Thursday, January 18, 2018

A 'Danger to Mexico' is so 2006. Now it's 'Amlovsky, Putin's Puppet.' And it's only January.

It didn’t take long for the Russki scare to settle into the 2018 Mexican elections. Maybe Chelsea Manning got hit faster, but that’s about it.

It started a month or so ago when H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, dropped as an aside during a speech on another topic that Russia is interfering in the Mexican electoral campaign. 

Or might be interfering. Or is planning to interfere. Or might be planning to. There was (and is) no evidence shared. There were (and are) no details offered. 

The Mexican press will jump all over any morsel coming out of the U.S. about their country. But the story, such as it is, got its boost from Frida Ghitis, a CNN and World Politics Review contributor who wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece dated Jan. 11 that Mexico’s presidential race is threatened by the “digital proximity of the Russian cyber brigade.”

Let’s save space by overlooking for now how rich it is for the U.S. press and security establishment to go after another country for trying to influence Mexican politics. 

Instead, I’ll insert here my suspicion that there’s an element of red scare redux attached to this obsession with Russian election meddling. I’ll take that a step further and suggest that the resistance is making a mistake by over-emphasizing the collusion part of the Mueller inquiry into what’s a drop in the sea of Trump’s sins. 

Now, if the all-in-on-collusion strategy serves to get him out of there, I’ll retroactively support it. But what if it comes up short? At the very least, he’ll have bought himself some time that he shouldn’t be allowed. 

Which is not to say the meddling itself is a non-issue. Hey, we Mexico and the U.S. — should let some thug from across the ocean send in his trolls to mess with voters’ minds? By all means, investigate. Find out what they’re doing, who’s doing it, and how to stop them. 

But that’s not how the quasi-revelation of Russian meddling is playing out here in Mexico. It began life not as a national concern but as the newest weapon for bringing down the frontrunner via fear and character assassination. 

If there were other viable candidates with something worthwhile to offer, said frontrunner could be defeated on merit. Since there’s not, we’ll be hearing more about him being a Russian agent.

We’re talking, of course, about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, formerly AMLO, now Amlovsky. If it seems absurd that a man who’s historically shown close to zero interest in anything beyond Mexico’s borders would seek or accept covert support from Russia, that’s because it is. 

So why López Obrador? How does a politician criticized (with reason) for being overly nationalist get associated with international intrigue?

Ghitis lays out her case for Putin’s motives for supporting AMLO. It’s ridiculous — either on her part or Putin’s, depending on how right she (actually McMaster) is about the meddling. 

You see, Putin’s goal of weakening the west in general, the United States in particular, and democracy in theory would be boosted should an “anti-American” who has been “lambasting the United States” and “who would dramatically alter the tenor and content of the [U.S.-Mexico] relationship” win the Mexican presidency.

“If López Obrador wins, Putin will have one more reason to flash a self-satisfied smile,” Ghitis writes. “That’s because López Obrador would not be good news for the United States.”

I promised myself after the last post that I would give up refuting this tired nonsense. The only evidence for it is that it gets repeated endlessly, so what can one say other than it ain’t so? 

I will mention, however, that I covered AMLO’s 2006 campaign and its aftermath and I don’t remember much ranting against the United States, then or since. His ire was and is aimed at the PRI and PAN, the two parties that have controlled Mexico for close to a century. Might as well say he’s been lambasting Mexico.

Ghitis never says that López Obrador is complicit in the ostensible meddling in his favor. She does, however, cite the case for his agency promoted within Mexico. It centers around a U.S.-born UNAM law professor and political activist named John Ackerman.

Ackerman is of that breed of leftist who sees little wrong with Mexico that isn’t the fault of the United States. He even accused Barack Obama of being “directly responsible” for the tragedy of the 43 Ayotzinapa students in 2014. (Seriously. Read it here.)

But when he stays under the top, Professor Ackerman is a sharp observer of Mexican society, a witty pundit, and a dedicated advocate for anti-corruption causes. He’s also an outspoken supporter (though, he insists, not a surrogate, as the Amlovsky crowd contends) of AMLO. 

What’s brought out the pitchforks is that he produces some commentary via RT, the Russian-based media outlet financed by the government (i.e. Putin). This is hardly uncharted territory for western journalists and commentators; Larry King has been there. But after the McMaster accusation, it caught the attention of the Mexican-born, U.S.-based journalist León Krauze, who wrote:

“The problem in the current context is that Ackerman’s work in Russia Today dangerously reduces the degrees of separation between Putin’s regime and Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”

“Russia Today” is no longer the name for RT, but the latter would not have served Krauze’s purpose as effectively as the former. 

It’s interesting that it was Krauze who stepped up quickly to address the supposed AMLO-Putin connection. It was his father Enrique Krauze, an admired historian, who in 2006 energetically promoted the AMLO-as-Messiah theory, which along with “A Danger to Mexico” helped defeat the then-PRD candidate, who lost by less than a percentage point.

