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Mexican Election 2018

Almost all the foreign coverage of next Sunday’s Mexican election focusses on the drug wars and the murder rate: 30,000 killed last year, and looking to be even higher this year. But there are 127 million Mexicans, so it’s not really all that bad by Caribbean standards.

Mexico is not even in the top ten countries in terms of its murder rate, although seven out of those top ten are in the Caribbean: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Colombia. In fact, Mexico is ranked at number 20 worldwide, behind apparently safer countries like Brazil, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.

The Caribbean is a tough neighbourhood, but Mexico is actually one of its safer places. So why is everybody, including the Mexicans themselves, obsessed with the local murder rate? It’s because the killings are so brazen and spectacular – and that is largely due to the fact that so many of them are part of the incessant wars between the rival drug gangs.

‘Cartels’ is no longer the right word for these gangs: they have splintered into a multitude of rival organisations fighting to maintain or expand their access to the lucrative US market. It’s a bloody business, but it’s not what the election is about – or at least not openly.

We already know who is going to be the president of Mexico for the next six years. It’s ‘AMLO’, short for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The last opinion poll, with only a week to go, put him at 37% of the vote, and his nearest rival at only 20%. He has little to say about the drug war, apart from vague talk about giving some criminals an amnesty. What he concentrates on is inequality.

Traditionally a far poorer place than the other big economies in Latin America, Brazil and Argentina, Mexico is now level-pegging with Brazil in per capita income, though still trailing Argentina. Indeed, if you calculate it in PPP (purchasing power parity), Mexico is now even with Argentina and well ahead of Brazil. The problem is that the income (in all three countries) is so unevenly shared.

At least a third of Mexico’s people live in poverty, and if anything the inequality has become worse as the economy grew. Some of the slums around the big cities are such deprived and violent places that even ambulances will not go there at night. That is López Obrador’s priority: he will be Mexico’s first left-wing president.

His rivals paint him as a Chávez-style radical who will ruin the economy, but his record as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 suggests a much more pragmatic politician: ‘Mexico’s Bernie Sanders’, as some have called him. “No expropriations, no nationalisations”, he pledges – but he does promise to address income disparity as no previous Mexican government has done.

It’s remarkable that Mexico had to wait so long for the emergence of a successful left-wing politician. The 60-year stranglehold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – what it institutionalised was corruption – was broken in the 2000 election, but the winner was the National Action Party (PAN), a centre-right, business-friendly organisation.

In 2006 PAN made the fatal mistake, at the behest of the United States, of launching the ‘war on drugs’. In the place of PRI’s policy of co-existence – you sell the drugs in the US, give us a share of the profits, and we’ll leave you alone – it set out to smash the cartels.

It succeeded all too well. That’s when the murder rate took off, as the many fragments of the old cartels fought each other for market share. As long as the demand is there in the US, the drug trade will thrive, but now there is also highly visible carnage in Mexico. Indeed, one of the reasons that PRI came back to power in 2012 was the horror Mexicans felt at the violence unleashed in their streets.

PRI did nothing to solve the problem, however, and it will be an also-ran in this election. López Obrador’s government will be a very different proposition. It may or may not declare a ceasefire in the local drug war, but it will certainly shake up the Mexican elites.

It will also annoy Washington greatly. López Obrador is promising that all 50 Mexican consulates in the United States will help to defend migrants caught up in the American legal system.

“Trump and his advisers speak of the Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination,” López Obrador wrote just after the Great Distractor’s election.

It’s quite likely that within a year the US intelligence services will be tasked with the job of finding ways to bring him down.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 4. (“Mexico…Bahamas”; and “Cartels…openly”)

Mexican Election

27 June 2012

Mexican Election

By Gwynne Dyer

There’s no point in talking about who’s going to win the Mexican presidential election on 1 July. Enrique Pena Nieto is going to win it. What’s more interesting is why he’s going to win it.

