25 February 2013

The Twitterverse's take on Thomas Friedman

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman parachuted into Monterrey and pronounced Mexico the country of the future – an economic rival to India and China. Twitter lit up almost immediately; below is a sample of the reactions – positive and negative.

08 February 2013

Blast from the past: In Chiapas, Zapatistas reappear; why is unclear

By David Agren
Catholic News Service

 SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (CNS) -- The National Zapatista Liberation Army once captured the public imagination with a New Year's Day uprising in the this southern Mexican state to coincide with the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

 Then-university student Gubidcha Matus recalled the enthusiasm as young people loaded up caravans with food and provisions and headed for Zapatista communities. 

 But that was 19 years ago, and past sympathizers like Matus say Mexico has moved on from the 1990s as a new generation has grown up with free trade, an imperfect democracy and few memories of one-party rule -- even if injustice and inequality persists, especially in indigenous communities.

 "Many in my generation participated" in protests and caravans, said Matus, director of communications at the Catholic-founded Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center in Chiapas. "Many (young people) of today only were born at the time this happened."
 The Zapatistas reappeared Dec. 21 -- the day the Mayan calendar turned over and a date erroneously interpreted as the end of the world -- when an estimated 40,000 masked members silently marched in five municipalities.
 The reappearance punctured a long period of quiet for the Zapatistas, although Matus said jokingly that many outsiders interpret silence from their pipe-smoking leader, Subcommandante Marcos, as the Zapatista movement disappearing or going into decline.

 Matus and other observers say the mobilization caught many off-guard but provoked no panic. They attribute the marches to symbolism, special dates on the calendar and routine political events, along with making a statement -- not any sort of indigenous uprising.

 "Did you hear?" asked a Dec. 21 statement signed by Subcommandante Marcos. "It's the sound of your world crashing down. It's of our resurgence."

 The statement also made light of new governments on the federal and state levels, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party and its smaller ally, the Green Party.

 The Zapatistas have a sour history with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 straight years, until 2000, and retook power Dec. 1. 

 The group accuses previous party governments of not respecting a 1996 agreement to provide indigenous peoples with more rights, autonomy and self-governance. The agreement was negotiated with the help of then-Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a champion of indigenous peoples but an opponent of armed actions. 

 The Zapatistas also have found fault with the failure to prevent paramilitaries from massacring 45 displaced people from a Catholic pacifist group known as Las Abejas (The Bees) during a December 1997 prayer meeting.

 "There's been no progress" in Chiapas, said Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, who was a coadjutor bishop in the area at the time. 

 Why the Zapatistas marched on a misty December morning remains open to interpretation. 

 Local anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho says Subcommandante Marcos launched a nationwide tour in 2006, which captured little attention or support and resulted in the Zapatistas retreating to their municipalities, where they focused on their schools, clinics and productive activities such as artisan works and producing coffee. He suspects Marcos might want to make another attempt at fomenting a nationwide movement.

 The federal government has responded indirectly to the re-emergence.

 On Jan. 21, President Enrique Pena Nieto visited an indigenous community in Chiapas -- in the heart of Zapatista territory -- to announce a "crusade" against hunger, which is expected to be the social policy focus of his six-year administration.

 He directed his message to the population at large, but the scene of the mid-January announcement suggested someone specific: the Zapatistas.

 "What the federal government did was take a politically opportunistic measure by coming to a (Zapatista) community to launch a crusade against hunger," said Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga, spokesman for the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

 He found it ironic, too. The government, Father Arriaga said, has launch previous anti-hunger programs and the Zapatistas "have always resisted all the government's projects."

 Marcos said the problems the president aims to resolve are not pressing in the Zapatistas' autonomous communities.

 "Our children go to schools that teach them their own history ... as well as sciences ... necessary for them to grow without ceasing to be indigenous," said a Dec. 30 statement from Marcos, who is not indigenous and has been identified by the Mexican government as Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente.

 "The indigenous members of PRI attend our hospitals, clinics and laboratories because in those of the government, there is no medicine, medical devices or doctors," he said.

