31 July 2006

Subliminal messages?

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador raised a few more eyebrows last week by alleging several Mexican companies ran ads, containing subliminal messages, that subtly encouraged voters to back the National Action Party (PAN).

The proof: Sabritas, a unit of Pepsi, placed an ad with a character boasting of "clean hands." The PAN campaign coined the expression: "Manos Limpias," and candidate Felipe Calderon would press his hands, palms outward, towards audiences at rallies - an act that inferred he had nothing to hide.

Jumex also caught flack for using a blue background in an ad. (Blue is associated with the PAN.)

More than a few advertisers had fun with the election campaign. A sports balm manufacturer pitched a pain rub with the slogan: "Pinche Madrazo." Roberto Madrazo, a man with a sordid reputation for hardball politics, headed the disastrous PRI campaign. In Spanish, a madrazo is a jolt or bruise. (The word comes from "madre," which signifies a lot of rotten things in Spanish when used colloquially.) Pinche is a cuss word akin to damn.

Perhaps Lopez Obrador should step back from this allegation. It risks making him look foolish.

28 July 2006

Lopez Obrador calls himself, "President"



Although he fell short in the official count by some 240,000 votes and garnered the support of just 35 percent of the electorate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador crowned himself the election victor anyway, saying in television interviews last Wednesday, “I am the president of Mexico by the will of the majority.

“I have absolute certainty that we triumphed.”

Taking a firm stance, the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate continued calling the July 2 election fraudulent and demanding a vote-by-vote recount. He also voiced support for annuling the results, saying, “It would be the most viable and convenient outcome for Mexico,” and added that he wouldn’t step back and try running again in 2012, telling U.S. network Univision, “I couldn’t do that. I’m already president ... I won the presidential election.”

National Action Party (PAN) officials immediately rebuked the remarks. Party General Secretary Cesar Nava described Lopez Obrador’s announcements as “messianic ... of the old style of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.” (Santa Anna governed Mexico 11 times in the 1800s and kept returning to power despite calamitous tenures in office.)

The former Mexico City mayor “is not behaving like a democrat,” Nava added.

“[He] is not a democrat and does not respect laws made by elected officials,” commented George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who has written a book on Lopez Obrador.

The PRD planned a massive rally in Mexico City for Sunday to press their case for a vote-by-vote recount, a provision not included in Mexican election law. Grayson said the law excludes the possibility of a recount due to fears of vote tampering. He also pointed out that many members of Lopez Obrador’s inner circle were once Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) figures, who were involved in the contested 1988 election, which Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (the PRD’s founder) might have won.
Somewhat ironically, Lopez Obrador accused his opponent of engaging in unseemly tactics from the presidency of Carlos Salinas, the 1988 winner. Lopez Obrador’s senior advisor Manuel Camacho Solis served in Salinas’ cabinet and was allegedly involved in the 1988 election scandal, working against the PRD’s predecessor.

Felipe Calderon, having won the vote count by a slim margin, proposed forming a coalition government. The PRD, however, rejected the idea. Party demonstrators have protested outside the election tribunal offices and numerous businesses – part of the establishment Lopez Obrador, who casts himself as an outsider and champion of the poor and downtrodden, railed against during his campaign.

Lopez Obrador has said the protests would end if a recount is announced. Camacho told the Washington Times earlier this week, “We think that destabilization of the country will be the outcome if there is not a recount.”

Several analysts called that kind of talk “blackmail.” A Grupo Reforma survey taken on July 13 found that 60 percent of respondents opposed a vote-by-vote recount. An equal number believed the election results were trustworthy.
Writing in Publico, Guillermo Valdes described Lopez Obrador’s posturing as “accede to my demand or the country goes up in flames.”

The lack of proof presented by Lopez Obrador disturbed others, including Publico editor Diego Petersen Farah, who commented, “The fraud of July 2 is now believed. No one saw it. No one can explain it, but it’s there. There aren’t two perredistas that can explain it in the same way.”

George Grayson sees the post-election unrest continuing for some time to come.

“(Lopez Obrador) believes the system to be illegitimate ... (and) will not accept the results unless the seven magistrates [of the election tribunal] decide that he is president-elect.”

From the Guadalajara Reporter

26 July 2006

Mas Corona

Grupo Modelo, the maker of Corona beer, recently formed a new distribution deal in the United States. According to an article in El Economista, Modelo's U.S. distributor imported only 150,000 boxes of beer back in 1978. This year it brought in more than 70 million boxes.

In related news, Grupo Modelo also announced plans to double the number of convenience stores it operates. FEMSA, Mexico's biggest Coca-Cola bottler and the brewer of Sol, already has more than 4,000 Oxxo locations, which exclusively sell FEMSA products. Oxxo doesn't stock Pepsi or Corona. 7-11, although a bit pricier, sells everything. Wal-Mart receives a lot of flack for supposedly hurting small comerciantes in Mexico, but the country's beer duopoly has probably put the squeeze on mom-and-pop shops more effectively than any big-box retailer.

Voters divided their ballots



Luis Ibarra wore blue jeans and an orange T-shirt to identify his observer status for the Convergencia Socialista party (Convergence) at a polling station in Guadalajara’s Providencia neighborhood on July 2. As expected, he opted for the Convergence’s mayoral and gubernatorial candidates. But despite representing a left-wing outfit, he voted for presidential candidate Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) instead of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Convergence’s ally in a coalition dubbed, “For the good of all.”

“I’m voting for Felipe Calderon, though I’m not that fond of the right-wing,” the UNIVA law professor said, citing his disapproval of Lopez Obrador’s proposed social-welfare schemes as the main reason for going against the left-wing candidate.

In past decades, Mexicans elected the PRI for everything, but with the country’s burgeoning democratic tendencies and wide-open races for public office, voters are increasingly spliting their ballots.

