The 1996 Presidential Elections Are Already Tearing the Country Apart
Mexico’s climate has been convulsed by
its political class for months. Caught up in a premature,
but all-out war over the presidential elections still two years away, the PAN and the PRI have been engaging in dirty tricks against PRD frontrunner López Obrador, Mexico City’s mayor.
The thirteen weeks between the beginning of March and the end of May shook Mexico’s political life to its very core, with the contradictions and conflicts intensifying by the day. A recount of events reveals the nature and practices of a government that came to power through a vote for democratic change and has recently opted instead for a dangerous return to authoritarianism, where it invokes the defense of a law it tramples, shows no respect for its opponents and cynically attacks the interests of the people.
Cuba deports AhumadaFollowing a scandal caused by the release of videos implicating members of Mexico City’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) government in acts of corruption, Carlos Ahumado, the businessperson involved in the entrapment, fled to Cuba. A month later, Cuban authorities arrested him on charges of fraud at INTERPOL’s request. They reported while he was in jail, Ahumada had admitted that the videos were released for political ends, which made many Mexican politicians, especially in the governing National Action Party (PAN), very nervous. After contacting several political figures in Mexico, Cuba decided not to wait for extradition proceedings and deported Ahumada to Mexico at the end of April.
The charges against Ahumada fell under the jurisdiction of Federal District authorities, but before turning him over to them, the Attorney General’s Office held him for five hours to find out just what he had said in Cuba and instruct him on what he should say next. The goal was to cover up the federal government’s role in instigating a plot against Mexico City’s popular mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has been leading in the polls for the next presidential elections.
If President Vicente Fox’s government was caught off guard by Cuba’s decision to deport Ahumada, it was angered by that country’s next move. Cuba had itself been riled by Mexico’s support for a resolution passed by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva to send a United Nations special rapporteur to visit the island, especially because its vote was announced not by Mexico, but by the United States. During Fidel Castro’s speech in Cuba on May 1, International Workers’ Day, he said “It hurts us deeply to see that all the prestige and influence Mexico had earned throughout Latin America and the world for its spotless international policy, born of a deep and true revolution, has turned to ashes.”
No public support for Arguing that the Cubans were intervening in Mexico’s internal political affairs, the Mexican government reacted strongly. On May 2, it announced that it would withdraw its ambassador from Cuba and gave the Cuban ambassador to 48 hours to leave Mexico. It declared the Cuban Embassy’s political affairs adviser persona non grata and insisted he, too, leave the country immediately. It also charged that the head of the Americas Department of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee and the head of that department’s Mexico Section had met with PRD members to negotiate the terms of Ahumada’s deportation.
Mexico’s break with Cuba
The Fox government has brought Cuban-Mexican relations to their lowest point ever, to the brink of a break, as did Peru because of another comment Castro made in his May 1 speech. And of course, the US government immediately praised the decision of both governments. In Mexico, private enterprise and the PAN supported the government’s move, but wide sectors of society were indignant and lamented the conflict with Cuba, a country to which Mexicans feel especially close. Polls conducted by the leading newspapers found that 75% of the population wanted Mexico to maintain relations with Cuba and 47% felt that the Fox government had overreacted.
Several legislators commented that the near break was due as much to pressure from the United States as to the Ahumada case. As public repudiation increased, several civil society organizations remarked that Mexico is assuming a US-dictated policy that its citizens do not support. In the capital, the Promoter of National Unity Against Neoliberalism and 300 other organizations marched against Fox and
in favor of relations with Cuba. Large demonstrations were held in several other cities as well.
Fox insisted he was only defending the country’s sovereignty and soon took advantage of an opportunity to demonstrate that he was not just obeying US orders. When during this same period the US government announced that it was taking harsher measures against Cuba and called on other Latin American governments to follow Mexico’s example, Fox announced that he would not support this plan aimed at further asphyxiating Cuba.
