The Fire Last Time

Mexico City.

One year ago this July 2nd, a coven of reporters who had been working the intensely conflictive presidential election here were convened by left-center candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) to await the returns at a glitzy new hotel in a swank district of the capitol. Although Lopez Obrador had been repeatedly libeled as “a danger to Mexico” in a relentless six month-long hit piece campaign, he went into election day with a 35 to 31.5 lead over Felipe Calderon, the rightwing PAN party candidate, in the final poll conducted for TV giant Televisa, certainly no friend of Obrador’s, and his prospects for victory seemed sunny.

The 2006 Mexican presidential election was the most pertinent in decades. The choice could not have been clearer. Lopez Obrador represented the poor brown underclass that comprises 73% of the population and Calderon the tiny white elite that dominates business and government here. Class and race tensions thrummed throughout the campaign. Even the geopolitical station of Mexico in the world was up for grabs – would the distant neighbor nation continue to be Washington’s backyard or align itself, as AMLO advocated, with the new left democracies in Latin America?

After demolishing platters of finger food and liters of Cuba Libres, the reporters arranged themselves on upholstered chairs to await the transmission of exit polls contracted by Televisa and its junior partner TV Azteca. Exit polls are what seem to determine most elections in the world these days and the buzz in the salon was electric. But there were no exit polls. The results had been too close to call, the networks alibied, there were transmission problems. Later, the reporters would learn that the outgoing Interior Secretary, who oversees both domestic politics and TV and radio communication, had appealed to the network owners to cancel the dissemination of the exit polls, which presumably favored Lopez Obrador.

At 11 PM, Luis Carlos Ugalde, the president of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the maximum election body that bore responsibility for organizing the vote taking, was to announce the first cut from the preliminary tally or PREP. This was the moment all Mexico had been waiting for. The numbers would indicate irreversible tendencies and in the past two presidential elections had determined a winner. But there were no results from the PREP either. Ugalde walked away from the mics offering no explanation. The 1 AM cut was cancelled – there would be no official results for at least a week. AMLO’s own exit polls had him up by a million votes.

After the IFE blackout was made patent, the reporters accompanied Lopez Obrador to an impromptu meeting in the capital’s Tiennemens-sized Zocalo plaza. It had been storming and the rain squalled in bursts. Out there on the darkened esplanade, a few thousand supporters gathered in angry little knots. They were of one voice. “Fraude electoral!” they chanted over and over again, “Fraude Electoral!”

I had heard that chant before of course, most notably in 1988, my first presidential election here. For months, I had accompanied the upstart left candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas as he wended his way through Mexico and had seen his chances to overthrow the long-ruling PRI snowball. On election night that July 6th, Cardenas was leading the PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari in every district reporting when the screens went blank. The system had crashed, the Interior Secretary communicated to the press, and when at last the computers came back up ten days later, Salinas was proclaimed the winner. After token protest at the massive fraude electoral, Cardenas had folded up his tents and gone home. I wondered if Lopez Obrador would act differently.

The day after last July’s balloting, with Calderon holding the slimmest of leads in the unofficial PREP, George Bush phoned the rightwing candidate from Air Force 1 to congratulate him on his “victory.” This was an election the White House could not lose after a long skein of defeats further south where the dominoes were falling leftwards at an alarming rate. The election of a Hugo Chavez-type butt up against the U.S. border, as the hit pieces produced by Fox News political consultant Dick Morris asserted would happen if Lopez Obrador was elected, was unacceptable to Bush and his colleagues.

Major U.S. corporations doing business in Mexico such as Halliburton and Wal-Mart were encouraged to underwrite Morris’s hit pieces and Ambassador Tony Garza, a longtime Bush crony, and the American Chamber of Commerce offered unofficial endorsements of Calderon.

By the IFE’s dubious count, the PANista had won the election by .58% over AMLO – 240,000 votes out of 41.5 million cast – but the leftist would never concede defeat. On Saturday, July 8th, Lopez Obrador summoned his followers to the Zocalo. The great plaza was festooned with posters of the IFE’s Ugalde: “Wanted for Electoral Fraud – Luis Carlos Ugalde!” “Fraude Electoral!” the crowd, a half million strong, kept rumbling, “Fraude Electoral!”