“People no longer vote for a party, they vote for a candidate,” said Rene Hermosillo, who worked as a PRI observer at a polling station in Guadalajara’s Ladron de Guevara neighborhood.

Many traditional PRI voters rebelled against the national campaign, including Hermosillo, a Harley Davidson-riding gym teacher, who went for another party’s presidential candidate.

“I normally vote for the PRI, but I’m voting for the (Democratic Revolution Party) PRD on the presidential level,” he said.

Luz Elena Ramirez, a coffee shop employee, concurred. She backed Calderon for president, but also voted for Jalisco PRI gubernatorial candidate Arturo Zamora Jimenez.

“Everyone now votes for the candidate instead of the party,” Ramirez explained.
The PRI ran a miserable presidential campaign, but Zamora outpaced his federal counterparts, finishing a close second, drawing voters that backed different parties on the presidential and municipal level.

“A lot of people identify with Arturo Zamora, who don’t identify with the PRI,” said Alberto Mora, the PRI president in Guadalajara. (Several PAN supporters interviewed opted for minor-party candidates to protest their party’s lackluster performance on the state level, but wouldn't support Zamora.)

The PRD, in contrast, gained nearly 20 percent of the presidential vote in Jalisco — an all-time high — but its gubernatorial and mayoral candidates received around half as much support.

“A lot of people will vote for (Lopez Obrador), but for another party locally,” said Francisco Moya, a photographer in Guadalajara, who planned on marking ballots for both Lopez Obrador and Zamora.

According to Dan Lund, president of Mexico City market research firm Mund Americas, the ballot-splitting trend only started with the advent of competitive elections in the late 1990s.

“There have been split votes or divided ballots ever since competitive elections started about 10 years ago,” he said in a phone interview.

“In a number of states where the PAN and the PRI have been strong ... alternancy in power, that is, throw the bum out, give the other guy a chance, was almost immediately established”

Regardless of whom they selected, most voters tempered their enthusiasm when explaining their choices, often saying, “It was the least worst option.”

From the Guadalajara Reporter

23 July 2006

VIEWPOINT: They call this a Green Party?

Analysis from the Guadalajara Reporter

Due to a proportional representation system known as plurinominal, the recent Mexican elections ushered another loathsome batch of politicians into the federal Congress and Senate. And perhaps no politician in the group is more loathsome than Jorge Emilio Gonzalez Martinez, a.k.a Niño Verde (Green Child), flag bearer for the PVEM (Green Party), a small political player that at times shows an appalling disregard for the environment.

Niño Verde returned to Congress after a six-year stint in the Senate and will now occupy a seat set aside for the PVEM, which the party won by forging a calamitous partnership with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI stumbled badly this time around, but through a coalition dubbed, "The Alliance for Mexico," the Green Party claimed a portion of the PRI's 122 Congress seats and 39 Senate seats. The Greens previously allied with President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party (PAN), but later parted company.

As the son of the PVEM founder, Niño Verde has represented the party in various legislative bodies since 1994, leading critics to accuse the PVEM of being a money-making enterprise, instead of an environmental advocate or political party. Two years ago, Niño Verde was caught on film being offered a bribe in exchange for supporting a controversial development in the Cancun area. (On the tape, Niño Verde was apparently never seen strenuously objecting to the offer; some viewers interpreted his behaviour as negotiating.)

Left-wing newspaper La Jornada branded the PVEM, "A profitable family business disguised as a political party."

Mexico's election authority (IFE) funds political parties. According to columnist Barnard Thompson, the PVEM raked in 1.3 billion pesos ($130 million) of federal money from 1997 – 2004.

The plurinominal system is responsible for assigning 40 percent of the 500 congress seats and guarantees spots for minor parties reaching a certain vote threshold. The parties put forward lists of aspirants, who are accountable to their political handlers and never constituents. Niño Verde's name always ranks high on his party's list of congressional choices.

Other PVEM candidates received even less acclaim than Niño Verde. PVEM congressman Jorge Kahwagi, moonlighted as a professional boxer and skipped work for a month several years back to participate in the Mexican version of the television series Big Brother. He reportedly collected his usual congressional pay cheque while appearing on TV. Congress members earn lavish annual salaries of approximately $150,000 for working two three-month sessions in addition to receiving lavish aguinaldos (Christmas bonuses). Attendance records are generally poor.

Congress has been badly split since 1997 – no thanks to the plurinominal – as legislators indulged personal and partisan feuds instead of working cooperatively. Reelection is forbidden, meaning allegiances lie with party bosses.

Whoever is finally declared winner in the presidential race must untangle the legislative gridlock. The odds of success are poor, meaning the country will most likely languish in mediocrity for another six years instead of passing necessary labour, tax and judicial reforms.

The plurinominal's hideous outcomes might give pause to advocates of proportional representation. As for the PVEM, the miserable status quo bodes well for it – and poorly for the environment.

22 July 2006

Dr. Simi strikes out - again

The Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federacion (TEPJF) rejected discount drug baron and want-to-be presidential candidate Victor Gonzalez Torres' bid for a vote-by-vote recount. Best known for his chain of discount drug stores, which sell generic pharmaceuticals dubbed: similares, Torres - a.k.a. Dr. Simi - ran as an unregistered independent candidate, who pleaded with voters to write his name on the ballot. For more than a year, he plastered his image on billboards along with campy slogans like, "Simi and the people will never be defeated," and, "To serve God and the people." He garnered little attention, except when he tried to crash the presidential debates.

Mexican electoral law requires all candidates to affiliate with a political party. Along with keeping Torres out of the race, the Federal Electoral Institute mandate also sidelined former foreign relations secretary Jorge Casteñeda's independent bid.

The campesino wing of the Alternativa party advanced Torres, a playboy millionaire, as their nominee. The majority of party members, however, opted for Patricia Mercado. After a calamitous feud, the IFE iced Dr. Simi's presidential aspirations. Dr. Simi rebuked the ruling, blaming, among others, big pharmaceutical companies and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who championed the cause of the poor during the campaign, a constituency Dr. Simi also courted. Torres had offered to fund the Alternativa campaign with his own money - something unusual in Mexico, where the IFE often doles out generous subsidies to registered parties.

