AMLO outside the Senate, Monday, October 26

Worker's Party Deputy Mario di Costanzo Tears Apart Carstens Economic Plan

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Update II: the PRI against itself

Quick answer to Sunday's quick update: the PRI deputies are in the thrall of the PRI governors - principally Enrique Peña Nieto, he of the hairdo, governor of the state of Mexico and imminent presidential candidate. Those governors (with the exception of one) are all pushing the avalanche of new taxes becuase they've been bought off with assurances that the states will all get new infusions of cash, which they can subsequently funnel right into their campaigns, and Peña Nieto to his presidential campaign (higher taxes=campaign subsidies). The PRI senators, however, are controlled by Manlio Fabio Beltrones (Don Beltrone of DEA drug legends), the other sure-fire PRI presidential candidate, for whom it is urgent to appear as the hero of the people, the defender of the downtrodden against the new taxes pushed so assiduously by his rival. The advantage of having such an ideologically amorphous party is that it's so very easy to come down squarely on both sides of an issue, no fuss, no muss (certainly not for Peña Nieto's hair), no explanations necessary.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Quick Update: Fiscal Package in the Senate

Hold the phone, your taxes aren't raised just yet. It appears that a PRI-PRD alliance in the Senate is working to eliminate the new taxes from the fiscal package the House of Deputies approved late last week. This includes the proposed raising of the IVA value-added tax from 15% to 16%, raising the ISR income tax 2 points on everyone making over 6,400 pesos a month, a 3% tax on telecommunications, and an increase in the tax (and lowering of the threshold) on cash deposits in bank accounts (IDE). This, after a PRI-PAN alliance steamrolled the presidential proposal through the lower house practically unchanged, despite vociferous protests from the Worker's Party (and the usual equivocations from the PRD). Will somebody explain the PRI, please? Are their Senators more liberal than their Deputies? Have they had a change of heart after seeing the public's disgusted reaction to the proposals? Or - and this is most likely - are they simply trying to have it both ways, voting for the presidential proposals in the House in exchange for favors while trying to give a populist veneer to their machinations by tweaking things a bit before the bill inevitably passes? Votes are expected on Monday. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Assault on "Luz y Fuerza del Centro": Calderón's Step Too Far?

From the very beginning of his ill-fated administration (bizarre televised midnight ceremony with an off-camera voice mysteriously declaring him to be the new "president" of Mexico, followed by a three-minute, through-the-backdoor appearance in Congress for an express swearing-in), Felipe Calderón has handled himself in the office he did not win with the bragadoccio and swagger of an emotional three year-old. Explosive, rancorous and revengeful, dogged by his own illegitimacy like a mythological tyrant, and with a propensity for hitting the bottle which is one the nation's more open of secrets (it is not for nothing that columnist Julio Hernández López has rebaptized Los Pinos, the presidential residence, as Los Vinos), Calderón has been giving, with ever-increasing frequency, the appearance of not being, as they say in Spanish, in his cinco sentidos. The results of such a catastrophic unfitness for office are in plain view: an economy set to tumble between 7 and 8% this year, the worst performance since the Great Depression; tens of thousands dead from a US-funded 'war on drugs' and millions more terrorized; the 2007 floods of Villahermosa provoked by dangerously-high water levels in reservoirs, the result of the shadow privatization of the electric industry; a tardy, bungled response to the swine flu outbreak; increased debt, higher taxes, a currency that has lost 30% of its value over the past year, and an upper-level bureaucracy which jealously retains salaries and benefits fit, literally, for kings.

All this notwithstanding, Calderón has been sustained in office, precisely as the rag doll (pelele) López Obrador contends him to be, by a combination of what in Spanish is called the poderes fácticos (defined by the Real Academia Dictionary as "those who operate in society on the margins of legal institutions by means of the authority or ability to pressure that they possess, e.g. banks, churches, the press). The "fácticos" in question here are, in addition to the aforementioned, are former president Salinas de Gortari; a fistful of super-rich magnates, beneficiaries of government largesse, tax exemptions, and the government's not daring to break up their comfy monopolies; and the television two-fer of Televisa and Tv Azteca (which could hardly be considered "press," so I'm putting them in a separate category). Although it has been touch-and-go at times, and has been helped by divisions within the institutional and non-instutional left, these powers behind the throne have succeeded for three years in keeping Little Lipe in office and more or less upright.

Events of the past week, however, have called into question how much longer they might be able to pull that off. A week ago Saturday (in Mexican terminology, a sabadazo: a move made on a Saturday, when things are closed, people aren't paying as much attention, and there's no TV news again until Monday), Calderón, by means of a patently unconstitutional decree, dissolved the state-owned electric company, Luz y Fuerza del Centro, throwing 40,000 electrical workers out onto the street in the depths of a recession. This was preceeded, as is standard operating procedure when a public service is on the neo-liberal chopping block, by decades of underinvestment and lapsed maintenance, an 'adjusted' fee schedule which raised rates on irate customers tens of times over, and a well-orchestrated campaign in the media to besmirch the reputation of what is the real target of the company's dissolution: the 90-year-old Mexican Electricians' Union, known by its Spanish initials as the SME. In the weeks leading up to the Federal police occupation of the company's installations (leading to power outages and blackouts, which some of the fired, and supposedly incompetent workers were forced to go back in and fix), story after story railed against the government money being sunk into the company and its union, of the inefficiency, corruption and bloated salaries. Before the ink was even dry on Calderón's decree, the move was hailed as practically an act of patriotism: finally those deadbeat unions getting what they deserved by an administration determined to take on those old, ossified structures of privilege.

The problem, of course, is that the average electrical worker makes 6,000 or so pesos a month, hardly the shower of pesos with which deputies, senators, cabinet ministers and judges bathe themselves daily. And while there is undoubtedly corruption in the SME's upper echelons, there is still more in the unions allied to the administration (Pemex, teachers, etc.), not a hair of whose heads are being touched by Felipe the Brave. No, the sin, as always in Mexico, lies not in being a union (whose armies of workers, properly controlled, can be pressed into service like a president's private army), but in being an independent union, anathema since the days of PRI hegemony. The SME both predates and withstood the historical co-opting of unions by the PRI, which resents them (and has supported Calderón's present manuever) precisely for this reason. Moreover, no amount of anti-union rhetoric in the world can cover up the practical motive underlying the dissolution of Luz y Fuerza: the desire to take hold of the company's fiberoptic network for private gain.

The SME's response, last Thursday, was a large, resounding, and combatitive march through Mexico City to the Zocalo, the largest the city has seen since the days of the desafuero and the protests against the fraudulent 2006 election, a rejection of the government's farcical negotiation terms ("first, accept the liquidation, then we'll talk"), and, by and large, and, by and large, a worker-by-worker refusal to be bought by the administration's offers of cash settlements, English and computation classes. The left appears re-energized, and as well it should, for if the attempt to squash the SME succeeds, one of the last bastions of the post-revolution social contract (that that it was) will be gone, and the left's weakness will have been made evident for all to see. If the left, in fact, cannot rally around the SME and take advantage of the discontent caused by 40,000 workers being summarily thrown out into the street, the worst economy in 70 years, and a host of higher taxes to come that will disproportionately hit the middle class and working poor, and convince the general public that there is a different and better way to go about governing the country, if it can't do this under the current conditions, then the right-wing might as well govern forever, and God help us all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


There's no two ways about it: it's a stick-up. Mexico's behemoth Finance Minister Agustin Carstens, he of the 3,000 peso-a-day meal stipend, announced a fiscal package yesterday designed to lead the country directly to penury, or revolution, or both. The proposed changes, designed to cover a 299 billion-peso gap between federal revneues and expenses, amount to a torrent of new taxes such as Mexico has never seen in its history. To whit:

1.) Increase of the top income tax band from 28% to 30%. Fine, and even laudable, if this were only to apply to upper-income earners, but, in this case, the increase of the upper band is going to tug all the bands underneath up with it. Result: if you earn over 4,000 pesos a month, the increase is going to affect you as well.

