The Ominous Shadow of 1988 Hovers Over this July’s Mexican Presidential Election

With 20 Days to Go before the Vote, the Spectre of Electoral Fraud - and Subsequent Repression - Haunts a Nation

By John Ross
Blindman’s Buff

June 12, 2006

MEXICO CITY (June 13th): Driving in from the airport, the U.S. reporter asked the usual dumb questions. In his New York Times Magazine hit piece, David Rieff had just reported that airport taxi drivers were being pressured not to vote for leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the July 2nd presidential election. Was this true?

“On our site, they threatened two drivers if they don’t vote for Calderón (Felipe Calderón, the rightwing National Action Party – PAN in its Spanish initials – candidate) but no one is going for it,” corroborated Hector S., a 36 year-old National University business grad who is forced to push a hack for a living, “How can they do that? Isn’t the ballot supposed to be secret?” the driver asked his passenger but didn’t wait for an answer. “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.” Hector had been an 18 year-old student about to enter the university in 1988 and had joined the protests that followed the Great Fraud with his older brothers.

As the taxi glided to a stop at the light on the wide slum avenue, a ragged youth threw himself gracelessly on the cab’s 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?” The cabbie answered himself again. “This is two countries, amigo. One up there for Calderón” – he pointed to a bank of skyscrapers in the distance – “and the rest of us down here with López Obrador.”

The July 2nd Mexican presidential election is the most pertinent one since the watershed year of 1988 when Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, the nation’s last leftist president (1932-38) squared off against a Harvard-trained neo-liberal technocrat named Carlos Salinas in a contest that pitted the Washington Consensus against the revolutionary nationalism of the Mexican left, an election that would decide the future of Mexico at least up until now.

As it turned out, Salinas and the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the longest ruling political dynasty in the known universe at the time, stole the election and NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was next on the agenda. On July 2nd, Andrés Manuel López Obrador intends to change all that but in Mexico, history is a closed loop, the same boneheaded mistakes and miscalculations are made over and over again, and what happened back then is apt to repeat itself now.

July 2nd is this reporter’s fifth Mexican presidential election but none have ever equaled the high drama of 1988 when the PRI, blindsided by the arrogance of power, failed to see Cárdenas coming and had to steal ballot boxes and burn their contents, falsify tally sheets and crash vote-tabulating computers. On election night July 6th, electoral officials lied to reporters that the system had collapsed and it didn’t come back up for ten days when the free market champ Salinas was declared the winner by 51% of the popular vote. Thousands of voting stations were never included in the final results. No one believed them anyway. Whenever I jumped into a cab in those tremulous days, the driver would laugh and tell me how the people had “chingared” (fucked over) the PRI.

The post-electoral period was a bloody one. Cárdenas’s people went into the streets and Cuauhtemoc tried to control them. I got ten straight front pages for the San Francisco Examiner as Mexico bordered on nervous breakdown.

The Great Fraud of ‘88 was confected by a compromised electoral “authority.” Cárdenas was subjected to lacerating media attack. Cuauhtemoc’s people were set upon by the PRI government, his aides-de-camp assassinated on election eve. But the PRI malfeasance was met with a groundswell from the bottom, the people the color of the earth as Subcomandante Marcos tags them, who rose up against the only party they had ever known and demanded economic and political democracy – and that the pinche ballot boxes be reopened and all the votes recounted. More than 500 members of Cárdenas’s fledgling Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) were killed in political violence between 1988 and 1991. In 1991, the PRI and the now-ruling PAN voted to destroy the evidence and burnt the ballots.

For many veterans of that terrible time, the shadow of 1988 casts itself ominously over July 2nd. For one thing, the maximum electoral authority, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which grew out of the debacle of 1988 and which comported itself with admirable equanimity in 2000 when the long-ruling PRI was deposed from power by Vicente Fox, seems once again to be a creature of ruling party interests – only this time around, the ruling party is the PAN. Time and again in the run-up to July 2nd, the IFE and its gray-faced president Luis Carlos Ugalde have come down hard on Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as “AMLO”) while condoning Calderón’s dirty tricks.

Item – Ugalde forbade López Obrador from traveling to Los Angeles when he was invited by that city’s first Mexican mayor since 1842 to deliver the Grito of Independence last September because, in the IFE director’s judgment, the trip would violate new laws on campaigning in the U.S. PAN president Manuel Espino was subsequently greenlighted by the IFE to canvas California.

