Mexico — 19 August 2012


Robert Joe Stout

Despite gruesome massacres, massive poverty that thrusts thousands of jobseekers northward and military confrontations that have made no man’s lands of huge swaths of Mexico’s territory, the country’s outmoded political system creaks along unabated and unchanged, a cumbersome dinosaur oblivious of its twenty-first century surroundings. Mexican journalist Jenaro Villamil accuses political opportunists of presenting a “reality show” that bears no resemblance to reality; factory worker José Renato Barbosa derides the government for staging a puppet show with tangled strings and plots less entertaining than drunken bar talk.

By 2009 nearly half of Mexico’s federal budget was devoted to paying salaries and benefits to the country’s bulging bureaucracy. Competition for elective and appointed positions superseded how those holding the offices performed. (Mexican law does not permit reelection; as a consequence both elected and appointed officials begin campaigning for future positions as soon as they are sworn in.)

“They [politicians] think to govern is synonymous with to entertain…it’s not important to them that they spend public money to cosmeticize their photo-shop appearance and their political activities with informercials,” Villamil described what he called “the new generation of politicians” in a syndicated article.

Until 1988 Mexico’s single-party system remained under the autocratic control of the Partido Revolucionario Instituciónal (PRI). Although founded as a worker-identified and nationalistic political entity after the Mexican Revolution, by 1946 the PRI had become an oligarchy combining business and political interests under a head of state who theoretically was elected but who actually was appointed by his predecessor.

The PRI manipulated federal and state elections to give the voters the opportunity to go to the polls but opposition to PRI candidates was slight. Now and then PRI presidents and governors ceded a few benefits to opposition parties from the left and the National Action Party (PAN), which was strongly pro-Catholic, on the right but until 1988 it never encountered serious opposition to its one-party dominance.

In 1988 an anti-PRI coalition headed by Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, the son of the country’s most revered post-revolution chief executive, Lázaro Cárdenas, almost toppled the PRI regime in an election that was awarded to the PRI thanks to computer tampering. Plus the PRI-dominated legislature and hundreds of thousands of destroyed ballots. The PAN’s candidate, Manuel Clothier, reacted publicly to the results before Cárdenas did. Four days after the election Clothier called for a national civil disobedience movement that included blocking the international bridges between Mexico and the United States as well as many of the principal highways and boycotting Televisa, the major television outlet whose Jacobo Zabludovsky had broadcast PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s victory before it became official.

Six days after Clothier called for a national protest Cárdenas led a Mexico City demonstration. PAN and Cárdenas’ National Democratic Front (FND for its initials in Spanish) tried to force a recount but the Mexican army, apparently under orders from lame duck President Miguel de la Madrid, restricted access to the millions of marked ballots. The PRI dominated House of Deputies ordered to have them burned, thus eliminating any chance for verification of the results.

Cardenas refused to challenge the PRI dominated election institute’s decision and the newly elected Salinas de Gortari named several prominent members of PAN to cabinet and administrative posts in exchange for the conservative party’s cooperation with his plans to push the North American Free Trade Agreement and other pet projects through the country’s Senate and House of Deputies.

An incumbent party in Mexico has a great advantage over its opposition because it can use government employees, including the police, to coax, bribe and strong arm its quest to stay in power. PRI functionaries routinely hustle bags of cement, edibles and other “inducements” to rural communities to assure that they vote correctly. If they don’t they received nothing from government programs during the years that follow. Theoretically such inducements are illegal and trigger confrontations between the PRI and opposition parties but as Guadalupe Loaeza points out in La Comedia Electoral all of Mexico’s political parties engage in similar practices. One of the first things Loaeza was asked as she was putting together her Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) campaign to run for the House of Deputies from the Federal District was “how much can you spend for each vote?”

Although PRI candidates Francisco Labastida in 2000 and Roberto Madrazo in 2006 lost presidential elections to PAN opponents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, PRI governor candidates won elections in the majority of Mexico’s thirty-two states and a plurality of seats in the national Senate and House of Deputies. The party also controlled most state legislatures, enabling them to authorize expenditures for a variety of programs (agriculture, school and highway construction, health services, etc.) that they often failed to fully fund. The money that wasn’t spent wound up in a caja chica (“little cash box”) to be used for keeping their party’s candidates in office.

