MEXICO CITY — In all of Latin America, perhaps it is only in Mexico that when people say Fidel, they may not mean Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Instead, they probably mean Fidel Velazquez, 87, the chief of Mexico's largest trade union confederation, whose longevity in office even the Cuban dictator might admire: 46 years at the helm of the country's most powerful labor organization.
Velazquez, more than just a labor leader, is a dominant figure on Mexico's political landscape. He is widely credited with keeping workers quiet during the past five years of unemployment and runaway inflation.
During this, the season when Mexico's president and its ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party prepare to name a candidate to run in presidential elections next year, political observers are ever on the lookout for a hint from Velazquez about who his choice might--or might not--be. While it is customary for the outgoing Mexican president to select his own successor, who the party then lines up to support, no president could choose one that Fidel Velazquez opposed.
Recently, Velazquez was picked to head the Labor Congress, which embraces not only Velazquez's organization--the Confederation of Mexican Workers--but also the rest of the nation's principal trade unions in a pro-government front. The move was seen as an effort to ensure across-the-board labor backing for the government's presidential candidate.
The long relationship between Velazquez and one of the possible candidates, Energy and Mines Secretary Alfredo del Mazo Gonzalez, has made Del Mazo one of the favorites in the pre-nomination race. Velazquez once appointed Del Mazo to head the Workers Bank, a union credit organization, and he is considered something of a political godfather to the potential nominee. But altogether, the names of six potential candidates have been made public by the ruling party, and Velazquez is keeping his opinions about all of them to himself.
"Others may want to say whom they favor, but they don't have the responsibility of representing one of the important forces in the country," Velazquez said in a recent interview. "My opinion on the presidential candidate will be announced at the party convention."
Such discretion is typical of Velazquez. He is devoutly faithful to the rules of Mexican politics as practiced for the past half a century or so. Important decisions are made in secret by a close-knit group of important and disciplined leaders. Loose cannons need not apply. The president has the final word.
He rejects new pressures from inside and outside the PRI, as the ruling party is popularly called, to open up Mexico's political system to authentic democracy, including some sort of primary system to choose the PRI's presidential candidates.
"There can't be changes," he said flatly. "The rules are fixed and unalterable."
Thus is Velazquez perhaps the most unmovable defender of what is called here "the system." The system is based on the centralized power of the Mexican president to make decisions and single-handedly pick candidates for important offices. All else, including the mechanisms of the PRI, exists in support of presidential power. That support includes peasant groups, professional organizations and, most importantly, Velazquez's 4-million-member Confederation of Mexican Workers, known by its Spanish initials CTM.
Velazquez has been able to marshal the confederation's support behind eight often disparate presidents, from populist Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s to big-business-oriented Miguel Aleman of the '40s, conservative Gustavo Diaz Ordaz in the '60s, mercurial Jose Lopez Portillo in the '70s and cautious Miguel de la Madrid, the incumbent, in the '80s.
When Velazquez has come to the aid of beleaguered Mexican administrations, his labor confederation has often benefited in return, and his personal power has increased. Velazquez kept organized labor from joining massive student protests in 1968, and the confederation was rewarded with a favorable new labor code by then-President Diaz Ordaz. In the 1970s, he backed President Luis Echeverria in jousts with private business and won emergency wage increases in return.
Velazquez accepted temporary wage controls from President Lopez Portillo but persuaded the president to form the Workers Bank and to turn control of a national housing fund over to the CTM. His preservation of labor peace during De la Madrid's administration is said to have gained him a special voice in the process of selecting the PRI's candidate, who almost certainly will be Mexico's next president.
"We have kept the social peace in moments of crisis," Velazquez boasts.