HE MEXICAN TROIKA: TWO STRONG MEN AND ERNESTO ZEDILLO

In what many regard as an ominous development and for democracy in Mexico, the man nobody wanted has been quietly ceding the power to govern to the right wing of his party, the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution).

Nominated and supported by the technocrats — a group of U.S. -educated and -supported neoliberals whose figurehead was Carlos Salinas de Gortari, his predecessor — Zedillo is the George Bush of the PRI. A party hack and behind the scenes workhorse, lacking charisma and any real vision, Zedillo had headed an undistinguished succession of bureaus and departments, and at the time of his nomination was the campaign manager for Donaldo Luis Colosio.

The neoliberals had managed to force Colosio on the “dinosaurs”, as the old line caciques of the PRI were known, and they had been chafing about it all through the early campaign. Colosio had begun to look like another Kennedy: a dynamic, popular leader who if elected could resist the pressures of his peers by going over their heads to the people. Now that he was out of the way, they were not about to put up with another candidate from the same mold. Further, Salinas had been weakened by persistent rumors that Colosio would repudiate him upon succceding to the presidency (leading to some speculation on the part he might have played in the execution), the humiliating uprising in Chiapas, the Columbianizing of the country regarding drugs and corruption, and his own seemingly insensitive levels of personal profit in government boondoggles such as Huatulco.

Faced with an eroding power base and under great pressure from the right wing of his party, Salinas and his neoliberal friends chose Caspar Milquetoast: a weak, uncharismatic, not-very-ambitious bureaucrat; a guy nobody liked but nobody had anything against. Zedillo was a way to get back to business as usual, without a major intra-party bloodbath.

In a ho-hum election campaign with predictable results, the PRI got out the vote and stuffed the ballot boxes, and handed the presidency to Zedillo. What he inherited was the scenario from Hell: a protracted Zapatista hegemony along the Guatemalan border; a peso that was plunging out of control; dollar reserves at one quarter of their previous level; a middle class debtor’s movement that was demanding debt reform now or else; general disbelief that the government could or would do anything to bring to justice the killers of Colosio, the former PRI head Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, or Archbishop Posada of Guadelajara.

To add to his woes, Zedillo’s old buddies in the U.S. started undercutting him by unilaterally changing the terms of the NAFTA agreement in ways that were wickedly punishing to the Mexican economy, and threatening to deny him certification as a comrade in the war against drugs. Faced with a $26 billion dollar debt interest payment in this fiscal cycle, the inablility to borrow (part of the consequences of decertification) would just about have wiped out Mexico’s dollar reserves. Moreover, the old guard — along with many on the left — firmly believe that closer economic ties to the U.S. (a neoliberal foundation stone) was and is bad for Mexico; and the actions of U.S. politicians on all levels do nothing to dispell that view. The dinosaurs blame the neoliberal economics of Salinas and Zedillo for very real losses in their net worth.

Let’s be fair about this: even if Ernesto had been a stronger and more charismatic leader, there is little he could have done about this situation. What he was and is faced with is the last days of the liberal facade which cloaks the oppressive, greedy, hidden face of the Mexican ruling class. Believing that the “experiment” with a more liberal society has proven to be a failure, the “13 families” and their minions are reasserting themselves in the PRI, and preparing for what they believe is a necessary “adjustment” in which order must be re-established.

Which brings us to the present situation. A short while ago, Zedillo replaced the man who Salinas had appointed to be Interior Minister. In Mexico, the ministry of the interior (GobernaciON) is in charge of internal security, which means the federal police forces, and many administrative departments including migration and customs. The minister is considered by most people to be the chief domestic policy spokesperson for the president. The ministry is involved in a myriad of negotiations in the name of the government, not the least of which is the talks going on in Chiapas over the fate of the Zapatista uprising. It is therefore significant when the ministry changes hands.

The new minister, Sr. Chauyffet, is an old-guard hardliner. Faced with the problem of increasing crime and corruption, his solution has been to introduce a bill into the Mexican legislature which would federalize all local police forces. Since the general wisdom appears to be that the federal police are among the most corrupt, and absolutely the most abusive of human rights, one wonders at his logic — until one realizes that if the local police are federal, and the federal police are federal, that leaves the state police between a rock and a hard place. Weakening of state police and co-option of local police reduces the ability to enforce decisions made locally (for example by an opposition mayor or governor). While Ernesto is mouthing the slogans of decentralization, a neoliberal agenda, Chauyffet is pursuing the true agenda of the ruling class: centralized power.

It was announced on March 12 that the Public Ministry will seek to overturn four articles of the Mexican constitution, which have to do with privacy, due process and freedom of speech, in the effort to combat the Narcocriminals (and others?) whose machinations “threaten the social fabric and the welfare of the State”. Incidentally, the new bill also includes a scheme to change the name of the Federal Judicial Police to the Ministerial Police, “whose sworn loyalty will be to the Public Ministry”.