2.) A brand spanking new tax of 2% on all goods and services, food, medicines and books included, called - and get this - "contribution for the fight against poverty". And when I say it applies to everything, I mean everything, including, yes, things already covered by the 15% IVA tax (raising the effective rate to 17%). Viva la double taxation! According to diphead Carstens, the tax will not in fact hit the poor, as the money paid (by them) will go back into programs designed to help them. Plus, "those who consume more will pay more." Appears that Mr. C. doesn't quite get the concept of a regressive tax. In short (and how sad that a poor blogger has to explain basic economics to a finance minister), 2% of a low income (20 pesos less a month for a minimum wage earner of 1,000 pesos) weighs much, much more than 2% of a large income, which can easily absorb it. In Mexico, poor families spend 80% of their income on food; rich families, less than 2%. Taxing food and medicines, even if the full weight of the IVA is not be thrown onto them as originally considered, is a cruel, cruel way to suck a few more centavos disproportionately out of an already impoverished population.

And plus, once a tax like this is in place - this new 2% goods and services tax - it then becomes very easy to surreptitiously raise it in the future to 3%, then 5%, then 10%....

3.) Increase the tax on cash deposits in bank accounts from 2% to 3% and lower the threshold from 25,000 pesos per month to 15,000. The tax, designed to crack down on the informal economy, in effect becomes another poor tax. The wealthy, who do everything by check and electronic transfer, are not affected. It is hardly the poor's fault that Mexico remains such a cash-oriented economy and that bank accounts are so riddled with commissions and hidden costs that nobody in their right mind would want to have anything to do with one, anyway.

4.) Establish another new tax of 4% on the use of telecommunication services: cell phones, cable TV and internet connections. Again (how many times does this need to be said until someone listens?), a regressive tax that will hit harder on lower-income earners. It could be argued that only more affluent people have cable and internet access (not exactly true when you see how many satellite dishes there are in the poorer barrios), but considering how hard it is to get a land-line telephone (thanks Slim), can the same be said about cell phones?

5.) An increase in "sin" taxes: 80 centavos per pack of cigarettes, a 3 centavo increase on beer from 25% to 28%, and a new tax of 3 pesos per liter on spirits with an over-20% alcohol content. As of 2010, the tax on games of chance and drawings would increase from 20% to 30%. Of all the taxes mentioned so far, these are perhaps the most defensible, as they supposedly penalize "bad" behavior which implies a social cost to society. Needless to say, however, they are also REGRESSIVE TAXES.

6.) Last but most insidious of all, the plan seeks to revive the monthly increases on gasoline and natural gas that plagued us throughout 2008 and were suspended in the spring through public pressure. That means that once again, gasoline and gas prices will go up every month, at the least. The idea here is to withdraw subsidies on imported gasoline and gases in order to "harmonize" (what a lovely word) the prices in Mexico with the prices in countries where, say, people earn twenty times as much. This is a classic catch-22: for years, Mexico's neo-liberal governments have systematically dismantled Mexico's productive capacity in energy, refusing to build new oil refineries, sabotaging already-existing operations, and shadow-privatizing as much as they could of the production chain to crony-capitalist price gougers (the buy-gas-from-Peru-at-the-highest-possible-price-through-Spanish-company-Repsol scheme, amply denounced at the time by Andres Manuel López Obrador, is simply one case in point). Now that Mexico has become prostrate at international feet for gas and gasoline, then is the moment they choose to then withdraw the subsidies that have kept the prices moderately affordable until now.

7.) And on top of all this, the government is borrowing more money anyway from the International Monetary Fund, mortaging Mexico's meager future to the same institution that wields its loans like weapons to force hard-pressed countries to sell their national assets wholesale.

It should come as no surprise that the fiscal package does nothing to genuinely touch or tax the exaggerated salaries of the bloated upper bureaucracy that will be sucking down all these new taxes in the first place; does nothing to reduce the generous tax benefits enjoyed by the large corporations - preferential rates, seemingly-indefinite tax deferrments, and deductions to the point that said companies often receive windfalls back at the close of the year in "overpaid" taxes; does nothing to tax the stock-market speculators who did so much to cause the crisis (how about a transaction tax on every stock market transaction, paid by nationals and internationals alike? How about a speculation tax on stocks bought and sold within a very short lapse of time? How about an old-fashioned capital-gains tax?) and who have been making a mint on the Bank of Mexico's dollar auctions designed to prop up the ailing peso.

If approved by Congress, the new taxes will cause Mexico's economy, already set to fall between 7-8% this year, to flatline. This will depress tax receipts even further, creating new gaps which, if precedent serves as any guide, will be filled - or attempted to be filled (keep your eye on the moving target) by still more of the same. Meanwhile, Rome burns, and Felipe, on his balcony, plays the violin.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Howling with the Wolves

The recent silence from this blog is, more than anything else, semantic in origin, to whit: what need is there to 'Deconstruct' Mexico when, as recent reports have amply demonstrated, Mexico is doing its damndest to deconstruct itself? According to the government's own agency INEGI, the economy collapsed 10.3% in annual terms during the second trimester of this year, the worst drop in 70 years, worse even than the Tequila crisis of 1995. But not to fear: Mexico's one major growth industry (no, not the flu) - poverty - is doing better than ever. According to the World Bank, ten million Mexicans have slipped into poverty between 2006 and 2009, raising the total number of officially poor to 54.8 million, over half of the country's entire population of 107 million. Of the 8.3 million new poor coined in Latin America by the crisis, half of them can be found here. In the midst of such suffering, the government comes out with a whiz-bang idea sure to lift all boats: a new ID card, with fingerprints and biometric information so everybody knows who, and how poor, you are! Meanwhile, the drug bloodbath continues unabated; on a visit to Colombia, the Little Napoleon applauds the US plan to further expand its military presence there, than tries to weasel out of having done so (not to worry, once the transformation of Mexico into Colombia II is complete, there will be no further need for him to travel south and genuflect before Urribe); and when even the "left-wing" government of Mexico City is privatizing water services - in the face of all this, this blog, too, has been one more victim of the torpor.

For his part, López Obrador is doing his best to turn himself into a dyed-in-the-wool oaxaqueño: for the next several months, he will be visiting all of the four hundred-odd muncipalities in the state governed through "usos y costumbres," or town-meeting assemblies, rather than through the party system. This on the heels of his visit, over the last two years, to every one of the over two thousand municipalities in the entire country governed (and I use that word very loosely) through the political party system. Now while these actos de presencia are obviously useful in keeping Obrador's profile high and proving to people that he penetrates into the poorest parts of the country where politicians practically never show there faces, a skeptical mind must inquire as to the organizational value (and the word incessantly on his lips is "organization," building a national organization that won't be caught flat-footed when the next fraud comes along) of making five or six whistlestops a day, making a short, campaign-style speech in each town, and then off to the next. Previously, at all of Obrador's stops, computer modules were set up to enroll people into the "legitimate government" and thus build that national organization, though I understand that has been suspended for the time being (in my and my wife's case, we enrolled in the legitimate government over a year ago and have not been subsequently contacted by anyone, not even a mass e-mail mailing - organization?). Clearly, the movement is organizing in some fashion - there are municipal committees, regional committees, etc. but one can only wonder if it will be enough.

