Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mita's Here

Xochitecatl archaeological site with Ixtacihuatl in the background as viewed from the Cacaxtla archaeological site.

Mamita has been here for a little over a week. She arrived on the 19th and will leave on Saturday, September 2, just as the TRIFE announces its decision on who won the presidential election. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the airport will be closed down, but there are rumors that Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO’s)supporters will attempt to disrupt things.

Mamita has visited San Miguel de Allende, la Peña de Bernal, Cadareyta, and of course Querétaro. Last weekend we drove to Cholula to visit Lupe and for Mamita to visit Lety and Jaime and the Capitan’s house, which she had not seen in 30 years. We were surprised by the presence of Omar, the Capitans’ son whom we had only met once, and whom we could not locate when we went to Guadalajara a couple of years ago. He was in Cholula to settle his mother’s papers. It was good to talk to him about his parents whom we all loved.

Mamita, Jaime and Lety at Jaime's kindergarten graduation, circa 1973.

Lety and Mamita with Jaime's kids at Cacaxtla, 2006.

Mita got to visit her old school, the Capitan’s house and garden, and Lety and Jaime. From the roof of the Capitan’s house we could see the volcanoes Popocatepetl, Ixtacihuatl, La Malinche, and the clouds over Orizaba, as well as the pyramid of Cholula, which looks more like a hill with a church on it than a pyramid. And because it was the rainy season, everything looked green and clean and fresh. On Sunday, we visited the archaeological site at Cacaxtla with Lety and Jaime’s kids before we headed back to Querétaro.

All of this was made easier and a lot more fun by the fact that Mamita’s Spanish was coming back and she understood most everything. She was even speaking at the end. I could tell that she would quickly speak better than me if she stayed here. Maybe I should take lessons.

The TRIFE made its announcement about Lopez Obrador’s demand that there be a total recount. By law the TRIFE can only recount in precincts where there was some evidence of errors or fraud, and so it had only recounted 9% of the vote. The result was that some 200,000 or so votes were thrown out because of problems at some polling stations. At the end, the totals did not change much for either party, and there was no evidence of a conspiracy or fraud. Thus, the TRIFE is expected to approve a final vote tally by September 2, and it is expected that Calderon will win.

Now AMLO says he will not accept the results and will form another government (the details are murky needless to say), because he says he will not accept a “coup d’etat” by the PAN and the presumably corrupt TRIFE. He also says that he and his followers will disrupt the government for the next 6 years if he is not given the presidency. He always disclaims any violence, but it has the ring of “he doth protest too much”, and he never denounces his followers when they threaten violence.

One of the federal judges put it correctly when he said that the election was fair and that now people who voted can be assured that their vote counted and will not usurped by a minority. Until this point AMLO has been implying that only his voters’ votes counted, so it is interesting to see someone point out the other side of the issue, i.e. the majority actually voted against him and their votes are as good as anyone else’s. Some speakers on TV are saying that AMLO just wants to go back to the old days of one-man rule, and that Mexico has come too far to give it all up for a government of 20 years ago.

Many AMLO voters have now turned against him and wish he would just go away or take his agenda to the legislature and deal with his issues in a democratic way. It seems that if the election were held today, he would lose by a much larger margin. There is some talk about AMLO and his party, the PRD, going their separate ways and for AMLO to have his own party.

At any rate, the peso has gathered strength on the TRIFE’s announcement, and our dollars are worth less everyday.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Some News, A Short One

We did not feel, and Christiane did not know about, the earthquake until folks called from the US to see how we were doing. We felt nothing at all, and it was not even in the local papers. Mexico City felt it in part because it is sitting on a bowl of jello (the clay bottom of Lake Texcoco that they have been draining away for the past 500 years). But there was no damage or injuries, even there.

When I went to get the Sunday paper this morning there were two pieces of news on the front page of El Universal that caught my eye. The PRD, who talked about keeping up the road blocks on Reforma in the DF until they got a 100% recount, are thinking about letting traffic through some of the intersections. They and the city government are feeling the pressure, and reason may be raising its ugly head. This may be the first crack in the protest. We shall see.

