The US Casts Its Vote in the Mexican Election

Mexico City

The Mexican presidential election won’t take place until next July, but with the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) riding high in the polls, Washington is already making it clear who gets their – and the US corporate-industrial/NAFTA – vote. It should come as no surprise. From the brutal 19th century dictator Porfirio Diaz to the PRI’s 20th century cloak-and-dagger dynasty, Washington rarely fails to get what it wants south of the border, however much its interests may clash with those of the Mexican people.

Admittedly, this was all much easier to do when Mexican presidents were chosen by the “dedazo” – the “big finger” – whereby one PRI dictator conveniently hand-picked his successor. Since 2000, however, there’s been this little thing called “democracy” to worry about. President Felipe Calderon’s 2006 election campaign was funded largely by US-based business interests, and Washington looks set to back the National Action Party (PAN) again in 2012.

In the 2006 election, the US government had 99% of the Mexican media as a willing partner to help keep out Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who in their eyes was a Hugo Chavez wannabe, a leftist with big, brash, anti-US rhetoric (of course, he almost won). In 2012, the man to stop is Enrique Pena Nieto, the immaculately-groomed fresh face of Mexico’s former ruling dynasty. The US doesn’t really want Pena Nieto or the PRI. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the Mexican media thinks the guy’s pretty grand.

The PRI  ruled Mexico for 71 years until democratic reforms ushered the right-wing, business-oriented PAN into power in 2000. It was hailed at the time as a bright new era and the vast majority of Mexicans celebrated the metaphorical slaying of the PRI “dinosaur”, but eleven years on, the PAN finds itself almost as unpopular. And there’s just no way they can match Pena Nieto’s showbiz pizzazz.

The photogenic, slick-as-ice former Governor of Mexico State hasn’t even been chosen as his party’s candidate yet, but the polls say that if the election were held tomorrow, he would win it at a stroll. For the PRI – desperately trying to rebrand itself for the 21st century – Pena Nieto is marketing heaven.

Pena Nieto Superstar 

While the governorship of Mexico State – the conurbation of 15 million people that surrounds Mexico City – made him a political star, Pena Nieto is equally at home in the country’s gossip rags. Following the death of his wife to epilepsy in 2007, his marriage to telenovela actress Angelica Rivera (“the Seagull”) turned him into one half of Mexico’s most glamorous couple and naturally gained him the tag of “housewives’ favorite”.

As governor, he was known for lavishing money on headline-grabbing public works projects in a state that despite its economic prosperity still has the highest number of Mexicans living in poverty, and his tenure saw the state’s organized crime presence and murder rate soar. Vote-buying, a time-honored practice of the PRI, was a frequent accusation.

Unfortunately, the majority of Mexicans still get their daily news fix from Televisa, the largest mass-media company in the Spanish-speaking world, founded by the PRI in the 1950s and owned by one of Mexico’s wealthiest families. During the remainder of the party’s 71-year rule, Televisa was essentially PRI-TV.

It couldn’t stop the long-awaited democratic opening of 2000 or the re-election of the PAN in 2006, but following a long recession and nearly a decade of drug-related violence, many Mexicans are now leaning towards a return of the old guard. According to top investigative news magazine Proceso, Pena Nieto pays Televisa $2.4 million a year for airbrushed coverage.

Embassy cables released by Wikileaks earlier this year reveal exactly what US policymakers think of the boy-wonder, and as if on cue, the US mainstream media has followed suit. The Washington Post was the first to take a swing at the resurgent PRI following the party’s comprehensive sweep in July’s gubernatorial elections.

“Has Mexico’s Former Ruling Party Really Changed?” ran the headline, warning that Mexico could be plunged back into the dark old days of authoritarian rule. The Atlantic recently went on the offensive as well, portraying the now ex-governor as both a “male Barbie” and “the PRI’s policy Beckham” – the British soccer star known for his Hollywood looks, pop star wife, and vastly overrated skills.

Just last week, lame duck President Calderon – who can’t run for re-election on constitutional grounds – found a willing ear in The New York Times when he claimed that should the PRI return in 2012, it would likely make a pact with the country’s drug cartels, drawing juicy international headlines and a massive political row at home. Never mind that Calderon’s existing “Drug War” policy has utterly failed and a growing number of Mexicans now favor some kind of truce or ceasefire with organized crime.

Shifting Allegiances

So what is bugging the US about the PRI, which is essentially a center-left neoliberal outfit these days? There’s a long-held myth that Washington had a prickly relationship with the party during its seven-decade rule. But while this was certainly true during the socialist administration of Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s, any animosity evaporated when the regime became a willing Cold War ally. From then on, the US and the “perfect dictatorship” (as writer Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed the PRI) got along just fine.

