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President’s Day in Mexico

 

“Bueno! Bueno!” my neighbor Marcia shouted into the receiver, Mexican telephonese for “Hello, what do you want?”  Felipe Calderon, the president, was on the line – well, not in person, of course.  The automated message invited Marcia to watch Calderon’s upcoming State of the Union address (“El Informe”) touting  his accomplishments during the first three years of his presidency.  My neighbor, not a great fan of the right-wing Calderon, was furious at the intrusion and slammed the receiver into the cradle.

The unprecedented telemarketing campaign to boost audiences for the lame-duck president’s annual Informe is thought to have originated from a call center in India.

September 1 used to be designated “The Day of The President” around here, a moment of maximum obeisance to imperial authority.  Banks and schools were closed and the capital draped in patriotic bunting. One of the more objectionable features of this political worship service was the “Ley Seca” or “Dry Law.”  From midnight to midnight September 1, the exasperated citizenry could not buy a shot glass of tequila anywhere in town.

In accordance with the Constitution, the President of Mexico is obligated to deliver a report on the State of the Nation to Congress each September 1.  Although the Mexican Magna Carta only calls for a written report, seven decades of ham-fisted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI (through 2000, all presidents were members of the PRI) imposed a magnum Presidential Address to Congress & The Nation as the centerpiece of this yearly pageant of imperial authority. The format was always the same: whatever PRIista was at the helm of state extolled his  stewardship of the nation and flacked his place in history to the robotic applause of the mostly PRI lawmakers.

Back when the Institutionals ran the show, the reigning PRI “tlatoani” (Aztec for emperor) would arise early on Informe Day, slip into the red, green, and white Presidential sash, and motor in to town from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House out in Chapultepec Park.  The masses would be mobilized to line the sidewalks along the route and yodel “Vivas!”  Confetti was thrown from the rooftops.

At the portals of the Legislative Palace in San Lazaro, the President would be met by an honor guard of Heroic Cadets who escorted His Imperial Majesty into the vestibule where he was embraced by a delegation of senators and federal deputies who then accompanied him to the podium amidst the cheerleading of members of the mostly PRI Congress and invited dignitaries – Generals and Admirals, Princes of the Catholic Church, Captains of Commerce and billionaire oligarchs, the diplomatic corps, and an occasional foreign head of state.  The Presidente’s spoken Informe could last for hours (Luis Echeverria, 1970-76, once spoke for five.)  Decorum was at a premium.  Between the orchestrated bursts of applause, you could hear pins drop.  There were few members of the opposition in Congress back then and none dared to speak out during the Presidential spiel which always culminated in a ten minute standing ovation and the intonation of the National Anthem.

Once the Chief of State had spoken his piece, the president of Congress, always a PRIista, would thank him ostentatiously and the party would adjourn to the National Palace ten blocks west for the obligatory “Besamanos” (“Kissing of Hands”) – notables lined up dozens deep to offer their loyalties and pump the Presidential flesh.  El Presidente would then step out on the balcony to salute a carefully culled mob below on the great Zocalo plaza.  If perchance an interloper was discovered in their midst, police and members of the President’s elite military guard would disappear him or her with alacrity.

When, in 1988, Carlos Salinas, who had just stolen the presidency from leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, was confronted by Cardenas’s supporters, he quickly slammed shut the balcony doors.  “I do not see them and I do not hear them,” Salinas imperiously declared.

1988 was a watershed in the political life of Mexico and after Cardenas was fraudulently denied high office in that year’s “Presidenciales”, “The Day of The President” took a sharp turn.  That September 1, when outgoing president Miguel De la Madrid took the podium to present his Informe to the new Congress, Porfirio Munoz Ledo, who had been elected as the first senator of an opposition party to occupy a seat (“curul”) in that no-so-august body, rose to challenge him.  Striding down the aisle and mounting the carpeted stairs to the tribune, the one-time PRIista turned leftist spokesman, waggled a stubby finger at De la Madrid.  “Shame!” he shouted in protest at the Great Fraud.  An audible gasp wafted up from the stunned onlookers, 500 members of Congress, their honored guests, and members of the national and international press corps.  Suddenly, a rat pack of PRI governors burst from their “curules” and cold-cocked the upstart lawmaker.  The session disintegrated into chaos.

