Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What Fraud?

It appears clear that even though the election was close in México, the PAN candidiate, Felipe Calderon, won. The main opposition parties, with one exception, have accepted defeat and are looking for ways to have a say in the new government that will take over in December. The exception is the PRD, whose candidate López Obrador, has declared that a massive fraud has been committed. He has called for mass meetings in an attempt to overthrow the vote, against the wishes of 60% of Mexicans (from a recent poll) who think the election was well run and clean and who do not think the July 2 vote should be thrown out. López Obrador has been very careful not to exhort his people to violence, but the threat is clearly there, even for an American whose Spanish is not perfect.

Yesterday, Calderon's car was attacked by students and other groups while he was in it. No one was hurt, but López Obrador's reaction was that if Calderon and the national election court would just recount all the votes, this sort of thing would not happen again. Calderon has no power of the vote count, and the national court is following the rules laid down in 1992 to only open ballot boxes if there is some modicum of proof that there were irregularities. This is what they are presently meeting to decide. Given this implied threat of more violence if his desires are not met, one can see why the national election court may be unlikely to break the 1992 law. Doing so would be going back to rule by strong man and away from their hard fought attempt to promote rule of law.

The following is my translation of an editorial that appeared in today's Universal that, while somewhat partisan, presents some interesting information on the vote and on what's happening down here.

What Fraud?

Ricardo Pascoe Pierce

Felipe Calderon won the presidential elections of July 2, by a narrow margin, over his closest competitor, López Orbrador. Does the narrowness of his margin of victory cancel the result? No, because that was the way the people voted. What is happening since the election is pure fantasy. Or fantasy rarified.

In Italy, the candidate of the center left, Prodi, beat the candidate of the center right, Berlusconi, by 25,000 votes. Berlusconi questioned the result, since the votes from overseas favored Prodi, while the right for Italians overseas to vote was instituted by Berlusconi himself. In México, the PAN beat the PRD by more than 240,000 votes. And the latter alleged an enormous fraud. Enormous? There were 1,241,094 party representatives, candidates, and coalitions in the little more than 131,000 precincts in the country. In other words, there was an average of nine representatives per precinct. In addition, there were 25,311 national observers registered who went from precinct to precinct (two or more precincts per observer) and 693 international visitors from 60 countries. The “observer” presence was ample and strong, as much for parties and candidates as for impartial observers.

Two point two million citizens were trained as precinct workers and, among them, more than half a million citizens received and counted the votes, before the very eyes of the party representatives and coalitions, national and foreign. En 87% of the precincts there was at least one political force represented, and in 78% there were two. There was at least one political force (the PRD, in this case) that had no representatives in nearly 40,000 precincts in all the country. Of the three principal competitive forces, it was the weakest and least organized. But somehow this allows them to have proof of an electoral fraud.

They have not demonstrated a fraud. AMLO (PRD Candidate López Obrador) said that it was computer related, and had his followers fantasizing over mathematical alogarithms put into the computers of the IFE (federal election authority) to “erase” PRD votes. Now he says no: the fraud was committed in the precincts and district counts. Camacho (PRD leader) says that the governors “ordered it.” They ordered thousands and thousands of free citizens to commit fraud? Of course not. They are lying in desperation and confusion. They have found nothing to say to justify the defeat.

Defeat. The word that destroys promising political careers. The word that has never entered the heads of AMLO, Camacho and the rest. The word that makes them tremble in fear. To not admit it and assume as democrats their true role within Mexican democracy, they have invented an allegation and denunciation without support or truth. They are men who lack courage to confront their grave errors committed during the entire campaign, and they refuse to admit their fallibility.

An example: the error of the internal and external alliances (All the three major parties had formed alliances with other minor parties for this election). From the “happy” distribution of seats supposedly guaranteed to garner votes, the PRD probably will be left with fewer seats than in the outgoing legislature. This result is unacceptable for this party. Rosario Robles (?) gave more seats to the PRD than to AMLO. Why? Because after subtracting the seats for Convergence and the PT (Partido Trabajador) (which were some of the coalition of parties that Obrador headed up), of the remainder, half are independents or PRIista (members of the old Partido Revolucionario Institucional that ruled México for 70 years until 2000) renegades who do no belong to any particular party, and do not have any loyalty to the PRD, especially now that AMLO has lost the election. Of the 123 seats that remain, half will go free.

