Las Americas

The Cross-Border Electoral Boogie


Every Tuesday after work they gather in the backroom of a politically hip café to guzzle cappuccinos, write manifestos, paint banners, and otherwise plot how best to beat Bush in November. They are a rainbow bunch—students and matrons and old lefties, straights and gays, as befits any liberal activist group hell-bent on dumping Bush these days.

What is wrong with this picture is that this weekly meet takes place not in a U.S. city but at the Café de la Red in downtown Mexico City, and all of the participants in this Beat Bush pow-wow are Mexican citizens who have little to say when it comes to voting this November.

Their exclusion from the balloting in El Norte is patently unfair to Beat Bush instigator Nuri Fernández. “Bush’s policies endanger the whole world so the whole world should have the right to vote,” she argues. “We have to beat Bush to save the world.”

But what about Bush’s possible replacement, she is asked. “First we will get rid of Bush and then we will take care of Kerry,” the indefatigably optimistic Fernández insists.

From top to bottom on this side of the border, the Beat Bush bandwagon is cranking into high gear. The U.S. president is mocked in derogatory headlines and denounced on the editorial pages of major Mexican newspapers, his “Bushisms” even translated into Spanish. The prospect of his defeat momentarily unifies the once and future ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its left-center rival, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Although he once exchanged ranch visits and dined at the White House, in his heart of hearts, President Vicente Fox of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), must also yearn for a new start in the two years remaining in his term (Mexican presidents serve a single six-year term).

Elected within months of each other in 2000, Fox and Bush started off their parallel presidencies with high hopes of bilateral accommodation, but the Bush double-cross on immigration reform and war on terror obsession after 9/11 frosted relations. Fox’s strong-willed opposition to Bush’s aggression in Iraq put ties in the deep freeze.

Mexico is not alone in the Americas in wanting to see Bush removed from the U.S. presidency in November. On a recent crawl through Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, I was repeatedly asked if Bush could really be beaten. His arrogance in invading and occupying Iraq has trip-wired global anti-Yanqui sentiment. Even Canada and Europe seem to have signed onto this worldwide thirst for a change in the White House. And although it is true that none of these foreigners vote in U.S. elections, they all have cousins who do.

At 40 million strong, Latinos now constitute the largest minority in the United States. Although they still don’t vote in numbers commensurate with their booming population, their concentration in swing states where hundreds of votes and not thousands separated Gore and Bush in 2000, accentuates the crucial Latin twist in the neck-and-neck 2004 race.

Whatever their percentages shake down to, these final weeks of the campaign will be jammed with mucho nacho munching, mariachis, tapatio folk dancing, and Corona beer as each candidate seeks to impress Mexican-descent constituents with his amigo credentials. Bush, who speaks fractured gringo Spanish, will trot out his sister-in-law Colomba, Jeb’s Guanajuato-born spouse, and nephew George Prescott Bush. Meanwhile, Kerry’s honorary Hispanic, Teresa Heinz, the scion of Portuguese planters in colonial Mozambique, will spiel the Democrat Dream in multilingual splendor.

But many Mexicans inside the United States will be on the outside looking in on this fiesta through a barred window. Citizens of Mexico account for over a third of the 10,000,000 resident aliens living inside U.S. borders—Mexicans have a poor record of naturalizing as North Americans, choosing instead to retain their Mexican citizenship in hope of one day returning to their homeland. Combined with an estimated 3.5 million undocumented Mexican workers roaming the U.S. at any given moment, the number of non-voting Mexicans far outpaces those who have sworn allegiance to Gringolandia and will vote for Bush, Kerry, Nader, or None of the Above on November 2.

In recent years, immigrant groups have raised the banner of voting rights as an access route to the American dream. Alien suffrage was common in the late 1890s and early 1900s, when European immigrants poured into the cities to build the nation’s industrial potential. But as the radicalized workers proposed running their own candidates for public office, the practice was quickly curtailed.

Since 1992, when Takoma Park, Maryland opened up the local vote to legal non-citizens, that liberal bastion has been joined by three other nearby towns and Cambridge and Amherst, Massachusetts (now in legal abyss due to conflicts with state statutes). Washington, D.C. has just passed a similar measure that is guaranteed to be killed in Congress by nativists like Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo. San Francisco will decide in November if both legal and undocumented immigrants should vote in school board elections; one opponent alleges that passage would guarantee Osama Bin Laden suffrage.