 Father Arriaga said the Zapatistas were getting by OK and had some successes.

 "They're not living in abundance, but they're not going hungry," said Father Arriaga, pastor of the St. John the Baptist Parish in the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula.

 "The most important thing that I take away is that they've eradicated alcoholism," he added. "It's one of the ills in indigenous communities, but the Zapatistas ... they don't drink or sell alcohol in their communities. This really helps their own cause."

 How far that cause spreads remains to be seen. Morchequo sees a "conservative" Mexican population, which has been preoccupied with other matters such as security, and a more complex political landscape for the Zapatistas to confront.

 Still, he noted of the most recent mobilization, "No one thought they could move 40,000 people."

06 January 2013

Migrant workers now focus on Canada

This story ran in the Toronto Star's Weekend World section July 28, 2012, but not online. Be sure to also read the recent Washington Post story on Mexican guest workers heading to Canada. 

UPDATE Be sure to also read The Globe and Mail's excellent story from Puebla state. 


Pablo Zamora picks lettuce in Quebec each summer through a guest worker program for Mexican farm labourers. He considers the program safer the illegally jumping the U.S.-Mexico border.

Seasonal program gives safe, more lucrative alternative to U.S.

Special to The Star

SAN SIMON EL ALTO, MEXICO – Pablo Zamora farmed corn and peas and lived in a shack with a dirt floor in this rancho high in the alpine air and pine forests southwest of Mexico City.

Then he discovered the lettuce fields of Quebec a decade ago and made enough money each summer to support a family back in Mexico and build a three-room residence of brick and cement.

"This isn't the most elegant place," Zamora said, while sipping pulque – a fermented maguey drink resembling a milkshake – in a kitchen adorned with family photos and pots and pans hanging on the walls. "But we're living so much better."

Zamora kissed his family goodbye last week, heading north for another summer of agricultural work near Sherrington, Quebec, where he expected to pick seven varieties of lettuce for $9.70 an hour plus benefits.

He'll join more than 15,000 fellow Mexicans toiling on Canadian farms through a seasonal agricultural program, which has operated for 38 years, been lauded as an example of orderly migration and credited with improving both wellbeing and livings standards in some of Mexico's most impoverished pockets.

Zamora expects to be back in San Simon for the October feting of St. Jude Thadeus, the patron saint of lost causes, thanks to his departing with a work visa and a return plane ticket – two documents other migrants lack when jumping the border in search of work in the United States.

"If you have documents, you're not going to have many problems," Zamora says.

Migration without documents has been a lost cause in recent years for those in San Simon and beyond as the U.S.-Mexico border has become increasingly fortified, anti-immigrant laws have been passed in places like Arizona and Alabama and jobs – especially in the construction sector that previously employed so many Mexicans – remain scant.

An April report from the Pew Hispanic Center found migration between from Mexico to the U.S. has collapsed with slightly more Mexicans returning or being deported than venturing north.

Zamora knows the difficulties and dangers of going undocumented first hand: his brother-in-law died three years ago in police custody after getting a traffic ticket in Georgia.

Such stories are distressing common in Malinalco, the municipality containing San Simon, located 100 kilometres from the national capital in outlying Mexico state.

Ellen Calmus, director of a Malinalco migrant support centre known as The Corner Project, spends much of her time helping families with kin in the United States, who have gone incommunicado – often the consequences of not having legal papers.

She prefers the seasonal Canadian program for a simple reason: "We're not bringing back bodies."

Allegations of exploitation of seasonal workers have been made in Canada – often by unions. Calmus knows the criticisms, but comments, "(The migration) alternatives are all terrible right now."

Sociologist Gustavo Verduzco of the Colegio de México also speaks well of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

His research shows program participants after six years are more likely to live in better houses, have higher incomes and are more likely keep their children in school than those staying behind in Mexico.

Safety is emerging as another success of the program.

"(Migrants) might earn more if they went to the United States," Verduzco says. "But they prefer Canada because it's legal and it's safer."