Pena Nieto, the candidate of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is a charming and extremely good-looking non-entity. He speaks no foreign language, has travelled little abroad, and is so ignorant that, when asked on live television what three books had influenced him most, he struggled to name any books at all. Finally, he came up with two: the Bible, and a Jeffrey Archer pot-boiler.

He has spent his entire life in politics, and his timing was good. In 1990 he began working in various local branches of the PRI, the ruling single party that dominated every aspect of Mexican life, and if democracy had not come to Mexico it would probably have taken him a long time to rise to the top. However, twelve years ago, when he was only 34, the PRI lost power after 70 years in office.

The “dinosaurs” who ran the party machine realised that they needed a new approach in the newly democratic environment, and fresh young faces like Pena Nieto’s were just what they needed out front. In PRI’s long march back to acceptability he was one of the standard-bearers, winning the governorship of the State of Mexico (the region surrounding the capital) in 2005.

The standard he bore did not have any stirring political slogan on it, however. Pena Nieto’s entire political pitch, then and subsequently, consisted of promising “projects” – a new road here, a hospital there – to every identifiable group in the electorate. That was all any PRI candidate could do, really, because the party had no serious ideological pretensions.

Sandwiched between explicitly ideological rivals to the right and left, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), all the old-fashioned PRI had to offer was patronage and the pork barrel: poverty politics. That should have condemned it to a long exile from power, because Mexico has been doing very well economically under the PAN governments that have run the country since 2000.

Mexico is the rising star among Latin American economies, with an annual growth rate that now exceeds that of Brazil. And in an economy with low inflation and manageable debt, real incomes have risen as well.

Per capita income in Mexico is now as much as 50 percent higher than Brazil’s. So if Brazilian voters were so happy with the results of President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s eight years in power that they gratefully elected his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, to the presidency in 2010, why have PAN’s twelve years of economic success not entitled it to re-election too?

The answer is simple: President Felipe Calderon’s declaration of war on Mexico’s drug cartels in 2006 has embroiled the country in a bloodbath that blinds both foreigners and its own citizens to the remarkable progress that is being made on most other fronts. At least 50,000 killed in the drug war over the past five years have persuaded Mexican citizens that the country is in an acute crisis.

In fact, Mexico has a lower murder rate than Brazil or Colombia, and less than a third of Venezuela’s. However, the spectacular (and deliberate) savagery of the killings by the Mexican drug cartels has persuaded many Mexicans that they face an acute threat to their personal security, and they are not the least bit grateful to Felipe Calderon for unleashing this horror on the country.

Back in the bad old days when the PRI ran everything, the cartels waged their internal wars discreetly, and they never attacked the forces of the state. There was an unwritten understanding that the government would not hinder their activities so long as they kept a low profile, except for an occasional big drug bust to keep the Americans happy.

In return, the cartels paid off PRI officials at every level and helped to perpetuate the party’s hold on power. It was a grubby arrangement, but not many people got killed and the public slept easily. Then came PAN, Calderon, and the war. A significant section of the public, rightly or wrongly, now believes that the PRI can make the deals that are needed to restore the peace.

It’s probably a bit more complicated than that, in reality. Pena Nieto says nothing about it in public, but he has hired Oscar Naranjo, the Colombian police chief who played a major role in “decommissioning” that country’s cocaine syndicates, as his main security adviser. The impression that conveys to the voters (quite intentionally) is that as president he will make peace with the cartels, not wage a hopeless war against them.

Did Pena Nieto think this up by himself? Probably not. Are the “dinosaurs” who still control the PRI behind the scenes capable of coming up with it? Of course they are; they once did business with the ancestors of the current drug lords.

And would this be such a terrible thing for Mexico? Well, so long as the United States will not permit the legalisation and nationalisation of the drug trade, it’s probably Mexico’s best remaining alternative.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“In fact…country”; and “It’s probably…them”)