The Alternativa's campesino wing eventually backed Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo, while Mercado, who raised contentious social issues like drug legalization and gay rights in her low-budget campaign, led her party to a respectable fourth-place finish that guaranteed seats in the federal Congress and continued registration with the IFE.

If nothing else, Torres would have added color and comic relief to a far-too-long election campaign. The current aftermath, though, with its protests and clumsy vote-rigging allegations, tops anything Dr. Simi might have brought to the race.

21 July 2006

Taco trucks targeted in anti-immigrant backlash

I've been eating a straight-taco diet ever since arriving in Guadalajara 18 months ago. The taco stands I frequent serve up cheap fare for ridiculously-low prices. And I can't seem to remember ever falling ill afterwards. (Actually, the worst illness came after eating a can of tuna at home.) Some of these businesses rake in lots of lana (cash). In fact, a good taco stand is a gold mine and Mexicans generally like to patronize places with long lines. (As a friend explained, when he first saw a crowd at a taco stand he now frequents: "I figured it was either really good or really cheap.")

Now anti-immigrant politicians are cracking down on taco trucks north of the border. This is completely underhanded - and dare I say racist. Gwinnett County, Georgia outlawed mobile taco vendors, a move a local politician said would curb "Gypsy-fication" in the region. Politicians in Nashville apparently passed a similar motion, but it at least grandfathered existing trucks.

As my buddy Drew Johnson, director of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research in Nashville, observed, "All of the racist (idiots) complain about Mexicans coming to Nashville and not working.

"And then the same (people) restrict opportunities for entrepreneurship in the Hispanic community."

20 July 2006

PAN advantage widens

The National Action Party (PAN) marginally widened its vote-count advantage over the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) after the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) yesterday released the results of 2,873 voting stations, which were recounted after irregularities in finally vote tallies. PAN now leads by 0.60 percentage points.

This small-scale recount revealed errors - and helped PAN. What would a nationwide recount uncover? This shouldn't dissuade the PRD from calling for a vote-by-vote recount, but the party might need to revamp its strategy and perhaps tone down its attacks on the electoral process.

18 July 2006

Strike violence dampens Oaxaca economy

The eight-week long Oaxaca teachers' strike, which has at times turned violent, forced the postponement of the centuries-old Guelaguetza, a popular summer festival, celebrating the region's Indigenous cultures. A local business group pegged the economic damage at 504 million pesos as striking teachers occupy parts of the state capital's historic center and block access to Guelaguetza facilities. The teachers previously mused about blockading polling stations on July 2 and have shut down state highways. (Schools often host voting stations.) The potential for violence prompted the Canadian government to issue a travel advisory.

Teachers in Oaxaca strike like clockwork; they've hit the picket line every May for the past 26 years. According to Grupo Reforma columnist Sergio Sarmiento, the Oaxaca teachers receive aguinaldos (Christmas bonuses) worth 90 days pay. Teachers in Mexico earn an entry-level salary of approximately 11,000 pesos ($1,000) per month, but in Oaxaca, they're given far more benefits and bonuses. Test scores in Oaxaca - one of the Republic's most poor and underdeveloped states - rank among the worst in Mexico

Several teachers unions in Canada and the United States back their Oaxaca counterparts. Some cite a June 14 dust up between police and teachers in Oaxaca city as the reason.

The teachers, however, have moved well beyond asking for wage increases and are now demanding the head of PRI governor Ulises Ruiz. (Oaxaca has always elected PRI governors). Their actions are killing the state economy. This is yet another example of irresponsible union action - and violence, or at least the threat of it, surfaces far too often.

17 July 2006

Election protests step up a gear

Photograph by: F. Sanchez

Supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gather in downtown Guadalajara last weekend to demand a recount, “vote by vote,” of the closely contested July 2 presidential election.


While Felipe Calderon behaved like a president in waiting, his political opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador continued pressing for a vote-by-vote recount and contesting the election results in both the judicial system and the court of public opinion. The latter strategy sputtered earlier this week after the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate presented faulty evidence and later accused some of his supporters of betrayal.

Even with the missteps, the tense atmosphere surrounding the disputed election outcome shows no signs of abating. The PRD appealed the results of approximately 50,000 of the Republic’s 130,496 voting stations to a special election tribunal (TRIFE). The party also waged a publicity campaign, citing election facts and figures – releasing red herrings in the eyes of critics – purportedly proving a PRD advantage. Lopez Obrador also beckoned his party’s faithful to Mexico City’s Zocalo (town square) for a second rally in eight days, where he promised to once again reveal damning information about the election process, which he and his supporters call “a fraud.”

Lopez Obrador, who according to the IFE lost by 236,006 votes, unveiled some of his first allegations of fraud last Monday, airing video footage of an election worker in Guanajuato supposedly stuffing a ballot box.

The IFE later reported that the tape was recorded after the polling station closed and that observers from four parties – including the PRD – vouched for the results. The worker said he was simply depositing ballots that had been stuffed into the wrong boxes.

Unfazed and sounding conspiratorial, Lopez Obrador turned on his campaign workers, accusing unspecified PRD representatives of accepting bribes.

“Not all of the representatives acted with integrity,” he said on Tuesday.

The PRD polling-station observer in Salamanca, Guanajuato, Juliana Barron Vallejo, 19, denied being bought.

“I can’t believe he says that,” she told the Mural newspaper. “Nobody offered me money.”

PRD officials in Queretaro and Guanajuato later acknowledged paying observers 100 to 300 pesos for representing the party at polling stations.

International election observers from the European Union, the United States and Canada all described the elections as fair and transparent.