Note that neither Krauze père or Krauze fils, both left-leaning but anti-AMLO, accuse López Obrador of consciously participating — “colluding,” if you will — in Putin’s alleged hijinks. But that’s hardly the point. The idea is out there now, and as a tool in the anti-AMLO political kit it’s as good as a fact.

“Russian Intervention” is the new “A Danger to Mexico,” as one internet wag put it.

Here’s what it’s come to already:

Juan Ignacio Zavala, brother-in-law of Felipe Calderón, the panista who edged out López Obrador in the 2006 presidential election, has circulated a petition to have Ackerman expelled from the country for “representing the interests of the Russian government.” After 24 hours it had 4,565 endorsers.

But the internet moves fast. A counter-petition went online asking for Zavala himself to be expelled from the country “for being an asshole.” That got 2,284 signatures in five hours. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

The U.S. press sees a different Mexican election campaign than the one that's actually happening. They can't help it.

There are two, not one, Mexican political campaigns starting up.

One takes place in Mexico, where an impatient populace battered by corruption, inequality and crime will once more see if a presidential election will do them any good.

The other is in the U.S. press, where the only issue on July 1 will be whether an anti-American populist will take over and make life miserable for the United States.

With apologies to Professor Lakoff, this is such a widely accepted frame that it’s hard to find an article in the mainstream U.S. press that doesn’t use it — even if the premise is overturned in that same article.  

We can choose almost at random a recent effort from Politico, which leads by calling Andrés Manuel López Obrador “a Mexican Donald Trump.” 

I’m personally embarrassed that another journalist is not embarrassed to write such a thing. But, alas, it’s in keeping with a tradition dating back at least to the turn of the century: When it comes to writing about AMLO, anything goes. 

The problem now, we’re told, is that an AMLO win would create “an even more charged relationship between the two countries that could reduce cooperation on border security, trade and immigration.”

That’s the author herself speaking, but she gives us back-up from Mike McCaul, the wealthy Trump-enabling Texas congressman, who says flatly, “I do not want to see President Obrador [he means López Obrador] take office next year.”

But, he fears, “if NAFTA is not done correctly . . . we’ll be handing a candidate, a socialist candidate like that, the presidency of Mexico.” 

McCaul chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, so there’s an implied national security threat if the wrong candidate wins in Mexico. Also notice who, in his opinion, gets to decide who gets handed the Mexican presidency.

An ingrained concern stateside is that an AMLO presidency will sour, perhaps end, economic cooperation. Politico tells us that “the next Mexican president will set the tone for the next several years of U.S.-Mexico relations,” and suggests what kind of tone would be set by AMLO, given that he “has made his biggest headlines in the U.S. by being a fiery opponent of Trump’s critical rhetoric about Mexico.”

Of course, it’s the U.S. press that decides what the biggest headlines are. And does it need to be said that everybody in Mexico — and every decent person in the United States — is an “opponent of Trump’s critical rhetoric about Mexico”? Maybe the others aren’t fiery enough to get the headlines.

More to the point, the premise is backwards. Who slammed Mexico-U.S. trade relations? Who said “Mexico is killing us on trade”? Who threatened a trade war against Mexico? 

There’s a confusion here between action and reaction. It’s ridiculous to say that the binational tone will be set by the next Mexican president, whatever his or her fieriness level. It’s been set.

When we finally hear from someone outside the frame, the Politico article wises up.

“I say it’s more in Trump’s hands as to what happens with the relationship than it is in Mexican hands,” former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico James Jones is quoted as saying. “Because I think there’s a predisposition to want to strengthen and improve the relationship with the United States.”

That predisposition is shared by AMLO, who is not (as people are led to believe) anti-NAFTA. Nor would his election mean a break with the U.S. — at least not one precipitated by Mexico

“[López Obrador] has got to create wealth,” Jones, about as unfiery as they come, tells Politico. "And to create wealth, he’s got to attract business. Truly, he has to try to maintain cordial relations with the United States.”

The intent here is not to single out one news outlet or one journalist. This article is typical. And, as noted, it does add a better perspective, for those who read far enough down. 

But framing the campaign as primarily a duel between anti-American extremism and pro-American free-traders gives the wrong idea about what’s going on. The Mexican election is about Mexico. 

Should the U.S. government decide after all these years to finally take my advice, it will approach the Mexican election by just sitting back to watch the show, keeping its hands off, and, when it’s over, negotiating bilateral issues with whatever new administration comes in, one sovereign nation to another. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Really? These are the candidates for president?

Peña Nieto tells us that the July 1 national election will be the biggest in our lifetime. Give him credit for avoiding the cliché that it will be the most important. And going by the numbers, he’s got a point.

There will likely be more than the usual three viable presidential candidates on the ballot, more state and local posts than in the past will be decided along with the presidency and Congress, and more Mexicans than ever are expected to vote. 

All that may count for bigger. But better? Not so much. 

Somehow, even with a new major party added to the mix, along with at least two independents poised to make the ballot and the creation of a baffling left-right coalition, we seem to have ended up with four ho-hummers huddled on the right side of the spectrum opposite the usual change agent. 