Governors like Ulisés Ruiz in Oaxaca (2004-2010) controlled rubber stamp legislatures, the judiciary and state finances. Mexican law makes no provisions for recall; once an individual is elected he or she has free rein to award (or sell) construction contracts, appoint administrators and judges and divert funds intended for social services into personal bank accounts. A governor’s access to wealth virtually is unlimited and the wealth is shared with the political organization that ushers him or her into office.

Elections in Mexico, like in the United States and most other countries, cost money. Lots of money. By law contributions to Mexican political campaigns from non-governmental sources are strictly limited; the federal government allots funds to individual political parties for campaign purposes.

Like many well-intentioned laws this one doesn’t work in practice the way it was designed to function in theory. Half a dozen smaller political parties scramble to achieve the 2 percent of the popular vote necessary to qualify for federal funding while the major parties—PRI, PAN and the fragmented remains of the PRD—invest heavily in propaganda, salaries and suborning regional caciques. Once funding is approved by the federal legislature these parties—major and minor—spend the money as they choose with minimal restrictions and only rudimentary accounting of expenditures.

“Un político pobre es un pobre político” (“a financially poor politician is a poor practitioner of politics”), a phrase attributed both to ex-president José López Portillo and long-time political operative Carlos Hank-González, is the guiding principle in Mexican politics. Although both appointees and regularly elected federal lawmakers show up now and then in the areas they represent the majority of them live in the Federal District when they’re not vacationing in Cancun, Miami or Europe.

Openly disputed primary elections often are shunted aside and national and state party bosses “dedazo” (“finger”) candidates of their choosing. As a consequence, an officeholder-candidate needs to ingratiate himself or herself to those making the dedazos. Politicians holding elective or appointed offices continue to be mapaches for other offices and only peripherally have time for committee meetings or other legislative activities.

(Mapaches—“raccoons”—are political operatives who hustle votes for upcoming elections using whatever means they find effective. Those able to bring in winners are rewarded by being named to high-paying government positions.) Some mapaches, like Ulisés Ruiz in Oaxaca, rise through successive offices and become governors. (And become extremely wealthy along the way.)

In the 1970s, in the name of “democracy,” the PRI responded to outside criticism and amended Mexico’s constitution to include supplemental delegates and senators in the federal and state congresses based on the percentage of vote that each party received. These appointees became safe seats since those filling them did not have to run for election but were selected by the party hierarchy. This enabled party leaders to reward loyal operatives (often ex-governors, party officials and relatives of one or the other) by naming them to legislative positions. Virtually all committee heads in both the federal Senate and House of Deputies are appointees, not representatives who were chosen in popular elections.

The constant turnover and non-stop electioneering creates an intense, almost hermetic competition—like that of a fantasy sports league where participants close out the real world to concentrate on the details of fantasy team competition. Public reaction to this hermeticism varies from accepting and ignoring the self-serving coterie to demonstrating against it by blocking highways, calling for work stoppages and taking over government buildings. Non-traditional political movements, among them defeated presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s peregrinations to “every city and town in Mexico” to stimulate a grassroots movement, wedge their way into voter consciousness but lack the publicity, the “punch,” that candidate competition gives newspaper headlines and television talk shows.

During the 2009 mid-term elections for Senators and Congressmen a number of Mexican academics and intellectuals, among them award-winning authors Lorenzo Meyer and Sergio Aguayo-Quezada, advocated a “voto nulo”—the casting of blank or mutilated ballots—theorizing that the casting of a million or more of them would force politicians to respond more closely to their constituencies. Unfortunately Mexican academics and intellectuals (like their counterparts in many other countries, including the United States) base their theories on ideals and logic, not mapache reality.

PRI mapaches encouraged voto nulo balloting in areas that previously had supported opposition parties. The more than a million voto nulos, most of which would have gone to non-PRI candidates, increased the PRI’s winning margins in a low participation election. Party leaders celebrated by pushing increased disbursements to PRI governors through the federal Congress—funds that the governors used to support PRI candidates in 2012.

Since the executive controlled the budgetary process he or she could aware no-bid contracts or designate excessive amounts, part of which the supposed recipient never received. Instead it went into the executive´s caja chica. This set up a domino effect where the contractor’s accounts would show excessive payments to suppliers and/or subcontractors whose books would show similar overages paid for raw materials, labor or expenses with each participating business or agency skimming the differences between what the books showed and what actually was paid out.