The PRD is not a considerable legislative force, if these factors are taken into consideration. The PRI will fill the space of the responsible opposition that looks for ways for the country to function and advance. The PRI will come to an understanding with Calderon (PAN candidate and winner of the July 2 vote), as will Convergence, Alternative, and other parties, to give substance to institutional agreements. And the PRD? After the TEPJF (special election court instituted in the 1990s to avoid election fraud and instill trust in the electoral system) ratifies the victory of Calderon, by a narrow margin, AMLO will declare himself the true popular president and, following Juaréz’s (president in the 1850s and 1860s) example, will ride around the country in his carriage looking for ways to destabilize México, as he himself has said, “politically, socially, economically, and financially.”

There was no fraud in the past election, mainly because the people would not have permitted it. This discussion is a trick of men incapable of confronting their errors. Men full of fear of paying the consequences for failed calculations and who look, even under rocks, for those responsible for their debacle.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Can it be true?

We think we have bought the house we have been looking at. We won't believe it until the papers are signed, because it has been a frustrating time dealing with an owner who really does not want to sell. During our time negotiating (mostly just waiting him out), a phantom buyer has come and gone, and his price increased from $880,000 to $950,000, but we think we have him back down to $880,000 (MX of course). It will take around $500,000 to $800,000 to fix it up, and for this we will be working with an architect, Miguel C., who will also act as the general contractor, which is typical in México. Miguel has worked on houses for Bob and Maria, Barry, and Niels, and he has an abiding appreciation for and ability to preserve the essence of Querétaro's historic structures, while making them livable.

For some "before" photos visit the Flickr site. Don't do the slide show since it ignores all the text for each picture.

The day after I posted this, we were informed that the owner's sister and co-signer to any sale, had arrived in Querétaro, and is now insisting on $930,000. Too bad, and I know I should not have gotten my hopes up. But it's hard.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Claire and Marie-Helene Do Querétaro

With this post, I am trying something a little different. I have uploaded a number of photographs illustrating the goings-on described here on the Flickr website, Please visit the site to see the photos. It is easier and faster to upload them to Flickr than to spend the day or two to load them on the blog. Let me know if this is OK or just a pain in the neck.

On June 11, we headed to México City to meet Christiane’s buddies, Claire and Marie-Helene at the airport. As usual, we did not no know which door they would come out of. Gate 1 is usually for arrivals from Latin America, and Gates 2 and 3 are from other places, mostly the US. They even have television monitors indicating through which gate a certain flight’s passenger will be leaving customs. But they forget to tell the passengers, who can leave through any gate they want. Again, I waited between Gates 1 and 2, and Christiane waited at Gate 3 where they were supposed to be. They came out of Gate 2, of course. Fortunately, the entire concourse is not too large, and we located everyone.

Next stop was the money exchange offices to exchange some dollars for pesos. There must be a couple dozen, all with varying buy and sell rates, and long lines of people. This took over 20 minutes since passports are required and the people in the offices have to count the money (several times, it seems) and check to make sure nothing is counterfeit. As they were doing this, I went to an ATM (better rate than the exchange offices) and got some money out of our Bank of America account in less than a minute (no passports, no hassles). And so it goes.

We spent the next three days in México City. It was the first time that Christiane and I had seen it (expect to drive by on our to other places) in 30 plus years. It is now twice as large as it was then. Then, it had around 8-9 million people, now it is well over 20 million. We stayed at a hotel a couple of blocks from the Zocalo (main square) and since México had just played in its first World Cup match that day (and won), the place was pretty busy with large TV projection screens showing reruns. After a quick walk around, we went to the roof top restaurant for dinner on the southwest corner of the Zocalo where we could only afford a coffee years ago. Memories came flooding back to the accompaniment of indigenous music and the hubbub of the crowds down below. One of my main memories was teaching English to one of the higher ups in the city government in a building across the street at 8AM, two or three times a week.