Felipe Calderon, meanwhile, put the tight, but still unofficial election result behind him. He acted presidential, fielding congratulatory phone calls from world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George Bush and Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. He also named a transition team, unveiled a new logo featuring presidential colors and announced plans for a nationwide tour. Calderon spoke of creating a coalition government, but the PRD balked at the idea, citing lingering bitterness from the presidential campaign in which Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) branded Lopez Obrador, “A danger for Mexico.”

The PRD insisted on recounting all of the more than 40 million ballots cast on July 2, something forbidden by Mexican election laws passed in 1996. The TRIFE could order some polling station results recounted. It could also annul the results, similar to the 2000 and 2003 situations in Tabasco and Colima respectively.

To press his case for a recount, Lopez Obrador called for a march on the capital, which culminates on the morning of Sunday July 16. Delegations of PRD members in every state set out last week on foot, horseback and virtually every type of vehicle imaginable for the capital. The Jalisco delegation, led by PRD gubernatorial candidate Enrique Ibarra, left Guadalajara on Thursday morning.

“I’m marching so that the electoral process is respected ... so it gets cleaned up,” said Juan Carlos Alcaraz, a lemon farmer from Tecoman, Colima, sporting a wide-brim hat, yellow PRD T-shirt, a flag and well-worn sandals.

Alcaraz cited his own polling station, which opened two hours late, as proof of election chicanery.

“A lot of people didn’t vote because they had to wait so long,” he explained. “Many people left.”

Although noisy and passionate, Alcaraz said demonstrations in support of Lopez Obrador would stay non-violent.

Felipe Calderon disparaged the idea of mass protests against the election result, telling a press conference last week, “Elections are won in the ballot boxes. They’re not won in the streets.”

Most PAN supporters shrugged when asked about the PRD demonstrations, which were somewhat low-key in Jalisco, one of Mexico’s most conservative states. The PAN’s national committee urged its members to avoid confrontations.

“People have the right to free expression so long as it’s peaceful,” said Carlos Gamboa, who was cleaning up PAN campaign signage in Guadalajara.

Approximately 200 PRD supporters marched in Guadalajara last Saturday night, including Antonio Gonzalez, an unemployed farm administrator, who used chewing gum as an adhesive on his glasses.

“I’m here protesting because of the fraud we’re witnessing,” he explained, adding he had a hard time believing Lopez Obrador ever trailed in the race.

He compared the situation to last spring’s desafuero, which sought to strip Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, of his immunity from prosecution – and thus deny him a spot on the presidential ballot. The process was aborted after Lopez Obrador mobilized massive street demonstrations. Many protesters pinned red, white and green anti-desafuero ribbons to their shirts last Saturday night.

Unlike others in attendance that night, Gonzalez wouldn’t guarantee peaceful protests, saying, “What we’re going to see happen is a massive civil resistance because the government isn’t going to accept a recount. It could be extremely violent.”

He added, “A lot of people have nothing to lose.”

From the Guadalajara Reporter

15 July 2006

VIEWPOINT: Mexico's yellow/blue split

Commentary from the Guadalajara Reporter, July 15, 2006 edition.

The July 2 election revealed several different Mexicos, which voted according to regional preferences, not unlike countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where the main political parties claim local power bases and often fail to win nationwide support.

The U.S. has its blue, Democratic states on both coasts and a red, Republican interior flyover country, in the words of liberal pundits. Mexico now features something similar. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) painted the northern and western states blue while the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) colored the center and south yellow.

Mexico's regions vary greatly. The north boasts fast-growing border towns, industrial development, a better-educated population and higher per capita GDP. It's generally conservative and Catholic, views free markets favorably and has never shown much zeal for revolutionary politics. When free trade arrived, it was better positioned to take advantage of it. Jalisco and the zone west of the capital, while not the same as the north, share many similar attributes.

The south, meanwhile, lags badly behind. It's more indigenous and agrarian. Memories of revolutionary figures like Emiliano Zapata still loom large. Little development took hold in the region; caciques (strongmen) dominated local political scenes. Not surprisingly, PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who dubbed his coalition, "For the good of all," started his campaign in Mexico's poorest town, Metlatonoc, Guerrero, where the standard of living is comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Cesar Velazquez, a researcher at Iberoamericana University in Mexico City, income and education levels explain voting tendencies better than cultural or ideological leanings.

"It's not so much a cultural or ideological question who votes PAN. It's a question of education and income."

Voters with larger incomes and more education overwhelmingly opted for PAN. Most lived in Mexico's northern and western states. (PAN beat the PRD by nearly three-to-one margin in Jalisco, Guanajuato and Nuevo Leon.)

Mexico City, a mix of chic neighborhoods, impromptu slums and everything in between, overwhelming went PRD. Partly, Velazquez said, due to its intellectual set, but also the Federal Districts abandonment of the PRI. The PRD essentially coopted the old PRI
corporatist structure over the past 20 years and has effectively mined it for votes.

The PRI ironically received reasonable levels of support in all parts of Mexico but failed to win a majority in any state. As the party becomes increasing irrelevant on the presidential level, many of its sympathizers will no doubt drift towards the dominant party in their region; priistas in the South share more in common with the PRD than priistas in the North, where state governments often alternate between PAN and PRI rule.

Out of the PRI's recent election debacle a two-party system should emerge. And it will continue splitting the Republic for some time to come.

14 July 2006

Forget despensas; PRD paid supporters to be polling station observers

Days after Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accused some unnamed supporters of selling out, PRD officials in Queretaro and Guanajuato acknowledged paying people 100 - 300 pesos each for working as polling station observers. The PRD officials told Grupo Reforma the money was for covering the observers' expenses.

12 July 2006

The latest conspiracy: bought PRD members


Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador finds an excuse for everything. Just one day after producing a video, which supposedly showed a ballot box being stuffed at polling station 2227 in Salamanca, Guanajuato, the IFE announced that observers representing four parties signed off on the results - including a PRD official. When contacted by Grupo Reforma, the PRD representative, Juliana Barron Vallejo, vouched for the results and told the newspaper chain, "Here, there was no fraud. Everything was clear, everything was transparent."