Resistance and complicityCuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Reque refused to accept that the Cubans had intervened in Mexico’s internal affairs and declared that relations had reached this regrettable point because of lies and arrogance. In a long press conference to the international media, he presented a video in which Ahumada said he had initially opposed televising the video showing the hand-over of money to PRD officials because they were his only bargaining chip, but “they”—presumably high PAN officials—had insisted on it. He also said that in exchange for releasing them, he had received neither legal protection nor economic assistance.
The Cuban foreign minister explained that Cuban leaders had met in Mexico with leading politicians in the PAN, the PRD and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and gave a partial list of names. He rejected the charge that they had carried out a clandestine or “conspiratorial” mission against Mexico, its authorities or its people, and commented that the Mexican government’s unusual reaction confirmed the case’s political implications. Finally, he said that if Mexican officials took the appropriate steps through diplomatic channels, they would receive a favorable response from Cuba.
Mexico’s foreign relations secretary applauded the flexibility of Cuba’s position, but the secretary of government rejected the idea that his government had started the conflict or was involved in a plot against Mexico City’s government, and dismissed the video released in Cuba. For its part, the Attorney General’s Office recommended that Ahumada file a complaint with the United Nations because Cuba allegedly obliged him to sign a blank confession (although the video shown by the Cubans amounted to a verbal declaration, with no papers involved). Ahumada’s lawyer claimed that his client had been tortured in Cuba, but the foreign relations secretary said Ahumada had not made this charge to the consul, nor had he complained of mistreatment.
Congressional legislators summoned both secretaries to Congress to report on what the Cubans had done in Mexico to warrant the diplomatic decisions made. The officials, however, refused to provide information on the reasons behind this near break with Cuba, pleading national security concerns. The slow pace of the attorney general’s actions has led many to presume that Ahumada is being protected.
Ahumada in jail: What the government had wanted in Ahumada’s case was a lengthy extradition process. Cuba’s decision to deport him meant that he could be tried on all charges leveled against him, not only those cited
An unexpected crisis for Fox
in the government’s extradition petition. This put President Fox in a complicated situation. Many people are now convinced he is not interested in fighting corruption, as he has repeatedly said, but rather in using corruption scandals to damage his political adversaries while covering up other scandals to protect associates and allies. López Obrador exhorted the government to admit it had cooked up a plot against the political project he represents.
The PRD asked that all the videos be released, not only those chosen for partisan ends by the government to strike a blow at it. PAN members were also known to have received money from Ahumada, but these cases were not aired in the media. The PRD urged the government to take steps to diffuse the confrontational climate created by its decision to politicize an issue that should have been exclusively legal in nature. The PRI also called on Fox to reestablish dialogue with all parties. After returning from a trip to Europe, however, Fox defended the measures taken against Cuba, launched into a tirade against the López Obrador government in Mexico City for the corruption found there and lamented that while a businessperson had gone to jail, the PRD politicians involved were still free. Meanwhile, the press reported that the same businessperson defended by the President had hired the most dangerous criminals in the jail where he is imprisoned as his personal security guards.
In mid-May, the PAN issued a press release in which it called for putting a halt to the “judicialization of politics and politicization of justice,” while the PRD continued to demand that the PAN put a halt to its attacks against the local PRD government in Mexico City .
López Obrador’sThe Ahumada case did not achieve its goal of destroying the figure of López Obrador. A survey by one of the leading newspapers in the capital showed that 73% of Mexico City’s residents approve of his performance as mayor and 58% believe that the federal government has been plotting against him. And he still led the polls as the preferred candidate for the 2006 presidential elections.
This led the PAN government to explore other routes. On May 17, the Attorney General’s Office asked Congress to strip López Obrador of his immunity privileges, accusing him of contempt of court in a judicial decision related to some projects in the capital. The PRD saw this as a new attempt to force him out of the presidential race. López Obrador charged that they were resorting to dirty tricks to that end, but assured that he would continue to promote an alternative project whether or not he was a presidential candidate because he cannot support an economic policy that benefits only a few at the top while keeping the majority in poverty. He announced that he would not resign to face the Attorney General’s charges but would consult the people at the end of the year to see if they wanted him to remain in office.