Residents from San Simon seem to know the risks – and say young men are thinking twice about departing without documents

"It's 10 times harder to go than before," said Armando Flores, a cab driver who spent 13 years working construction in Delaware.

Zamora's nineteen year old son, Alexis, expresses little enthusiasm about going north without the proper papers, saying the trip is expensive – human smugglers now charge more – and the path through the Sonora desert can be fatal.

He would prefer to follow his dad to Quebec, but spots in the Canadian seasonal worker program are limited and demand exceeds supply.

Sergio Roman recalled having a 2,000-worker backlog in 2005, when he began working in international affairs for the Mexico state government, and only being able to nominate 45 new participants for the program.

The state government, he says, subsequently began pursuing deals directly with Canadian companies to bring in job-seekers from Mexico state for activities ranging from working in slaughterhouses to processing cranberries.

Workers earn more, bring back skills to Mexico and most importantly, "Avoid loss of life and the abuses of human trafficking," Roman says.

"It's been very popular," he adds, although the 2008 economic crisis put a dent in the demand from Canada.

Zamora notices the growing popularity of Canada, too. "All the young people now say, 'Get to Canada."

01 July 2012

Election 2012 – so far

A woman votes July 1 in Chimalhuacan, on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City, for candidates in the 2012 Mexican election

Mexcans voted July 1 amid allegations of vote buying, giveaways and coersion – and ultimately elected former Mexico state Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto as president.

His victory returns the PRI to Los Pinos after 12 years in opposition – during which time it stayed strong on the state level and showed little interest in approving structural reforms.

Peña Nieto now promises those reforms – in the state-run petroleum sector, to name one place – but the PREP vote tabulation is showing it unlikely the PRI will capture majorities in Congress. The president-elect says such an electoral outcome is necessary to improve governance and achieve reforms.

Peña Nieto also captured 38.15% of the popular vote, with nearly 99% of the voting stations reporting. This tops Andrés Manuel López Obrador by 6.5 percentage points – far from the landslide predicted by the polling industry. Considering the non-stop campaigning from the Peña Nieto, the PRI and friendly media outlets, 38% seems somewhat scant. President Felipe lacked the same charm, telegenic looks and marketing muscle – and he achieved only two fewer percentage points in the 2006 election.

As one analyst suggested in a post-election chat, it's possible that the anti-PRI vote continues being alive and well in Mexico and comprising approximately 60% of the population – although, yes, there's a segment of the population very much in favour of the party.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, trailing in second with a respectable showing, promises to contest what he says are widespread irregularities.

Here's my dispatch on the electoral process for USA TODAY. (Click on the publication title for the link.)

Like most journalists here, I've put together a number of reports for the recent elections. Here's a sampling of what I've had published. (with the link, again, embedded in the publication name.)

Mexican presidential candidates mostly mute on drug wars – USA TODAY

Leftist candidate gains among Mexico's well-off – USA TODAY

Mexicans chafe under political negativity ban – USA TODAY

The Canadian Alliance lives on ... in Mexico! – Toronto Star

Mexico's smooth frontrunner glides ahead – GlobalPost

Viva la diferencia! Mexico City tilts left – GlobalPost

Playboy model, underdog, steal Mexican debate – GlobalPost

11 May 2012

Peña Nieto booed out of the Ibero

Peña Nieto lampooned as Salinas

They booed upon Enrique Peña Nieto's arrival at the Universidad Iberoamericana May 11. They screamed, "Out," then, "Out with the PRI," and even, "Killer." When Peña Nieto finished, the assembled students chased after him chanting, "Coward," forcing him to take refuge in a university restroom.

Peña Nieto, former governor of Mexico state, previously canceled twice on the organizers of the event, ironically titled, "Good Ibero Citizen." His reception and rough ride throughout the nearly two-hour encounter explains why.