The video captured a polling-station chief depositing a large number of votes into a ballot box. The footage, however, was shot after the polling station closed. The polling station chief told Grupo Milenio that he was placing marked ballots, which had been improperly put in other places, into the box.

Lopez Obrador refused to back down. Taking a familiar conspiratorial tone, he commented, "Not all of our representatives acted with integrity."

He added that money could have swayed some of his party's representatives.

The comments generated nationwide headlines. Guadalajra's Publico screamed, "AMLO accuses representatives of selling themselves." Mural (published in Guadalajara by Grupo Reforma) countered with, "PRD offers 'proof' ... but the video turns out to be fiction."

This is the typical blame game Lopez Obrador has played for the past six year; it's never his fault, someone's out to get him.

More to come.

11 July 2006

No free water in Aguascalientes

The Aguascalientes legislature killed a proposed change to the state capital's water regime, which is privately operated. Unlike many places in Mexico, the waterworks in Aguascalientes (known locally as CAASA) cuts service to delinquent customers. The unsuccessful bill would have outlawed the practice. (Neighboring Jalisco forbids cutting service; an estimated 40 percent of the water bills in the Guadalajara area go unpaid.)

Water privatization raises hackles of outrage, but the benefits of the for-profit scheme in Aguascalientes are hard to deny. Aguascalientes, an industrial city in the middle of the country, draws water from a rapidly shrinking aquifer. Yet, through investments in infrastructure and efficiency improvements, the CAASA now serves more customers than it did in 1994, but extracts less water from its wells.

I visited Aguascalientes earlier this year and wrote a large feature on its waterworks that was published just prior to the World Water Forum's opening. Read it here.

10 July 2006

Foreign votes go against the PRI

Mexicans living abroad cast ballots for the first time in 2006 – and no surprise, they overwhelmingly voted against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon captured 58 percent of the vote. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) finished second with 34 percent. The PRI received only four percent – marginally better than Alternativa candidate Patricia Mercado.

Few Mexicans outside of the country participated; only 32,261 votes were received. The foreign vote amounted to only 0.057 of the total.

Although talked about for years, congress finally passed a law that allowed voting from abroad last year. The PRI never embraced the practice due to fears Mexicans abroad would vote against the then-governing party and were not easily influenced. The results confirmed their suspicions.

Writing in El Economista, Universidad Iberoamericana professor Carla Pederzini, put forward several reasons why the PAN won the foreign vote. She commented, "Maybe the panista vote from Mexicans abroad is due to the fact the campaign of Felipe Calderon concentrated on generating jobs and economic opportunities ... aspects immigrants tend to identify as basic for the economic development of the country.

"Another reason for the vote towards the PAN is that Mexicans abroad perceive the respect given to institutions and legality in the countries where they live as a fundamental aspect for the development and generation of opportunities ... and (migrants) identify this type of behavior in the PAN candidate’s proposals."

Ultimately, it could simply be, "A punishment vote," against the PRI, a group many migrants blame for the conditions that made them leave Mexico.

09 July 2006

Tomato King captures congress seat

Andres Bermudez, the migrant-turned-millionaire mayor of Jerez, Zacatecas, won a congressional seat for the National Action Party (PAN) last Sunday, but leaves behind a scandal-plagued administration in his hometown, a city of 60,000 - a five-hour drive north of Guadalajara.

Bermudez, who invented a device for planting tomatoes while living in Northern California, earned the name, "The Tomato King," and returned triumphantly to Jerez in 2004, claiming the mayor's office. (He ran and won in 2001, but was disqualified for not meeting the state's residency requirements.) He originally ran for the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which holds most of the municipal governments and the governor's office, in Zacatecas, but was not nominated in 2004. Bermudez later took Jerez for the PAN, the state's least-popular party. (In justifying his opposition to the PRD, he cited the influx of power-hungry priistas into the party as problematic during a Grupo Milenio interview last week.)

I interviewed Bermudez last December, shortly after several city councilors declared a hunger strike and protestors blocking access to city hall were removed. He's a larger-than-life character, who makes time for the foreign press. Local journalists, though, tell stories of intimidation and abuse of power. He's probably not the reformer he claims to be and leaves a mixed legacy in Jerez.

08 July 2006

Calderon wins by slim margin; opponent promises to contest result

Photograph by : F. Sanchez


Four days after Mexicans cast ballots in the presidential election, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) finally declared National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon the winner, but his opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), refused to acknowledge defeat and vowed to keep fighting. Calderon received 35.88 percent of the votes, slightly more than Lopez Obrador, who trailed with 35.31 percent. A margin of 236,006 votes separated the two candidates. Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo garnered only 22.27-percent support, leaving question marks about his once-mighty party's future.

Despite trailing after the early returns, a defiant Lopez Obrador, remarked on Sunday night, "We have information that says we won the presidency of the Republic." He also alleged without offering proof that his party led by 500,000 votes.

Calderon also declared victory Sunday night and pledged to abide by the final IFE outcome. The majority of exit polls released after the voting ended projected a Calderon victory.

The contest's close outcome and unsubstantiated accusations of electoral impropriety could plunge the nation into social chaos and damage Mexico's young democracy if aggrieved PRD supporters, conscious of their party's brushes with fraud in previous votes - most notably 1988, when a computer crash wiped out left-leaning candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' lead - take to the streets, alleging their candidate fell victim to election irregularities. Lopez Obrador assailed the IFE, alleging both fraud and manipulation.