The other bit of news is that the Oaxaca teachers have asked President Fox to intervene in their dispute with the governor of the state. Why would the president get involved in such a local issue, you might ask? Because he is president of the republic and this has traditionally been part of his role. And if Fox goes along, this is the perfect example of the strongman over rule of law. This same thing happened when I was about ready to finish my masters in 1976. The teachers all went on strike, and after many months of closing down the university, the issue was finally decided by the president of the republic. Everyone else was afraid to make a decision and possibly take the blame for a bad one. For rule of law to flourish and real democracy to take root, this attitude had to change, and to some extent it has. But this is not simply a question of the ruling classes setting up a strong man type system that only helps them. In this case, the teachers (pretty low on the power totem pole) who are mostly “leftist” PRD supporters are asking for the president to intervene. In the short term, this may give them the results they want, but in the long term it merely perpetuates the system they claim to abhore.

Oh well, it does not look like things have changed all that much, and we probably won’t have a revolution, so we are still looking for a house to buy.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Once More into the Breach, The Mexican Election

Let me preface this by saying that it was intended to be included in an online forum responding to an editorial in the San Francisco (California) Chronicle about the presidential vote recount in Mexico. It is a little too sarcastic and long for them to publish so I am putting it here. Most of the Americans I know here think there should be a recount of all the votes to "calm things down." I think there is more here than whether the ideological left or right won the election, and something fundamentally more important. Christiane disagrees with me and thinks there should be a complete recount too, so this should not be taken as reflecting her views.

I guess it should not surprise me that your editorial only takes a superficial view of the situation in Mexico. Or that folks on the left and right in this forum are taking their ideological stands and speaking without thinking. It’s the American way after all.

Mexico has only had democracy for a few short years. One might say that it began in the early 1990s when the federal election institute (IFE) and a separate election court (TRIFE) were established. Mexico had been under one party, strongman rule for nearly 70 years by that time, which carried on a tradition that began before Cortes, was abused by the Spanish for 300 years and later by folks like Iturbide, Santa Ana and Porfiro Diaz in the nineteenth century, and by Carranza and the PRI in the twentieth. What is strongman rule? Most Americans don’t really know, despite their (and my) dislike of folks like W., and paying lip service to democracy (or at least semi-democracy) in the U.S.

From my personal experience living in Mexico for 5 years 30 years ago, from the past six months living in Mexico, and from several years living in other third world countries where rule of law was unknown, strongman rule, even benevolent strongman rule as we had in Mexico, means that the strongman is the final arbiter of even the smallest decisions. I know, as I personally felt the results of this in the 1970s. People and businesses are afraid to make decisions on their own, and one cannot trust the institutions that are supposedly set up to protect one’s rights, as the strongman and his henchmen (in this case the PRI) break the law whenever he or they feel like it or whenever the proper palms are greased. The law says one thing, but that only holds as long at the strongman goes along. This breeds distrust in governmental institutions, contempt for authority, and a general attitude that you can do whatever you can get away with as long as you have the right friends, enough money, or don’t get caught. This is not a healthy state of affairs in a democracy.

The extra legal maneuvers by the strongman might be for the good of the country, but they are paternalistic and beyond the law. This may have been the only way to govern in Mexico after the last revolution, but it was not democracy, and it certainly was not rule of law. The president picked his successor so he would not be held accountable for actions taken while he was president, the local warlords (caciques) were paid off one way or another, and everything worked pretty well until 1968 when cracks began showing in the system. From then until the late 1980s, people began asking for more accountability, transparency, distribution of power, checks and balances, public input, etc., the things we kind of take for granted in the US until the chads hit the fan in Florida, that is.