The New York Times explained the ire of the Mexican electorate to its readers. Charges of fraud were a part of Mexican electoral culture and did not always correspond to reality, James McKinley wrote, implying that AMLO was a sore loser seeking to dupe his followers into believing he had won.

The Times, which set the tone for the U.S. press, consistently diminished the enormous numbers that the leftist was turning out. One week later, on July 16th, AMLO assembled 1.2 million supporters for a march to the Zocalo (The Times estimated 300,000) and on July 30th he doubled those numbers with a record-breaking 2.4 million marchers, the largest political demonstration in Mexican history (the Times put the crowd in the “hundreds of thousands.”)

After the humongous July 30th gathering, Lopez Obrador asked his people to stay and encamp in the streets which they did for seven weeks, tying up the capital and making it difficult to do business as usual.

In the evenings, AMLO conducted “informative assemblies” in the great square attended by tens of thousands of people “the color of the earth” (Subcomandante Marcos) at which he would talk about history: the war of liberation from Spain, Benito Juarez, the Mexican revolution, a constitution that gave the people the right to throw off an unrepresentative government. You are part of history, he would tell his constituents. This reporter attended 49 informative assemblies. Each night felt like history.

On September 16th, Mexico’s Independence Day, AMLO turned out a million delegates at the National Democratic Convention (CND) where he was acclaimed the “legitimate president” of Mexico and on November 20th, a date that marks the beginning of the 1910-1919 Mexican revolution, he was inaugurated in the Zocalo. The “Presidente Legitimo” named a shadow cabinet that soon evaporated into the shadows. Ten days later, on December 1st, Felipe Calderon was sworn in during a chaotic congressional session marred by wild fistfights between AMLO’s leftist PRD and the PANista delegation.

That was then. This is now.

A year after the Great Fraude Electoral, Calderon, a pudgy, balding, fast-talking huckster who never tires of extolling his few accomplishments, has consolidated a margin of authority through astute manipulation of the military and the media – the President’s press office claims 60% “acceptance.” But despite 30,000 troops in the field fighting Washington’s War on Drugs, the country remains a tinderbox of discontent with more beheadings in the daily body count than in the alleyways of Baghdad and dozens of red lights flashing as social irritation continues to escalate, most acutely in Oaxaca.

Politically, Calderon has been given a hands-up by the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary or PRI party with a hundred deputies in the lower house of congress that the PANistas desperately need to move legislation. The PRI backs the freshman president’s legislative package in exchange for protection of four of its most beleaguered governors, including Mario Villanueva, once “cacique” (“boss”) of Quintana Roo who the Bush Justice Department wants extradited north of the border for alleged drug crimes, and the despotic Ulises Ruiz in Oaxaca. Much of the legislation Calderon has proposed to congress such as fiscal reform that would force big business to pay a flat tax sounds as if it were lifted from Lopez Obrador’s platform.

If last year’s election taught Felipe Calderon anything, it was that the country is toxically divided between rich and poor and he has sought to ameliorate that divide with assistencial programs and reforms which seem oddly like those proposed by AMLO.

Calderon’s success at consolidating minimum credibility has been aided and abetted by Lopez Obrador himself. The former candidate allowed himself to be disappeared from the national political picture when he abandoned Mexico City where he was once an overwhelmingly popular mayor, to take his show on the road.

AMLO has spent the past ten months perambulating through the boonies of such remote states as Chiapas and Chihuahua to address increasingly diminishing numbers of followers. The leftist’s trajectory often seems an extension of a campaign that never ended, an exercise that is doomed to futility because this time there is no election up ahead to galvanize his constituency. Nonetheless, the extended tour has served to build the CND into an organization of “los de abajo” (those down below), which claims a million affiliations.