The IFE originally planned on announcing a winner on Sunday at 11 p.m. - three hours after the last polling stations closed, basing the outcome on the results of a conteo rapido (quick count), a survey of early election outcomes from across the Republic. Due to the tightness of the race, the IFE deferred, saying it would make an announcement on Wednesday. The final results came out on Thursday afternoon. The IFE's Web-based results list (PREP) originally gave Calderon a scant one-percentage-point lead, which narrowed as contested ballots were counted. After recounting the actas (poll results), the IFE again put Calderon ahead by 0.57 percentage points.

Lopez Obrador rejected the outcome and demanded a vote-by-vote recount. He promised to make a legal complaint - something allowed by IFE rules - and beckoned supporters to Mexico City's Zocalo for a Saturday rally, where the PRD candidate would give an
"informe" (update).

"We can't accept these results," he told a press conference on Thursday morning.

"No one can declare himself the winner."

The PRD campaign, however, splashed Lopez Obrador's Web site with presidential colors. (Calderon's campaign followed suit.) Lopez Obrador supporters gathered outside the IFE offices in Mexico City as the acta count took place. Some brandished signs reading, "Vote by vote, poll by poll, no to the fraud."

Lopez Obrador's reaction hardly surprised some observers.

"In his view, he's a victim of a system that's rotten to the core," said George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who wrote a critical biography of the PRD candidate titled, "Mesias Mexicano" (Mexican Messiah).

"As a man with messianic tendencies, Lopez Obrador believes that he incarnates the will of the people. Thus he could not have lost; there had to be fraud."

After recounting the actas, IFE President Luis Carlos Ugalde said his organization had done its job and candidates were free to appeal to a seven-judge electoral tribunal, which would render a decision before September 6. He rejected allegations of manipulation, saying, "Doubting the IFE is doubting the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans" who worked during the election.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD's founder who never endorsed his party's candidate, recently called the IFE, "Trustworthy."

Calderon called on the IFE to certify the vote quickly. He also promised to lead a coalition government, recognizing his narrow lead and lack of a strong mandate. (In comparison, President Vicente Fox won 43 percent support in 2000.)

Despite the close outcome, voting at Mexico's more than 130,000 casillas (voting stations) generally went smoothly, although some special stations, which served out-of-area voters, ran out of ballots. Two observers were shot dead in Guerrero state, but the murders were declared unrelated to the election. Slightly more than 59 percent of Mexico's approximately 71 million eligible voters participated - a lower turnout than in 2000.

Along with electing a new president, voters renewed the entire 500-seat Congress and 128-seat Senate. The PAN captured the most seats in both houses, but fell well short of obtaining majorities. (Eight parties won congressional seats). Both the PAN and PRD increased their representation at the expense of the PRI, which only nine years ago held a majority in both chambers.

Two minor parties, the Nueva Alianza and the Alternativa, both passed the two-percent threshold necessary to stay registered with the IFE. Many Mexicans scribbled a name in the write-in candidate category on their ballot; according to an IFE poll chief in Zapopan, deceased movie stars were a popular choice.

The results revealed a badly divided nation. The PRD swept Mexico City - also the site of local elections - and southern Mexico, where incomes are lower. The PAN
decisively took its heartland, the more industrial and prosperous northern and western states. The PRI received support from all regions of the country, but failed to claim a majority of the vote in even a single state.

Jalisco, one of the Republic's most conservative states, overwhelmingly backed the PAN, which captured almost half of the vote.

"There's low inflation and the country is economically stable, unlike past years," said Jaime Quesada, a Guadalajara cab driver, explaining why he voted PAN

"I like President Fox ... we live in a better country than before," said Socorro Reynosa, 73, who voted for the PAN at a polling station in the upscale Providencia neighborhood.

"I want my grandchildren to live in a First World country."

Others sounded less upbeat about their selection.

"I voted for the least-worst one," boasted orange juice vendor Rafael Hernandez, who also opted for PAN.

"The country's not really getting ahead, but it's also not going backwards."

He also expressed dismay with Lopez Obrador's attacks on the IFE and the election outcome.

"That guy has a screw loose," he said Thursday morning.

"One day he says he supports the IFE, but when the results don't go his way he protests."

Obrador has a history of protesting; he once led a march from Tabasco state to the capital after losing a scandal-plagued governor's race.

Grupo Reforma columnist Sergio Sarmiento observed, "If Lopez Obrador wins in the count started (Wednesday) the country is quiet.

"The situation could be totally different if Calderon wins. Lopez Obrador seems to be a candidate unable of accepting a defeat."

It could be September before all of the election appeals are exhausted. Mexico's long presidential transition process - a hold over from the days of PRI rule - could ironically prove beneficial. The new president assumes office in early December.

From the Guadalajara Reporter

07 July 2006

Turning right or running in place?

Reason online published a piece I wrote on the Mexican election and the lingering discontent down here. It's posted here.

Three in a row: PAN sweeps Jalisco

National Action Party (PAN) governor-elect Emilio Gonzalez Marquez runs into an April rally in Tepatitlan de Morelos, Jalisco with president-elect Felipe Calderon.

By David Agren

After waging a nasty and downright ungentlemanly attack campaign, Emilio Gonzalez Marquez of the National Action Party (PAN) toppled Arturo Zamora Jimenez of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Jalisco governor’s race, keeping the traditionally conservative state in PAN hands for six more years and again bannishing the once-mighty PRI to the political wilderness.

"Always remember, Jalisco is a PAN state," said Alberto Cardenas, the state’s first PAN governor, who held office from 1995 – 2001 and also won a senate seat last Sunday, explaining his party’s enduring success.

"Jalisco is now a better state … after two PAN governments."

Gonzalez, the former mayor of Guadalajara, led a PAN landslide, as the right-leaning party captured all of the mayors’ races in the Guadalajara area, a majority of the state’s municipal governments and 19 of the 20 directly-elected legislature seats. He won 45.1 percent of the gubernatorial votes, besting Zamora by nearly four percentage points. Enrique Ibarra of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) received only 7.8 percent of the vote. Most polls released before a Jalisco State Electoral Institute (IEEJ) publication ban on June 23 put Zamora marginally ahead.