Obrador's other reason for being here is the back-scratching alliance he has formed with Gabino Cué, currently a senator for the Convergencia Party for Oaxaca. In exchange for Obrador's support in Cué's second run for governor in 2010, Cué if he were to win, would provide a base of support for an Obrador candidacy in 2012 (as I mentioned in the last post about "out-of-control federalism", having governors on your side helps a lot in campaigns). All this is well and good - alliances are the mother's milk of politics - but recall, Cué started out in the PAN before becoming a Convergencista and Obrador ally, and it is difficult to conceive how a Cué governship would provide a sea change for Oaxaca (although anything, a pile of dung perhaps, would be better than the current horror). Recall that back in 2006, in the depths of the post-electoral crisis and protests, Obrador ran to Chiapas to help Juan Sabines, a PRIista turned PRDista in this case, get elected governor there, and Chiapas, three years later, is in no way the better for it. One starts to wonder, in short, how much Obrador, despite his anti-institutional rhetoric, is still caught in the stick spiderweb, the illusory maya, of party politics, to the detriment of a more genuine (less contaminated, perhaps) form of consciousness-raising and movement-building. Not to be idealists - in the current scheme of things, a connection with parties is necessary for any viable movement; where the greater danger lies, however, is in the movement being subsumed by the party and its aspirations. And the revolving-door system of party affiliations in Mexico only serves to spin the heads of the public and make them ever-more cynical about anybody standing in any party for any office.

Él que con lobos anda a aullar se enseña goes the expression in Spanish. He who runs with wolves soon learns to howl. What remains to be seen is if the national movement headed by López Obrador will prove to be more than just another electoral vehicle which, by participating in a rotten system, legitimizes and ultimely perpetuates it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Election Round-Up

The PRI victory in last week's legislative elections (36.68% to 27.98% for the PAN and 12.20% for the PRD) can be seen through a variety of prisms:

1.) Mexico as the battered wife, worn down by decades of rising wealth inequality, strength sapped by the emigration of its youngest and strongest to the United States, and even more brutally beaten over the last three years by a road-to-nowhere war against drugs that has sent 12,000, including 12 federal policeman just a few days ago in Michoacan, to their graves in various bits and pieces. After experimenting with life on her own (Mexican democracy 2000-2006 RIP) and finding it, with its frauds, corruption, violence and social unrest, not so easy to manage solo, the bruised wife returns, humilliated, to the devil she knows. Better a regular - and predictable - beating that's been going on for 80 years than having to work things out in a brave, new, PRI-free world. Oh, what a wonderful world that would be...

2.) People didn't really vote for the PRI at all. Well, think about it. Overall turnout was about 44% of registered voters, somewhat higher than the direst predictions of absentionism, but nevertheless, well over half of voters steered well clear of the polls. Of those, over 5% spoiled their ballot papers and 64%, in total, voted against the PRI. Do all the math (somebody else did; I didn't), and about 16% of Mexicans on election day actually went out and voted PRI. They just voted for everybody else even less.

3.) The PRI's never really left power in any event. Ever since the fraudulent administration-less-one of Salinas de Gortari, the PRI cleverly started to allow themselves to lose in certain parts of the country, although retaining control of the strings behind the scenes. Thus, the first gubernatorial wins for the PAN in the 90's and the first municipal victories for the PRD. In this lens, the great "democratic transition" of 2000 was a big sound-and-light show for international consumption, for the oligarchic elite was barely affected a ripple by it, and although a few PRI bureaucrats lost their jobs, the larger interests simply merged smoothly into the PRIAN. After the magna-fraud of 2006, the PAN required the presence of the PRI in Congress for the Little Napoleon to take his Flash-Gordon oath of office, and the PRI hasn't stopped blackmailing them with it ever since.

4.) In a phrase: out-of-control federalism. The PRI may have nominally lost control of the federal government (see point 3 above), but they still control the large majority of governerships, a fact which was further reinforced last week, where the PAN lost just about everything they could possibly lose, and the hapless PRD saw three of its gubernatorial candidates decline in favor of other candidates before the elections even took place! Just as the case of Oaxaca 2006 showed that "sub-national authoritarianism" can be just as brutal, or more so, than federal authoritarianism, the elections of 2009 reinforced the fact that state money can just as well be illegally diverted to vote-buying and palm-greasing as federal money can. In Mexico, the federal government subsidizes a large part of state budgets, but its powers of audit over those very funds are extraordinarily weak. Ergo: effectively blank checks being sent out to all 32 states on a regular basis. Free tacos and a bus ride to the polls, anyone?

And to conclude, the "Deconstructing Mexico" award for the most singular electoral event of 2009 goes to the Mexico City delegation of Ixtapalapa. Here, in a classic example of let's-do-anything-to-screw-López Obrador, the unholy collusion of the "New Left" (Ni Izquierda; see my previous post), Felipe Calderon and his cronies on the Federal Electoral Tribunal did everything in their power to thwart the wishes of the electorate, and came out with egg on their respective faces. The story: Ixtapalapa, population two million, is one of the poorest of Mexico City's delegations. In the primary elections for the PRD (which retained its pre-eminent position in the City in the most recent elections) for the city assembly, the two factions of the party sparred in open combat: the New Left vs. the United Left (Izquierda Unida), the Obrador-supporting bloc led by Alejandro Encinas. In the primary, the United Left candidate, Clara Brugada, handily defeated the New Left candidate. With support from above, the New Left candidate appealed - after the legal deadline for so doing had expired - her appeal was accepted by the Federal Tribunal after being rejected by all local courts, and surprise! the Federal Tribunal (if anyone still has any illusions about their objectivity, please look into medication) annulled just enough precincts to erase the 5,000 vote margin and hand the victory to Brugada's opponent, although they waited long enough so that the ballots had already been printed with Brugada's name as the putative PRD candidate! The response was swift and organized: in a matter of weeks, López Obrador rallied his supporters to vote for the Worker's Party (PT), which candidate, in the case that he won, agreed to decline in favor of Brugada taking her rightful seat. In sum, voters in a very poor district had to be informed in a couple of short weeks that, if they wanted to vote for Clara Brugada, they were going to have to vote against Clara Brugada, even though Clara Brugada's name was going to be on the ballot. Confused? The voters of Ixtapalapa weren't. Turning their backs on the PRD, they handed the Worker's Party a handy majority in last week's elections, Clara Brugada goes to the Assembly despite everything against her, and López Obrador remains in the ring for one more round.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Coming Electoral Debacle

Mexico slips and slides towards its July 5th mid-term election rendez-vous with belief in the legitimacy of the electoral - or any other governmental - institutions at an all time low. Turnout is expected to be an anemic 30% at best, and of that 30%, a growing campaign to spoil the ballot paper with one big X is gaining ground even among people who usually don't agree on anything else. The result could be - even given the highly dubious premise of an above-board election - a pack of 500 diputados (deputies, members of Mexico's lower house known as the Camara di Diputados) each elected by a third or so of 30%, plus the ballot spoilers, making for a plurality of less than 10% of the adult, voting-age population in their districts.

Low turnouts, of course, help the party with the best get-out-the-vote machine and core of loyal - or simply purchased - voters (known in Mexico as the "hard vote," or voto duro, traditionally made up of loyal "unions" and other organizations whose members vote as blocs), and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has 70+ years of experience in getting people to mark their any means necessary. As for the foundering PAN, eager to avoid an argument over the tanking economy, the tack continues to be to point menacingly at enemies within and without: viruses (I saved the world from swine flu, contends an inebriated-looking Calderon on national television) and drugs (Support the President in his fight against organized crime, implores party propoganda) and to count on a potential alliance with the national teachers' union headed by Elba Esther Gordillo and good, old-fashioned governmental vote-rigging to avoid an otherwise-cataclysmic result. And as for the floundering PRD (the PAN founders, the PRD flounders), divided between the New Left (Nueva Izquierda or "NI," which columinst Julio Hernández has suggested truly stands for Ni Izquierda: Not the Left) -which with outside help and yet another baseless ruling by the Electoral Tribunal has taken control of the party machinery - and supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, "divided we fall" takes on a whole new, and imminent meaning.

