Driving in from the Mexico City airport, I asked the usual dumb questions. In his New York Times Magazine piece of June 4, David Rieff had reported that airport taxi drivers were being pressured not to vote for leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the July 2 presidential election. Was this true?
Hector, a 36-year-old business grad from the National University who was forced to drive a cab for a living, told me that at his workplace, two drivers had been threatened that they had to vote for right-wing candidate Felipe Calderón. “But no one is going for it,” he said. “How can they do that? Isn’t the ballot supposed to be secret?” Before I could answer, he responded, “To me, it’s a lot like 1988, when they stole the election from Cárdenas. Like I said, we’re not going for it this time.” In 1988 Hector had been an 18-year-old student about to enter the university. After the election, he joined his older brothers in protesting the Great Fraud.
As the taxi glided to a stop at the light on a wide slum avenue, a ragged youth threw himself gracelessly onto the cab hood and started soaping the windshield. Hector waved him off sadly and dropped a coin in his cupped hand. “How can a country so rich have so many poor people?” Again he answered his own question. “This is two countries, amigo. One up there for Calderón,” he said, pointing to a bank of skyscrapers in the distance. “And the rest of us down here with López Obrador,” a reference to the former mayor of Mexico City and current presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known in the press as AMLO.
In many ways the presidential election that is just days away is the most significant since the watershed year 1988, when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, the nation’s last leftist president (1932-38), squared off against a Harvard-trained neoliberal technocrat named Carlos Salinas. The contest pitted the revolutionary nationalism of the Mexican left against the Washington Consensus.
As it turned out, Salinas and the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI) at that time the longest-ruling political dynasty in the world, stole the election. Not long after that, NAFTA was on the agenda. On July 2, López Obrador intends to reverse the tide let loose 18 years ago. But in Mexico, history is a closed loop; the same bone-headed mistakes and miscalculations are made over and over again, and what happened back then is apt to repeat itself.
This will be my fifth presidential election here. But none has equaled the high drama of 1988, when Salinas and the PRI, blindsided by the arrogance of power, failed to see Cárdenas coming and had to steal ballot boxes, burn their contents, falsify tally sheets, and “crash” vote-tabulating computers. On election night, electoral officials lied to reporters, telling us that “the system had collapsed.” It didn’t come back up for 10 days, when Salinas was declared the winner with 51 percent of the popular vote. Thousands of voting stations were never included in the final results, and most of the public refused to believe the official results. The post-electoral period was bloody—as was the pre-electoral period. Two of Cárdenas’ aides were assassinated on the eve of the election. PRI malfeasance was met with a groundswell from the disaffected, who rose against the only party they had ever known and demanded economic and political democracy—and that the ballot boxes be re-opened and all votes recounted. Between 1988 and 1991, more than 500 members of Cardenas’ fledgling Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, were killed in political violence. In 1991, the PRI and the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, voted to destroy the evidence and burned the ballots.
For many veterans of that terrible time, the shadow of 1988 casts itself ominously on the current election. The Federal Electoral Institute, the theoretically nonpartisan entity that grew out of the debacle of 1988, again seems to be a creature of the ruling party. This time around, the ruling party is the PAN, and the IFE has come down hard on López Obrador while condoning Calderón’s dirty tricks.
Item: Last year IFE President Luis Carlos Ugalde forbade López Obrador from traveling to Los Angeles, where he had been invited by that city’s first Mexican mayor since 1842 to deliver the Grito of Independence. According to Ugalde, the trip would have violated new laws against campaigning in the United States. But PAN President Manuel Espino was subsequently given the green light to canvas in California.
Item: The IFE winked at the intervention of non-Mexicans in the presidential campaign so long as they were working for Calderón. Spain’s former right-wing prime minister, José María Aznar, his media don Antonio Sola, and Fox News commentator and “political consultant” Dick Morris have all worked for Calderón. International observers who might side with López Obrador have been warned that they can be expelled from the country under Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution if they interfere in the electoral process.
Item: For months, the IFE allowed the PAN to run a blizzard of venomous hit pieces attacking López Obrador as a DANGER to Mexico (big red letters are stamped across the screen) before pulling the plug under court order.
All we’re missing is the phrase, “the system has collapsed,” said my friend Luis Cota, a veteran of 1988. For months, the hit pieces have flickered across the tube, sometimes four to a commercial break. López Obrador’s pugnacious mug intercut with such boogiemen as Hugo Chávez and Subcomandante Marcos, and images of the recent police riot at Atenco in the state of Mexico. Calderón’s media mavens have borrowed a trick from the campaign of former President Ernesto Zedillo by inciting the voto del miedo, the vote of fear. The technique worked well for Zedillo in 1994 after the Zapatistas rose up in Chiapas and Salinas’s hand-picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was gunned down in Tijuana. The message hasn’t been lost on Calderón’s handlers, who have invested millions in the TV onslaught.