Ever since Munoz Ledo (he is a federal deputy for the Party of Labor or PT in the new Congress elected July 5th) tore off the Emperor’s “new clothes”, it has become de rigeur for the opposition to act out on Informe day.  Sometimes the Left stands for the whole speech with their backs to the Presidente.  They bellow rude boos and caustic critiques from their curules.  Hand-lettered signs are smuggled past the military guards at the doors of the chamber, accusing the president of crimes against the people.  U.S. lawmakers, always shamefully cowed during their own president’s annual State of the Union address, would do well to emulate these noble acts of protest.

Perhaps the high point of all this civic uproar came in 1996 when Marco Rascon, a wide-bodied deputy for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) donned a “Babe The Valiant Pig” masque and positioned himself beneath the podium, displaying wry banners (“Eat the Rich” was one) while President Ernesto Zedillo droned on above.  Much like Munoz Ledo, Rascon was jumped and punched by outraged PRIistas (Zedillo was a PRIista of course) led by railroad union goon Victor Flores who ripped the mask from Rascon’s ears but met with the wrath of Senator Irma Serrano, a former ranchera singer known as “La Tigresa” and a one-time companion of an infamous PRI president but now a PRDista, who retrieved the pig mask and proceeded to punch out Flores’ lights.

You had to be there to appreciate the mayhem.  Indeed, few knew all about it – the cameras of Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly remained steadfastly trained on Zedillo as he fumbled his way through his Informe.

After 2000 when the rightist PAN displaced the PRI from power and became the first (and only) opposition party to ever run the country, the annual September 1 clambake continued but with diminished exuberance.  The PRIistas, all of a sudden in the opposition, were too embarrassed to be disruptive and the PRD didn’t quite know how to deal with a president who wasn’t a member of the formerly ruling party.

But “Day of the President” protests escalated out of control in 2006 after yet another presidential election was stolen from the Left and PANista Felipe Calderon awarded victory over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the ex-mayor of Mexico City, amidst allegations of widespread fraud.  On the eve of the Informe, members of AMLO’s coalition stormed the podium and refused to relinquish it despite the PAN’s steady barrage of plastic water bottles.  Curul to curul fisticuffs soon engulfed the floor of the lower house.  When the outgoing president Vicente Fox showed up to deliver his final Informe, he was sent home to Los Pinos unrequited.  It looked like the Day of the Imperial President was finally dead and stinking.

The next year, Felipe Calderon delivered his first State of the Nation address to a half-empty Congress.  When the PRD and the PRI and their allies walked out, rank and file PANistas rushed to fill the empty curules before the television cameras swept the room. Calderon’s Informe was perfunctory and even conciliatory. There were no cadets and the ballyhoo was stripped bare but the Legislative Palace was closed off to the general public by three meter-tall metal barricades and thousands of army troops to keep Lopez Obrador’s supporters at bay.

Last year, Calderon did not even put in an appearance, sending instead his protégé, Juan Camilo Mourino, a rookie Secretary of the Interior, to hand over the written “Informe” to the Mexican Congress.  Two months later, Mourino was dead in a mysterious Mexico City plane crash as he returned from overseeing Calderon’s ill-advised war on the drug cartels in the north of the country.

The 2009 Informe presented formidable obstacles to Calderon’s team.  The country has gone belly up and the President’s credibility is at an epic low. Although Calderon and his 350-pound Finance Secretary Augustin Carstens, assured the Mexican people that Wall Street’s catastrophic crash and the subsequent global meltdown would only give the economy “a little cough” (“catarrito”), triple pneumonia has set in.  2,000,000 jobs have gone down the drain in the past 18 months, driving up real unemployment to around 16 per cent of the workforce.  The Gross National Product (PIB) has plummeted 10 per cent and the future wiped out – there will be no foreseeable positive growth for years.  10,000,000 Mexicans have joined the ranks of the poor and extremely poor in the first three years of Calderon’s stewardship – according to numbers tabulated by social economist Julio Boltvitnik, 80 per cent of Mexico’s 107 million citizens have fallen below the poverty line.

The drug war bloodbath has taken 13,000 lives since 2006 – on the day of the Informe, 18 young people were slaughtered at a Ciudad Juarez drug treatment center – and the ranks of the drug fighters have been riddled by blatant corruption.  Infrastructure is falling apart and drought and famine threaten to plunge the country into a paroxysm of social unrest.