As you know from this Newsletter, the Army has of late become a far more visible presence on the Mexican highways and byways, a position encouraged by the Clinton administration (and the DEA, whose historical affinity for warlords goes back to the post-WWII days in the golden triangle of Burma and includes Manuel Noriega). What’s new is the rise to political prominence of the man in charge.

In the last two months, Ernesto has been often seen on tv and in the newspapers, flanked by Chauyffet and General Whozitz (sorry, the name escapes, the deadline beckons), the commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces. A person very much in the background in previous administrations, trotted out on Armed Forces Day to swear loyalty to the civilian authority and sent back to obscurity, the general’s recent prominence is an ominous sign of renewed oppression in Mexico. The recent rise of the Army in Mexican politics probably was first signified by the inclusion (at its request) of an army representative in the peace talks in Larrainzar.

The Zapatistas welcomed this addition at the table, recognizing that the Army had once again emerged from its pose of servant of the people to become a player in the game, without whom no solution would hold. But then the Zaps have proven themselves to be realists, with little hope for a non violent solution to the current crisis. Leaving liberals like me to wring our hands and wonder what will become of it all.

“STEERING” IS A CONSTANT PROBLEM FOR TRAVELERS

On our recent trip we were steered away from the hotel we wanted, and into a hotel we would not otherwise have chosen. Here is the way it worked:

Arriving in Palenque tired and gritty from a long day on the road over the mountains from Tuxtla Guitterez, we headed for the La Canada hotel, a place where Diana had stayed in the past, well-known to all the guidebooks. We walked into the attached restaurant, and asked the waiter who greeted us where the RecepcION was. The waiter said, in a condolance voice, that the hotel was full up. Then his mood brightened and he said he was sure that the hotel next door, a fine establishment, had vacancies.

We accompanied him as requested, and after a bit of bargaining and a look at a few rooms, we did indeed arrive at a very reasonable deal for a comfortable room. Next day, we went out to the ruins rested and refreshed. We later learned that the hotel and the restaurant were separate enterprises, and that in all likelihood we had been “steered” to the other hotel and the waiter cut in on the price of the room.

When I returned home, I talked to a hotel owner I know in Oaxaca, and asked if this made sense to her. She told me that steering is a huge problem in the hotel business, and that she has had to fire employees for intercepting guests about to sign in (some with reservations) and informing them that unfortunately the rooms were taken but that alternative accommodations in another hotel could be arranged — even though there were rooms available. She told me that without exception, desk clerks and porters whom she caught and discharged for this practice were later hired by the very same hotel to which her guests had been directed.

She said that cab drivers, tourist bureau workers, and others all had at least one hotel that they pushed on commission. She advised that travelers who are being steered away from their preferred destination by outside persons insist upon being taken there to check it out for themselves.

Then she told me about a travel writer she had been doing business with for years; a regular guest (at a discount) who always had given her hotel good marks. He had been contacted by the same hotel that was stealing her guests and promised lots of “perks” including a free stay. Subsequently, he wrote an article for a major newspaper praising the other guy and describing furnishings which he always had called “enchanting” as “shabby”.

I asked her if she thought there was much “buying” of travel writers going on, and she said she didn’t think so, but that she did think that some writers might be prone than others to respond favorably to a lot of flattery and ego stroking, and that she was just too busy managing her hotel to do a lot of that — but since her hotel generally gets favorable reviews anyway, it seemed to work out ok.

I asked her if she thought that guidebook writers were more objective on the whole than freelance travel writers. She said she didn’t know, but believed that for the most part all writers for tourists tried their best to be objective. She said that no travel writer had ever attempted to extort money or favors from her under threat of an unfavorable review.

STAN’S FEARLESS PREDICTIONS: A REVEALING REVIEW

So far, so bad. The Army has not begun a full-scale invasion of the villages in Chiapas’ highlands (Feb 1), and the peso, while it slid, has not done so at a rate that will bring it to 9 by April Fool’s Day (Feb.1).

However: the peace talks in Larrainzar are at a virtual standstill. On March 12, the army announced an “anti-crime” campaign in the Montebello Lakes region west of San Cristobal, and invaded the area up-mountain from Altamirano, installing an additional 1,000 troops in the municipal area of Morelia, Chiapas.

On the economic front, it was recently announced that the interest payable this summer on short term foreign debt will amount to $26 billion dollars u.s., and on March 13 the government agency in charge of private debt assessment opined that the amount of uncollectable consumer debt may be twice previous estimates. So maybe I just didn’t give it enough time…

On the other hand, consider my one brilliant prognostication: the Oaxaca Guerreros LOST their grand opener tonite (March 14), using four pitchers in the second inning while their opponents scored eight runs.