In response to the New-Left hijacking of the PRD, and the refusal on its part to re-establish the three-party "Por el Bien de Todos" coalition of 2006, López Obrador has been urging his supporters in most of the country to vote for the other two members of that coalition: Convergencia and the Worker's Party, or PT. The strategy here is two-fold: first, to spank the national PRD machinery, led by Jesus Ortega, and the state parties in places where they have effectively sold out (Obrador is supporting PRD candidates only in Mexico City and his home state of Tabasco); and second, to ensure that the other two parties get enough votes to maintain their registros - or registries, government funds for parties that exceed a 2% vote threshold. This is all part of Obrador's one foot in-one foot out dance with the party he helped found - hoping to be the party's standard bearer once again in 2012 by maintaining other avenues open in case the path becomes blocked if anyone by Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who has already all-but-openly declared his candidacy, as well as to maintain a loyal wedge of deputies in Congress over and against the Ortega-ite wing of the PRD, known as the Chuchos.

So look for a new Congress with the PRIAN (the PRI-PAN duopoly) majority at least as large as the current one, if not larger, with the coopted sectors of the PRD added on, leaving little room open to the citizens' movement that struggled so hard, and successfully, to avoid PEMEX being privatized in the last session. Look for PEMEX privatization to be back on the table, as well as the proposal killed off in the Fox years to extend the value-added IVA tax to food and medicines, another blow to a recession-weary public, and Calderon's continued push for expanded executive powers that has even Senator 'Don' Beltrones openly worried about the progression of the nation in the direction of fascism (see Calderon's machine-gun military arrests of ten elected officials in Michoacan, without charges). In legislative terms, in short, things do not bode well for the next three years. What the non-party movements will be able to achieve on the streets through their activism is the only speck of hope on a gray legislative horizon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Mexican" Flu: the 9/11 Katrina

Though Felipe Calderón has been trying his best to turn the Swine Flu Scare of 2009 into his personal 9/11, a quick look at the facts shows the resemblance to much closer with Hurricaine Katrina. Then again, if we are talking about 9/11 in terms of governmental negligence on a grand scale, the comparison is also apt. Now that the dust is settling, for the moment, on the worst of the hysteria, let's take a walk down Influenza Lane and see how that heady brew of corruption, incompetence and neo-liberal philosophy combined to make the Mexican Government the world's laughingstock.

First, the neoliberal philosphy: cut governmental services. In this case, the closing of the National Hygiene Institute and the National Virology Institute - whose job it was to investigate viral strains and to design vaccinations to combat them - under Ernesto Zedillo (and no doubt applauded by the IMF, which has recently extended a new loan to Mexico, keeping it under its yoke). This left only Birmex, the public laboratories for biology and reagents, but Vicente Fox did the work here, dismentaling the labs and privatizing them. The coup de grace was provided by the Little Napoleon himself, Calderón, whose 2009 budget reduced funds for epidemiological vigilance by 3.5%, a capper on years of underfunding of the Health Secretariat and the IMSS (private sector workers) and ISSSTE (government workers) health services. This to mention the privatizing of pensions and the funneling of these funds to the banks and the stock market, removing one of these institutions' main means of support.

Now, the incompetence. As far back as December of 2008 (earlier than I had known when I wrote my previous post), there was an outbreak of a serious respiratory sickness in La Gloria, Veracruz. Townspeople, who have protested for years against the presence of Granjas Carroll, owned by Smithfield Foods (see Jeff Tietz's 2006 exposé of Smithfield in Rolling Stone: sounded the alarm, but little was done except to spray the pig shit piles with insecticide. Here is where the index case of swine flu was discovered in Edgar Hernández. Between the 10th and 20th of March, the World Health Organization, according to their April 29th report, asked Mexico for information about what was happening in La Gloria, and got a response which was apparently somwhere between Homer Simpson and Alfred E. Neuman. In the following month, 47 more cases of severe pneumonia were reported in various parts of the country, 12 of which proved fatal, but the government kept a lid on things, according to some analysts in order to avoid the canceling of Barack Obama's visit to Mexico - thus potentially putting the US President at lethal risk and even infecting one of his bodyguards, according to some reports, with the influenza. With all of this, it wasn't until April 13th that the first samples of infected persons were taken, which were not sent off until April 22nd, and the startling analysis came back on the 23rd. And so the panic began: schools and offices closed, people told to stay home, wildly gyrating reports of contagions and deaths, and most ominously, a presidential decree - which remains in force - allowing the government to enter into homes without a warrant, to quarantine people indefinitely, and to break up public demonstrations, all on health grounds. Four days after the alert, a laboratory was finally set up to track the outbreak. To effectively do so, 500 samples a day were needed; the laboratory was equipped to handle 15.

As it turned out, this flu is not lethal if treated on time, and practically very few have died in other countries, but Mexico's shabby health system, after first skimping for years on prevention, ignoring the problem when it did break out and then allowing it to spread, was unable to respond by identifying and attending to victims in time, leading to a host of unnecessary deaths. Instead, the governmental response was all propganda and jingoism: Calderón's embarrassing televised speech claiming that Mexico had "defended all of humanity" against the propogation of the virus, his bullying of countries that took sovereign measures to prevent the contagion from entering their countries, including a remarkably crude broadside against Haiti, which refused to let in a Mexican food donation: "They die of hunger there, not of the flu!", and the blatant use of this "firm response" to the crisis for electoral purposes by the PAN. The government's overreaction, in the midst of a recession, led to a drop in tourism, a swathe of bad press and protests from other countries that may shave yet another point off Mexico's nosedive in GDP for this year. To sum it up, in the words of the remarkable political cartoonist "El Fisgon":

"Thus, due to deficiencies in the health sector, the virus was detected late, the danger of it was exaggerated, people died who shouldn't have and, belatedly, radical measures were applied which were unncessary and damaged our economy, affecting our lives and sowing panic across the world."

And...the corruption. Whether or not Granjas Carroll provided the toxic brew where this particular virus was born (and the index case being next door warrants an exhaustive investigation which will never happen), its practices are a known and open scandal. As Al Giordano suggests (, this might as well be called the NAFTA flu. Smithfield, which had been forced by the EPA to build a sewage treatment plant and clean up their act even in the Reagan 80's, came down to Mexico to open Granjas Carroll the very same year NAFTA passed, in 1994. Simply put, "the so-called "swine flu" exploded because an environmental disaster simply Mexico where environmental and worker safety laws, if they exist, are not enforced against powerful multinational corporations." And why aren't they? Because Verazruz's governor, Fidel Herrera - who put down the protests against the Granjas in La Gloria with an iron fist, and once news was out, lashed around for a culprit for the disaster: China! Puebla! - for one is in bed with Smithfield ( And because the Granjas Carroll perform their own testing which always comes out - surprise! - squeaky clean.