For an electorate so hungry for a thorough political cleansing, the candidate line-up is unpromising, to say the least — a technocrat, a party hack, a calderonista throwback, and a guy whose political persona depends on a nickname.

Plus, as always, AMLO. 

None are what they seem to be. José Antonio Meade, the candidate for the incumbent PRI, is not a member of that party and has served in the past under the PAN, the PRI’s friendly rival. Maybe that’s why he got the party nod — a little bit of distance could help these days, when everybody hates the PRI again. 

Not coincidentally, Meade’s people are playing him up as the clean guy, an academic unsullied by scandal. The foreign press has bought that line, but Mexicans don’t vote for a PRI-backed candidate because they think he’s clean.

At any rate, foreign press aside, Meade’s candidacy has been greeted with deafening silence. Some are wondering when he will come down with an unfortunate illness and have to be replaced.

Ricardo Anaya is making the jump from president of the conservative PAN to candidate for the coalition with the left-of-center PRD.  But that’s misleading. Joining forces may help the two parties at the state and local level, but in the presidential race, the Frente mostly serves to make the PRD go away (a disappearing act the PRD itself has been carrying out quite effectively for several years now).  As far as the electorate is concerned, Anaya is going to be the PAN candidate, period.

Or at least one of them. Margarita Zavala is running as an independent, but her newfound independence has more to do with Anaya’s lock on the PAN nomination than any change of course. If the former first lady qualifies for the ballot, she’ll be seen as a second PAN candidate. Because that's what she is.

Ask anybody outside Nuevo León who Jaime Rodríguez is and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. But what about “El Bronco”? Ah, he’s the longtime PRI loyalist who went independent, won the governorship and is now running for president. 

My hunch is that providing career politicians with a way to circumvent unsupportive party leaders is not the best use of independent candidacies.

It can be debated whether Andrés Manuel López Obrador is truly a candidate of the “left” — and it often is. But he’s clearly the only change agent among the viable candidates. That’s why he’s ahead in the polls. It’s also why half the electorate is afraid of him.

With his opposition split into four, he’s got a good thing going. Which could mean that he —not the economy, not crime, not Trump — will be the issue. That’s what happened in 2006, when supporters of the status quo abandoned the PRI candidate (the unlikeable Roberto Madrazo), went all in on Felipe Calderón, and made the election about nothing else but AMLO’s unfitness for office. 

The gambit worked, though not by much. We could be in for a re-run.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Got any new ideas for reducing crime in Mexico? Keep them to yourself.

National dilemmas stay unsolved because people prefer moral posturing to resolution. 

“What part of illegal don’t you understand?” signals righteousness; the flexibility needed for actually fixing the undocumented immigrant  situation in the United States doesn’t. 

Pro-war patriots wanted U.S. troops to stay in Vietnam so that tens of thousands of Americans would not have died in vain — thereby assuring that tens of thousands more would die in vain.

A more recent instance is Mexico’s intractable crime and violence, fed by the drug-trafficking organizations that co-govern the nation. Since Felipe Calderón pulled on his oversized army fatigues in 2006 and sent the military out against the narcos, the death toll has reached the hundreds of thousands. (I’ve given up trying to get consistent numbers, let alone clarification on who’s killing whom.) 

All we have to show for it is a lot of corpses, an intimidated populace, depleted state government coffers, and an unhelpful attitude from across the northern border that sees average Mexicans not as victims of, but accomplices in, the crime wave.

A dozen years on, the drug war is an abject failure and everybody knows it. So one might think that a proposed new approach would at least be mulled over, if not embraced. 

Fat chance. 

A proposal in December by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the frontrunner in this year’s presidential election, calling for a national dialogue to “explore all possibilities, including decreeing an amnesty, while listening to the victims . . .,” succeeded mainly in unleashing the bluenoses with responses as predictable as they were disappointing.

The hysteria blew in from all directions. AMLO, his election opponents tell us, cares more about the perpetrators than the victims. His amnesty subverts the legal process, said José Antonio Meade. It’s “true insanity,” said Ricardo Anaya. “He’s proposing a country of impunity,” said Margarita Zavala.

To state the obvious, Meade (PRI) and Anaya (PAN) represent the parties that got us into this mess. Zavala (ex-PAN) is married to the man who started it (Calderón). “A country of impunity” is what we have now. As for “true insanity,” it’s been famously defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Two of the men leading the drug war, Navy Secretary Francisco Soberón and Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, dropped their apolitical masks to jump all over the amnesty idea. “There’s no way it can happen,” Soberón said, probably accurately. “It’s to be taken as an electoral ploy more than a real goal.”

That last jab is interesting, because the opposite is more likely true. One of the reasons the amnesty proposal isn’t gaining traction is because it comes from AMLO. The 40 percent or more of the electorate that despises the ground he stands on won’t support anything that comes out of his mouth.

A more legitimate problem is that the proposal was unveiled casually, and either floated in an intentionally vague guise or left simply half-baked. An idea as counterintuitive as pardoning some of the nastiest people on the planet needs explanation and context, not to mention some reassuring scenarios.

