Thursday, February 22, 2018

Who you callin’ fifi?

There’s a follow-up to the recent unpleasantness inflicted by the head of Mexico's ruling party when he called ex-PRI AMLO supporters “PRIetos” — darkies.  (Scroll down one post if you missed it.) The sequel is slightly comical, but it says something about how certain topics are handled these days, and a lot about what we’ll be dealing with as we watch this Mexican election unfold. 

PRI leader Enrique Ochoa’s bad joke was universally condemned, including by Ochoa himself. Two prominent columnists chose to add context to their condemnation, with predictable results. Nuance is not appreciated when a moral issue is burning hot. Ask Matt Damon.

León Krauze wrote this: "The last thing Mexico needs is to throw more fuel on the fire of racial, ethnic and class tension. There’s no place for that discourse, nor for that of “fresas,” “fifí” or “pirruris.” Those three words in quotes are the issue.

Denise Dresser said much the same thing. Both writers were called out quickly and brutally. The charge: False equivalence. 

To understand the dispute, you need to know what the words mean and who said them. 

Briefly, “pirruris” is a pejorative term for an upper class snoot. “Fresa” is the opposite of hip, describing a (usually young) social conservative with conventional taste, which is to say no taste. “Fifí” refers to somebody who poses as a social superior. 

The three words are linked for two reasons. One is that they imply whiteness, a shade that at once affords privilege and invites ridicule. The other is that they've been used frequently and recently by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 

That’s why his supporters were so ticked off that Krauze and Dresser injected them into the conversation. And that’s why AMLO called the two “conservatives disguised as liberals.”

As is often the case, the law professor John Ackerman, one of AMLO’s most articulate and excitable supporters, took the lead: “Instead of straightforwardly condemning Ochoa’s reprehensible expressions for inciting hatred and violence, the writers preferred to blur the situation by making a spurious comparison to the words of López Obrador.”

While it’s true that AMLO used the words to describe his major opponents for the presidency — the PRI’s José Antonio Meade and Ricardo Anaya of the left-right PAN-PRD coalition — his defenders point out that he was using them to make the point that Meade and Anaya, especially the former, have a reputation for not getting out much among the common folk.

Here’s an example of what he has said: “They don’t want me to call them pirruris, fresas of the mafia of power, because they're not rising up, the people don’t know them. They have to get going and tour the pueblos.” 

“Fifí” is a word he reportedly pulls out for journalists who appear to lean toward Anaya or Meade. He also used it jokingly about himself, in reference to criticism that he’s been inviting right-leaning pols into his campaign while proposing a new “moral constitution”: “It’s like the world is backwards. For some I’m still sectarian, a danger to Mexico. For others, I’ve become fresa, almost fifí.”

Part of the defense of AMLO's vocabulary goes like this: He said that Meade and Anaya are pale pirruris for lack of sun because they don’t go out to tour the pueblos. Sure that’s confrontational, even annoying, but it doesn’t compare to racism. The two should never have been conflated, and the only reason they were was to take a shot at AMLO.

Dresser, who’s been a prolific liberal commentator for decades and voted for AMLO in 2006, would have none of that. “Racism and discrimination based on social class are not comparable behaviors,” she allowed. “But both assignations (“pirruris” and “prietos”) are harmful to democratic coexistence and both should be criticized.” 

She also tweeted, referring to the pirruris label: “Maybe it’s not racist, but it does make a differentiation/disqualification based on skin color or social status or . . . social class. It is unnecessary, worrisome and polarizing, no matter where it comes from — AMLO, the PRI. It’s unjustifiable, in all cases.”

As a spectator in the cheap seats, I’m going to wuss out here and rule that they both have a point. 

Dresser and Krauze are clearly right that any degree of prejudice-baiting is poisonous, especially during an electoral campaign. As proof, the trolls attacking Dresser haven’t been shy about referring to her light complexion. The columnists’ apparent argument that censuring Ochoa was necessary but not enough is reasonable. What they appear to be suggesting is "Let’s everybody drop all of this right now."

But even context has a context. To AMLO’s people, pivoting immediately — nay, simultaneously — to criticism of their candidate while responding to the PRI leader’s racism smacked of an opportunistic change of subject. They had to be thinking, "The PRI calls our supporters the equivalent of “darkies” and all of the sudden we're the bad guys for saying 'fifí'? Get real."

From that point of view, Dresser and Krauze (and many others, by the way) exploited the moment to get a political dig in. 

Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. Timing aside, though, their point was well taken. The lesson here is that it's the journalists, not the campaigns, who will have to keep this skin-tone stuff from getting out of hand. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Beware the swarthy hordes

A bitter twist in the campaign for Mexico’s next president was the work of Enrique Ochoa, the party president of the incumbent Institutional Revolution Party who last week decided to speak about the growing number of party members bolting to the opposition. Why he would want to call attention to this internal woe is anybody’s guess. Maybe it was just an excuse to make a play on words. 

Superficially, what Ochoa said was that the defectors were party members who are no longer sticking. But instead of using the usual word for a member of his party  — priísta (PRI being the party’s acronym, pronounced “pree”) — he substituted prieto. He did it twice, in fact, to bring the joke home.

Prieto means “dark.” California’s Loma Prieta quake in 1989 was epicentered at Dark Mountain. Ochoa’s racial connotation could not have been accidental. He was calling the deserters “darkies.” And he was associating that racial slur, not very well disguised as humor, with the party to which they were deserting. That party is Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena, which stands for National Renovation Movement. (It can also mean, not coincidentally, “brown.”)

The finishing flourish of ya no aprietan, with the same pree sound in the second syllable of the final word, was no more innocent. I used “sticking” earlier to make sense, but the usual meaning is “squeezing,” “clutching,” “constricting.”  Given the tone of the talk, it’s not far-fetched to read this as implying that a certain body part of these wussy traitors has loosened from overuse. Racism on a plate, with a side of misogyny.

As puns go, Ochoa’s efforts may be fair to middling, but as political drollery they’re abhorrent. Skin tone, as an invented indicator of social status and political legitimacy, still lurks close enough to the surface in Mexico that it doesn’t take much to expose it to the open air. The leader of the PRI, a party that still tries to sell itself as synonymous with the nation’s one true government, has now done that. 

It’s hardly unprecedented. Zapata and Villa were targets. In the disruptive 1988 presidential election, Manuel Clouthier was described as foreign, Carlos Salinas as criollo and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as mestizo. Only the last was accurate, but the labeling had its effect. Benito Juárez is a national hero partly because he beat the prejudice. 

Was Ochoa’s introduction of skin tone into the campaign unintentional? If so, it unintentionally played right into the party strategy of bringing down front-running Morena by branding the movement as irresponsible, as rabble-rousing, as untrustworthy, as lawless. As prietos que no aprietan. 

Keep in mind too that Mikel Arriola, PRI candidate for Mexico City mayor, the second most-important election happening on July 1, is running against two women. 

It’s all pretty ugly. Reaction to the remarks was swift and fierce. His own presidential candidate, José Antonio Meade, criticized it. Ochoa apologized and removed the offending video and tweet from the net, which of course can’t be done. PRI lawmakers hinted at having him ousted, although it turned out that what they were upset about had nothing to do with the prieto remarks and everything to do with being left off the list of congressional candidates. 

Social media went crazy. #Yosoyprieto is all over the place. You see doctored images of Ochoa with alabaster skin, blue eyes and golden hair (above). Others have him with a blond mop-top, Boris Johnson style. It’s all very entertaining, and disturbing.

Will this help or hurt Meade, whose campaign is approaching total tank mode? We’d like to think that it's a losing strategy to try to convince voters that their true enemies are the swarthy hordes. But somehow it sounds familiar. 

Or the issue could just go away, a bad joke fading from memory as somebody's new gaffe takes its place. It will probably linger though; "prietos que no aprietan" is too easy to remember, and the issue itself hits home. Maybe we should be thankful it's been exposed for all to see. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Potemkin Rally

The surface streets separating the Plateros sports complex from the Periférico freeway in Mexico City’s Álvaro Obregon borough were close to impassable one day last week as thousands of Democratic Revolution Party supporters paraded between jammed sidewalks and parked buses toward the park entrance.

They were mostly young, mostly male and mostly working class. Not a lot of man buns. They carried yellow and black PRD banners, but didn’t wave them. Their collective mood seemed more dutiful than eager — not downbeat, but less enthusiastic than you might expect at the first Mexico City mass rally for their presidential candidate.

Maybe that’s because the candidate they’d soon be told to cheer for, Ricardo Anaya, presided until recently over the National Action Party, exactly the kind of right-leaning, Church-cozy, business-serving, neoliberalism advocates the PRD was formed to oppose.

Then again, a significant percentage of them wasn’t there so much from dedication as from the free transportation (and possibly other inducements) offered in exchange for attendance.

Or could it be they were just a tad woozy from fumes? The flags they bore smelled like the letters and logo were imprinted not more than an hour ago with an especially potent ink.