PRI supporters in the audience clutched signs and applauded, but were drowned out by students covering their faces with masks of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari – who they allege is the brains behind Peña Nieto. Others held banners invoking controversies such as the 2006 crackdown in Atenco and, "Feminicidios," the unsolved murders of women, which critics allege is worse in Mexico state than Ciudad Juárez – something Peña Nieto denied and said was taken serious by his 2005-2011 administration.

The presidential frontrunner – up by 23 points in the May 11 Milenio-GEA/ISA tracking poll – seemed to take all of the jeers and questions in stride, politely responding, never losing his cool and even addressing questioners by name.

It marked the first public demonstrations of discontent with Peña Nieto, whose campaign had been calm and without incidents – until May 11.

But it also marked an escalation the bitter feud between the PRI and the Mexican left and the emergence of a two-man race between Peña Nieto and López Obrador – with Peña Nieto still miles ahead.

It's a natural polarization: the Mexican left hates Salinas (as do many PAN members not in the Jefe Diego faction of the party) for his privatizations and "neo-liberal policies – not to mention allegedly stealing the 1988 election.

Left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose campaign appears to be displacing the PAN for second place, unloaded on Peña Nieto in the May 6 debate and has focused his attacks on the nation's TV industry and the PRI – even though he spent much of the past six years belittling President Felipe Calderón as "spurious" and accusing the PAN president of winning a rigged 2006 election.

Some analysts had said prior to the campaign that López Obrador was aiming for a one-on-one, good-vs-evil showdown with Peña Nieto and the PRI. It appears to be emerging.

For its part, the PRI has accused PRD operatives and an unnamed Ibero professor of sabotaging the appearance – much the way the PAN has accused the PRI of planting people to sabotage appearances by its candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota. (Recall the quesadilla stand fiasco in Tres Marías on the road to Cuernavaca.) Party president Joaquín Coldwell – perhaps oblivious to the allegations of past PRI repression being protested – accused the demonstrators of showing, "intolerance."

The encounter at the Ibero followed a morning of questioning from MVS Radio host Carmen Aristegui, who has been scathing in her assessments of the journalistic practices of Mexico's TV industry.

Peña Nieto – showing a willingness to now face tough audiences after an earlier aversion to controversial circumstances – said he had no special relationships with Televisa, the country's dominant broadcaster. He then went to war with López Obrador for supposedly spending big to become known during his 2000-2005 administration as Mexico City mayor. Peña Nieto complained that the mayor of Mexico City mayor has an unfair advantage since media outlets in the capital are in effect national media outlets. He mentioned López Obrador's early morning press conferences as something unseemly, inferring there was something wrong with a politician smartly scheduling media events for a time that would allow the message to reach a mass audience – free of charge.

Peña Nieto, despite being a little-known provincial politician in 2005, somehow gained better name recognition than that of current Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. López Obrador has stated flatly that Televisa is attempting to impose its preferred candidate on the country – and has the power to do so since TV is so influential in Mexico, where more homes have television set than a fridge, according to the last census.

Peña Nieto also denied having any special relationship with Salinas and, oddly, said the same of his old boss, Arturo Montiel, former governor of Mexico state and a man even PRI supporters talk of with distain.

The fallout of the Ibero appearance remains uncertain, along with the media spin. More likely is that the campaign is becoming a two-man race with López Obrador staking his claim as the preferred alternative for those seeking to block Peña Nieto and the PRI.

-- Updates can be found on Twitter: @el_reportero

07 May 2012

The Debate, winners and losers

The IFE edecán



The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate entered the debate with a 20-point lead and nothing happened to impact that, even though he took repeated shots from from his two main opponents.

He left many of his thoughts on serious matters unfinished, said political science professor Aldo Muñoz Armenta of the Autonomous University of Mexico State, but none of that will hurt Peña Nieto since he adequately defended himself and had no major gaffes.

In effect: Peña Nieto wins the debate by not losing and his 20-point lead should remain in tact, Muñoz said.

A poll from El Universal gave him the win in the debate – with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, representing three left-wing parties, finishing second; Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance placing third and Josefina Vázquez Mota of the governing National Action Party (PAN) bringing up the rear.