In the July 5 federal mid-term elections, a referendum, on the President’s job performance, Calderon’s PAN suffered its most disastrous defeat since the party was founded in 1939. The PRI now enjoys an absolute majority in the lower house of Congress, thereby thwarting Calderon’s legislative agenda for the three years he has left in Los Pinos and converting him into a lame-duck president.

Moreover, the PRD, split and snarling, was laying in wait to ambush Calderon on Informe Day.  Discretion being the better part of valor, the President who AMLO’s supporters denigrate as “Fecal”, again steered away from Congress to deliver his Informe, sending Mourino’s successor with the written version instead.

But the show must go on.  If Felipe Calderon could not address the Mexican Congress without being figuratively (and perhaps literally) pelted with over-ripe tomatoes, he would speechify to a select audience of a thousand special guests – members of his cabinet and his party, administration flunkies, governors, and the fabulously wealthy business class – Carlos Slim, the third richest pasha on the planet, sat in the front row close by the masked wrestler “The Son of Blue Demon.”  When PT deputy Gerardo Fernandez Norona, a flamboyant AMLO supporter, tried to crash the party he was stomped to the sidewalk outside the National Palace by Calderon’s “Estado Mayor” or elite military guard.

The National Palace was a monumental stage for Calderon’s pseudo-Informe that had once been both Aztec Emperor Moctezuma’s digs  and that of the Spanish Crown’s Viceroys.  5000 troops and federal police sanitized the surrounding Zocalo.  Pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted in their beds patrolled the old quarter of the capital.

Installed on a stage in the Palace’s central patio, Calderon, a small man who stands barely over five feet in his platform loafers, was flanked by two giant television screens that magnified his image to super hero size  but his high-pitched voice echoed less than majestically between the stone walls of the old fortress.  For 90 minutes, the lame-duck Mexican president uncorked a cautiously plotted political stream of consciousness invoking a country few could recognize, and painting a portrait of Mexico as paradise on earth despite certain imperfections that he would soon change.  U.S. presidents’ State of the Union messages – save for William Jefferson Clinton’s eight endless harangues – always come in in less than an hour.

The economic collapse, the steepest plunge since 1932, had finally touched bottom, Calderon avowed, and it was all up up and away from here on out.  Despite the thousands of corpses littering the landscape, Mexico was winning its drug war.  Even the arrests of high-level drug warriors for being on the payroll of the cartels, was somehow a sign of impending triumph.  His government’s swift action when swine flu descended over the country had been “the salvation of the human race” (sic! Actually, Calderon’s government delayed public notice of the PANdemic for six weeks.)

The President was periodically interrupted by automated applause and serenaded by a standing ovation at the conclusion of his performance piece.  Everyone stood at attention as a military band struck up the National Anthem.  Aside from Norona’s unfortunate appearance, no pesky leftists had disrupted his Informe.  The Imperial Presidency was virtually back in place.

Calderon’s Informe was followed by a deluge of paid TV spots featuring excerpts from his self-congratulatory speech.  The President himself gave ten primetime interviews to friendly radio and TV commentators the day after.  And, of course, the telephone never stopped ringing.

But Felipe Calderon’s scheme to restore The Day of the President was flawed.  Back in the dark ages of the PRI, all seven channels of the two-headed TV demon would have been glued to his every word and this September only two of them lavished their attentions on his Informe.

On Channel 13, svelte men and women in spandex were exercising vigorously.  Channel 4 was zooming in on re-runs of a space walk by Discovery astronaut Jose Hernandez, the son of migrant workers from Michoacan and the second Mexican to have ever navigated into outer space.  The late Michael Jackson was doing his zombie dance on Channel 2 Entertainment News.  A schlumpy-looking doctor discussed prostate health and displayed flash cards of the celebrated gland on Channel 7.  Cartoon mice were mauling cartoon cats on Channel 5.

These days, it is not uncommon for Mexicans to vote with their remote.

When I went out for “comida corrida” (lunch) a few hours after Felipe Calderon had retired from the screen, I asked Eliseo the waiter what he had thought about the Informe.  Eliseo shrugged sheepishly.  “Actually, I was watching a program about the prostate gland.”

JOHN ROSS’s monstrous “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” (Nation Books, 500 pages) will be published this November – he is looking for local venues to introduce the Monstruo to the North American public. His “Iraqigirl”, the tale of a teenager coming of age under U.S. occupation (Haymarket) is already in the stores. If you have further info write johnross@igc.org.

 

 

 

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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 johnross@igc.org

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