THE PRI: HUMPTY-DUMPTY OR PHOENIX?

As I have written in the recent past, the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which has been in power in one form or another since the Revolution of 1910-1919, has been taking some heavy hits. Some (mostly those outside the PRI) say that the world’s longest-lasting one-party system is on the ropes. Others point to the series of shakeups that the Party has endured in the past, including the split-off of the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) and the Partido Acción Nacionál (PAN). What is clear, is that the party’s future is uncertain enough that major figures are staging public defections, and that Party leaders are worried enough to start punishing deserters.

In December, Dante Delgado Rannauro, former Governor of the State of Vera Cruz, announced his defection from the PRI, to form a new alliance and challenge the PRI in the offyear elections.Two days later, he and his brothers became the subjects of an official government audit, resulting in their arrest for malfeasance, embezzlement, and other crimes committed during his administration.

“It wasn’t the money that got him into trouble,” said Independent Deputy [congressperson] Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. “If it was just the money, he would have been in jail years ago. His crime was to break ranks, to challenge the system.”

Previous to this, the head of the petroleum workers’ union in Tabasco,Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, was imprisoned on corruption charges for denouncing then-presidential-candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari as unfit to serve. Two days after the inaugural, Hernandez was under arrest. He is still imprisoned.

The PRI is the source of all patronage in Mexico. They control the Presidency, the Congress, and the vast majority of State, Municipal and Village apparatus. You want to get the road fixed, a school built, a telephone line or a Conasupo (community store)? Tough to get, if the mayor is a PRD or a PAN. You like your civil service job? Better turn out when the President comes to town for a photo opportunity. The system goes down to the block level, and dissenters are noticed. The PRI has been wounded, but never carried off on its shield, let alone defeated.

Still, times are different now. Genuine election reform, elusive as it is, appears to be raising its’ head. Witness that recent raids of PRD and PAN offices for the purposes of stealing computers containing membership lists (other more expensive computers were left behind) and documents pertaining to political strategy were matched by a breakin at the MexCity offices of the Federal Elecion Commission where a reported 100,000 blank voter registration I.D. cards were taken. The significance of this is that the IFE is now included int the ranks of “the enemy”. Reforms in the system, forced in part by internal and in part by external pressures (NAFTA boosters were worried about the appearance of democracy in Mexico, and their concerns may have brought about some real – if unintended – changes), may be like topsy: they just grow…

Right now, Mexico is balanced on the cusp of change, and change there will be. The question is, what sort of change? Will it be a change for the better, or for the worse? Will the continued militarization of civilian law enforcement, the (I believe) imminent attack on the Zapatista strongholds in Chiapas, the growing repression of left-minded non-violent movements in the countryside, the (cited by international journalists’ organizations) harassment, disappearances and murders of reporters, the prosecution of deserters from the Party for crimes for which they were immune before defecting, and the time honored methods of intimidation, vote fraud and vote buying at the polls put the breaks on reform? And will the results be a resurgence of power for the PRI or will the electorate respond more to its pain than its fear?

Make no mistake about this: the PRI will not give up easily. They have a long history of turning defeat into victory. They have already started to fight hard and long over the upcoming elections for the Governor of Mexico City in June, the first ever free election held for that post. They, and everyone else, say that the future of the Party may well hinge on the outcome of that election. Already, the level of rhetoric has ratcheted upward, led by PRI attacks on the opposition. This will not be a pretty contest.

MEXICO CITY AT WAR WITH ITSELF:

By now, you have read articles in your local newspapers detailing the dangers for travelers in MexCity. The U.S. and British governmets have issued severe warnings for tourists in El Capital. Armed robberies and assaults against foreigners are up, particularly in the upscale neighborhoods of Polanco and the Zona Rosa, as well as the hotel districts around the Monument to the Revolution and the Historic Zone between the Belles Artes and the Zocalo. The violent clashes between the Ambulantes (itinerant street peddlers) and the police continue in the center of the city, and around the market spaces assigned to them on the periphery of the tourism zone. The taxis are being used by robbers who entice unwitting strangers to get in and then take them for a ride they didn’t ask for. [Don’t forget, you read about it here first, months ago…]

Do people get robbed in MExCity any more often than in NYC? Probably not. Are there as many random killings of tourists as in Miami? No way. Does MExico have a higher per capita murder rate than Minneapolis? Nope. So why all the fuss?

First, because it’s bad enough. I don’t know ANYONE who has been to MexCity who has not been personally robbed, or doesn’t know someone else who has been. Second, because being robbed in a foreign country while on vacation, with its catastrophic loss of vacation money, charge cards, i.d., etc., is more devastating than having it happen at home. Third, the language problem: getting help is more difficult when you only know how to ask where is the bathroom. Fourth, getting robbed near home still leaves you close to more resources, but for many being robbed while on vacation brings everything to a screeching halt.

Finally, it is a matter of the emporer’s new clothes. For decades, the U.S. government has been going along with the system of massive corruption and privileged class impunity in Mexico. Now that the chickens are coming home to roost in the form of deteriorating ability of the central government to control the behavior of neighborhood officials – now that things are getting more anarchistic in the bad sense of the word – there is little left to do but warn us off. It is ironic that the same government that sold us a bill of goods about Mexican democracy now is forced to warn us against the results of that conspiracy of silence.

The vast majority of Mexicans, and Chilangos (denizens of the Capital) are hardworking, honest, and appalled at the conditions in which they live. The vast majority of law enforcement officers, while participating in the petty briberies of the system, do not condone violence against citizens or visitors. The vast majority of government officials, while cognizant of the gross inequalities of life here, are aware of the dissatisfaction of their constituents and really would like to be able to do something to make things better. They don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the rogue taxistas, the crooked cops, and the politicos with bank accounts in Geneva, Houston, and Cayman.

Having said that, I have to tell you that I personally avoid Mexico City when I can conveniently do so. I personally do not find its attractions — and there are many, starting with the fine international cuisine, the spectacular public buildings of the Porfiriato (reign of Porfirio Diaz), the cultural offerings and the shopping — worth the tension I feel, always having to watch out for danger. On the other hand, I would not advise anyone else to stay away. After all, there are thousands of tourists who enjoy a totally safe and delightful stay there, for every one who has problems.

So, if you have a persistant urge to visit the Archeology Museum, or to attend a performance of the National Dance Theater, by all means do so. Just remember that vigilance is, most often, the price of liberty, and the best defense against adversity.

VACATION TIME IN PARADISE:

We are going on our first vacation trip since returning in August. Our friend and driver Nancy B, our neighbor and bilingualist Jane, Diana, I and Dan McWethy (the New Hampshire farmer of Maple Syrup and our driver on last year’s visit to the Yucatan), are headed out for the mountains of Oaxaca, with a stop at Puerto Escondido. The final destination will be the village of Pinotepa de Don Luis, up near the Guerrero border, to celebrate Carnival. Hopefully, we will be back in time for me to get the next newsletter out on the 15th, but if not, look for it a little bit later.