MEXICO CITY – Some 75,000 unionists, farmers and leftists marched to protest price increases in basic foodstuffs like tortillas, a direct challenge to the new president's market-oriented economic policies blamed by some for widening the gulf between rich and poor.
Since taking office Dec. 1 after a disputed election, President Felipe Calderon has drawn his greatest criticism for failing to control the largest price spike in tortillas in decades. Tortillas are a staple of poor Mexicans' diet.
The national uproar has put him in an uncomfortable position between the poor and some agribusiness industries hoping to profit from the surge in international corn prices, driven mostly by the sudden explosion of the U.S. ethanol industry.
A free-market advocate, Calderon has said he does not want to return to direct price controls enforced by many former Mexican presidents.
During Wednesday's march, protesters carried one banner that read "Calderon stole the elections, and now he's stealing the tortillas!" Others waved handfuls of the flat corn disks and chanted "Tortillas si, Pan no!" a play on the initials of Calderon's National Action Party, the PAN, which also means "bread" in Spanish.
In a press statement, Calderon's office said the president shares the protesters' concerns and pledged to "continue taking all necessary actions to maintain price stability for basic goods and services, [and] punish all types of hoarding and speculation in the markets."
But it was also a setback for his archrival, leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who protest organizers prevented from speaking at the demonstration in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza. He held his own rally afterward, and most of the crowd stayed to hear him.
"Mexico needs a transformation of the magnitude of the Mexican Revolution," said Lopez Obrador, who demanded wage increases, subsidies and fixed prices for basic foods, and the cancellation of a clause in trade agreements that would lift restrictions on imports of corn and beans starting in 2008.
Marchers had mixed opinions about whether the protest against rising food prices should have any connection to Lopez Obrador, who has declared himself Mexico's "legitimate president" after losing last year's presidential race by less than 1 percentage point.
Some bore placards of Lopez Obrador wearing the presidential badge of office.
"El Peje is the obvious leader of the poor," said housewife Carmen Rosete, 50, calling Lopez Obrador by his nickname, a reference to a combative fish from his home state of Tabasco.
Corn farmer Servando Olivaria saw it another way. "This is a spontaneous people's movement, with no political affiliation," Olivaria said. "Lopez Obrador can participate, but he should not head the march. He should not even speak about it."
The fiery former Mexico City mayor was known for his ability to mobilize millions in support of his allegations that the July 2 election was rigged. But since Calderon has taken office, Lopez Obrador's self-declared alternative government has almost faded from view.
The leftist leader tried to make a major public comeback by offering to lead the tortilla march, but was forced to back down.
"The idea is that we concentrate on the general objectives of the march and not on personalities," Gerardo Sanchez, president of the Permanent Agrarian Council, said on W Radio Tuesday.
The marchers are angry about tortilla prices that have doubled over the last year to roughly 45 cents a pound, causing hardship among the millions of poor Mexicans for whom they are a staple.
There was no official report on crowd size available, but reporters on the scene gave an estimate of 75,000, based on protesters filling about three-quarters of a plaza that holds about 100,000.
On Jan. 18, Calderon signed an accord with business organizations to try to limit tortilla prices to about 35 cents a pound. But many of the independent tortilla sellers have ignored the rate, essentially a gentlemen's agreement with no legal backing.
High tortilla prices put some Mexicans in danger of being malnourished.
The poor eat an average of 14 ounces of tortillas daily, giving them 40 percent of their protein, according to Amanda Galvez, who runs a nutrition research institute at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
With the new prices, workers earning the minimum wage of about $4 a day could spend a third of their earnings on tortillas for their family.
"Some people can switch to more unhealthy alternatives. Others just go without," Galvez said.