19 September 2006

Mexico's Fox Avoids Potential Independence Day Conflict

DOLORES HIDALGO, Mexico -- Perhaps hoping to avoid conflict and a political storm at the Sept. 15 independence celebrations in Mexico City's Zocalo (main square) -- the usual site of such festivities -- President Vicente Fox bolted for Dolores Hidalgo in his home state of Guanajuato to deliver the annual grito, a reenactment of parish priest Miguel Hidalgo's call for independence from Spanish rule. Stormy conditions, though, followed the president. The skies opened less than an hour before the 11 p.m. ceremony began, soaking the revelers gathered in the town center. Later, lightning crashed while Fox delivered the grito from the doorway of the Nuestra Señora de Dolores parish church, the scene of Hidalgo's original act in 1810.

After walking through a rain storm from the Casa de Hidalgo to the parish -- shaking hands and kissing babies along the way like a consummate political campaigner -- Fox lustily yelled, "Viva Mexico!" before ending with the additional shouts, "Long live our democracy," "Long live our institutions," and "Long live our unity." All three shouts referred to the contentious July 2 election and the opposition movement led by presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose supporters Fox was avoiding by delivering the grito in Dolores Hidalgo. (Lopez Obrador said recently, "To hell with Mexico's institutions.")

The short sojourn, a face-saving measure on Fox's part, revived the tradition of presidents visiting Dolores Hidalgo, a city of approximately 40,000 residents located 270 kilometers northwest of the capital, in the final year of their sexenios (six-year terms). Prior to this year, former president Carlos Salinas delivered Dolores Hidalgo's last presidential grito. (Former president Ernesto Zedillo failed to make the trip.) Fox probably would have also skipped visiting Dolores Hidalgo during his sexenio if not for security concerns and the potential for conflict in Mexico City -- which the Interior Ministry said was a distinct possibility, according to press reports. Up until Sept. 14, Fox insisted he would deliver the grito in the Zocalo.

But by heading for Dolores Hidalgo, Fox ceded the Zocalo to Lopez Obrador and his adherents, who had been camping out in the giant plaza for the past six weeks. (They finally cleared out in order to allow the traditional Sept. 16 military parade.) Mexico City mayor Alejandro Encinas, a member of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and whose government openly abetted the street protests in the Federal District, instead delivered the grito in the Zocalo, where the following day, a well-attended National Democratic Convention declared Lopez Obrador the "Legitimate President" of Mexico -- even though the candidate only received the support of slightly more than 35 percent of the voters on election day.Analysts were split on their assessments of Fox's trip, with critics panning Fox for once again avoiding conflict.

"[Fox] has shown the fear he has of Lopez Obrador and his people," opined Grupo Reforma columnist Sergio Sarmiento, a critic of Lopez Obrador.

He cited other examples of poor leadership during Fox's lackluster presidential term, including the 2002 decision to abandon plans for a new Mexico City airport after machete-wielding farmers in nearby Texcoco objected, as well as his handling of the ongoing teachers' strike in Oaxaca state, which has morphed into near anarchy. (The teachers, abetted by radical sympathizers, are calling for the state governor's head. The strike, an annual occurrence in Oaxaca, started over a pay dispute.)

"The perception is that in the moment of truth the president was scared and ceded the public square to Lopez Obrador. That perception, of the president being defeated, is what will remain as the legacy of Fox's term," Sarmiento continued.

Others, including Lopez Obrador biographer George Grayson, were more charitable.

"It's a reasonable compromise. Fox goes to Guananjato (as other presidents have done on their sixth grito) and the military marches in the Zocalo," he wrote in an email.

"It would have been much more embarrassing if the president had been harassed at his appearance at the Palacio Nacional where the security is lousy."In Dolores Hidalgo, the cradle of Mexican independence, Fox found a friendly and appreciative crowd. He previously governed Guanajuato before successfully running for president. The state overwhelmingly backs his conservative National Action Party (PAN) and elected another PAN governor on July 2.

"[Fox] is well liked by everyone," said mariachi musician Luis Gutierrez, giving his opinion on the prevailing attitude in Dolores Hidalgo.Not surprisingly, he enthusiastically welcomed Fox's last-minute trip, saying, "With this, he's fulfilling his obligation to come and give the grito."

The boost to the local tourism economy was also appreciated. He said business for his nine-member group had improved this year when compared to previous editions of the grito.

"Whenever the president comes, a lot more people make their way here," he explained.Out-of-town-visitors always descend on Dolores Hidalgo for the fiestas patrias (Independence Day holidays), but the president's presence no doubt boosted their numbers. Emilio Turquie, a business consultant from Mexico City, who was on his way to Guanajuato city for a long weekend trip, took a detour through Dolores Hidalgo after hearing where the president would deliver the grito.

"If I were in Mexico City, I wouldn't have gone" to see the grito, he explained.As for the charged political atmosphere engulfing his hometown, he lauded the president for moving the grito instead of risking conflict."I think it was a very responsible act to come here and not go [to the Zocalo,]" he said.

Some long-time grito visitors said the rain and the security accompanying the president's visit dulled last Friday's festivities in Dolores Hidalgo.

"For me, the past years were better than today was," said Pedro Aboytes, a Cortazar, Guanajuato native, who has witnessed the last four gritos in Dolores Hidalgo.

"The party got spoiled."

Lopez Obrador's adherents, of course, ultimately spoiled Fox's final grito. At last Saturday's National Democratic Convention, Lopez Obrador spoke of revolution -- not unlike Miguel Hidalgo, who started the revolutionary process, but lost his life shortly thereafter due to strategic blunders. Lopez Obrador's strategy of disregarding Mexico's institutions could backfire -- PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas recently blasted Lopez Obrador for inflicting harm on the often-disparate Mexican left. But at the very least, his call for peaceful civil resistance and the establishment of a shadow government -- which will be inaugurated on November 20 -- will cause enormous headaches for president-elect Felipe Calderon, who columnist Sergio Sarmiento said "should be worried: It's clear President Fox will leave all of the work to him."

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