For a price—often a very high price—a governor can grant land and business concessions, manage a state’s finances without being audited, appoint judges and department heads and construct a network of acolytes to funnel everything from parking meter collections to drug cartel quotas through his hands. Corruption, whether benevolent or cruel, becomes the order of the day.

Where mapache and “karaoke politics” fails to entice voters, PRI operatives co-opt opposition challenges by infiltrating their membership and forging secret agreements. (“Karaoke politics” is a description that Villamil gives to party functionaries who sing the “canto de jefe”—chieftain’s song—during public appearances but who do most of their politicking debajo del agua “under the water,” i.e. surreptitiously.)

Although the PRI bears the term “revolutionary” in its official party name it is rigidly authoritarian, conservative and elitist. Once “the party for everybody” that incorporated both conservative and liberal aspects it became increasingly dinosaurian as liberal adherents defected. After the 1988 election scare President Carlos Salinas de Gortari replaced the newly elected PRI governor of Guanajuato with PAN’s Carlos Medina-Plascencia in a maneuver designed to bring the PRI and PAN closer together and thwart challenges from the newly formed PRD, the former FND which Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas had represented during the 1988 election campaign.

Assertions that Salinas and the PRI orchestrated PAN’s rise to the presidency in 2000 lack documentary proof but many political scientists and journalists in the country assert that the two parties collaborated to push the country further to the right in order to prevent the more liberal PRD from gaining power. Adhering to the age-old doctrine of “divide and conquer” the PRI helped finance newly forming liberal parties to qualify for federal funding, knowing that the support they garnered would take votes away from the PRD and increase the PRI-PAN majorities.

After the 2006 national presidential elections, apparently won by the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador but rewarded to PAN’s Felipe Calderón despite assertions of fraud reminiscent of Salinas de Gortari’s 1988 “victory” in 1988, PRI and PAN operatives convinced a number of PRD leaders to form a dissident movement to diminish López Obrador’s popularity. In 2007 the federal election board, controlled by PRI and PAN appointees, threw out the results of a tumultuous PRD election marred by multiple irregularities and ordered it to establish a second—and more disciplined—process to choose their party president. Dissident Jesús Ortega won and thousands of PRD stalwarts bolted to other minority parties, effectively shattering liberal opposition to PRI-PAN control of federal policymaking.

Although voto nulo voting did not promulgate political reforms or prompt those in power to be more responsive to public sentiment the million-plus mutilated and blank ballots cast during the 2009 midterm elections (and the high percentage of those eligible to vote who did not) revealed how negatively the voting public regarded the nation’s politicians.

“I won’t vote for any professional politician,” asserted Proceso magazine columnist Sabina Berman when she was approached by an election official. “The professional politicians ought to find out that we’re not cabbage heads, Teflon skillets, amnesiacs.” Berman rejected the frequently cited PRI mantra Shoes are for shoemakers, politics for professionals by insisting that politics belonged to the people, not to professional politicians.

In Juan Carlos Rulfo’s documentary Los que se quedan a returned indocumentado accuses the president of Mexico of lying 80 percent of the time, then shrugs, “But I don’t blame him. That’s his job…” as though lying 80 percent of the time is a preexistent state of affairs.

The PRI’s 2009 mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections catapulted the dinosaur back into control of Mexican politics. With López Obrador shunted aside as an opposition leader and the voting public dismayed at President Felipe Calderón’s inability to regulate business, improve the economy and control crime the PRI steamrollered its way into control of Congress, a majority of governorships and public acknowledgment that its candidate, governor Enrique Peña Nieto of the Estado de Mexico, would become the country’s president in 2012.

Mapache and karaoke “have converted politics into a bad reality show, Villamil complains, “and threaten to transform elections into a badly produced performance by telegenic figureheads.” The end justifies the means even though, in the words of former PAN Congressman Jesús González-Schmal “on the road there principles, independence, dignity and the nation itself are scattered to the four winds.”

What will mapache politics bring to the reestablished PRI sexenio?

The same bright smiles, pretty wives and complete disregard of everything except the quest for power?

Or an even worse telenovela reality show?


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