The rally in the sports complex was in support of the political front put together for the July 1 national elections by the PAN and the PRD (it also includes the smaller Citizens Movement or MC). After a couple of stabs at a name, the coalition registered officially as “For Mexico to the Front,” which sounds almost as awkward in the original Spanish — Por México al Frente. With apologies to the coalition’s untethered marketeers, we’ll use “the Front” in this space throughout the campaign. 

The PAN may be first among equals in the Front, but the event’s optics were pure PRD. From where I stood — on a remote canvas-covered concrete basketball court, on and around which thousands were sitting, standing or milling — the only PAN logos in sight were at the main stage, literally a soccer field away, visible on video screens. 

Easily outnumbering PAN and MC symbols were the local Álvaro Obregón banners. With a population of more than 750,000, Álvaro Obregón is the third largest and perhaps most diverse of Mexico City’s 16 delegaciones, which are semi-autonomous administrative entities roughly equivalent to — or at least reminiscent of —  New York City’s boroughs or the arrondisements of Paris. 

As host, the borough earned microphone time. Its government head, the delegada María Antonieta Hidalgo Torres, was right there on stage, smiling broadly when the camera looked her way, but it was the former borough chief  Leonel Luna who spoke. 

That’s because Luna, now a force in Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly, controls the massive political organization that has kept Álvaro Obregón in PRD hands since 2003. It was his minions who saw to it that the huge outdoor athletic complex was filled with thousands of nominally left-wing PRD supporters willing to cheer on command for a more-than-nominally right-wing presidential candidate.

Whatever skills account for Luna’s political success, they’re not oratorical. Still, as he droned, the local case for the coalition was on display. 

Álvaro Obregón’s sprawl contains mostly working class and marginalized neighborhoods, but there are upscale pockets such as San Ángel and Pedregal in the south and the residential towers of Santa Fe in the west that lean toward the conservative PAN. There’s never been enough of those PAN votes to threaten the PRD’s hold on the borough, but if those voted shift to the PRD on July 1 as a result of the coalition, they may be enough to offset the bite that Morena — Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s schismatic party that is now Mexico’s main political force on the left — will surely take out of the PRD’s traditional support in Álvaro Obregón.

The same goes for the Mexico City mayor’s race. By what was surely an arrangement, the PRD got one of its own as the Front’s CDMX candidate, Alejandra Barrales, in exchange for ceding the presidential candidacy to the PAN. Barrales, a recent PRD party president, is a more dynamic speaker than Luna, or at least louder. She’s popular among the faithful, and on this day woke things up a little. 

Indeed, some 10 minutes into her talk, there was a noticeable stirring among the gathering in our area, with some rising from their folding chairs and waving their arms. It turned out that the popcorn vendors had finally arrived, the first food that those attendees who hadn’t stocked up at the Walmart next door had seen in hours. 

Barrales addressed the issues only by mentioning them. Insecurity, corruption, inequality, pollution, traffic — if you don’t like those things, vote for the Front and we’ll make them go away. This standard approach to campaigning would probably work better for the PRD candidate if her own party hadn’t been governing the city for the entire 21st century.

Barrales (that's her on the left) is already polling behind the Morena candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, who was Mexico City’s environment secretary when López Obrador ran the city from 2000 to 2005, in his and her PRD days. Hence Barrales is going to need all the PAN votes she can get. That, after all, is what the Front is for.

So she allotted as much time to promoting Anaya in her speech as she spent on herself. He later did the same for her. The PAN and PRD have joined forces before in some entities, but gushing mutual admiration at this level was unthinkable before now.

Both candidates seemed intent on convincing their respective party loyalists of the synergistic benefits of the PRD-PAN merger. And not just because of electoral math. They each mentioned, for example, that with the Front running both the nation and Mexico City, the capital will get a lot more love (read funds) from the feds than the previous PAN and the current PRI administrations have been willing to send to an opposition bastion. 

Of course, the same applies if there is a Morena president (López Obrador) and Morena mayor (Sheinbaum), but that wasn’t mentioned.

I tried to make my way through an obstacle course of poles, ropes, fences, hidden holes and unbudging people to the main stage area to see Anaya live. No go. I didn’t have a press pass, and the VIP section was impenetrable. All I’d accomplished was a change of video screens.

Anaya himself had no such trouble. A long path had been cordoned off for him so he and his people could make their way to the stage area in the manner of a Mike Tyson entourage. Upon his arrival, the crowd was told to cheer and shout “Ricardo! Ricardo!” Many did.