Item – the IFE winks at the intervention of non-Mexicans in the presidential campaign so long as they are working for Calderón – Spain’s former right-wing prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and his media hit man Antonio Sola, Fox News commentator and “political consultant” Dick Morris – but international observers who might side with López Obrador are warned that they can be expelled from the country under Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution if they interfere in the electoral process.

Item – the IFE allows the PAN to run a blizzard of venomous hit pieces for months attacking López Obrador as a DANGER to Mexico – the big red letters are stamped across the screen – before finally pulling the plug under court order.

“All that seems to be missing is that the system collapses” Luis Cota, a veteran of ‘88, sourly chuckles when the two of us bump into each other on the night of the Great Debate June 6th in the cavernous Zócalo plaza where the PRD would show the face-off on the big screen to tens of thousands of militants, almost all of them, as always, the color of the earth.

For months, the hit pieces have flickered across the tube, sometimes four to a commercial break. Lopez Obrador’s pugnacious mug intercut with such boogiemen as Hugo Chávez and Subcomandante Marcos, the police riot at Atenco, a brutal lynching in the city’s southern suburbs, the city itself collapsing into dust. Lopez Obrador is a PELIGRO for Mexico!

Inciting the “voto del miedo” – the Vote of Fear – ran up big numbers for Ernesto Zedillo in 1994 after the Zapatistas had risen in Chiapas and Salinas’s hand-picked successor Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in Tijuana. The message hasn’t been lost on Calderon’s handlers who have invested millions of Yanqui dollars in the TV onslaught.

The “presidenciales” mean big bucks for Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, Televisa and its junior partner TV Azteca – about $1.3 billion USD in primetime spots by the time its all done. From the campaign get-go on January 19th when it broadcast Calderón’s kick-off live, Televisa has tilted to the PANista and attacked López Obrador, sometimes showing AMLO in herky-jerky frames with lots of spooky music to accentuate the DANGER. Back in ‘88, Televisa and its star anchor Jacobo Zabludowsky, then staunch PRIistas, gave Cárdenas the same treatment.

One reason for the bias in 2006: Fox and the PAN put on a full court press in the Senate this April to pass what is called here “the Law of Televisa” that lets 40-year concessions for the entire electro-magnetic spectrum to the two TV titans.

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 them emanating from the Social Development Secretariat (SEDESO) and vaguely suggesting that the checks might dry up if Calderon is not elected president. Former SEDESO secretary Josefina Vazquez Mota is Calderón’s right-hand woman and a Calderón brother-in-law installed a SEDESO system that contains the names and address of every recipient of the ministry’s largesse during the Fox administration. Fox’s efforts to bribe the poor with checks and social programs on Calderón’s behalf rival the PRI in its prime.

As an interventionist president, Fox’s brash grandstanding for a Calderón presidency (the codewords are “economic continuity”) is unparalleled in the annals of Mexican presidential campaigns. Although both the PRD and the PRI have gone to court to force Fox to cease and desist, the nation’s attorney general (a Fox appointee) claims no jurisdiction to initiative an investigation and Ugalde’s response is limited to feeble hand wringing.

The PAN-PRI putsch to beat back López Obrador, who led the presidential pack by as much as 18 points for 30 months before sliding under Calderón hit pieces, reached fever pitch in 2005 when Fox and the unctuous PRI standard-bearer Roberto Madrazo joined forces to try and bar López Obrador from the ballot (the “desafuero”) – and even to imprison him for the heinous crime of trying to build an access road to a hospital (he was enjoined by court order). But 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 last April 24th , the largest political demonstration in the history of this republic.

Before there was the “desafuero”, the PAN and the PRI had tried to hang López Obrador with a series of videotapes secretly shot by a crooked construction tycoon pissed off at AMLO for denying him city contracts. On the tapes, Carlos Ahumada appears to be bribing PRD officials but the “bribes” were legal tender for a party election. The videos, aired over and over again on Televisa and TV Azteca throughout 2004 never touched López Obrador and, in fact, strengthened his lead for the presidency.

Then, on the eve of the June 6th (6/6/6) debate when for the first time AMLO would confront his tormentors, the imprisoned Carlos Ahumada, in classic 1988 style, announced that his wife would distribute new videos testifying to López Obrador’s corrupt moral values at High Noon the next day.