In a national poll done by GEA, 63% believe that the attorney general’s actions are politically motivated and 57% feel that if López Obrador were removed from his post to face these charges, the 2006 elections would be illegitimate. Several analysts, including some who are not sympathizers of López Obrador, described the move as a low blow to democracy, a kind of coup through “legalistic” aggression. They felt that Fox, like most of his predecessors midway through their term in office, was losing his sense of judgment.
Fox declared an “electoral criminal”On May 20, the federal judicial branch’s Electoral Tribunal increased the fine against the PAN for the “Friends of Fox” case involving illegal contributions to the President’s 2000 campaign. The Tribunal found that Fox’s party—and in fact Fox himself—were aware of, participated in and benefited from the illegal, parallel campaign financing, thus damaging the democratic system by hiding the origins and destination of the money and violating the principle of electoral fairness. The Tribunal raised the fine from the equivalent of some US$31 million to nearly US$35 million because it was proven that both Fox and the PAN had actively and consciously participated in the parallel financing strategy to prevent election authorities from monitoring the resources. In so doing they violated several election laws: they broke campaign spending limits and made illegal use of money from abroad and from people who were not identified or not authorized to contribute or who had already reached their individual contribution limits. They had also concocted a money-laundering scheme to hide the parallel financing.
The President himself appeared to be the main one responsible for these irregularities, and the PRD insisted that the issue be pursued to its core. They demanded that Fox explain where the millions of dollars that had been illegally obtained by “Friends of Fox” ended up, and asked that the case be reopened because the Tribunal had demonstrated that Fox was an “electoral criminal.”
Insults, enmity, cynicismWith this, the climate grew even tenser. Fox was accused of ignoring the country’s problems while getting enmeshed in political conspiracies to defeat an adversary. While López Obrador presented legal documents in response to the attorney general’s charges against him, PAN as well as some PRI legislators seemed oblivious to the fact that using unjust methods to get him out of the race was threatening to undermine political stability. Reverting to the times of harassment and exclusion was discrediting the country’s institutions, thus endangering social peace. Even Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, upon announcing himself as a “citizens’ candidate” for President, cynically and dangerously agreed that López Obrador should be prevented “by whatever means it takes” from being a presidential candidate.
The PRI called once again for a dialogue with the President, while the PRD said it would only agree to one that included both the charges against López Obrador and the “Friends of Fox” case. With all their actions determined by the presidential race, the parties do not seem truly interested in reaching agreements that are not related to the race, and it is proving to be very difficult to defuse the insults and enmity. They
urge dialogue for rhetorical reasons, but their actions lean in other directions. An even greater problem is that neither the President nor any of the parties appear to have any interest in including society in the dialogue.
With the European-Latin American Summit approaching, the political panorama grew stranger by the day. Just a few days before it started, bombs were set off in banks in Morelos. The clandestine group that claimed responsibility explained that they were protests against the PAN’s policies.
Despite everything, López Obrador has maintained his substantial lead in the polls even after the new attacks, and the government appears even more obsessed with its desire to get rid of him. Despite assurances that the issue would not be raised at the summit, Fox railed against corruption and impunity in the Mexico City government before the foreign press corps just a few hours before the meeting got underway. He did not mention that the Electoral Tribunal had just determined that he personally knew about the illegal financing of his own campaign.
López Obrador is still in the lead
It is important to emphasize here that while Fox was directly implicated in the PAN’s illegal campaign financing, López Obrador was not personally involved in the corruption in the Federal District. In addition, the amounts involved in the latter scandal are minimal compared to the illicit money that went into Fox’s campaign.