Unlike Tyson, Anaya is slight and bespectacled. He’s also very young — still on the good side of 40. He wears a permanent half-smile that makes him look almost meek. So it’s surprising at first that he comes on so strong when he starts talking. It shouldn’t be; meek doesn’t get you a presidential nomination.

In his speech, Anaya mostly went after the PRI, the incumbent party that returned to the presidential residence of Los Pinos in 2012 after its seven-decade grip was ended by the PAN itself in 2000 (when Anaya was a lad of 21). This approach makes sense; just about everybody is down on the PRI these days. Its former fair-haired boy, Enrique Peña Nieto, has presided over six years of national malaise bordering on agony. What better target?

At one point, Anaya asked a señora in the audience what she thought of the Mexican economy under the PRI. For somebody we were meant to believe was chosen at random, she was remarkably prepared for the question: “I’m Florinda Arvizu and I say the economy is de la chingada.” She meant that the economy sucks. And she said it in words that Anaya wouldn’t want to use in public himself, but he still got credit for their impact. Nice maneuver. 

The thing is, though, that the PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, is not the major obstacle between Anaya and the presidency. The Front is ahead of Meade in most (not all) recent polls, thanks mainly to the latter’s failure to excite anybody. At the same time, Anaya trails Morena’s López Obrador badly.

Still, his only attack on AMLO was almost an aside, and didn’t mention his name. We shouldn’t be fooled by a charlatan, Anaya said. Beware the kind of politician who prefers second decks on the Periférico to investing in mass transit. 

Presumably his people will come up with stronger condemnations of his chief rival than that. When they do, we can be sure it won’t be pretty. But for now, Anaya is sticking with the strategy of eliminating Meade as a credible candidate in order to woo Meade’s supporters for the end game against AMLO.

I wasn’t the only one who tried to head out before the candidate was finished speaking, looking to beat the foot traffic, so to speak. The event organizers saw that coming and blocked the long path out with masses of loyalists and their yellow flags. We tried alternative routes, similarly blocked. We were like Dorothy and her friends trying to escape the witch's castle.¡

Our salvation was a partly opened gate in a chain-link fence, its gap wide enough for one person at a time. By the time I squeezed through and negotiated an uneven terrain to emerge in no-man's land behind the complex, farther from the main entrance than where I had started, the event had ended and the streets outside were more jammed with humans than the courts and fields inside.

I felt like I had witnessed a pep rally before the big game against State U, with cheerleaders working the crowd and unending chants of “We’re going to win.” To be sure, that’s hardly unheard of in political campaigns, but in this case the overt manipulation by the leaders and the insincerity of the led challenged one’s faith in electoral democracy.

From the Front’s point of view, however, the event’s prevailing image is just what they want to project — thousands of PRD supporters, clearly identifiable by their yellow flags, cheering loudly and visibly for a PAN candidate for president. That’s the kind of tableau they’re counting on. That’s how previously unavailable votes are accessed. That’s what a coalition — a Front — is all about.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Because you asked for it, herewith is presented a guide to Mexico's simple, straightforward presidential election, a noble exercise in citizen participation, the democratic process at its purest.

The Mexican presidential campaign may seem confusing, but it’s really quite simple. 

Except when it’s not. 

Basically, the ruling PRI will try to hold onto the presidency against several challengers. To do so, it has chosen from its ranks a low key technocrat who has filled a number of cabinet posts under President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

Except that José Antonio Meade is not from the ranks. He’s not a member of the PRI. He just works for them. So has half his potential rivals, including AMLO, Armando Ríos Piter and El Bronco.  

Meade’s outsiderdom is supposedly a plus, since voters seem set to boot out the PRI, this time after only six years instead of the seven decades it took the first time. That  2000 opposition victory is seen as the model for Regime Change 2.0.

Except that the dragon-slayer of that year, Vicente Fox, has turned coat to cheerlead for the PRI, and seems especially taken with its incumbent president. What’s more, the party he won with, the PAN, is hemorrhaging militants, including two high-rankers who in just the last few weeks defected to work with Meade’s campaign — Julio di Bella Roldán and Javier Lozano. 

From the PRI point of view, Meade’s attraction is as a distraction; his under-the-radar service theoretically inoculates him from the accumulated scandals and tragedies of Peña Nieto’s presidency. He didn’t do personal deals with government contractors. He didn’t botch the investigation of a student massacre. He never got flustered trying to name a book he’s read. His slate must be as clean as a PRI candidate’s can be. 