It's a long, sad, but predictable story. And, absent any change, which appears unlikely, it is one that is bound to repeat itself, and with something much more serious than Swine Flu has so far turned out to be. Ignore the problem, propitiate the problem, exaggerate the problem, manipulate the problem - a winning combination!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Swine Flu Disinformation Show

In the world, flu paranoia reigns, the WHO raising its alert level for the imminent swine flu pandemic to 5, one below its maximum alert level of 6. In Mexico, what reigns is the typical circus of government obfuscation, incompetence and contradiction: what a day before was 159 swine flu deaths has magically dropped, in Benjamin Button-like fashion, to 7 (one can imagine Calderón and Dr. Miguel Angel Lazana, the head of epidimiological vigilance for the Health Secretariat - where incidentally, according to a reporter for El País, nobody is bothering to wear face masks - running the car backward like Ferris Bueller to get the flu odometer back where it started. Okay, two movie references in one sentence: enough). The other 150 now only "huelen" (smell) of influenza. Keep in mind that, for lack of viral assay technology, Mexico has had to send its swabs to a laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada, in order to identify the strain's genome, as Mike Davis reports, wasting a week in the process. Maybe the non-swine cases picked up some other kind of smell on the way there or back.

The question has then been clearly begged: if Ferris Calderón and Co. (same movie reference again, so it doesn't count) have managed to push the number of definitive swine-flu deaths back to 7, or 10, or even 20 (and without even the participation of the Federal Electoral Institute in such magic numbers, as Julio Hernandez pointed out), and if in the United States there has been 1 death of a Mexican infant in Houston, why the world pandemic level of five? Seasonal influenzas kill thousands of people every year. Well, apparently, this is a new virus, a mixture of swine and avian and who knows what else, which there is no history of human immunity to, so contagion could be quick and the consequences severe. So where, then, would such a new virus come from? In Mexico (and with belated interest by the international press), speculation is swirling around the American company Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork packer and hog producer, which is part-owner of a subisidary known as Granjas Carroll (along with Agroindustrias de México) in the Perote Valley in the State of Veracruz, in operation since 1994. Smithfield, which was hit by a enormous civil suit ($1.285 million dollars) in 1985 for violating the US Clean Water Act and $12.6 million dollar judgment in 1996 for falsifying documents and polluting the.Pagan River, through its Granjas Carroll subsidiary, has long been the target of local protests in Veracruz due to the horrible conditions of its 800,000 pig-a-year operations. Residents in surrounding areas, who have been subject to lawsuits for their activism, have complained about the clouds of flies surrounding the manure lagoons formed by such enormous mega-farms, or as they are called in the industry, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). (see:

Without going into the entire timeline, in the nearby town of La Gloria, people started getting sick back in February. As the Times reports (see above link): "Health workers soon intervened, sealing off the town and spraying chemicals to kill the flies that were reportedly swarming through people’s homes." It was here where the first case of swine flu was definitively registered, of a 4 year old named Edgar Hernández (who fortunately has since recovered). As the Times also reports, this is the area famous for the 400 Pueblos, the 400 towns who allege the government stole their land back in 1992. A full 60% of La Gloria's population of 3,000 had sought medical assistance for flu symptoms and respiratory illness.

So if people are wearing masks that the Health Secretariat itself admits doesn't stop contagion, if the number of confirmed swine flu deaths is now apparently falling instead of rising, if flu vaccine shots that used to cost $400 pesos are now being sold in Oaxaca for $1,000 pesos (as a doctor confirmed to me yesterday) and can't even stop such a "new virus" at that, if attention is conveniently being diverted away from the 10,000 deaths from the drug war and the fat new $47 billion loan Mexico has just taken out from the IMF, if the military now has another reason to be out patrolling the streets, what are we to believe? I suppose all we can do is emulate the Mexican Government, which must be obsessively washing its hands at this very moment. Certain stains, however, do not come off.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Meeting in the Zocalo: March 22, 2009 (report)

As Andres Manuel López Obrador steps down from the template after addressing another chock-full meeting in Mexico City's Zocalo, today's blog will be dedicated to a run-down of the events.

The meeting began with an announcement of the formation of Municipal Committees for the Legitimate Government. This follows on yesterday's meeting of 12,000 members of these Municipal Committees, the goal of which are to represent the Legitimate Government in every town and city in the country, and enroll as many people in the legimate government as electors who voted for López Obrador's coalition in the last election - 15 million. Obrador will be making another sweep through each state's capitals from June 1st to the 15th to assist in the establishment of the committees.

Following an eloquent address by Laura Esquivel, most well-known in the United States for her novel "Like Water for Chocolate," Senator Ricardo Monreal of the Worker's Party (PT) took to the stage, and focused his remarks on denouncing five major atrocities in current government policy:
1.) the government's depleting of its dollar reserves in propping up the peso. Who gains, asks Monreal, from buying up cheap dollars from Mexico's Federal Reserve and speculating on them? And why is the announced policy of support for the peso only to last until July, when the legislative elections will be taking place? Will the peso be allowed to go into free-fall after then?
2.) the government's supposed help for small businesses to weather the crisis, 80% of which is actually going to large, oligarchic consortiums such as Soriana, Coppel, Chedraui and Feromex. The government is simply using its anti-crisis funds to buy up the debt of these large consortiums, charged Monreal, acting as their guarantor. Not coincidentally, these are the same companies that supported the electoral fraud of 2006, proselytzing with their employees and contibuting to the media "dirty war".
3.) usurious interest rates on credit cards and banking services. Banks charge for everything, Monreal pointed out, even to the point of charging to close an account. Not suprisingly, the banks are the only institutions reporting profits to their mother nations in this time of crisis. Monreal reported a recent meeting of bankers, where the charges of usury were brushed off: "local lending institutions charge even more!"
4.) Banamex operating illegally. The United States of America, through its bailout of the Citigroup, is now the largest shareholder in Banamex. This is prohibited by the Mexican Constittion and even NAFTA, but Treasury Secretary Carstens is doing nothing about it, preferring instead to offer a three-year waiting period to see if the situation resolves itself.
5.) PEMEX is now giving concessions in blocks of territory to private companies for underground explotation of resources, exactly what the movement warned about when the Pemex law was passed late last year. Of the four counselors recently chosen to form part of Pemex's governing board, none of whom meets the legal requirements: 10 years of experience in the field and no political party connections. In fact, all of the four counselors have party ties: 2 to the PAN, 1 to the PRI and 1 to the PRD hierarchy.

López Obrador began his speech with the gains an unfinished business left with the Pemex issue. The movement succeeded in avoiding privatization of Pemex, but the work remains to avoid the block concessions of exclusive areas that Senator Monreal mentioned, to avoid the endemic corruption of Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), and to prevent Mexico's oil to continue being produced as a raw material for export and instead be used for the domestic production of gasoline ad petrochemical products.

As regards the economic crisis, he reiterated the movement's demands for reductions in the prices of electricity, gasoline and diesel, a reduction in interest rates for loans and mortgages, and a reduction of $200 billion pesos in unnecessary government spending which could be funnelled into social spending: interest-free loans to farmers, advances in health care and education, among others. He also called for the IETU (the flat-rate tax on businesses and the self-employed) tax to be abolished and for pension moneys which were invested in the stock market and losing their value to be protected by the government.

For those who may think our labors are futile, he reminded, without it, things would be a lot worse: Pemex would have been completely privatized and the economic crisis would be even worse. The government was forced into announcing they will build an oil refinery, he noted, after saying there was no money for it. The movement has also forced the government's hand into providing pensions for senior citizens in towns with populations of less than 30,000. Furthermore, a law to set maximum salaries for government officials - which could reduce bloated bureaucratic salaries up to 50% - has been approved in committee and awaits approval by both Houses of Congress. A rally will be held outside of Congress the following Wednesday in support of the bill.