After admitting that he was concerned about López Obrador’s popularity, the head of the PRI met with Fox. That same day PAN and PRI representatives in Congress, ignoring the PRD’s petition to dismiss the attorney general’s request, opened proceedings to remove López Obrador from office without justifying their move on legal grounds. The defendant responded that he was accustomed to adversity and was in the people’s hands. The president of the National Human Rights Commission warned that removing López Obrador from office would be a terrible mistake and create a grave social problem.
Summit in the midst of intrigueThis was the convulsive national backdrop to the European Union-Latin American summit, which began in Guadalajara on May 28. Days before, Fox announced that it could be used to begin talks with Cuban authorities over the rift between the two countries, but when Cuba’s foreign minister arrived in Guadalajara, he said that the diplomatic crisis between Mexico and Cuba might not be resolved there. He released a letter from Fidel Castro explaining why he had decided not to attend the summit personally, mentioning not only the pending issues with the Mexican government over its false, dishonest accusation against Cuba, but also a critique of the summit’s organization. Nevertheless, the two countries’ foreign ministers did meet and at least initiated arrangements for the return of their respective ambassadors. Commentators concurred that the Cubans were right on this issue.
The public also saw the contradictions between the government’s initial hard-line stand against Cuba and its later offer of rapprochement. If Cuba’s actions had been so serious, people felt, there was no reason to mitigate the initial response. And if the intent was to correct a mistake, this indicated that the reasons originally invoked were insufficient. People were bothered by the government’s failure to clarify what had happened, and by the fact that they were being asked to trust in the “secret reasons” of a government that has lost credibility.
Once the summit was underway, the PRD distributed a paper among the participants in response to Fox’s charges, denouncing his government’s partisan, antidemocratic attitude. It also filed a complaint with the Organization of American States, charging that Fox’s conduct violated the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It also clearly violates the democratic clause in the agreement signed between Mexico and the European Union, as the legal maneuvering aimed at deciding the presidential elections two years in advance is nothing short of attempted fraud. Fox was also denounced for serving, in another authoritarian twist, as coordinator of the presidential campaign of his wife, Marta Sahagún, rather than as President of all Mexicans. In fact, the federal government unabashedly distributed a pamphlet on his wife’s political positions at the summit. Meanwhile, the PRD demanded that the Public Ministry fulfill its duty to investigate Fox for the illegal financing of his 2000 campaign and his associates for their involvement in Ahumada’s illegal activities.
Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes criticized the spiral of intrigue and dirty tricks in Mexican politics based on a dispute over the presidential elections that only increased disillusionment and confusion. He commented that the lack of development, the insecurity and the fragile democracy could arouse a sense of nostalgia for an authoritarian past. Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, one of Mexico’s main summit organizers, said that Mexico needs agreements not arguments. Others commented that Fox came to the summit with none of the democratic aura that surrounded him when he began his term in office.
Many shades of gray in this crisisSome of the European countries that participated in the summit expressed concern over the weakness of democracy in Latin America and the problems faced by Mexico’s democracy in particular. In fact, many people both here and abroad had hoped that the Mexican government, which was elected in a democratic vote for change, would act in a reasonable, democratic way. Unfortunately, however, it appears to have lost its head.
Determined to hold onto power at all costs, it has not been able to accept the appearance of a strong, popular candidate with an anti-neoliberal, pro-social justice project, and so has twisted the law and made partisan use of institutions to block his path. Fearing that López Obrador will win the elections, the government is trying to force him out of the running with legal maneuvers and abuse of state institutions and the law, just as in the times of the old PRI regime.
In reality, however, things are not all black and white. There is indeed corruption in the PRD and actions were not taken to address it. While the PAN government may have instigated the plot, it prospered because of internal disputes within the PRD around the upcoming presidential elections. This premature concern over the presidential race has encouraged enmity, convulsions, half-truths, manipulation of justice and authoritarianism. The alliance between the PRI and the PAN has not only stripped the electoral tribunal of its autonomous nature, but now threatens to create political convulsions that could endanger social peace. The authorities’ alarming irresponsibility in the face of social inequality also encourages violent solutions.
Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico