Velazquez, who fought as a teenager towards the end of Mexico's 1910-17 revolution, was first appointed CTM leader in 1941. He still shows up for work every day at the confederation's Mexico City headquarters.

But, while once a workaholic, he now tends to knock off at lunchtime. Since he suffered from pneumonia and a prostate problem a year ago, he now shuffles rather than walks, sometimes using a wheelchair.

To sign the document confirming the renewal of his term, an aide stuck a fountain pen between Mr Velazquez's fingers and guided his hand as though starting an old-fashioned gramophone. While his hand signed, the union boss gazed blankly upwards.

He still gives his weekly press conference every Monday, quoted religiously by Mexican newspapers, but reporters doubt whether he can even see the dozens of microphones and tape recordings pushed into his face."Don Fidel is still a pillar of workers' rights, he is still a father figure," said Eugenio Carrillo, a 47-year-old electrician whose union belongs to the CTM. "He is a crusty old fart, but a pillar of the establishment," said a West European diplomat who asked not to be named. "He's a huge part of the glue which has kept this country from falling apart. His death will put millions of workers' votes up for grabs and could throw the whole political system into chaos."

Mr Velazquez is hardly a union leader as we know them. The key to his status here is that the government, that is, the PRI, can rely on him to bring in the workers' votes that have helped keep the party in power permanently for 68 years.

Whenever Mexico was in crisis, with a tumbling peso, a rise in the price of tortillas, or rampant inflation, Mr Velazquez would not call on his members to lay down their tools or take to the streets. He would sign yet another "social pact" with the government and private sector, agreeing to hold pay rises down.

At the CTM's annual assembly this month, as always, "Don Fidel" urged the federation's 6 million members to vote for the PRI. This time, he was referring to elections in July at which analysts predict the party could lose control of Congress for the first time since it was founded in 1929.