Claire and Marie-Helene were afraid the food would be too spicey, and it was a little, but by the end of their trip they had gotten used to it, mostly.

Our hotel rooms were on the top floor of our hotel and had rooftop terraces with flowers and furniture, all for under $40 a night. We could just make out the dome of the cathedral on the Zocalo, which is under repair, as the cathedral is slowing sinking into the old lake bed. The main part of the cathedral is not open to the public yet.

We decided to take a tour bus trip around the city the next day. For around $10 you can take a double decker bus, and get off and on at stops around the city for a day. This sounded perfect. I really did not want a guided tour, and this would allow us to get around quickly and easily and with as much independence as we wanted. Or so we thought. It started at nine in the morning. The weather was sunny and cool, perfect weather for a tour. We headed to Avenida de la Reforma (main street in town), tree-lined, very wide and with most of the major monuments México City is known for. We got about two blocks down the road, and traffic came to a halt. Police were diverting all traffic onto side streets. For the next 5 to 6 hours, the center of México City was closed down due to a political demonstration and teachers’ (I believe) strike. We were shunted onto a parallel street and spent the next hour going a few blocks, ending up at Chapultepec Park, where we rode around while the driver figured out what to do. He finally dropped us off at the nearest subway station, and we got back downtown on our own. The small print on the tickets said that there were to be no refunds due to demonstrations, etc.!

Over the next couple of days we saw the Shrine of Guadalupe (patron saint of México) which is also sinking, even though it is on what was the edge of the lake; the National Museum of Anthropology (was the best museum in the world for my money); Coyoacan where Cortes and Frida Kahlo lived (at different times, of course); the heart of downtown; and the Templo Mayor where the Aztecs had their twin temples to Tlaloc, the rain god and Huitzilopochtle, Hummingbird on the Left, the god who needed all those beating hearts, and the Templo’s new museum (more focused, but probably better than the National Museum in terms of interpretation).

Marie-Helene’s hip replacement surgery was giving her trouble with all the stairs for the subway and walking around town, so we decided to head to Querétaro. Claire and Marie-Helene did not quite believe me when I kept commenting on how green everything was, but it really was, compared to a couple of months ago.

The next two weeks went by quickly. Marie-Helene stayed at our place, and Claire stayed at Shelley’s B&B down the street. Before we knew it, they knew most our neighbors, Mike M. with the Peace Corps, Carl and Francis, Shelley, the French girls in the next apartment, Julian and Pauline at the end of the patio, the waiter across the street at Hotel de la Merced, and half the street vendors in town.

We visited Bernal, which is becoming a must-do for our visitors. It has a great view of La Peña de Bernal (stone monolith that towers over the town), is cute like San Miguel but without the gringos, and has a wide selection of handicrafts, shops and restaurants. We go there early before many of the shops were open, and parked in the street which you cannot normally do. When we got back to the car three hours later it was hemmed in by a sidewalk café and a peddler’s wares.

Later that afternoon, we headed up the road to Cadereyta where Bob and Maria had told us about a cactus experiment station, Quinta Wagner. The tour was fascinating as there are over 4,200 species of cactus and succulents there. Some of them live for several hundred years and cannot even begin to procreate until they are 150 years old. At the end we all got a free cactus, and headed next door to their restaurant for lunch and the tail end of a World Cup match, France against someone else. We ran into some friends from Querétaro, Elvira and Ramon and their daughter, small world.

Another day we headed to San Miguel to show them how the other half lives. As the “girls” went off shopping, I figured I would buy a paper and have some coffee while waiting. Much to my surprise the newspaper guy wanted two pesos more for the paper than the advertised price or the price I normally pay. He became rather vocal about it and attracted the attention of the folks in the cafes. It was like he took an immediate dislike to me simply because I am a gringo. This does not happen in Querétaro. We had lunch in a nice little café (full of Gringos) up the street, and headed out of town to Dolores Hidalgo where Father Hidalgo gave the grito, cry of independence, in 1810. We stopped at some of the talavera (often called faience in the US) ceramic shops and bought some trinkets to take back to the states. People were delightful, and actually seemed to want our money, but there were no gringos.