Without those things, you’re asking for negative emotional responses, such as the following from Javier Sicilia, the poet/activist who lost a son to the drug war:

“Tell us, Andrés Manuel, can you in good conscience ask us to forget the victims?”

He’s asking nothing of the kind, of course, and Sicilia surely knows that. What is being asked is to shift the primary goal from justice to peace. I have no idea whether amnesty will help achieve that. But I do know that it needs to be explored.

Just not with an election looming. The electorate will respond as Javier Sicilia has, not as a think tank would. That’s why Admiral Soberón's election ploy theory is wrong. The idea, worthwhile or not, will probably end up costing AMLO votes. 

Hypocrisy is rewarded at the polls. Innovation is punished.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Meanwhile, there are Mexican journalists who are getting things done. Here are some you'll appreciate.

Congratulations to the talented newshounds at the online site Animal Político, especially reporters Arturo Ángel and Víctor Hugo Arteaga, for snagging the National Journalism Prize last week. 

They won it for a  series of exposés on the phantom businesses used by Javier Duarte, the corrupt former PRI governor of Veracruz, to misappropriate some 645 million pesos meant for the poor. Part of the reporters' methodology was ingenious in its simplicity —  they paid visits to the listed addresses, but were more likely to find a farmer, a confused renter, a mom and pop store or empty land than any major business activity.

And further congratulations to Alejandro Hope, Mexico’s premier writer on security issues, who received special recognition from INEGI for his press pieces, including his regular Plata o Plomo column in El Universal. 

Is it strange for a journalism honor to come from the official National Statistics Institute? In this case, it’s fitting. Hope is noted for mining and interpreting crime statistics (much of which comes from INEGI), and I’ve yet to find a writer or analyst more skilled at finding and communicating meaning in the numbers. In his words, stats are a way “to make the invisible visible.”

There was a period for about a year in 2015 and 2016 when Alejandro, the political animals and I were working in the same space in Condesa, literally steps from each other. 

I was an editor at an English-language sister publication of Animal Político, which some genius decided to name El Daily Post. We were able to adapt into English some of the early entries in the award-winning phantom businesses series before the owners pulled the plug on the site, taking care to erase all the site's articles. (If you read Spanish, the original articles in the series are compiled here.)

Hope was the security editor at the Post — excuse me, El Post — contributing a regular column in English under the name Silver or Lead. It was brilliant, clever, readable, honest, and sometimes even optimistic. Those gems have also disappeared, or at least I can’t find them. If it’s true that nothing is ever eliminated from the internet, maybe somebody can track them down.

Meanwhile, here's a video interview with Hope recorded shortly after the recapture of El Chapo last year. It gives English speakers a pretty good idea of his understanding of the issues and ability to communicate it.

The photo of some of the Animal Político staff above is from a video about them that you can see here courtesy of a reporter’s Twitter page. Go to full screen. 

One more thing about Animal Político. No other site aimed at a general audience has done more to publicize and combat gender-based abuse in this country. I don’t know if top editor Daniel Moreno (he's the one in the circle) has won any awards for encouraging his staff’s work on this, but he should. So, I hereby bestow upon him the Kagom Recognition for Journalism in the Interest of Combatting Abuse and Violence Against Women in Mexico. Congratulations. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mexico's far-flung natural wonder is now a protected marine reserve. So can the Socorro dove go home now?

Sail due west from Manzanillo for 440 miles and you’ll hit what’s known as the Archipiélago Revillagigedo, named for a late 18th-century reformist viceroy.

We don’t know if last week’s designation of this cluster of four small islands and their surrounding waters as a national park and marine reserve will really protect them. But the act itself brought welcome attention to one of the more remarkable natural wonders in Mexican territory, as well as to an intriguing suspense story.

The islands poke out of the water because of ancient volcanic activity that hasn’t quite stopped. They knew no human footprint until Spanish explorers stumbled upon them in the 16th century.  Even then, they were left pretty much alone until the 19th century.

It’s worth pondering what that tells us about life. While a series of great civilizations ran their course and died in Mesoamerica, while cities were built and leveled across what is now Mexico, wars fought, constitutions drafted, massacres carried out, elections contested, families struggled to make it, an entirely different cast of species was playing its role in life, about as far away from the human-dominated stage as it is possible to be.

The protagonists of Mexican history are mostly people, with maybe a few plants like corn and the maguey making appearances. Animals get cameos at best.

On the Revillagigedo islands, in contrast, everything alive matters — boobies, shearwaters (including the endangered Townsend’s shearwater), frigatebirds, egrets, hawks and ospreys, opuntia cacti, bromeliads, orchids, green turtles. 

More than 60 of the plant and animal species are endemic, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world, which in turn means they’ve been on their island long enough to have evolved into something different than what they were.

Four of the endemic species are reptiles, including the famed Clarión nightsnake (Clarión is the name of one of the islands). Its fame has nothing to do with the snake itself, but rather with the failure of any expedition, amateur or scientific, to find one after the American naturalist William Beebe brought a specimen back in a bottle in 1936. 