Anyone looking for gaffes or a repeat of the Guadalajara International Book Fair fiasco – when he couldn't name three books – was undoubtedly disappointed. The amateur hour antics of the pre-campaign period appear to be history. Somebody from the PRI campaign presumably changed the password on his daughter's Twitter account to prevent intemperate tweets, too.

Peña Nieto came in well-coached and while not especially smooth, again, his performance was sufficient.

Peña Nieto's defence of his 2005-2011 term in Mexico state seemed adequate, if not entirely convincing – although enough Mexican voters really do seem convinced that he really did complete the 608 public works projects that he's built his campaign platform on. Just don't ask anyone at a PRI rally try naming one – they usually can't.

Attempts by opponents to revive the memories of PRI dinosaurs seemed to have little impact, too.

If this synopsis seems boring, that's because Peña Nieto's performance was boring – and that's okay for him: it keeps him in the lead by a large margin.


The New Alliance party candidate had nowhere to go, but up – and he soared. He spoke directly and on the issues. He challenged his rivals over policy issues – such as energy subsidies, over which he disagreed with López Obrador – and even chastised the other candidates crushing disinterest in the environment (his main cause) by taking the segment on that topic to attack each other.

Quadri only needs two percent of the vote for the New Alliance to maintain its registration. His strong campaign performance all but assures that. The Quadri campaign now moves from being novelty news – the unveiling of the Quadri combi; his complaining about the bulletproof Volkswagen Jetta given to him by presidential security; no one appearing when he spoke at the World Economic Forum, to name three headlines – to someone to be taken halfway serious. Of course, there's no hope in hell of him winning the election. He might make a good environment minister in a PRI government, though.

If there's a flaw with Quadri, it's his party affiliation

The New Alliance does the political bidding for thew SNTE teachers' union and its boss Elba Esther Gordillo. She effectively owns the New Alliance and assigns its candidacies to her children and grandchildren.

To paraphrase what a friend tweeted during the debate: Quadri is turning in a strong performance, but his party ...


Thanks to Quadri's performance, the New Alliance should obtain the two-percent of the vote necessary for maintaining its registration. This means collecting a share of the more than $3 billion in public subsidies showered on political parties by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) over the past 12 years. It also means having political positions for SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo to give her children and relatives. Daughter Mónica Arriola and son-in-law Fernando González are running for Senate seats in Chiapas and Sinaloa respectively. A grandson is running for the Mexico City Assembly.

Gordillo's kin might have had a better shot of being elected had the New Alliance-PRI electoral alliance not unravelled due to priístas (mostly in states without a sitting PRI governor to impose order) revolting against the handing over of too many candidacies to a junior partner. Quadri's improving candidacy makes that history moot, although the Muñoz, the political science professor and labour expert, says the teachers are deft political operators and make deals to swing local races in favour of whatever candidate suits their purposes.


The model with the cards, deciding the order the candidates would speak in, stole the show – or, more aptly, her revealing attire did, or, as the AP put it: no one was looking at the urn she was carrying. Certainly Quadri wasn't looking at the urn. As a female friend quipped on Facebook, under a photo of the model: They're more fake than the candidates.

Julia Orayen has posed for playboy and now has a new lease on her modelling life thanks to whoever hired her (apparently an IFE contractor) to work a supposedly serious political function while wearing that dress.



AMLO came out with guns blazing, even though he's been speaking of peace and love during his campaign. He invoked characters from the distant past such as General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was president of Mexico 11 times during his calamitous career. More recent characters included former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a favourite whipping boy of non-PRI politicians, and Arturo Montiel, Peña Nieto's predecessor and former boss in the Mexico state governor's office.

Political analyst Fernando Dworak said AMLO had a discourse still stuck in the 1990s. That was especially obvious when AMLO brought up the scandalous banking bailout Fobaproa.