Obrador praised the city government of Mexico City for freezing the cost of the subway at 2 pesos, for providing scholarships for students, increasing medical attention and initiating a program of free medications, and for setting up 300 eateries to make sure people do not go hungry during the crisis. On the national level, the legitimate government is setting up support centers in the capitals of each state to provide legal assistance to people burdened with excessive charges on credit cards, loans and mortgages.

Obrador has recently finished a two-year tour of every single one of the 2,038 municipalities in the country which operate on the political-party system. There remains, he pointed out, the 438 indigenous pueblos in Oaxaca governed by "usos y costumbres" (town meeting government) which he will be hitting later this year. "I am going to live in Oaxaca for a while," he noted.

He further lauded the establishing of the Municipal Committees for the Legitimate Government, which will have four tasks: 1.) organization - "we learned our lesson from 2006," he noted; 2.) support the development of democracy; 3.) support the "people's economy"; 4.) form a national network of information and communication, a nation-wide alternative news and information service, including the establishment of a weekly informative bulletin.

With respect to the national legislative elections in July, besides the standard rallying cry of "Not one vote for the PAN, not one vote for the PRI," Obrador left to each person's criteria which of the parties of the the 2006 coalition to vote for this year: either the PRD, or the "Save Mexico" coalition comrised of Convergencia and the Worker's Party (PT). Personally, he announced, he will be support the Save Mexico Coalition in Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca, and the PRD in Mexico City and Tabasco. The rest of the country he did not mention.

He concluded with a reminder that wealth and privilege in Mexico are more concentrated now than before the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Then, 300 families controlled the wealth of the nation; now, it is 20 or 30. We must form a new republic, one where people are valued for their honesty, and especially, by their generosity. With his standard recitation of Vivas!, Obrador left the stage and the National Movement for the Defense of Oil and the People's Economy returned to its labors.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Deconstructing Mexico (Literally)

Suddenly, the word "Mexico" is on everyone's lips - drug-infested narco Mexico, that is, the shadowy projection of America's sunny, white, What-me-bomb? ego consciousness. Defense Secretary Robert Gates goes on Meet the Press to discuss putting aside some of the "old biases" against "cooperation with our - between our miliaries and so on." Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen briefs Obama on what his own Pentagon has conscpicuously labeled as a future failed state, and suggests borrowing from U.S. tactics in the war against terrorism to help Mexico in its drug fight, including the prospect of joint miliary operations; President Obama was reported to be "very interested in what kind of military capabilities could be applied." The governor of Texas calls for the border with Mexico to be militarized, with the military, the National Guard, Customs Agents, whoever. At a ceremony to name a new drug czar, and in the context of bringing about "the demise of the Mexican drug cartels," Vice President Biden suggests that "we've done this before. We did it in Cartagena -- I mean, excuse me, not Cartagena, we did it in Colombia, in Medellin." It has gotten to the point where little Don Lipe, the man who considers himself to be the President of Mexico, has felt it necessary to deny imminent US military involvement in Mexico. Alleging the existence of an international smear campaign designed to make Mexico look bad, Don Lipe goes on to deny that any part of the Federal Government is not in control of certain parts of its territory: "I'll take you there myself," he says with tremulous bravado at a business forum.

US policy towards Mexico is the moral, psychological and practical equivalent of forcing medieval Jews into money-lending, then blaming them for being usurers. The US needs its drug fix just like medieval Christians needed their money lent; better, however, to let a series of faceless Shylocks in their locked-away ghetto take care of the actual grubby business of lending, or in this case, a series of faceless Juans, shipping their merchandise past the borders of their locked-away nation so that a legion of doctors' sons can slip off and do a few lines behind the prep school gymansium.

And would that it stopped at mere demand for drugs. In fact, it is the United States that is arming Mexico to the teeth, either officially, through the Plan Mexico, the first $400 million dollars of which have just been disbursed for the purchase of "Bell helicopters, CASA maritime patrol planes, surveillance software, and other goods and services produced by US private defense contractors," or illegally through arms bought at US gun shops, often by US citizens, and smuggled into Mexico, undercutting Mexico's laudably stiff restrictions on the purchase of firearms. Both Mexican and US officials agree that over 90% of the weapons being used by Mexican drug cartels, including high-powered assault weapons, come straight from gun dealers in Texas, California and Arizona, thanks in large part, as ABC news put it, to "lenient American gun laws." John Smith provides the arms; Juan Pérez dies.

And if any further reminder is needed as to why American military intervention (disguised as "joint operations") in Mexico would be an unmitigated disaster, just have a look at the plan that Plan Mexico was based on: Plan Colombia. At a price tag of $6 billion dollars so far, Plan Colombia doesn't have much to recommend itself. As Robert Naiman reports, "an October report from the Government Accountability Office found that coca-leaf production in Colombia had increased by 15 percent and cocaine production had increased by 4 percent between 2000 and 2006." Human rights have fallen by the wayside: "Washington supports the Colombian government, and therefore the Colombian government can do whatever it wants without restraint." And does, from sending a bombing raid into neighboring Ecuador (Colombian President Uribe as a Latin American Nixon in Cambodia) to tarnishing human rights critics as members of an international guerrilla bloc, causing even members of the US Congress to fear openly for the human rights workers' lives. Result: following El Salvador's election last Sunday, the two remaining Latin American countries with propped up right-wing governments are...well yes, Colombia and Mexico.

But, as a certain Fr. Tothus reminds us in the comments string at the bottom of Robert Naiman's piece (, it is difficult to be too cynical about what the real motives for Plan Colombia were. He writes:

Stop the drug flow? Human rights? This was never the intent. Plan Columbia's farcical premise was quite successful in providing cover for the actual US corporate aims, however. It provides a cover for US military "training" of quislings ready to overthrow a populist regime. It destroys native farmers and resistance to US Agro imports, impoverishes and starves the already poor. The cash generated keeps Wall Street busy laundering it, and provides funds for further US covert ops against official enemies. The drugs then find their way into American inner cities courtesy of our very own CIA. Meanwhile (surprise) it turns out that it is really a war on only certain drugs. Certainly not the world's deadliest - tobacco - which Columbia (among others) is forced to import and forced to allow advertising for, or US corporate Big Pharma. By US standards, Columbia ought to have the right to fund militant anti-US government groups, bomb our corn fields, and defoliate the Carolinas at the very least.

Mexico is teetering on the edge of this same fate, and Uncle Sam is its enabling accomplice.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mexico: On the Verge of Collapse?