In the early 1990s, Mexico finally set up a system with checks and balances by mutual consent and with public input to govern their elections. This system took into consideration their long experience with fraud and how to commit it, and set up a system that until this year, Mexicans could be justly proud of. It was better by far than the US systems, even in the vaunted state of California. All political parties had input into this set of laws, including the PAN (Calderon) and PRD (Lopez Obrador). It set up an election institute (IFE) that assured fair elections, and even fair campaigns (unheard of in the US). All political parties have members on the IFE that runs elections and on the election court that hears appeals (sometimes called TRIFE). And the judges are “untouchable” in the sense that they are paid nearly $500,000 a year to insulate them from bribery.

During this past election, President Fox was reprimanded by the IFE for even suggesting that PAN and/or the government promote the election, a task left up solely to the IFE, not the parties or the government, unlike in the US where we are a bit looser about such things. The IFE also reprimanded the Catholic church for taking sides and even speaking out on the election. (Mexico has had a long and checkered relationship with the church, but that’s another story.) The IFE did not really get on Lopez Obrador’s case for using Mexico City funds to help his campaign, but they sure tried to keep the federal government from helping Calderon’s campaign and rightly so. Other than that the campaign was pretty tame by US standards, despite some name calling and easily offended sensibilities on one side or the other.

Over the past decade the IFE has run the cleanest election system in Mexico’s history. When a losing candidate has appealed to the TRIFE, an independent organization, they have reversed elections at the local and state level of all major parties. As a result, the PRD and PAN have lost some and won some, and in general everyone, including foreign observers, agree that the system has been fair and even-handed. In fact, the PRI is currently challenging a local election just won by the PRD, and the PRD is refusing a recount. Ironic when you think about it. But the TRIFE will settle it, and all parties will end up going along. In this case, the PRD trusts the TRIFE.

The 2006 federal election is the cleanest, most-transparent, well-run election in Mexico’s history, and perhaps in all of Latin America, with the possible exception of Costa Rica. The past decade had built up people’s confidence in the fact that they could set up a legal system that actually worked, and one that was the bedrock of everything else that happens politically in the country.

The election, despite being clean, undoubtedly had underhanded things happening and human error. But if you saw, as I did, the precinct tally sheets posted all around town with signatures from members of all the major parties, including the PRD; and if you watched the election night returns and listened to the president of IFE saying the election was too close to call, and that they could not call a winner using computer projections (like we do in the US), and thus everyone would have to wait a few days to get an actual count; and if you saw him pleading with the political parties to hold off on claims of victory until the count was in; you could not help but believe that the election was well run and was following the law. The whole business about the IFE hiding 3 million votes until the final vote count was in is hogwash, as the IFE said on election night that there were about 3 million disputed votes that would need to be counted. They were never missing, at least if you watched television on election night.

Now it is crunch time. If the election had not been close, none of this would have mattered much, but it was very, very close. And how well the system Mexico put into place for just such a situation will be tested as never before, and at the presidential level for the first time. The question is not simply whether one party won or another lost. This election and how Mexico handles it is a referendum on rule of law; on people’s faith in an institution that they, not a strongman, set up; on whether they are capable of building their own future or will have to revert back to a strongman system, no matter how benevolent. If they fail, it will set back true democracy in Mexico an additional 70 years, and continue a pattern that is already over 500 years old.

The system is following the course set out by law. By law the IFE cannot reopen ballot boxes to satisfy a disgruntled customer. That is for the TRIFE to decide. The IFE followed its rules, caught blatant cases of error (the 3 million “missing” ballots) and turned everything over to the TRIFE as they were supposed to do. Now they are being castigated by Mexicans who know better, and US editors who don’t. Opening ballot boxes is not for the candidates or their parties to decide either.

From the very beginning, and presumably in the name of democracy, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and the PRD have been asking for something that is straight out of the strongman days. They claimed victory against the wishes of the IFE on election night in hopes of causing enough commotion to scare everyone else off and plant a seed of doubt. This last week AMLO has again declared himself president. That has not worked so far. Sixty percent of the voting public thinks the PAN won and that the elections were essentially clean.