One Thursday after we visited Santa Rosa church we stuck around for the year end dance program of a youth folk dance group. They had dances from all over México, and were really good. The audience was mostly parents, which is too bad, because they deserved more recognition.

On the first Saturday, we took everyone to see the house we are trying to buy. This was the first chance for our architect, Miguel C., to see it and give us his opinion on what it would cost to fix it up. The house is 150-200 years old, and has never been really modernized. We met Jaime, the agent who found us the apartment we are living in, and the owner, Alberto G., at the house. Miguel’s first words when we went inside were, “me gusta”, actually more like “meeee guuuusta!” “I like it”. It definitely has possibilities, but will need a lot of work, too. The patio is paved with 6 inch thick cantera (the rose colored stone, quarried in the nearby hills). The floors are “Mexican” tile and can be ground flat again and sealed. The ceilings are about 16 feet high with the original vigas, or beams, exposed. Those in the living room are carved with two parallel groves along their length. The kitchen has an old, perhaps the original, stove and dry sink with no running water or drains. The stove is a large concrete/stone counter more recently covered in dark red tiles. Along the front of the counter were two holes, since filled in, where the cooking fires were stoked. There were two large round holes, also filled in, on the top of the counter to place cooking pots and let the smoke out. There is no chimney, the smoke just went out the window. If we can ever convince the owner to sell we will keep the set-up as close as possible to its original condition with the addition of water, electricity and drains, and some kind of cupboards.

The week after we visited the house, the owner raised the price, so we are now trying to negotiate it back to his original price. He claims that a Mexican friend from Atlanta (of all places!) just happened to drop by and offered him $7,000 US more than what he was asking. I didn’t just drop off a turnip truck, but there may not be much we can do about it. His “friend” will be getting back to him on July 10, so we are just going to wait and see what happens.

The last week, we did a little local sightseeing. We visited the location of the old Querétaro airport on the top of a hill overlooking the city. We then had brunch (great being retired) at the Holiday Inn which has a great view of the entire city. We also visited Apaseo, the town where we bought our furniture. Claire bought an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Fortunately she does not have an apartment here or we would have undoubtedly been loaded down with furniture too.

On the last evening, we headed to the Casa de Faldon cultural center to listen to a friend (Ramon, whom we had met the previous weekend in Cadereyta) play the guitar. We took along Mike M. Christiane and I thought Ramon would be accompanying some singers or poetry readings, but things turned out a little differently. We arrived on time, like the gringos we are, and had some great Oaxaca tamales as we waited for things to start. Marie-Helene’s tamale did not agree with her, but the rest of us were all right. The evening began with people from the audience, who all seemed to know each other, getting up and singing, playing the piano, or whatever. The music was, in a word, awful. But they got a rousing reception and calls for encores. Mike and I looked at each other like what the heck have we gotten into. He swears that the 80 year old lady playing the piano was wearing gloves. But they were really, really into it, and the audience was appreciative

We felt that we could not leave because Ramon had not played, and I was beginning to wonder what he would be like. After about an hour of this, Ramon got up on stage. He set up a tambourine stand, and put on a harmonica brace around his neck, and sat down with his guitar. We waited in breathless anticipation. We need not have worried. He sang a bunch of songs from funny ones about driving in México City to a call and response type song from Yucatan, that had us laughing even though we kept missing the punchlines. In the latter, he was helped, extemporaneously, by a 98 year old audience member who just wandered up on the stage. Ramon pointed us out and sang a song just for us, so of course we could not leave until the end. Everything was in tune and really very good. Ramon is an engineer who always wanted to be on stage, I suspect.

It was like a bunch of vaudevillians getting together and remembering the old days. When Ramon finished, the older fellow, who had been sitting at the table right in front of me, took over with his ventriloquism act. His great grandson had brought in a suitcase earlier in the evening, and I wondered what was in it, a dummy of course. His jokes were all off-color and he had every one in stitches. We were also treated to 1930’s style dramatic poetry readings by an 88 year old poetess and actress (she might have been a vaudevillian too). They were followed by a guitar player who was celebrating his birthday and who played 1960s style songs in English and French just for us. His wife also sang. And by about halfway through it dawned on me what this was all about.

