PRI HEADING FOR A BLACK EYE IN MIDTERM ELECTIONS:

One way or another, the party that has ruled Mexico for seven decades is going to have to take some major hits in the upcoming July 6 elections. Beset by civil unrest, particularly in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tabasco, and unable to pull a battered economy out of the doldrums, the political arm of the “35 families” will have two choices: take some electoral losses, or — as in the past — falsify the ballots.

Nobody knows for sure what course they will take, because this particular election will take place at a time when the nation has been rocked by a series of scandals that have focused worldwide attention – and national consciousness – on the institutional corruption that is an inevitable result of prolonged one-party rule.

Ordinarily, we could expect that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, with a 20-point lead in the polls being taken in Mexico City, would find his bid for the mayorality crushed by ballot counting irregularities, vote buying and polling place intimidation: the same way his election as President of Mexico was stolen by the PRI and given to Carlos Salinas in 1988. This is still not an impossible scenario, but the price the PRI would have to pay for such finagling might be more than they can afford just now.

To understand the changes that are taking place in Mexican electoral politics, it is important to understand the socioeconomic and political context.

We use the term “whitewash”, whose racist implications make no sense in mestizo (mixed blood) Mexico. They call it “carpetazo”: to sweep it under the rug. Whatever you call it, it amounts to the same thing: the official declaration that something non-happened, or wasn’t important, or would do more harm by being revealed (such as violating so-called “national security interests”) than by being suppressed. Whether implemented by the Courts (sealed proceedings or conclusions), the legislature (in camera hearings) or the executive (pardons, executive privilege), the protection of the privileged by the privileged and the rewarding the faithful for breaking the law or violating common decency in the service of the powerful, is a common occurrence in both our countries. The Mexicans call it “impunidad”: being above the law.

The most scandalous examples of carpetazo and impunidad here in Mexico are the assassinations, financial misappropriations and drug scandals that have rocked the country in the last three years. All appear to have been the work of the PRI’s Salinas machine, in which the current President is, in however junior a capacity, and however anguished and reluctant, a participant.

The killing of Colosio in March of 1994, and the slayings of Ruiz Massieu and Archbishop Posada, all covered in previous issues of this newsletter, remain unsolved, although much of the testimony points to the Salinas family or their underworld associates. The recent revelations that the Mexican armed forces are involved at the highest levels of the drug trade, are a personal embarrassment to President Zedillo, who promulgated the policy of replacing police with military (undoubtedly at the insistence of those same military). And then there is CONASUPO.

Carpetazo’ed with a vengeance by the PRI majority in the national legislature, the investigation into the discount food distribution chain whose purpose was to provide cheap food and supplies to rural poor folks, was cut off just as important members of the ruling class and the Zedillo cabinet were about to be named by a special investigating commission. While no indictments were issued, everyone knows the whole story: how the rich and powerful got even more so (through, for example, inflated payments to tortilla manufacturer and PRI stalwart Maseca and use of US accounts to launder drug money for the Gulf cartel), while the poor got irradiated milk, beans marked “unfit for human consumption”, and a system made poorer by hundreds of millions of dollars in misappropriated, misapplied, or just plain missing funds.

Mexicans are much more realistic about the relations of power and the rewards of privilege than are we. They find our hypocrisy about “adultery” and the shape of President Billy’s wienie to be droll. They don’t mind if the privileged live differently: they admire a little “flair” in their betters. But for Salinas to have gotten away with (as they believe) billions, AND for the economy to be in the worst shape it has been in 30 years (in 1967 dollars); for the average person to be suffering a 30% reduction in real income compared to 10 years ago: that is too much, even for the most indulgent among them.

During most of the month of May, particularly in the last two weeks thereof, Mexico City was tied up in knots by day after day of bitter and often violently policed demonstrations by the nation’s teachers. Bus robberies and extortionate roadblocks are daily occurrences everywhere. At least in the south of the country, anarchy is only a small step away. The people have not been so restive in almost 70 years. Add the People’s Revolutionary Army and several other armed insurrectionary groups to the mix, and you have a situation in which the last thing the PRI wants is a population willing to take up arms because of “nothing left to lose”. Thus, the PRI will not fix the outcome of the Presidential (mayorality) election in Mexico City. That, however, is only one of many elective offices up for grabs this July 6.

While there will be changes in some legislative seats, the PRI will not give up its’ majority in congress, nor will they accept the loss of many more governorships (six down, twenty-five to go). As popular opinion focuses on the Mexico City race, there will be plenty of hanky panky elsewhere.

For Cardenas, the victory will be pyrrhic. Mexico City is in terrible shape. With over a hundred days a year of “killer” level pollution, a police force running wild in the streets, unemployment levels exceeding 20%, violent crime at historically high levels and no money for social problems, all a PRI controlled chamber has to do is sit back and do nothing, and Cardenas will be remembered as the man who was at the helm when the world’s largest city sank beneath the waves.

In the meantime, though, they will have suffered a tremendous “moral defeat”. MexCity is, after all, the legal, financial and cultural center of the country, and contains over 20% of the populace. Losing it to the PRD will not provide the PRI with one of its most shining moments.

GUELAGUETZA COMING SOON TO A LOCATION NEAR ME:

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. The first “Lunes de Cerro” (Monday of The Hill) is July 21. We will probably be here this year for this annual event that consumes every hotel room, restaurant, taxi and night club in town, turns street corners into stages for dance and music, and streets into parade routes glittering with costumes and handsome brown flesh. For more information, see “Letters From Mexico”, article “Calm Amidst The Storm”.