Apocalyptic predictions about everything from dimes to donuts abound on the internet, and are often worth about a handful of the former or a dozen of the latter. But if the country in question is Mexico, and the year in question 2009, the only risk involved in making forecasts would be to understate the case. Things are, indeed, dire. How dire? Let's take a look.
  • The peso has tumbled to 15.30 pesos to the dollar, a 50% devaluation in six months. The Mexican Central Bank continues to auction off dollars in an attempt to halt the slide that has so far done nothing more than, arguably, slow it down somewhat, and - no argument needed - make a fistful of currency speculators even richer. At the moment, the Central Bank is sitting on reserves of 80 billion dollars. At the current rate of hemmorhage - about a billion a week - that's 80 weeks before Mexico becomes another Argentina. And the worst is yet to come, economically speaking, for the second half of 2009.
  • Narco-violence increases and disseminates itself, unabated, making a mockery of the idea that the state "holds the legitimate monopoly on violence." The Mexican government has effectively lost control of large swathes of territory - and not only on the northern border - where the drug cartels run the show, charge taxes, and operate their own mechanisms of justice (the death penalty being the preferred form of punishment).
  • And even if the government had the monopoly on violence, it would still not be "legitimate." Half of Mexico - and growing - considers Calderon to be an illegitmate imposter in office, installed via electoral fraud and maintained there through the mass media and the propogation of fear in the form of "his" drug war (L'État, c'est moi.). Over 8,000 Mexicans have lost their lives in this "war" since Calderon took office - doublt the amount of American soldiers killed in Iraq in six years. The result? To turn the drug cartels - bad enough as they already were - into para-military organizations, armed to the teeth with the American weaponry that inevitably finds its way into their hands.
  • The Mexican government is top-heavy in the extreme, with a non-existent separation of powers. In 2009, more than half the budget is going to paying the disproportionate salaries of the bureaucracy. Just to give an example, the members of the Supreme Court have just raised their salaries to 347,647 pesos base salary per month, plus bi-weekly bonuses, vacation bonuses (50% of ten days of their salary for each vacation period), a Christmas bonus of 40-days salary, two vehicles at their disposal, free cell phone and wireless internet use, a food budget, life insurance, retirement pension and health insurance. The President of the Court, Ortiz Mayagoitia, and Mariano Azuela, the Senior Member (he who plotted the desafuero of López Obrador with Vicente Fox), also receive special other perks, including three, tri-monthly bonuses of an extra month's worth of salary each. The collective cost of all of this is practically 10 million pesos per Justice per year; at 11 Justices on the Court, that's 110 million pesos annually. This is the same Court, mind, that ruled that the journalist Lydia Cacho was not tortured, threw out the case for abuses in Atenco, and refused to hear the appeal of the 2006 election, despite being constitutionally empowered to do so. This same week, the Federal Electoral Institute had to reverse course and cancel its planned 45% salary increase for its councilors in the face of bristling popular opposition.
  • Meanwhile, according to INEGI, 890 Mexicans are currently losing their jobs every 24 hours. Mexican exports are down 30% this year, falling to a historic low, despite the weak peso making the goods half as cheap. Inflation, meanwhile, continues to rise due to consequently more-expensive imports and the increases in electricity, natural gas, gasoline and diesel, the last of which has transport workers demonstrating and striking across the country.
  • The Pentagon comes out with a report putting Mexico in the same category as Pakistan in terms of potential failed states, a State Department report this past week lamented the country's excreable human-rights record, troop reinforcements are sent to Texas to protect the border, and, as of this week, the number one shareholder in the National Bank of Mexico is now...Uncle Sam!

Put all of this together and stir, then add a pinch of the legislative elections set for this July, elections which Calderon & Co. have been trying to interfere in and rig in any way possible over the last three years and which nobody except the candidates themselves seem to have any faith in as a mechanism of democratic governance, and you see why the odds of imminent collapse in Mexico, unless drastic action is taken (but by whom?), is an ever more-real possibility.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Commented Version of NY Times Piece: "Economic Decline Lifts the Prospects of a Vocal Populist"

Last week, The New York Times realized that López Obrador, and the movement he represents, is still a key force in Mexican politics. "Deconstructing Mexico" has decided to celebrate this belated realization by providing a running commentary in italics below on Elisabeth Malkin's perceptive and judicious piece.

Economic Decline Lifts the Prospects of a Vocal Populist
by Elisabeth Malkin
Published in The New York Times, February 3, 2009

MEXICO CITY — As the year began, the dominant political figure of Mexico’s left appeared to be heading swiftly toward irrelevance.
But Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not dead yet.
Only two years ago, Amlo, as he is known, was the driving force in Mexico’s polarized politics. After he narrowly lost the presidency and led months of street protests charging that it had been stolen from him, politics boiled down to one issue: who was for him and who was against.
Last year, his hold on public attention began to falter. The public, the news media and many of his supporters had simply moved on, letting the turmoil of the 2006 election fade into history.

Funny that the Mexican Secret Service, the CISEN, has been following Lopez Obrador to all of his rallies since 2006. As for the news media, especially the TV, I wouldn't call systemically shutting him out of their coverage in collusion with the higher-ups the same thing as "moving on," exactly.

But there are signs that the efforts of Mr. López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, to revive his political career may be gaining traction, as a deepening recession creates opportunities for his brand of economic populism.

"Populism," "vocal populist," as the title of the article has it. In my experience, all politicians are vocal - it's practically a job requirement. Why don't you just call him a "shrill agitator," Liz, and get it over with?

The question now is whether he can capitalize on that momentum to remake and expand the coalition that brought him to within a hair’s breadth of the presidency.

Funny how little of the direct evidence of fraud in 2006 made its way into the pages of the everything-that's-fit-to-print Times. Must have been a simple editorial oversight.

At a rally last week in Mexico City’s immense central square, the Zócalo, Mr. López Obrador, 55, drew tens of thousands of supporters. Though the crowd paled beside the hundreds of thousands who attended his rallies at the peak of the 2006 presidential campaign, it was significantly larger than that at any of his rallies in the previous year.
Unlike his campaign events, it was conducted without the benefit of his party’s machinery, which used to truck in supporters from around the country, demonstrating a substantial base of hard-core support.

A key point: people are participating in this out of their own volition, not for a boxed lunch and a T-shirt.

Saying that the economy will only get worse, Mr. López Obrador announced a campaign to press the government to cut wasteful spending, lower consumer prices and taxes, and do more for the poor.
“Our movement must continue demanding a change in economic policy, which has demonstrated its failure,” he said. “The model must be changed. You cannot put new wine in old bottles.”
The words clearly resonated with his poor and working-class base.
“We think he really can change things, so that people have the right to decide,” said Aide Florentino, 27, a member of a small garment cooperative in the rural southern part of Mexico City.
“It’s not important if López Obrador is the president,” said Víctor Baltasar, 49, who traveled to the rally from Guadalajara, where he is a supervisor for the city’s train system. “What’s important is that things change.”

This is a remarkably insightful opinion on the part of Mr. Baltasar that the press would do well to pick up on. The goal of this movement is to transform the country, not simply to install one person, or a series of people, in office so that they, too, can be co-opted.

But rising anxiety over the economy may be broadening his appeal. Despite government measures aimed at stimulating the economy and buffering households against the worst effects of the crisis, there is a widespread clamor to do more, from constituencies as varied as business groups and poor peasants and fishermen. That demand could alter the political calculus.

What government measures are you referring to exactly, Liz? The IETU tax? Higher electricity prices? Gas prices that were going up every week until public clamor put a stop to it? The diesel that keeps going up and has the fishermen out on strike? The pathetic two-peso minimum wage increase while the price of milk, tortillas and other staple items are going through the roof? The Afore retirement accounts that have been eviscerated by bad investments and ridiculous bank commisions? If you know something we don't, please come down to Oaxaca and tell us - I've got some neighbors who are pretty desperate to hear some good news.

“Mexico is fundamentally a conservative country,” said Federico Estévez, a political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “But in 2009, the cards are different.”
Referring to the left, he said, “I think they’re holding a wild card or a couple of aces.”

Hello, sweeping generalization. Mexico has one of the world's most progressive constitutions, has been through two revolutions, succeeded in nationalizing its oil right on the eve of the second world war, has the most-powerful empire in the history of humanity to the north aiding and abetting the country's right-wing and whose major media are in the control of two conglomerates who thumb their noses at the government and the rule of law. If the playing field were even close to level, such a comment might be even close to relevant.

With the next presidential election three years off, Mr. López Obrador’s precise ambitions are unclear. He calls his new campaign a social movement and clearly aims to be a force to be reckoned with.
But his relationship with his own party remains fraught. Last year he lost a battle with a rival faction over the presidency of the party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or P.R.D., and he no longer holds any official position in the party or in government.
The low point came last fall, when most of the senators from his party broke with him to approve an important energy bill, as his supporters scuffled with police officers in an attempt to block the vote.
To many who had backed his presidential bid, Mr. López Obrador's street-brawling political style had become a liability.