It is a real community of people who love each other and encouraged each other, and just liked being together to have a good time. The old folks were helped by the younger ones, everyone got encores (otra! otra!), rum and coke was being passed around surreptiously, there were inside jokes, and we were accepted, even if we were the only gringos there (again). This happens the last Saturday of every month, and you can tell that the old folks really look forward to it. We plan on making this one of our regular monthly events, thanks to Ramon and Elvira.

Sunday morning, the “girls” left. Claire had one more suitcase than she started with, and it was heavier than lead. We dropped them off at the bus station, and they arrived back in Altanta, safe and sound, except for the left-over effects of the tamales.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Did Calderon Win?

This is, in part, from a message I sent the family on Monday, plus some subsequent comments.

It was too close to call last night (Sunday night) and the election commission (IFE, Instituto Federal Electoral) asked everyone (i.e. candidates, parties and media) to refrain from speculating on the winner. The PAN and PRI went along, but the PRD (Obrador's party) paid lip service, and then said "however", and proceded to claim victory. That was at 8. All the TV stations refrained and said that what the PRD did was irresponsible, etc. At 11, the IFE was supposed to have a statistical winner based on a preliminary count, but it was still too close to call, and they said they would have to wait until Wed to actually count all the votes, and again asked that everyone refrain from speculating. The PRI refrained (the old Partido Revolucionario Insitutional, how’s that for an oxymoron); the TV stations refrained; and then Obrador himself came on and said he had won by 500,000 votes, and if he lost it would probably be because of cheating by PAN and the old guard. Then PAN, who had refrained at 8 PM, came on and said that all the polls said that they had won, and that the votes actually counted so far also showed they were winning. At that point the TV started talking numbers too, and things started getting scary, as Obrador went from the TV studio straight to the Zocalo in México City to rally his supporters in the main square of the country, making veiled threats if he was denied the presidency. Fortunately, it was raining in Mexico City and enthusiasm was somewhat muted.

This morning (Monday), the PAN had even more votes and these are now openly talked about in the newspapers, etc., despite the election commission's request. So much for calm and restraint. Obrador seems to have toned down his threats a little this morning, but his people are ready to hit the streets if he loses, and he is not doing much to help to calm the situation. The left had the election stolen from them in 1988 and Obrador lost the governorship in Veracruz in the 80s too, and then marched to Mexico City on foot with thousands of sympathizers. They feel victimized and in the past they were.

They were unfairly attacked by PAN who said that Obrador would be like Chavez of Venezuela (and in fact, Obrador had received verbal support from Chavez so it was easy to believe). But Calderon was attacked by the PRD at the last debates for having a "cuñado incomodo", unfortunate brother-in-law, and when challenged to show proof of the cuñado's dealings, they turned over three large file boxes to much press coverage and photo-ops. But it turned out the boxes were virtually empty. Pretty funny, actually.

The PRD may be justified in being skeptical, but there is nothing so far to show that there is any reason to be skeptical. The election commission, IFE, was set up by all the parties in the early 90s to prevent just such election theft and has run the cleanest most transparent election they have ever had in Mexico, and probably all of Latin America, for that matter. Obrador should be supporting this and the growing maturity of Mexican democracy, instead of casting aspersions. He may yet do so, but he is not terribly responsible, I am afraid.

Because the election is so close, the IFE decided on Monday or maybe Sunday evening, to hold a recount of the “actas”, the tally sheets from each voting precinct, over 130,000 or so, beginning on Wednesday. This was before any of the parties had asked for it and shows how transparent and non-partisan the commission is, at least in my opinion. They have to come up with a final tally by next Sunday, or a week after the election. Their system and the people running it, from every indication I have had from TV and the responsible newspapers, is better than our system, which is controlled by politicians at the state and local levels with all kinds of payoffs going on behind the scenes (a la Florida). México also is governed by one man/woman one vote, unlike in the US. We have 50 different systems, México has one that everyone knows.