In New York City, with perhaps the largest alien resident population in the country, new immigrants empowered with non-citizen voting could elect their own borough presidents and change the shape and the shade of Congress.

Despite the benefits of non-citizen voting, many Mexicans living in the U.S. are more concerned about voting elsewhere. Since 1929, Mexicans living and working in El Norte have demanded participation in Mexican elections. That year, committees supporting opposition presidential candidate José Vasconcelos were physically rebuffed when they stormed the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles demanding extra-territorial balloting. Because Mexicans in the United States, driven to the Other Side by economic and political dissatisfaction at home, tend to favor right and left opposition candidates, the PRI, which ran Mexico for seven decades through Fox’s 2000 upset victory, although routinely proffering lip service, studiously avoided extending the vote to expatriate Mexicans.

But now the “Paisanos” are flexing their muscle—with $14 billion gushing home every year, Mexicans working in the United States are about to supplant petroleum as the engine of the economy. A recent World Bank study indicates that Mexico would actually be in a depression if it weren’t for the Yanqui dollars the Paisanos send home. Yet despite being the saviors of the economy and the sustenance for entire regions, Mexicans living in the United States continue to be denied the vote.

In some feeder states, this equation has been slightly altered by permitting expatriate Mexicans to return home to run for local office without tough residency requirements. In Zacatecas, which receives $2 million a day from its migrant workers in the United States, four Paisanos won mayorships in recent local balloting, including folk hero Andrés Bermudez, “The Tomato King,” who once crossed into El Norte in the trunk of a car and returned home to Jerez a multi-millionaire California farmer. Michoacán, another major migrant feeder state, is considering similar legislation.

This June, President Fox forwarded yet another political reform package to a gridlocked congress that would provide for extraterritorial voting in 2006 presidential elections. But the number of potential voters—three million to five million out of an electorate of 58,000,000—could decide a close presidential election (Fox beat the PRI by that margin in 2000) and the prospect of an opposition expatriate vote frightens both the PRI and the PAN. The PRD, with strength in both Los Angeles and Chicago, the two key Mexican enclaves, will benefit from U.S. voting.

Hiding behind the pretext of impossible logistics—e-mail voting, voting by mail, and voting at Mexican consulates all are flawed options—the two major parties are unlikely to vote up any changes at all, frets Raul Ross, a Chicago-based activist who has seen 15 such proposals sent to the Mexican congress with no vote in sight.

Indeed, the votes of Mexicans living outside of Mexico may well decline in 2006 because the option of physically returning home to cast a ballot is increasingly nullified by upped U.S. Homeland Security border vigilance.

Just as the Mexicans-in-the-U.S. vote could be decisive in a close election south of the border, the approximately 1,000,000 U.S. citizens living in Mexico could swing the November vote up north. Absentee overseas ballots accounted for Bush’s minimal 537-vote “victory” over Gore in Florida four years ago. Much like Mexican politicians who now campaign among migrant populations in the United States, the Kerryites are canvassing the usually conservative, mostly retiree gringo communities here. George Prescott Bush, the son of Jeb and Colomba Bush, was recently in town to glad-hand the oldsters.

This intricate, cross-border boogie has altered electoral identities. In 2000, Mexico had, in effect, what amounted to a U.S. election replete with mass marketing, negative spots, phony polling, and other glossy vestiges of the U.S. commercial politics industry. Former Clinton hucksters James Carville and Dick Morris were brought in by the PAN and the PRI under provisions of NAFTA that make political carpetbaggery a free-trade service.

Meanwhile, the United States held a Mexican-style election with flagrant flimflam in the Florida swamps that was so reminiscent of elections in the state of Tabasco that many Mexicans joked that fraudmeister Roberto Madrazo (now president of the PRI and a wannabe Fox successor, who owns a home in Boca Raton) was pulling the strings and punching the buttons.

Before Florida, U.S. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) as diverse as the Carter Center and Global Exchange religiously sent delegations of observers to Mexico to spread democratic virtues and inoculate vote counts against ostentatious fraud. But this time around, Global Exchange has altered its strategies and is inviting Mexican observers to the U.S. in an international effort to thwart the stealing of Election 2004.

John Ross is currently on the road in Gringolandia, promoting his latest book, Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left.