Except it’s not. Meade was the  architect — or at least the public face — of the single most unpopular act of the Peña Nieto sexenio. It was just about a year ago when the PRI administration ended fuel subsidies, sending gasoline prices up drastically. Whether Meade was at fault is irrelevant; he signed the document.

There’s actually not much daylight at the right side of the political spectrum between the PAN and the PRI, but the latter is usually seen as battling the PAN to its right and the PRD to its left. 

Except that the PRD has no dog in the presidential hunt this year, having entered into an odd-couple alliance with the PAN. The idea is that a united front with a mutually acceptable coalition candidate stands the best chance of removing the corrupt PRI a worthier goal than fighting stale left-right battles.

Except there is no mutually acceptable candidate. Ricardo Anaya had a lock on the nomination from the get-go, just as he would have had a lock on the nomination of an unattached PAN, which until recently he ran as party president. 
The true result of the merger was to subsume the PRD under Anaya and the PAN.

Which may not have been wise. Mexico City's PRD Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera would probably have had more support among panistas than Anaya with the perredistas.

Except that Mancera is not really a member of the PRD. That didn’t stop him from winning and carrying out the mayor job under that party’s auspices. It would probably have been to his advantage in a presidential race.  Instead, Mancera missed his chance at using the CDMX leadership — the No. 2 elected post in the nation — as a jumping off point for a presidential run.

Except no Mexico City head of government has jumped off into the presidency, though many have tried — Manuel Camacho, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Marcelo Ebrard among them. 

Anaya is presumably in a strong  position to duke it out with Meade for conservative, anti-AMLO support. The idea is to build up enough of a lead over Meade in the polls to convince would-be PRI voters to unite behind the PAN (excuse me, behind the Front) to keep AMLO out of Los Pinos. It’s the voto util strategy, and it worked marvelously in 2000 when Cardenás supporters flocked to Fox to defeat the PRI candidate, and in 2006 when the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo became a non-factor to help the PAN's Felipe Calderón beat AMLO. 

Except Meade’s not his only rival on the right. Margarita Zavala, another PAN heavyweight, is in the picture after she bolted the party to run as an independent. She’s already taking poll points away from Anaya, a case in point of the difference the advent of independent candidates is making.

Except the independents are not all that independent. Zavala, who served in the Senate for the PAN and was first lady during the Calderón administration (2006-2012), is as panista as they come. Her independence has more to do with Anaya’s grip on the nomination than any change of heart. Same is true for Armando Ríos Piter (who left the PRD) and El Bronco (PRI), though this last declared his independence earlier than the others.

All this leaves AMLO and Morena alone on the left, with a claim to a political purity untainted by the self-serving machinations cited above.

Except the AMLO campaign may be the most ideologically muddled of them all. 

Besides freeing himself from challenges to his leadership from petty pretenders, AMLO created Morena to clear the way for a 2018 run unassociated with the PRD’s increasingly sleazy reputation, personified, fairly or not, by images of party stalwart René Bejarano stuffing stacks of bills into a suitcase, or peering from behind bars.

Except that Bejarano and his legislator wife Dolores Padierna are visible and welcome AMLO supporters this year.

Accepting them into the new fold might be explained by their past support in 2006 and 2012 when López Obrador ran with the PRD. 

Except that AMLO has also accepted as a campaign aide the right-winger Gabriela Cuevas, a former Mexico City borough chief and federal legislator who was one of the loudest voices in favor of barring him from running for president in 2006 on legal grounds. 

By some coincidence, the PAN leadership had denied Cuevas a congressional candidacy a few days before she bolted to Morena. AMLO, who has never been a social liberal, defends the counterintuitive rapprochement on big tent grounds. After all, she’s just one person.

Except it’s not just one person. It’s an entire political party. Morena and its partner the Labor Party (PT) have welcomed into their coalition the Social Encounter Party. That may sound like a speed dating event, but it’s actually a far-right political organization run by religious extremists who have already helped pass anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation at the state level. What kind of tent is Morena using that has room for such a thing?

So it’s all quite simple, right?

Except for one more complication:

María de Jesús Patricio Martínez is another independent candidate who’s not so independent, and proudly so in her case. “I’m not an independent,” the Jalisco-born indigenous activist has said. “I’m running as the spokesperson of the Indigenous Governing Council.” Her candidacy is not so much about winning the presidency as organizing the indigenous, the working population, the marginalized and the anti-capitalist left into a movement that matters. This year, that might be a more worthwhile outcome than any one candidate’s victory. She probably won’t get the signatures to make the ballot, but if she did, I’d vote for her. 

Except as a non-citizen, I don’t have the franchise. 

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.