Mexicans give voice to fears of US imperialism

``People of Mexico, something is happening in our country. You'd better be ready or they'll put chains on you. But there's still time to protest before you stop breathing.''

The words, and the driving, amplified guitar, were Dylanesque but the middle-aged protest singer in the green leather railwayman's cap looked and sounded more like Bob Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie.

Hundreds of people gathered to listen and applaud in Mexico City's huge main square yesterday as Jose de Molina delivered his songs of protest, banned from television and radio, beneath the country's biggest Mexican flag. "Soldier, why are you fighting on the side of the oppressor?" he sang as troops looked down from the roof of the presidential palace.

Around the square, thousands of peasant men, women and children from all over Mexico, mostly native Indians, lounged in tents or under plastic awnings in a sit-in to demand a decent standard of living. Volunteer doctors mingled, handing out food, medicine and clothing donated by passers-by.

The peasant demonstration, and de Molina's piercing, revolutionary lyrics, were just two of the anti-government events taking place in Mexico. While the singer attacked "gringo imperialists", Mexicans from all walks of life protested outside the US embassy against President Ernesto Zedillo's emergency economic plan and a multi-billion dollar US bail-out.

The protesters were part of a new and rapidly growing movement called El Barzon (The Yoke). They say the US loan package is aimed only at bailing out investors and banks, that middle and working-class Mexicans are bearing the brunt of the crisis, and that Mexico should suspend repayment of its estimated $140bn (£88bn) foreign debt.

El Barzon, claiming the support of half a million people nationwide, peacefully occupied or blocked more than 800 bank branches around the country for two days. At the embassy yesterday, they handed in a protest to the US Ambassador, James Jones, now suspected by many Mexicans as being a kind of power behind the throne as Mr Zedillo attempts to satisfy US loan conditions.

Mr Zedillo's emergency plan, which includes a 35-per-cent rise in petrol prices, 20 per cent in electricity, a cap on wage increases and a rise in value- added tax from 10 to 15 per cent, is under fire from all sides. As the Mexican Congress debated the plan yesterday, its passage was in doubt as even members of Mr Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) attacked parts of it. Congress was also debating a proposal to eliminate four government ministries, to cut spending.

To bring back foreign investment, the country's benchmark interest rate, that on 28-day peso-denominated Treasury certificates, rose to 80 per cent this week. That brought with it soaring mortgage rates, averaging 150 per cent yesterday and interest rates on credit cards which averaged no less than 175 per cent.

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