AMLO and the PRD then presented what they considered evidence of massive fraud and conspiracy to the TRIFE as provided by law and demanded a complete recount. This was despite the fact that around a million common citizens were involved in the vote and vote count and acted as observers with foreign observers who also said the vote was clean. The level of bribery would have had to have been beyond anything seen anywhere, and keeping it quiet would be even more unbelievable. Appealing on the basis of possible vote fraud is their right and why the TRIFE was set up to begin with, but there has already been a vote by vote count that was signed off on by representatives of the PRD and the other major parties. AMLO now claims that his own people, selected by his party, were paid off by the other parties in a massive conspiracy. There has been no evidence of this, and it shows his lack of trust in even his own people.

Before the results were in from the TRIFE last week, AMLO and the PRD staged massive street protests supported by the Mexico City government (the PRD mayor of Mexico City has publicly offered to accept the political consequences of this activity) claiming fraud, and these have now extended to traffic blockages of the financial and political center of Mexico City. (It was the quietest I had ever seen the Avenida Reforma as my wife and I strolled up to Juarez.) And despite calls for non-violence by AMLO, there has been a general understanding that things will get rough unless there is a complete recount. AMLO has stated in his speeches that they will protest and increase the level of the protests until he is announced the winner. Of course, when he is interviewed by US papers, he modifies that to something along the lines that he just wants a full recount.

The TRIFE, following the Mexican law, not Californian law or US law or even Florida law, are only supposed to order a recount of votes in precincts if there is realistic evidence of a pattern of fraud or other irregularities. They can require a complete recount, but need to have some proof of a massive fraud to do so. Anything less would be succumbing to rule by strongman, not rule by law. They just cannot do it because a vocal minority and some misdirected US newspapers think they should. They can also toss out the entire vote and start over, but again they need some basis for doing so. Doing anything else, such as sitting down with Calderon and AMLO to come to a gentleman’s agreement on a recount, or taking the Catholic church up on its offer to “mediate” the “dispute”, or getting President Fox to promulgate a decree ordering a recount is not rule by law, and represents a reversion to everything the 1990s elections laws were set up to prevent. And it will mean going back to the bad old days of the PRI.

Much more is at stake here than whether the PRD or the PAN won the election. This fledging democracy, that basically had a revolution in the 1990s, needs to develop confidence in itself and its institutions, breaking the law to keep US newspaper editors and a minority of voters happy is too much to pay to prevent street protests.

Is Mexico a society of the very rich and the very poor? Have the poorer Mexicans been given a bad deal for the past 500 years? Should the government do more? The answers are absolutely yes. And Calderon has invited AMLO and the PRD to form a national government to approache these issues to little avail. But rather than changing things through a strongman system, no matter how good the motives, caving in to demands for a full recount outside the TRIFE will perpetuate the very same paternalistic (on a good day) or dictatorial (on a bad day) system that needs to be changed. AMLO is just another politician who wants to do things his way, just like Iturbide, Porfiro Diaz, and all the PRI presidents of the twentieth century. I think Mexico deserves true democracy with leaders who believe in and live by rule of law, transparency, and personal responsibility.

Questioning the system and throwing around words like “fraud” and “traitor”, and threatening undefined activities in order to change how the electoral institutions work is an attempt, whether conscious or not, to undermine their effectiveness and the public’s incipient faith in its ability to manage and maintain true democracy. This is serious stuff and US newspapers editors should start paying attention, and get a little education.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Visitors, Bastille Day, Househunting, etc.

We have been busy, mostly reading editorials about what is happening with the elections. You would think that my Spanish vocabulary would be growing by leaps and bounds with all the newspapers we’ve been reading, but I don’t want to stop reading and check the dictionary, so I just keep going and am not learning as much vocabulary as I should be. But I am learning a lot about the Mexican constitution and Mexican politics.