Barred from national television screens, Lopez Obrador buys a weekly half hour on TV Azteca, “The Truth Must Be Told” – but the show is aired at 1 AM, insuring that only diehards will stay up to watch it. In the run-up to the July 2nd anniversary, AMLO lost his radio voice when Monitor Radio, the only outlet on the dial that paid any attention to him, went broke thanks to the Calderon administration’s refusal to grant the station any government advertising.

Monitor is not the only enterprise in financial difficulty. Lopez Obrador’s on-going campaign is often without resources – the Hong Kong-based HSBC bank just cancelled AMLO’s account without explanation.

Lopez Obrador’s voluntary displacement from the limelight has ceded authority back to the professional politicos who rule his PRD party and its allies in congress. Whereas AMLO has insisted that he will never enter into negotiations with Calderon, the PRD openly bargains with his representatives in congress. Rumors continue to circulate that ultimately AMLO will use the National Democratic Convention as the basis of a new party and break with the PRD. Meanwhile, the ex-Mexico City mayor faces a stiff challenge from his successor, Marcelo Ebrard, for the left presidential nomination in 2012.

Despite his weakened standing, Lopez Obrador displayed much of the old magic on the eve of the first anniversary of the Great Fraude. Amidst traditional cries of “It’s An Honor To be with Lopez Obrador!” and “You Are Not Alone!” the “legitimate president” of Mexico once again filled the Zocalo to bursting – a feat that Calderon has never even tried to replicate. Although the “spurious president” as AMLO’s supporters tag Felipe Calderon marked the date as the birthday party of his regime, July 2nd will always belong to Lopez Obrador as the day the historic resistance to Calderon’s usurpation of the presidency began. “We didn’t lose an election last July 2nd – we started a movement” AMLO beamed at the jubilant crowd in the great square.

A cluster of events commemorated the anniversary of the advent of that movement. “Expo Fraude” turned the Monument of the Revolution into a carnival complete with its own house of horrors, a fun house (throw darts at “Fecal”), and even a fraud supermarket featuring products made by companies that financed the Calderon campaign and calling upon expo goers to boycott them.

At least seven books analyzing the fraude electoral (including a comic book) have been published in time for the anniversary. Mexico’s most celebrated social chronicler Elena Poniatowska presented her memoir of 2006 “To Awake In The Zocalo” at the Expo Fraud only to be topped by AMLO himself who presented his “The Mafia Stole The Presidency From Us” the next day, converting the Zocalo into the world’s biggest book party.

July 2nd 2006 put the lie to Washington’s claim that the PANista Vicente Fox’s victory in 2000, which put an end to seven decades of the PRI’s “perfect dictatorship”, ushered in a democratic Mexico. The PAN, exactly as the PRI had done for so long, utilized control of the electoral machinery to perpetuate its hold on power. Such treachery is the oldest story ever told.

Elections here are like a spasm in political time. Inevitably, they are followed by conflict and scuffling between the candidates’ followers – the so-called second election in the street – and then the pissed-off partisans have to get back to work and drop out of the fray, disillusioned with their leaders and feeling used by the political parties in their eternal tussle for power.

When it comes to the electoral process south of the Rio Bravo, cynicism is residual. Fraude Electoral more often than not breeds absenteeism rather than rebellion. The electoral option loses its luster and the drop off in voter participation dips precipitously in subsequent elections. Indeed, one year after the mother of all frauds, upcoming vote-takings in key states like Baja California and Michoacan have stirred little voter enthusiasm and Sunday July 1st local elections in Chihuahua and Durango produced record-breaking low turnouts.

Last July, Manuel Gomez, his taxicab plastered with AMLO stickers, went to live in the Mexico City protest encampment along with tens of thousands of other angry voters. He gave up a lot of workdays to the struggle and his wife grew upset with him. “Were you with AMLO on Sunday?” a colleague asks. “Elections are a trick on the people,” Manuel snorted, “I can’t believe that I was so stupid to think they were really going to let us win” The cabbie hesitated.

“Of course I was there. Where else would I be?” he answered his friend’s question.

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City, plotting a new novella. If you have further information contact



JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to