Last night (Wed) I checked the IFE website,, and it showed Obrador winning with 88% of the vote counted. I couldn’t figure it out, since the last I heard, 98% of the vote had been counted and Calderon was ahead. Of course, it was the recount figures I was looking at, not the preliminary vote count which was 100% complete at that point. Calderon had won the preliminary count by about 400,000 votes, but with the recount he was behind again. How could that be?

According to today’s paper, El Universal, the only really world class paper in Mexico, Obrador’s party had been intentionally dragging out the recount by making demands and holding demonstrations at the precincts. The reason was that they wanted to put off counting votes from places where Calderon was strongest in hopes of leading in the vote for as long as possible. And they did lead until late that night.

By 10 or 11 last night the vote from these areas started coming in and little by little Calderon started catching up. He was still behind when I went to bed at midnight, though. Of course, the folks in Mexico City who supported Obrador were all excited early on and were sure they had won and that this just proved that the preliminary count had been riddled with fraud as Obrador had said in the Zocalo on Sunday evening. By 4 AM, however, they saw Calderon leading and were certain that they had been robbed again, and they were ready to hit the streets. It was a fairly cynical attempt by Obrador to rally the troups.

Everyone is still giving lip service to not playing politics with the numbers until a final count, but all the parties are doing it. The final count, barring legal challenges that Obrador has promised and that will prevent a final decision until September or later, showed Calderon about 180,000 votes ahead, which is conceivably within the range of error, although after the second count this seems unlikely.

To give you an idea of how the election has worked, here are some pictures of the “actas” or tally sheets that have been posted outside every polling place. These are from in front of the Teatro de la Republica where the Méxican constitution was written, and where we have spent the last couple of evenings at events of one sort or another. They show the totals for that precinct and are agreed to and signed by all the major party observers who were present at the count, including the PRD, Obrador’s party.

After the count, the ballots are sealed in boxes, and the “actas” are attached to a smaller box on the outside of the corresponding ballot box. Everything is sealed and signed by all concerned to assure that no ballots go “missing”.

The rules provide that the only time the original ballots can be opened is if there are discrepancies on the actas or if the ballots have been appealed for one reason or another during the original count and set aside for further study, etc. On Sunday, about 2.5 million votes were set aside and had to be recounted later (the “missing ballots” that Obrador accused the other parties of stealing.) The count that started on Wed was only of the exterior boxes with the actas, as signed and posted at each precinct. The ballot boxes themselves cannot be opened until and unless the courts require a vote by vote recount. In fact, it is illegal to open the ballot boxes prior to such a challenge. These guys know about fraud.

Nevertheless, Obrador and a group of American “observers” are insisting that they be opened to satisfy the concerns of the losers before an appeal has actually been made. The Americans are playing their old games of “we know best, so do as we say, and screw your local laws” which just ticks people off in other countries, especially in México which has a much better system than we do and where we had the Florida fiasco, which Mexicans always bring up in such arguments. In effect, the PRD is asking, like they did on Sunday, that the rules now be changed to satisfy them. The IFE is correctly sticking to their guns, and by doing so, showing that finally México is really becoming a mature, democracy.

Tonight (Thurs) we went to an award ceremony at the Teatro de la Republica. Christiane got tickets through her “culture classes”. We were, needless to say, the only gringos there (again). The award is given out yearly and this year was given to a historian and political scientist (of the right wing persuasion), but who is known and respected by all sides. While I was feeling a little under dressed in my guayabera (what else to wear to a Mexican award ceremony, I thought), the awardee, Enrique Krauze gave a very good talk on the true meaning of democracy. He quickly got into the election, and I winced figuring I was in for a right wing rant. But he pointed out that the IFE had done a remarkable job compared to the historic precedents and that the parties (PRD and PAN) needed to stop second guessing and let the process play out as it is supposed to. I felt vindicated, and despite the guayabera, I applauded wildly. I guess it will be on national TV tonight, the speech, not my guayabera.

Did Calderon win? We should know by September, but in the meantime, the Peso is rising and the Dollar is dropping, and the house we can afford is getting smaller and smaller. Now if Obrador had won, . . . . but that's another story.