Last Sunday we went to México City to visit our nephew and his family from France who are taking an intensive 10 day tour of México. They will be seeing in a few short days, what it took us five long years to visit 30 years ago. I do not envy them. It just so happened that Sunday was the day of the big demonstration by Obrador. Traffic was stopped in downtown, and still is five days later with no end in sight, as his followers have decided to “camp out” until the Election Court caves in and recounts all the votes despite what the law says. They have already been counted in the most open and honest election in México’s history or probably any Latin American country’s history for that matter. But he won’t be happy until he wins. It will be an interesting test of wills, rule of law versus the potential of going back to the strongman system that México had for 70 years. Check here for some photos of walking down the Avenida Reforma which is usually jammed with traffic.

Friends in La Quinta Patio (Émerence is in the center)

We had Alain, Carinne and their daughter Émerence for a week or so in July. They had a car and saw a side of Mexico that Marie-Helene and Claire did not! They also got to visit Guanajuato, part of the Sierra Gorda and San Miguel by themselves. We took Émerence to the zoo outside Querétaro when they went to Guanajuato.

Émerence and Christiane at the zoo at Wameru

Christiane feeding the giraffe

Where'd the food go, little girl?

Just after they left, our next door neighbor, Coraline, the last of the French interns from Limoges, was afraid to be alone so she moved in with us for a week. Yesterday, she moved in with Julian and Pauline, and leaves for France tomorrow. I think she is ready to go home, but I hope she will have good memories of Mexico.

We had a July 14 party at our house and about 40 people showed up, American, Canadian, Mexican, and, of course French. As the Americans (except Mike), Canadians and French got tired and went home, the Mexicans were just getting started. Ramon played his guitar, tamborine and harmonica, and sang his Yucatecan call and response song to everyone’s delight. Mike stuck around long enough to dance with Emerance. And Hilario, who was last seen on this site back in March or April at the international guitar festival, played some great classical guitar. His buddy played some old favorites that everyone joined in on. And Christiane gave a nice little speech, in Spanish, about how we have been here such a short time, but already have so many friends and we look forward to getting know them over the years. I, for one, was very impressed, and surprised since she had not mentioned she was going to do this to me.

House update: We thought we had the owner back down to $880,000 (pesos, of course) in my recent post. Whoops! Turns out he had not discussed this with his sister after all, and they now wanted $930,000. We gave him a last, and written, offer of $880,000, and we offered to pay the agents fee, which he did not want to pay. We also gave him two days to think it over. Two days came and went with no response, and frankly, I was a little relieved. Now we could go on, and not be emotionally tied to a house we probably would not be able to buy anyway. Nevertheless, a day or two later the owner came back with an offer of $900,000 that, he said, would only be good for a week (trying to put the pressure on us, I guess.) I said no, and that we were looking elsewhere (Our friend Sylvia is looking for houses for us among friends of her mother-in-law) and would need at least a week and a half to see if we could get a better deal. He excused himself from the phone and talked to his sister in the background. When he came back on the line, he offered $880,000, and we could visit the Notario Publico the next day! Again, I said no, and that we really owed it to ourselves to look around some more. Since we are the only foreigners presently looking for places to fix up in the Centro Historico, I think it is finally dawning on him that what he wants and what the market (us, in this case) will bear are two different things, and he may have lost his chance to sell his house after 6 years.

I may have mentioned that Christiane and I are working with Niños y Niñas de México. It is a non-profit to help street children and their families. Bob got me started by asking me to replace him teaching computer classes to the kids, since Bob is getting a real job at the University of Querétaro. Maria got Christiane to help her baby sit the little ones when their mother’s come to the embroidery co-op on Wednesdays run by Deborah who also teaches an elementary school class. I quickly became the webmaster and Christiane got hooked into teaching kids to read and write, in Spanish of course. Now I go two mornings a week and Christiane goes three. What I really want to do is help with marketing the co-op, and this may yet happen. Anyway, please check out the preliminary Niños y Niños website at http://ninosyninas.atspace.com. Any suggestions or corrections are welcome.