Running from behind, the PAN’s campaign turned negative early on. Zamora, a high-profile defense attorney and former Zapopan mayor, caught flack almost immediately for supposedly not declaring his complete net worth to the IEEJ. According to a front-page story in the Mural newspaper, he was mentioned unfavorably in a Drug Enforcement Administration document. The PRI campaign nearly derailed in the race’s final days, when agents from the attorney general’s office (PGR), appeared at his Zapopan home, acting on a legal compalaint lodged by the PAN’s national president that accused Zamora of being a party to fraud at the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS). The investigation was dropped the next day, but the damage was done.

Along with assailing Zamora, Gonzalez also picked a fight with the University of Guadalajara, a bastion of PRD domination and a favorite PAN whipping boy.

The race became so ugly, the state’s business community at one point begged for a truce.

"In the case of Jalisco it’s been a very negative campaign," said Alberto Mora, the PRI president in Guadalajara.

"We’ve had a dirty war."

Although the state’s strongest party, the PAN alienated some voters during the regime of present Governor Francisco Ramirez Acuña – a favorite for a federal cabinet appointment in a Felipe Calderon-led PAN government. Acuña governed in an aloof style, took numerous foreign junkets and seldom spoke to the media.

"Right now, the PRI represents change in Jalisco," Mora said in a pre-election interview.

"The (PAN) represents more of the same."

Gonzalez, whose performance as Guadalajara mayor failed to generate much excitement, acknowledged past shortcomings, telling an election night crowd outside the PAN’s headquarters in the Colonia Americana, "Our governments haven’t been perfect, but they have been better [than before]."

Despite winning for the third-consecutive time, the PAN’s margin of victory continued to shrink. Some traditional PAN voters cast ballots against Gonzalez, although not necessarily for Zamora.

"I protested today because of [Governor] Francisco Ramirez Acuña," said Jorge Ramirez, a PAN supporter, who marked an X for the Nueva Allianza.

"Alberto Cardenas did a good job, but not Ramirez."

When asked why he wouldn’t support Zamora, he responded, "We’d return to seeing deliquents in the government."

Along with Gonzalez’s win, the PAN retained the mayor’s office in Guadalajara and recaptured the Zapopan, Tlaquepaque and Tonala municipal governments. The PRI, however, ousted the PAN from Chapala’s city hall and won again in Puerto Vallarta.

"We won in a lot of places where we didn’t think we would," said Antonio Galvan, a Guadalajara jeweler, celebrating outside the Felipe Calderon campaign headquarters near the Glorieta Minerva.

Both PAN and PRI militants converged on the Glorieta Minerva late on election night, but things remained calm. PAN supporter Ignacio Mendoza couldn’t help gloating and indulging in some shadenfreuder.

"The PRI, they’re through," he chortled.

"Good riddance."

From the Guadalajara Reporter

03 July 2006

Winners, losers and surprises from the July 2 vote


*I'll refrain from commenting on some parts of the presidential race until after the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) announces the winner on Wednesday.


National Action Party (PAN) sweeps Jalisco. Emilio Gonzalez Marquez bested Arturo Zamora Jimenez of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI). Enrique Ibarra of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) finished a distant third. Zamora, perhaps the PRI's best hope on any level, flamed out, succumbing to a steady onslaught of PAN attacks. The attorney general's office (PGR) showing up on his doorstep mere days before the election - acting on a denuncia (complaint) about Zamora somehow being linked to fraud in the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS) - no doubt hurt the PRI campaign. Gonzalez, who previously finished a lackluster term as Guadalajara mayor, won by four percentage points after trailing for virtually the entire race. Even though his predecessor, Francisco Ramirez Acuña, alienated many potential voters and seldom speaks to the press, and Zamora boasted of having a strong track record while serving as mayor of Zapopan, Jalisco voters opted for the PAN for the third-consecutive election. Along with the governor's office, the PAN captured all of the Guadalajara-area mayors' races, all but one of the diputado positions and both senate seats. As one panista put it last night: "We won in a lot of places we didn't expect to.

In a total surprise, the PAN retained Morelos inspite of the party's scandal-plagued incumbent.

Split tickets. One PRI election observer in Guadalajara confessed to marking an X for the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on the presidential ballot. Another observer for the Socialist Convergence party admitted voting for PAN instead of Lopez Obrador (the Socialist Convergence's ally) due to dissatisfaction with the PRD candidate's economic policies. When asked why they carved up their ballots, more than one person responded: Many Mexicans now vote for individual candidates instead of parties.

Not a surprise

The PAN kept Guanajuato. It's perhaps the party's most loyal state.

Peje complains. Once again, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador resorted to playing the victim when speaking last night. He looked bothered (victimized?) and sounded anything but presidential. He says he has a 500,000-vote advantage, but offered no proof. The IFE is not perfect, but it's very well run and professional. That Lopez Obrador would question the result was predictable - and confirms doubts raised by his critics that he's not very democratic. In fairness, PAN would have screamed foul too if it was behind.


Patricia Mercado. She ran on a maverick agenda - and it worked. Her Alternativa party received almost three-percent support, enough to stay registered with the IFE. She built a unique coalition of gays, people concerned with rights and equality issues and left-leaning voters that viewed Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the PRD with the suspicion (As one co-worker, a lefty, who voted for Mercado, put it: The PRD is a garbage can for the worst politicians from other parties). Mercado portrayed herself as the face of a modern and responsible left. It worked - and possibly cost the PRD the presidency.


The PRI. On election night six years ago, PAN supporters chanted, "Ariba, abajo, el PRI se va al carajo (The PRI's going to hell)." Perhaps they shouted too soon, but last night's results possibly rendered the party a spent force on the presidential level. The PRI's voto duro (firm vote) crumbled as much of its traditional support shifted to other parties. In a telling fact, the PRI failed to win the popular vote in even one state - not even Oaxaca or the backwards places where the party's strength supposedly endured. In the Congressional and Senate races, the party finished third. (It held majorities in both chambers just nine years ago).