The PRI would never give up the oil, of course – which remains state-owned – but they did everything else Washington asked for such as sign NAFTA, tear up constitutional land rights to make way for foreign corporations, and of course, pretend they were fighting drug-trafficking. Pena Nieto is actually advised by two former Mexican presidents – or dictators – who were extremely close to the US in Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo.

Yet in 2000, Washington dropped the PRI “dinosaur” for a more attractive mate. The PAN, which had contested PRI hegemony for years, wasn’t tarred by the brush of dictatorship and repression. More importantly, it was happy to fight for the privatization of Mexico’s oil and let the US play a more hands-on (and profitable) role in the “War on Drugs”. Both President Vicente Fox and his successor Felipe Calderon practised Washington Consensus-style “free trade” by breaking up monopolies previously held by the Mexican oligarchy and allowing foreign-based corporations to monopolize them instead – an era that has plunged literally millions more Mexicans into poverty.

Oil also remains a key issue, not least because Mexico has fought against privatization for years (the industry was nationalized by the left-wing Cardenas in 1938 in a bold anti-imperialist move). Although the country’s proven reserves are quickly running out, super-majors insist there is a treasure-trove of the black stuff in the Mexican half of the Gulf, off limits to private investment.

With the state oil company PEMEX lacking both the technology and investment to carry out deep-sea drilling, US stooge Calderon happily pushed an “energy reform”/privatization bill in 2008. The one that eventually passed was watered down beyond recognition after significant PRI/PRD and public opposition.

Just this past week, however, Pena Nieto finally broke his silence on the PEMEX issue in a surprising interview with The Financial Times. Contrary to the perception that many in the PRI oppose the privatization – partial or otherwise – of the company their party created (and which supplies 40% of Mexico’s federal budget), the boy-wonder stood up for increased private investment, citing Brazil’s semi-public and highly successful Petrobras – which recently replaced PEMEX as Latin America’s largest company – as a template.

What the US media won’t tell you, of course, is that the vast majority of the Mexican population doesn’t really care for either party. The PRI reminds them of the repressive style of government of the past, while Calderon’s “Drug War” – a conflict that has left 40,000-plus dead since 2006 – and growing unemployment has turned many against the PAN. But with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) unproven and currently beset by infighting, the phrase being thrown around by many down here is: “Mas vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer” (“Better the Devil you know”).

“It’s Not Forgotten”  

Yet while the PRI has gone through various guises over the years, it’s easy to understand why its seven-decade rule continues to haunt Mexicans. Oct. 2 was the 43rd anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre when the Mexican military gunned down up to four hundred peaceful protesters ahead of the 1968 Olympic Games. As elsewhere in the world that year, Mexico City was rife with social unrest. An unprecedented international media spotlight was about to fall on the country and the PRI moved quickly to suppress dissent.

The Gustavo Diaz Ordaz administration whitewashed the atrocity, claiming that no more than 30 people were killed and that the protesters – in reality, mostly students – were “Cuban agitators” who provoked the troops with gunfire. The PRI cover-up – aided and abetted by the largely state-controlled media – was contested for years. A British journalist here to cover the Olympics bravely pursued the story, visited morgues and hospitals in the aftermath, and counted 325 dead.

Years of campaigning by victims’ families and human rights groups led President Vicente Fox to reopen the investigation in 2002 after the PRI had finally left power. In 2006, Diaz Ordaz’s Interior Minister and successor as president, Luis Echeverria was arrested on charges of genocide, later dismissed on grounds of lack of evidence after a lengthy appeal.

Declassified US records have since revealed the murky role that Washington played in the tragedy, having been in constant contact with Mexican officials in the days leading up to the massacre. The CIA station in Mexico City gathered intelligence on organizers within the student community which assembled the fateful protest. Six days before the massacre took place, Echeverria bragged to Washington that “the situation will be under control very shortly.”

It was the single greatest crime that the PRI committed during its 71-year reign, although a covert “Dirty War” against leftist organizers and political opponents continued right through the crushing of the Zapatistas in 1994.

Protests accompanied by the slogans “We Have a Memory” and “It’s Not Forgotten” take place in Mexico City every year to commemorate the victims of Tlatelolco – 40,000 marched in the capital for the 40th anniversary in 2008 – but they were particularly passionate this year as a crucial election nears.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com 

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch


One of the Greatest Descriptions of Farm Work Ever Written— Don’t miss Frank Bardacke’s marvelous account from the California fields. ALSO Linn Washington Jr. on the “Black Backlash Against Obama.”


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