That inevitably led to a new moniker — the “Lost Clarión nightsnake” — until a  group that included Juan Martínez Gómez, Mexico’s leading Revillegigedo expert, spotted one a few years ago (as published in PLOS-One here and reported by the Associated Press’s Mark Stevenson in 2014 here.)

The new marine reserve designation prohibits fishing, but recreational divers and marine life enthusiasts (who can only get there by diving boats and cannot dock anywhere) have to be encouraged by the promised protection. The Revillagigedo straddles two marine bioregions, making it an important stopover for migratory marine species, thus bringing a potpourri of life forms together, like the bar in Star Wars.  

UNESCO, which named the archipelago a protected region a year before Mexico did, says the waters around the islands “host some of the largest aggregations of pelagic fauna in the world.” 

The United Nations body even notes an aesthetic appeal that divers the world over already know about: “The seascape has sheer drops in crystal clear water and encompasses abyssal plains with depths down to 3,700 meters, all contributing to underwater scenes of great beauty.”

Swimming in that beauty are more than 20 species of sharks, as well as humpback whales, which have been breeding near the islands for millennia, and, most notably, giant manta rays that interact with humans in a way that divers swear is personal.

Here’s where we come to the point in the article when, obligatorily, we warn of the threats to this paradise (to us it is a paradise; to the non-human inhabitants it just . . . is.)

First know that the major recent problems have been natural — hurricanes, plagues and the aforementioned volcanic activity. For example, a volcanic eruption in 1952 (pictured here in a famous photograph taken by Robert Petrie from a boat offshore) left one of the islands (San Benedicto) denuded — all life on it was wiped out, though it has been coming back.

Isla Socorro, the biggest and biologically richest of the islands, is basically the top of a shield volcano, the gently sloping kind like Mauna Loa. It was most recently active in 1993.

Roca Partida, the smallest of the four at about 300 by 25 feet, is a stratovolcano, lifeless save for resting birds, essentially a guano-covered rock alone in the sea. 

An early 19th century visitor to the islands was one Andrew Jackson Grayson, who discovered four endemic birds, including the Socorro dove, or Zenaida graysoni (you find it, you get your name on it).  

Two naturalists, Bayard Brattstrom and Thomas Howell, visited Socorro in the 1950s and in a 1956 report mentioned the Socorro dove (pictured here) as common around the lava rocks and under fig trees.

They were optimistic about the island’s future, noting that few ships came near, no humans lived there, and the introduced sheep population was stable and apparently harmless. 

“While this fortunate condition still exists,” they wrote. “it may be hoped that the Mexican government will guard against the introduction of mammals such as rabbits, cats, goats and others that have invariably brought disaster to the flora and fauna of insular regions.”
The next year, the Mexican government established a naval base on the island. It was (and is) small, but big enough for mammals, both human and feline. By the 1970s, no more Socorro doves were ever seen on the island. 
Feral cats have been suspected, though not convicted. Perhaps the sheep were causing more mischief than thought. Or maybe it was something — or someone — else. At any rate, the Socorro dove is extinct.
But not completely. The accurate term for the dove’s condition is Extinct in the Wild. On at least two occasions in the 20th century, specimens were collected and bred abroad. There are colonies of Socorro doves in Europe, the United States and Mexico.
The Mexican population is being prepared for release onto Socorro Island. This is no simple task; the preparation has been going on for more than a decade. Breeding aviaries have been built on the island, but there are issues.
Disease is one. So is interbreeding over the years just how Socorro-ite are the descendent captive doves? The most important, though, may be the need to make sure that the doves have the environment they require once released.
It's not restoration by restoring or reintroducing one species," says Dr. Martínez, who is leading the project (that's him exploring the island in the photo above). "At the end what you want is to restore the ecological interactions that interplay on the island. And once you do that, the island will go back to its original course."

Dr. Martínez, of the Mexican Institute of Ecology, was speaking to the science writer Loretta Williams earlier this year on NPR. You can read the article here, where you can also click to the radio program. 
The Socorro dove's rescue team is competent and dedicated. But once released, the birds will do what they want, which is not necessarily what the releasers want. That's how life's been on those islands for hundreds and thousands of years.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Is it weird that a left-wing party and a right-wing party are planning to run a common candidate for the Mexican presidency? Of course.

Margarita Zavala was gathering signatures in Coyoacán recently when a woman she was chatting with introduced her female partner and two children. 
To her credit, the former first lady and federal lawmaker didn’t assume a politician's posture at this unexpected revelation. Instead, she wigged out.
Frantically waving off the video-recorder (there’s always a video-recorder), she blurted to nobody in particular that she could never be seen on video with a non-traditional family because she firmly believes that marriage is only for a man and a woman.

So do most people in the PAN, the right-wing party she was associated with until a few months ago. But most of them aren’t going to have such a conniption at the very idea of being seen with a same-sex family. More likely, being politicians, they’ll want to keep the cameras on as they try to make homophobia sound respectable. 