Invoking Salinas and Fobaproa incited outrage the first time López Obrador ran for president in 2006, but it would seem less so now. Equally uncertain is the impact of López Obrador alleging that the broadcasting industry is imposing its candidate (Peña Nieto) on the country or his railing against the country's privileged elite. (Even if he's correct.)

He delivered the exchange of the night. When Peña Nieto countered allegations made against PRI dinosaurs by bringing up the case of René Bejarando – the ace DF organizer caught stuffing bills into a briefcase – AMLO responded: Bejarano went to jail, unlike any priístas.

His performance makes it likely that he'll overtake ...



The PAN candidate bet heavily on the debate rescuing her campaign. Given those kinds of stakes, she fell short in the debate, even though some in an audience convened by the Reforma newspaper ranked her highly – drawing ridicule from Twitter users about what debate they were watching.

Like AMLO, she went on the attack. She brought up the Coahuila debt situation. She brought up the Mexico state debt – something Peña Nieto refuted. She also brought up the fib from Peña Nieto's informe (state-of-the-state address) that the homicide rate fell 50% in Mexico state between 2005 and 2010. (Peña Nieto has since retracted the claim.)

But it's uncertain if going negative has helped Vázquez Mota so far in the campaign – and it's unlikely going negative in the debates will help any more. She appeared stiff during the debate and clumsily moved to address topics she felt important – such as her carrying on about Pemex and the CFE near the end.

Her campaign needed a miracle – which former President Vicente Fox said was necessary and in which he believes. It didn't arrive last night.

06 May 2012

The Quadri combi shifts into high gear

Nueva Alianza rally in Morelia

Talk about a revelation!

Gabriel Quadri, the man polling one percent and representing a party belonging to the powerful SNTE teachers union, cleaned up in the first presidential debate by talking issues.

His performance was reminiscent of 2006, when Patricia Mercado of the now-defunct Alternativa spoke of issues such as gay rights, equality, abortion and drug legalization – all as her opponents attacked each other and ignored her.

Her party won two percent in the election that year, enough for it to survive until the 2009 midterms and elect five lawmakers in Congress. (A civil war ultimately did in the Alternativa, renamed PSD by the anti-Mercado victors) It's survival also meant that it collected tens of millions of dollars in subsidies that are showered on Mexican political parties.

Here's my two cents on Quadri's performance – and let it be said that the "edecán" (the model in the suggestive dress at the beginning of the event) would probably win the most votes for highlight of the night.

Quadri entered the debate with low expectations. He was polling roughly one percent and making headlines by starting his campaign by reef diving in Veracruz and being offered a bulletproof Volkswagen Jetta by presidential security – his campaign was deemed that insignificant. He later ditched the Jetta for a turquoise-coloured Volkswagen van – the colours of his Nueva Alianza party, which draws its name and logo from the defunct Canadian Alliance.

Yet he stole the show.

He especially shone when tackling the issue of energy subsidies, saying correctly that the country spends more money on making gasoline cheap than alleviating poverty through the oft-acclaimed Oportunidades program – meaning the rich collect most of the cash. He later attacked the "segundo pisos," the elevated express lanes in Mexico City and the State of Mexico, saying they benefitted a privileged group: motorists – the same group benefitting from all the toll roads built by Peña Nieto in the State of Mexico, part of the 608 public works projects he takes credit for in his home state.

Quadri did some of SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo's dirty work during the debate, when he blasted the radicals in the "normales" (teacher training colleges) who are "La Maestra's" most bitter enemies.

He will likely surpass the two percent threshold, guaranteeing survival for the Nueva Alianza. It also means seats in the Congress and Senate for the party – and, should the vote tally rise, seats for Gordillo's relatives. Gordillo's daughter is running for the Senate in Chiapas, her son-in-law is running for the Senate in Sinaloa and her grandson is on the proportional representation list for the lower house.

It must be said that Quadri looked like a marvel compared to the Nueva Alianza's 2006 candidate Roberto Campa, who scowled through much of the first debate that year and repeatedly attacked PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo – the man who ousted Gordillo from the PRI.

It also must be said that he won – and no one was betting on that.