The presidential elections mean big bucks for Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, Televisa and its junior partner TV Azteca—about $1.3 billion in primetime spots by the time it’s over. From the campaign get-go last January, Televisa has tilted to the PAN and attacked López Obrador, sometimes showing AMLO in herky-jerky frames with lots of spooky music to accentuate the DANGER. Back in 1988, Televisa and its star anchor, then staunch PRI-istas, gave Cárdenas the same treatment.
Alternating with the Get AMLO blitz is a Fox government crusade to extol its questionable accomplishments—nearly a half million spots since January, if a PRI count can be believed. Most of those spots emanated from SEDESO, the department of social development, and vaguely suggested that checks might dry up if Calderón were not elected. Former SEDESO Secretary Josefina Vazquez Mota is Calderón’s right-hand woman. One of Calderón’s brothers-in-law installed a SEDESO computerized directory that contains the names and addresses of recipients of the ministry’s largesse during the Fox administration.
The PAN-PRI putsch to beat back López Obrador, who led the presidential pack by as much as 18 points for 30 months before Calderón’s media onslaught, reached fever pitch in 2005. Fox and unctuous PRI standard-bearer Roberto Madrazo tried to bar López Obrador from the ballot—and even to imprison him—for the heinous crime of trying to build an access road to a hospital. (He was enjoined from doing so by court order. See “La Lotería Más Grande,” July 16, 2004.) AMLO turned this legal lynching on its head by mobilizing 1.2 million citizens for a silent march through the city he then governed as mayor. The April 24, 2005, march was the largest political demonstration in the history of this republic.
Before the impeachment attempt, the PAN and the PRI had tried to hang the former mayor with a series of videotapes secretly shot by a crooked construction tycoon pissed off at AMLO for denying him city contracts. The videos aired heavily on Televisa and TV Azteca throughout 2004. They never managed to link López Obrador with any wrongdoing and in fact strengthened his lead.
On the eve of the June 6 presidential debate between López Obrador and Calderón, the imprisoned Carlos Ahumada announced that his wife would distribute new videos testifying to López Obrador’s corrupt moral values at High Noon the next day. Allegedly at 6:10 that morning a beige, bulletproof Suburban carrying Ahumada’s annoyed-looking wife Cecelia Gurza, her three children, and her ex-con chauffer, was raked by gunfire as it slid out of the driveway of her palatial home in southern Mexico City. Televisa sped to the scene of the “hit.” The lurid black-and-white footage ran all day. Now there were bullets in the campaign, tsk-tsk’ed Madrazo, who was running in third place. Ahumada’s lawyers called off distribution of the new videos, and a presidential spokesman decried the muzzling as yet another López Obrador plot.
To Mexico City District Attorney Bernardo Batiz, the whole deal smelled bad. In fact, Mrs. Ahumada and her chauffer stand accused of shooting up their own car. Shades of 1988.
Like all staged political spectaculars, the debate proved to be really a string of set-pieces with some heavy sniping between Calderón and López Obrador over who was the bigger liar. Calderón tried to look authoritative, but looked more authoritarian, “tough on crime” thrusting his index finger at the camera, frenetically fending off AMLO’s insinuations that he was the candidate of the rich. AMLO proclaimed himself the candidate of the poor. “The Poor First!” has been his campaign cry from day one. That’s what his campaign has always been about: rich vs. poor, white vs. brown, the bottom vs. the top, the yawning divide that puts 70 million Mexicans under and around the poverty line while an infinitesimal clique of fat cats swill champagne from silver goblets. His detractors, most prominently the Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, tend to scoff. After all, López Obrador’s moneybags—at least at the beginning of his wildly popular reign as Mexico City mayor—was multibillionaire Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America.
Looking positively presidential and not at all the red-eyed devil of danger that Calderón excoriates, López Obrador was calmly passionate in his commitment to los de abajo, the underdogs, pledging to defend them from the depredations of Calderón and the neoliberal elites. We’ll see.
Admittedly, there are a lot more poor Mexicans than fat cats, which should work to his advantage on July 2. The Mexican electoral process has indeed moved on since the bad old days, but the shadow of 1988 looms large. If indeed AMLO is denied victory, his people, like Cárdenas’, will not believe he did not win. There is generalized conviction among pundits that the presidential election will be very close, decided by 100,000 or fewer votes out of a probable 42 million (53 percent of the electorate). If the IFE awards Calderón victory, AMLO’s supporters—with or without AMLO (a gifted street protest leader)—will hold what used to be called “the second election in the street.” Back in 1988, the anger of los de abajo was palpable and got away from Cárdenas. The National Palace was firebombed, highways were blockaded, and government offices were invaded. PRI-istas death squads stalked the city, and Salinas sent in the military. Luis Cota and I went to a lot of funerals. That’s the part Luis remembers most.
Not long ago we stood on the edge of Mexico City’s great plaza, the Zócalo, as the debate was about to begin. We eyed the dark thunderheads pushing up from south of the city. “Ojalá compañero,” sighed Luis, “It doesn’t happen again.”
John Ross is in Mexico City waiting to see how it all turns out.