Zavala’s panic attack showed just how conservative Mexican conservatives can be. She’s married to Felipe Calderón, president during the second half of the nation’s 12-year delusion that replacing the PRI with the PAN would sanitize the government. His policies were hardline anti-choice, soft on church-state separation, and hardly gay-friendly.

Compare that with the PRD, the left-of-center opposition party. In control of Mexico City for most of its existence, the PRD has legalized abortion, relaxed marijuana prohibition, established gender equality as policy, and actively promoted LGBT rights.

In short, the left-right divide on social issues is alive and well in Mexico. Should be interesting to see how these two diametrically opposed parties go at each other during the upcoming presidential campaign.

Interesting indeed. What’s actually happening is this:  The PRD and PAN, with nothing in common, have joined forces in what they call a Broad Front. Counterintuitive as it may be, they plan to run a common candidate for president, and presumably divvy up the posts and power if they win. 

The candidate could be Miguel Ángel Mancera, who runs Mexico City for the PRD (though not really a member of the party). It could be Ricardo Anaya, the PAN’s party leader. Or it could be somebody else. Whoever it is, half the Front is going to have to support someone they’re usually against. 

Why would they do such a thing? Practicality, mainly. The PAN will have a hard time winning this race on its own. The PRD has no chance at all. Replaced by Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena as the flagship party of the left, the PRD is pretty much reduced to attaching itself to a larger party, as the PVEM (the faux Green Party) has to the PRI. 

El Financiero, a business daily, published a poll this week that pretty much tells the story. If Mancera and Anaya run separately with their parties, they get 9 percent and 15 percent respectively, well behind the PRI’s 25 percent and Morena’s 30 percent. If either runs as the Front candidate, he gets 20 percent. Still behind, but in the hunt.

But how, you ask, can they get away with such a hypocritical ploy? In a democracy, shouldn't the left and right be competing for votes , not bundling them? Don’t these politicians stand for anything? Is their only priority getting in so they can feed at the trough?

Good questions. My reading is that what the Front sees as most important in 2018 is getting the PRI out of Los Pinos without letting AMLO in. We can argue about gay marriage and energy reform later, their thinking goes. Let’s just get the swamp drained first.

This implies that positions on the issues are not all that important. What else is new? The only real issue in Mexico is corruption — not individual cases but the entrenched culture of corruption that has rotted government, law enforcement and business. Corruption may not have caused crime, inequality and environmental degradation, but it sure makes it hard to do anything about them.

Mexican voters are understandably jaded about a national election as a means of attacking corruption. Still, it’s a chance to do something, make some kind of statement. It’s just not obvious how backing a coalition of the PAN and PRD — both far from corruption-free over the years — is supposed to help matters. Perhaps once the attention is on the candidate, rather than the machine behind him or her, the view will change.  

Then again, the whole Front idea could collapse at any time. You never know.

One thing we do know for now is that Margarita Zavala will not be the Front candidate. She was the first PAN member to announce her candidacy — and the first to bolt the party to run as an independent. That’s why she was gathering those signatures in Coyoacán.

How’s she doing? Not bad. If she ends up being the only independent candidate (a distinct possibility given the difficulty of the qualifying process) the El Financiero poll puts her in a tie with the Front for third place. Maybe the party planners have been going about this all wrong. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Actually, None of Them Should Shut Up

You can tell we’re moving into an election season by how quickly recorded gaffes by public figures go viral. 

One of the more entertaining recent episodes involved Elena Poniatowska, the revered journalist and author who almost single-handedly exposed the truth behind the 1968 government massacre of university students. She was chatting two weeks ago with a gathering of locals in the indigenous Oaxaca city of Juchitán, which was hit hard by the Sept. 7 8.2 quake.
Elena is much admired in Juchitán and feels comfortably at home there. Which may be why she thought nothing of observing that when Tina Modotti (the 20th century photographer of whom Poniatowska has written) was shooting in that area, the women were generally thin. Now, however, after the beverage of choice shifted from pulque to beer, they’re more large-bellied.

This wasn’t meant as an insult. Physical characteristics serve as neutral nicknames; if El Chapo was ever offended at being called Shorty, we’d know about it. But the phrase Elena used for immensely pot-bellied — “panzonas inmensas” — could also be heard as “panzonas y mensas.” Which means paunchy and slow-witted.

The ensuing flood of internet commentary, almost all of it from outside Juchitán, offers an interesting data point for social researchers. Curiously, those who admire Elena heard panzonas inmensas. Those who despise her heard panzonas y mensas. 

The latter communicated their feelings in the accepted style of internet comments, favoring invective over explanation: “The old pendeja has no respect. “She’s wrinkled, senile and conceited.” “Pinche polaca.”

So let’s amend the above adjective “revered” to “revered by most.” Elena has some strikes against her in the minds of the bigots — she’s foreign-born, on in years, and female. But the root of the opprobrium is what it’s been for more than a dozen years: She’s an unwavering supporter of Andrés Manuel López Obrador for president.

Which makes her a target for personal insults, though not as much as AMLO himself. He’s the frontrunner now, so despite plenty of legitimate political arguments against him (Palling around with the CNTE thugs? Come on.) expect more of the strategy of personal attacks that worked so well over the last two election cycles. 

My favorite from 2006 was the faux indignation we were supposed to feel after AMLO suggested that the incumbent, Vicente Fox, who had been overtly (and illegally) campaigning against him, should shush. His actual words were “Cállate, chachalaca,” a homespun avian reference at once alliterative and rhythmic.

But also disrespectful to a sitting president, which his opponents reminded us of right up to election day. So given the minuscule margin of victory that year, a man who had been called a danger to the nation, a clone of Hugo Chávez, a promoter of violence, a false messiah and a traitor may have lost the presidency for being so rude as to evoke a squawking bird. 

Wonder what’s in store for us this time around?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What Gringophobia?

Are we facing a new wave of anti-Americanism in Mexico?

Andrew Paxman, a Brit who teaches history and journalism at Mexico City’s CIDE, thinks we are.

“Mexico today is ripe for overt gringophobia,” he told a gathering at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. yesterday.

That’s been assumed since 2015, when Trump threatened Mexico with economic warfare, slandered its people with accusations of criminality, and insulted their integrity by promising to wall them off.

He’s still doing all that as U.S. president. 

So where’s the gringophobia? Have you noticed a spike? I haven’t.

Anti-Trumpism, sure. There’s plenty of that. But there’s plenty in the United States too, not to mention in most of the world. If cooler heads prevail, is it out of the question that Trump’s aggression could unite decent Americans and Mexicans against a common enemy?

Maybe I should get out more, but in the year since last November’s apocalypse, I’ve run across exactly nobody who resents Americans as individuals because of Trump. Instead, there’s usually a tacit understanding that we’re in this together, that the threat of Trump’s insanity goes beyond mere bilateral issues.

Paxman has done a lot of research into historical anti-Americanism in Mexico, much of it for his recently released (in English) biography of William Jenkins, the U.S.-born 20th-century industrialist who spent most of his life in Puebla as, at times, the richest man in Mexico. Paxman’s concern about a surge in anti-Americanism has to do with next year’s Mexican presidential elections.

It’s a safe bet the candidates will compete in the tough-on-Trump category (though smart-about-Trump would be more helpful). Mexican politicians have a long history of stoking the electorate’s indignation at the actions of the U.S government, just as the U.S. government has a long history of deserving it. Now Trump is the U.S. government. Buckle up.

Still, voting based on an ongoing threat from a U.S. president is not the same as gringophobia, which is personal and implies disgust at all things American. The candidate who can stoke such visceral feelings may have an advantage, but the stoking won’t be as easy as it once was. Unless I’m wrong (God help us all if I am) he or she won’t be able to fire up the mob, but instead will have to find politically legitimate enticements to snag the anti-Trump vote.

There are a number of reasons why that’s true, most of which were mentioned by the Mexico Institute’s Christopher Wilson at that same conference yesterday. Put simply, Mexicans have a better opinion of Americans than they used to — because they know them better.

The number of Mexicans who have lived in or visited the United States and then returned has soared. As anybody who’s ever traveled knows, there’s nothing like actually being somewhere to change how you perceive it.

The economies have integrated after two decades of NAFTA and Mexicans approve of that. Learning English, once unhip, even unpatriotic, is now common in Mexico, even officially encouraged. 

Young people in general have a positive opinion of the United States. So do the wealthy. So, especially, do those living in the northern part of the nation.

Social media has demystified much about the northern neighbor. As a result, Mexicans, especially the young, are less likely to think negatively about it just because a magazine or politician or activist tells them they’re supposed to.

We can be fairly sure the Trump card will continue to be played in Mexico as long as that man is in the White House. But the gringo card? No longer a sure thing.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Moon Over Paradox

I’ve been notified several times this week about a rare heavenly phenomenon soon to take place over the Valley of Mexico. On Nov. 14, the rising moon will be at once full and at its closest proximity to the earth. That means it will look larger than usual. 
The news has been coming via the usual social media sources, with breathless excitement. This supermoon, we’re told, hasn’t been seen in 68 years. It won’t be witnessed “by humankind” again until 2034. It is not to be missed.
The tone might have been even more urgent, given how lovely the full moon looked from my neighborhood just a week ago as it rose over the hills beyond the Torres de Satélite. I’m pretty sure that two full moons in 11 days is more than a once-in-68-years anomaly. The Astronomical Society of Mexico offered no help; in fact its page is down. Neil deGrasse Tyson had no light to shed. Guess you can say anything you want on the internet. 
But . . . what have we here? La Jornada, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 edition, page 31, a column by José Cueli running under the title “What Will Happen on Tuesday, the 14th?” He’s talking about the supermoon. In print, mind you. 
Like many Jornada columnists, Cueli is more academic than journalist, and usually takes extra care to keep his texts as impenetrable as possible. But today he seems genuinely touched by last week’s moonrise, which he describes as “the color of juicy grapefruit dappled with quetzal feathers which leave the earthquakes behind in space and foreshadow a new conception of time and space that will be reaffirmed on Tuesday the 14th.”
I don’t know if “a new conception of time and space” refers to the premature second full moon. Nor am I sure how you can “reaffirm” a future new conception
But unless he’s totally putting us on (out of character) I think Cueli expects something to happen on Tuesday. He concludes: “How will the moon enlighten us next Tuesday, the 14th? What surprises will appear with its brilliance?”
You can wait four days to find out, or you can go back a year to Nov. 14, 2016 (a Monday, not a Tuesday) when a supermoon, not seen for 68 years, not to return until 2034, glowed over Mexico City. 
  That ruins the surprise, granted, but it saves who knows how many from staying up until 3:26 a.m. (Tuesday’s scheduled moonrise) to search for a waning crescent moon, normal-sized, and not especially bright.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: Uncovered