At allegedly 6:10 AM that morning, a beige bullet-proof Suburban allegedly carrying Cecelia Gurza, Ahumada’s annoyed-looking wife, her three children, and her rogue cop chauffer, was allegedly raked by gunfire as it allegedly 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 diminishing AMLO’s debate victory that night. Now there were bullets in the campaign, Madrazo, in third place and way out of the money, tsktsked. Calderon’s brain trust prepared new poisons. Meanwhile Ahumada’s lawyers called off distribution of the new videos and Presidential spokes Ruben Aguilar decried the muzzling as yet another López Obrador plot.

But to Mexico City district attorney Bernardo Batiz, the whole deal smelled bad. Even the street video camera that recorded the scene had been disabled. In fact, Mrs. Ahumada and her chauffer stand accused of shooting up their own car. Shades of 1988.

Despite the deluge of fear and loathing – the Ahumada shooting, the horrific police riot at San Salvador Atenco, the murder of two striking steelworkers in Michoacan all designed to induce the “voto de miedo” – López Obrador went into the 666 debate neck and neck with Calderón, 35-35 in most newspaper polls. But polling is not a serious business in Mexico – most of the capital’s 20 newspapers are controlled by parochial political interests and the parties pay to have their own polls published as the Gospel Truth.

Samples are skewed towards the middle class and up. All polling is done on the phone and a lot of AMLO supporters are too poor to have one. Mitofsky Associates, whose guru Roy Campos is contracted by Televisa to feign neutrality in 2006, is notorious for making this mistake. In 1988, the pollster reported that Carlos Salinas had a 25 point edge on Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas. Despite such egregious errors, the pollsters are in command in this election and their prognostications may well dictate the results.

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. The PANista tried to look authoritative but looked more authoritarian, “tough on crime” with the “mano dura” (“hard hand”), robotically thrusting his index finger at the camera, frenetically fending off AMLO’s insinuations that he was the candidate of the rich.

AMLO, on the other hand, is the candidate of the poor – “The Poor First!” has been his campaign cry from day one. That’s what this campaign has always been about: rich vs. poor, white vs. brown, the bottom vs. the top. López Obrador is sworn to do something about the yawning divide that puts 70,000,000 Mexicans under and around the poverty line while an infinitesimal clique of fat cats swill champagne from silver goblets.

AMLO’s detractors, most prominently the Zapatista mouthpiece 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 multi-billionaire Carlos Slim, the third richest man in the world.

Looking positively presidential at the debate and not at all the red-eyed devil of danger that Calderón excoriates, Andres Manuel was calmly passionate in his commitment to “los de abajo”, pledging to defend them from the depredations of Calderón and the neo-liberal elites. We’ll se about that later on.

So López Obrador won the Great Debate hands down although the pundits were reluctant to concede it and given that there are a lot more poor Mexicans than Calderón’s fat cats, he should bring home the bacon on July 2nd if he is not assassinated a la Colosio ‘94 before that date or cheated out of victory like Cárdenas in ‘88.

Although Mexico’s electoral process is said to have moved on since those bad old days, the shadow of 1988 darkens this election. If indeed AMLO is denied victory, his people, like Cárdenas’s, will not believe he did not win.

There is generalized conviction amongst the pundits that the presidential election will be very close, decided by 100,000 or less votes out of a probable 42 million (53% of the electorate) to be cast July 2nd. If the IFE awards Calderon victory, AMLO’s supporters – with or without AMLO (a gifted street protest leader) – will hold what before NAFTA “modernized” Mexico’s electoral process, used to be called “the second election in the street.”

Back in 1988, the anger of the “jodidos” (the underclass) was palpable and got away from Cárdenas. The National Palace was firebombed, highways were blockaded, government offices invaded. PRIistas death squads stalked the city and Salinas sent in the military. Luis Cota and I went to a lot of funerals. Francisco Xavier Ovando and Ramon Gil, close collaborators of Cuauhtemoc, were gunned down just a few blocks from the Zocalo. That’s the part Luis remembers most.

“Ovando and Gil” I sighed. We stood on the edge of the great plaza as the debate was about to begin and eyed the dark thunderheads pushing up from the south of the city with suspicion. “Ovando and Gil” Luis sighed back. “Ojalá compañero that it doesn’t happen again.”

John Ross is in Mexico City waiting to see how it all turns out so that he can write the epilogue to “Making Another World Possible – Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006” to be published in October by Nation Books.