You mean the energy bill that was approved only after Lopez Obrador and his movement succeeded in getting the most toxic provisions removed from it? And hey, love those terms "scuffled with police" and "street-brawling style": how many more ways can we make a non-violent movement sound menacing to the American readership?

His campaign to overturn the results of the 2006 election, which he lost by only six-tenths of 1 percent of the total vote to Felipe Calderón, consisted of mass rallies and a tent city that shut major avenues in the capital for weeks. Refusing to concede, even after the country’s highest electoral court ruled in favor of Mr. Calderón, he held a grand public ceremony in which he had himself sworn in as the “legitimate president” of Mexico, a title he continues to claim.

Boy, the Electoral Tribunal sure must be happy that the Times still takes them seriously, seeing as nobody else does.

Such antics have damaged the party’s reputation, officials say.

Two words stand out, here. First, "antics." It may be easy to sneer from the comfort of your bureau office, Liz, but for millions of Mexicans, the whole point of the legitimate government is to end the republic of simulation and to build a real republic in its stead. By extension, our Declaration of Independence, promulgated by a bunch of lawyers in Philadelphia who had less popular support at that time then Obrador does now and who were engaged in a war that appeared hopeless at the time, could (and probably was) just as easily have been labeled "antics." And then there is the great line, "officials say." By definition, "officials" would be people in Calderon's administration, who would say just that, wouldn't they? Or are we talking about PRD party officials nominated by Jesús Ortega? It might help readers ascertain what point of view these "officials" are coming from if they actually had names.

Jesús Ortega, the party president, who defeated Mr. López Obrador’s choice for the post, said the party’s polling showed that two-thirds of Mexicans identified the P.R.D. as disruptive.
Moreover, the polls put the party in third place for midterm elections in July, when voters will elect all 500 members of Mexico’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The party is currently projected to win 18 percent of the vote, half its showing in 2006.

Recently, the illustrious Federal Electoral Tribunal (see above) stripped the victory away from the PRD in two municipal elections, under the argument that some priest had improperly gotten involved in the campaign. Conclusion: even when the PRD wins, they're not allowed to. Not much has changed since the days of Salinas.

While Mr. López Obrador’s popularity catapulted it in 2006 from the third largest to the second largest party in Congress, the party now stands to lose many of the seats it picked up then.
Mr. Ortega, while shying away from blaming Mr. López Obrador for the decline of the party, made it clear that he wanted to remake its image into that of a party closer to social democratic governing parties in Chile and Brazil, and that street blockades were not in the plans.
“Protests against injustice should not affect citizens’ rights,” Mr. Ortega said. “We have to learn to fight within the limits of the law.”

Which includes stuffing ballot boxes and playing ball with PRI governors in order to win your own party's presidency, right Chuy?

The party has begun running gauzy television spots asking voters for their forgiveness and declaring its willingness to work with other parties, a pointed contrast with Mr. López Obrador’s campaign of permanent harassment.

You say "harrassment," I say "resistance." Shall we call the whole thing off?

Publicly at least, Mr. López Obrador and his party say they have worked through their differences. Analysts say neither one can afford a split. “If the left as a whole doesn’t recoup before the elections on the basis of economic issues alone,” Mr. Estévez said, “then they really have no chance of ever ruling.”

True, and I think we're all coming to realize that, however much one may hate the co-oped, bought-and-sold PRD.

Mr. López Obrador needs the structure and resources a large party provides, analysts said. And the party cannot jettison its most charismatic politician.
“The P.R.D. realizes they can’t give him up,” said Daniel M. Lund, a pollster who has done work for Mr. López Obrador, but not since 2004. “If the P.R.D. breaks with López Obrador, they will go to single digits.”

Why was it so important to point out that he worked for Obrador, but "not since 2004?" I've been to the bathroom today, but not since ten o'clock.

Where that leaves Mr. López Obrador’s movement is uncertain. Although 2012 is a long way off, none of the party’s current leaders have anywhere near his larger-than-life stature as a potential presidential contender.
What is evident is that while talk of a comeback may be premature, so was writing him off.
“He’s a charismatic, intuitive politician,” said Joy Langston, an analyst with the CIDE, a Mexico City research institution. “He not only knows how to win over the masses but also to govern in a way that continues his popularity. Amlo will never be completely finished.”

You may be onto something there, Liz.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Of Drugs and Bailouts

For those of us who live lives of relative privilege in our little Mexican bubbles, it may be hard to actually conceive of how much the country has deteriorated just over the last two years. Besides killing more Mexicans than American soldiers dead in Iraq, little Lipe's misnamed "war on drugs" (or rather, intervention in the drug market to favor certain cartels over others, as Luis Javier Garrido has it) has terrorized the population, shredded the social fabric, and created the conditions of permanent fear necessary for future bouts of "economic shock treatment," in the words of the thankfully-late Milton Friedman. His bungled response to the global economic crisis: raising regressive taxes in a time of recession and continuing to waste government coffers on profligate bureaucratic spending and salaries - upwards of $60,000 dollares a month for the highest functionaries - while the rest of the country goes increasingly hungry has led Mexico to the dubious honor of country with the worse economic growth in all of Latin America, several years running. And worst of all from the standpoint of simple justice, his government's continued violations of human rights, either actively or through turning a blind eye, as well as the maintenance in office of the likes of Ulisses Ruiz ("el gober penoso") and Mario Marin ("el gober precioso") - men with criminal pasts egregious even by the, shall we say, loose standards of Mexican politicians, cynically mocks any advances the nation had made towards rule of the law in the 1990's. And though his attempt to privatize Pemez, the crown of the neo-con strategy for turning Mexico into a backyard oil protectorate, failed in the short term through massive public movilization led by Andres Manuel López Obrador, there is no doubt that, after the mid-term elections in July, Congress will at some point try again.

What is amazing through all of this is that it has taken the American press so long to notice. A rash of negative pieces in elite publications such as Forbes at the end of last year proved themselves to be "shocked" at the country's spiraling drug violence, and a recent Pentagon report has Mexico on its watch list of potential failed states alongside countries like Pakistan, another major recipient of the dubious benefits of US military aid. Meanwhile, at the Davos Conference in Switzerland, in yet another example of breezy cynicism, former President Ernesto Zedillo allowed that the pricetag of Mexico's bank bailout, initiated under his administration, topped even that of the US's. Yes, Fobaproa, the Frankenstinian monster that sucked up 20% of Mexico's GDP to benefit the same people who pillaged and led their enterprises to ruin in the first place, then benefited from free government bailout money, then got them back with freshly-scrubbed balance sheets shining like new, then liquidated or sold them off several years later with just a few properly-targeted bribes to clear the way, capping off the greatest swindle in this nation's (and perhaps the world's, considering the relative size of the bailout to Mexico's economy) history: the conversion of the dirty, private debts of millionaries into the public debt of millions. Sound familiar? Speaking of which, meanwhile, President Obama rails against Wall Street bankers' serving themselves up nearly $20 billion bonuses in 2008 in the midst of the north-of-the-border version of bailout mania, and congratulates himself that his new Treasury Secretary succeeded in talking the Citigroup out of buying a new corporate jet. At least someone's putting their foot down (yes, there is some sarcasm in those italics). In France, two-and-a-half million people marched in protest of the Sarkozy government's decision to inject $26 billion euros into France's banking system, despite the fact that said banks ended 2008 in the black. In the US, Exxon reported a record $45.2 billion in profits for 2008 - sounds like they're ripe for a bailout, too.

Masters of finance, bingers on greed and the white-collar public dole: the whole world is watching.