Three of our five dailies front the first announced candidate for the next president of Mexico, who happens to be the former first lady during the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-20012). Reforma’s headline: “Margarita Zavala uncovers herself for 2018.”
    That’s not as risqué as it sounds. Destapar really does mean “uncover,” which was the verb of choice for how 20th-century presidents revealed their chosen successor during the PRI’s perfect dictatorship. Those days are gone, but the verb remains, shifted to the reflexive.
    Zavala of course has some advantages by virtue of her marriage, but that’s not all she’s about. The two met as young National Action Party (PAN) militants more or less on even footing, and she served in the Chamber of Deputies before Calderón assumed the presidency.
    That said, her announcement on Sunday, via YouTube, is a little weird. For one thing, it came just a week after the Sunday midterm, and a full three years before the presidential election. What’s the rush?
    The short answer is that it was her way of sticking it to her rivals within the PAN. Margarita and Felipe last year backed a sympathetic candidate for the party leadership against the faction led by Gustavo Madero, who’s assumed to have presidential aspirations of his own, though he denies it.
    (His latest denial emphasized vehemence over credibility. When asked if he wanted to run for president of Mexico, he replied, “No me chinguen.” Try Google translate.)
    The Calderón/Zavala faction lost that battle, and Margarita was soon punished by being denied a PAN candidacy for a return to the Chamber of Deputies. She responded by threatening to run for the party presidency next time around, but decided to run for president instead.
    Her pre-emptive announcement was clearly her way of telling the party leaders that she has no intention of letting them decide her fate. She’s out there on her own now, and her game plan seems to be to accumulate enough support to force her nomination. She certainly has enough time to do it.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: The course of coverage of Mexican elections starts with trouble at the voting stations and works its way to trouble in the counting room. In between, there are results.

Catching up on the week, the progression of top front-page election headlines in La Jornada provide a useful summary of post-election-day coverage. Sunday’s online updates were all about troubles at the voting booths, since there was nothing else to cover. They were serious — polling stations burning down is news — but not nearly as widespread as the daylong focus seemed to indicate.
    Then came the news, day by day. 
    Monday morning: “In Nuevo León, the winner would be the independent El Bronco.” That conditional tense (sería in the original, instead of es or será) recognizes how early the returns were, but Jaime Rodríguez’s historic win in the governor’s race was so overwhelming that he got the glory headlines before anybody else. He's the first independent to win a major public office in modern Mexican history.
    Tuesday morning: “PRD and Morena tie in the DF Assembly.” It looked at the time that the two left-of-center parties would each win 16 of the 40 directly elected seats on Mexico City’s 66-member legislative body. If that result had stood up, it would have marked an impressive debut for Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s nascent Morena party. But the next day . . .
    Wednesday morning: “Morena the top political force in the DF Assembly.” The updated results were more than impressive. "Staggering" might be the word. They gave Morena 18, the PRD 14, the PAN five and the PRI three. For Morena, it was 0 to plurality in one election. For the PRD, it was the end of its majority.
    Thursday morning: “INE will recount the votes in 60% of the precincts.” This recounting by the National Electoral Institute was for accuracy. It sounds like a lot at 60%, but it was 56% in 2012. This head takes us to the next stage of the usual election coverage sequence, which starts with election-day logistics, then preliminary results, then more solid results, then technical glitches, which continued, in La Jornada at least, the next day . . .
    Friday morning: “INE vote count provoking chaos in the election figures.” Part of that “chaos” (a favorite hyperbolic expression that all the papers like to use) had to do with INE figures that gave results with “100.62%” of the vote counted. After glitch coverage comes the next stage  . . . the challenges.
   This morning: “Morena demands annulled elections or recounts in six delegations.” Morena also nabbed more Mexico City delegaciones, or boroughs, than the PRD, but it wants more. The party is claiming that irregularities in the borough chief vote in six of the boroughs that it didn’t win are serious enough to annul those boroughs' election or at least require a vote-by-vote recount. It may sound like Morena is acting like a sore winner, but these challenges are a permitted part of the process that all the major parties resort to at one time or another — though AMLO is the undisputed king of the impugnaciones.