05 November 2006

U.S. election stirs passions among ex-pats in Ajijic


Photo by Steven H. Miller

El Universal
Domingo 05 de noviembre de 2006

AJIJIC, Jal. - Wanting to cast a vote in the upcoming U.S. midterm races, St. Paul, Minnesota, native Mary Jo Oberg dropped in at a voter-registration drive being held at the Lake Chapala Society (LCS) in Ajijic to fill out an absentee ballot request just three weeks before election day.
She had requested a ballot previously, but it failed to arrive at her La Manzanilla, Jalisco, home in a timely fashion. While filling out the forms in the lush LCS garden, she described the cumbersome process as "not complicated," but "very legal."

Although the voting-abroad process generated a seemingly endless stream of complaints in Ajijic, passions flared when talk turned to the parties on the ballots - more specifically: the direction the United States is heading, the war in Iraq and the U.S. president.

"I´m very interested in the election because I´d like to see some changes in the policies coming out of the U.S.," Oberg said.


Like the 2004 contest, which produced a charged atmosphere in the Lake Chapala area (Lakeside), the 2006 election is also generating immense interest, even though it´s a mid-term election and the campaigning has been less intense.

Last time around, George P. Bush, the U.S. president´s nephew, and Diana Kerry, the sister of Democratic candidate John Kerry, stumped for expatriate votes in Mexico. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza drew criticism after delivering a speech in Lakeside that many Chapala-area Democrats considered partisan. Friendships reportedly dissolved over political differences.


This time around, opinions are split once again - not so much along partisan lines, but instead about U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

"It´s easier to identify the pro-Bush and anti-Bush people," said Clifford Rogers, an independent voter, who resides in Ajijic.

"And the two groups aren´t speaking."

New York state native Phil Pillsworth took that description a step further, saying, "I think you could say it´s war versus anti-war."

Pillsworth, who along with his wife Mary were previously Peace Corps volunteers in Brazil, figured left-leaning voters outnumbered their conservative counterparts in Lakeside.

"There´s a certain kind of person that would live abroad and they tend to be liberal," he explained.

His assessment was echoed by Debra Lattanzi Shutika, an English professor and ethnographer at George Mason University in Virginia, who studies migration between the United States and Mexico.

"In general, the (expatriates) I encounter tend to be more liberal than conservative," she commented, referring to the migration trend for all of Mexico and not specifically Lakeside.


Norm Pifer, chair of Republicans Abroad at Lake Chapala objected to portrayals of conservatives as non-travelers. Supporters of his party, he said, generally keep their political views and affiliations to themselves. After his chapter was founded in 2004, Pifer recalled, "A lot of people discovered they weren´t the only Republicans at Lakeside."

Both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad are well represented at Lakeside. Gauging which party draws more support is difficult to ascertain.

"It´s a real mixed bag," Pifer said, adding that local Democrats tend to be more "vocal" and have been organized for longer. "It´s a small fringe group making all the noise."

An Ajijic resident since 2003, he figured most long-time denizens tilt toward the Democrats or, "Whatever party extends Medicare benefits," while the more recent arrivals have diverse political views.

Even with Republicans arriving in larger numbers than before, fortunes for the party at Lakeside, like those for their counterparts north of the border, may be sagging in the short term - something Pifer acknowledged.

"A lot of people, including Republicans, are leaning away from the Republican Party."

Local Democrats, on the other hand, were decidedly upbeat about their prospects. When asked how things were going, Kathie Coull, chair of the Democrats Abroad at Lake Chapala, responded, "Fantastic."

"I´ve gotten beyond excited to just plain giddy."


To facilitate voting, Democrats Abroad organized a voter registration drive open to all U.S. citizens in the months leading up to the election. Many people, though, waited until the last minute to request ballots - and wound up disappointed.

"We bend over backwards to do whatever we can," said Madelyn Fisher of Democrats Abroad, who helped organize voter registration in Ajijic.

"But there´s only so much we can do."

The ease of voting seemingly depends on the state - or in some cases, the county - involved. Some jurisdictions stopped accepting ballot requests almost a month before voting.

"It´s a very messy and confusing process," said Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, which established a web site that simplified voting for expatriates.

"You have to walk people through it."

Miranda added that his party was actively courting expatriate voters. "We can´t take a single thing for granted," he said.


Despite the presence of approximately 1 million U.S. citizens in Mexico (by some estimates), the Chapala chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad both seemingly arouse little attention within their parent organizations. Local Democrats tried to lure the 2007 Democrats Abroad conference to Lakeside, but lost out to Heidelberg, Germany.

"There are more Democrats Abroad in Europe and they´re working," Kathie Coull explained, adding that unlike most Lakeside Democrats, "They´re not retirees."

Fundraising and membership events are also low key, usually consisting of speeches by local speakers or, in the case of the Democrats, documentary screenings, which, according to Norm Pifer, have included offerings from Michael Moore.

"They recycle that film so many times," he commented.

He said Republican functions at Lakeside "default to the social because we simply can´t afford US$25,000 to bring a speaker down here."

But even with both parties diligently organizing their adherents - Pifer defined his organization´s mandate as "getting Republicans to vote" and not to "change minds" - he said some expatriates simply tune out and stop following U.S. affairs after spending so much time abroad.

"A lot of people here leave the U.S. back at the border."

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