Roberto Madrazo, who always registered sky-high disapproval numbers, deserves much of the blame for his party's demise. He ruthlessly ousted too many potential rivals in the lead up to the PRI primary process. His sordid reputation preceded him in the presidential race. What happens next? Who knows. Many prominent priistas and traditional PRI supporters now back the PRD, which could morph into the new PRI.

The media. Every reporter wanted the race to end at 11 p.m. last night. Instead, the saga endures until Wednesday. This campaign had already started - at least informally - when I arrived in January 2005. This story's getting old and most reporters want to move on to something else.

Subcomandante Marcos. He marched through central Mexico city, denouncing the election yesterday. Nobody cared. Marcos stopped being releavant ages ago. His otra campaña failed to capture the public's imagination. He only made news by wading into the early-May dust up in Atenco, not taking off his mask while visiting a jail in Guanajuato and saying the next president would be knocked off. His movement is pretty much dead. Modern Mexico has passed him by as people care more about getting ahead financially and seeing stabilty continue rather than joining a revolution. Marcos at least has the gullable international left as a fan base. If the PRD loses, the people who abandoned Marcos for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador might return, though.

Mixed bag

The Nueva Alianza. This outfit was nothing more than a mechanism for attacking the PRI's Roberto Madrazo, who kneecapped Teachers' Union president and former PRI vice president Elba Esther Gordillo. Roberto Campa performed poorly in the first debate and his campaign never gained traction. (Based on advertising, though, it appeared to be well funded.) In the campaign's final weeks, the party resorted to begging for just one of the three votes electors would cast - president, congress or senate. It worked. The Nueva Alianza won a little less than five percent of the vote in the congressional races, ensuring the party's survival. It's curious that the Nueva Alianza would borrow its logo from the defunct Canadian Alliance, not exactly an illustrious political party.

02 July 2006

Tequila goes upscale with premium brands

La Cofradia Distillery

New trend finds partygoers switching from body shots to sipping cocktails


Jose Hermosillo, owner of Casa Noble Tequila, pours shots of añejo tequila into snifter glasses sitting on a bar at his company’s 24-hecatre compound in Tequila, Mexico. But no one dares throw back the triple-distilled spirit quickly – a 750 millilitre bottle sells for $80. Smooth and complex, with an interesting nose and an almost buttery texture, it comes in a hand-painted porcelain bottle adorned with 18-karat gold detailing.

Once a beverage associated with Mexican holidays, booze-fuelled debauchery and nasty hangovers, Mexico’s best-known export has increasingly moved upscale, finding a spot on the top shelves of liquor cabinets and commanding steep prices from discerning connoisseurs, who often sip ultra premium tequilas like they would a fine scotch whisky or bourbon.

Casa Noble now exports all over the world, finding enthusiasts in countries as diverse as Australia, Japan, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Russia, where Hermosillo says young people, flush with cash and an appetite for something other than vodka, are fuelling a premium tequila boom. The demand, however, is especially strong in Canada and the United States.

While industry giants like Jose Cuervo and Sauza have long distilled premium products, their best reservas and reposados received little fanfare until recently, joining a slew of export-only tequilas from craft distillers. The enormous popularity of premium tequila has even drawn celebrities into the business. Van Halen front man Sammy Hagar launched the Cabo Wabo brand, and actor Dan Aykroyd scooped up the Canadian rights to Patron Tequila.

Knock-offs have arrived on store shelves, too. A Southern California company now distils a tequila-like beverage from U.S.-grown agaves, initially selling it under the name "Temequila" – a word play on the town where the beverage is bottled.

"Tequila is taking advantage of the trend in the spirits industry that people want to drink better liquor," says David Ozgo, an economist with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Drinking better often means paying more, but consumers seem more than willing to spend big on tequila. Growth in the top end of the tequila market is expected to outpace sales for regular tequilas for the rest of the decade – consumption jumped by a staggering 29 per cent in 2004.

Several factors, both intentional and serendipitous, have propelled premium tequila’s popularity. According to Bertha Becerra, spokeswoman for the Guadalajara-based Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), manufacturers began distilling better beverages, investing in new technologies and improving production techniques. Firms also marketed their products more effectively, leveraging tequila’s appellation of origin distinction, which imbues it with a certain cachet – similar to luxury drinks like cognac and champagne (by law, tequila must be made from blue agave plants grown in Jalisco, and designated municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas states).

With the prices of mid-range tequilas falling due to a surplus of agave plants – tequila’s principal ingredient – Mexico’s famed firewater is favourably competing against longtime cocktail standbys like rum and vodka.

To conquer new markets, the CRT recently authorized the production of flavoured tequilas, and created a new category for extra-aged tequila. Before the rule changes, añejo tequila only needed to rest for one year. Relatively young tequilas were lumped in with beverages spending nearly five years in a barrel.

Small but important details differentiate premium tequilas from their mass-market counterparts. Many premium distillers, like Casa Noble, grow their own agaves without the use of chemicals, steam roast the agave hearts in stone ovens and naturally ferment the agave juice.

During the distillation, Casa Noble discards the "heads and tails" – the first and last parts of the batch. The practice, along with triple distilling, supposedly reduces the levels of hangover-inducing methanol and other unpleasant elements. The final product rests in barrels made from new wood for just under five years (many distillers use old whisky barrels for aging tequila).

While some whiskies spend more than 20 years in a barrel, Hermosillo says five years is ample time.

"After a certain period of time, you lose a lot of the properties of the agaves… and the properties of the barrel take over."

Ultimately, Hermosillo says, "If you combine all these complexities, you’ll get a great spirit – not just a great tequila."

And, while premium tequila would make a great margarita, save it for sipping. "It’s not for mixing," he says.

From FFWD (Calgary)