A long way to go

The new Mexican president tries to ease himself into an uncomfortable chair

After a five-month hiatus that followed his election win in the summer, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto has finally settled down into the presidency. He has had a busy few days since taking the presidential sash from the outgoing Felipe Calderón. And, just like the election on 1 July, this time of political change has not been free from controversy.

The man at the helm of the Mexican ship is young and claims to be leading his refreshed PRI party out on a new message of national unity and endeavour. But his agenda and the political mystique surrounding the PRI’s comeback have been under scrutiny during the long campaign, the election, the summer interregnum and now the handover of power. Critics say that the PRI is simply an old book that has been re-covered and its return to the top job is like the re-issuing of a booming, controversial tome that once kept all other books out of the shop window and pushed back onto the dusty shelves.

The conservative PAN and their embattled former president were seen as increasingly tired as Calderón’s six-year term was coming to an end. Enrique Peña Nieto has clearly tried to highlight the change at the top by underlining his rhetoric with energetic plans and policy announcements. And, just one day after his inauguration, he oversaw a cross-party agreement to try to overcome the infamous squabbling in Congress. (Even though the PRI retook the presidency, it does not have a majority across the two houses of parliament.) The ‘Pact for Mexico’ saw the three chiefs of the big party beasts (the PRI, the PAN and the left-leaning PRD) agree to work together in three main policy areas: telecommunications; education; and local government finances.

There were serious street protests ahead of and during the handover ceremony on Saturday 1 December. This was nothing new: the president came to power in the face of massive student demonstrations spearheaded by the ‘YoSoy#132′ group and this blog witnessed first-hand the energy of the youth protests which often coupled their anti-PRI heartbeat with a pro-PRD leaning. This time around 92 people were arrested amid violent scenes: police had to fire tear gas to contain protesters who showed their ire at the congressional confirmation of power on a man they see as a puppet for a fraudulent few moving behind the scenes at the top of Mexican society. Stones and firecrackers were thrown, banks and hotels’ windows were smashed and bonfires started in the roads of the capital.

The PRI has had to continue to dampen the ongoing claims that it secured its new election success through the old techniques of vote-buying, smear campaigns and manipulation of the media. But in the summer, after the defeated socialist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a legal challenge to the result, the country’s highest court found in the PRI’s favour and Mr Peña Nieto was free to prepare for his groundbreaking move to the presidency.

But the major national issue that overwhelms all Mexicans and belittles all the legislative changes and electoral arguments is the wave of violent and organised crime that still floods the country. On Sunday, as the co-operation agreement between the three parties was announced, there was a timely reminder of Mr Peña Nieto’s biggest challenge. Nine people were found dead in the northern city of Torreón. In one house, seven men had been dismembered and Chihuahua state authorities found heads, torsoes, arms and legs stuffed in plastic bags; across town another two bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered.

66,000 Mexicans have died and thousands more are desaparecidos after the war that ex-president Calderón declared on the gangsters. Civilians, police officers, members of the armed forces and criminals have all been killed in this civil war. There have been some successes for the authorities (25 of the 37 most-wanted barons have been killed or captured) but the public would like a new way to try to quell the fear of extortion, rape, kidnap and torture that exists across large swathes of the nation. For the moment, the new leader has maintained the deployment of the army and navy on the streets and he has categorically denied that there will be any secret, shadowy handshakes and winks with the gangsters, a tactic his party has been accused of using in the past.

The president may be new but the violence is not. And, in fact, the PRI has never been denied the chance to discuss combative policies to sort out the destruction as it has never fully been beaten out of office. Despite missing out on the last two presidencies it has held on to many state governorships (including Peña Nieto himself in Mexico State from 2005-11) and it too has suffered from the crime: PRI politicians have been threatened and killed.

Mr Peña Nieto has won the hearts of many housewives with his good looks and he undoubtedly won the votes of many Mexicans in the election. But his road to the presidency has not been smooth and the challenges he now faces are not small in number or in scale. He has a long way to go to prove to the country that whilst the Mexican political behemoth may be back, it is a reformed political creature with a taste for fair governance rather than widespread corruption.


Long-grass policy?

Cannabis policy moves in the US and Uruguay re-ignite calls for drugs strategies to be reviewed

Earlier this week the Mexican president Felipe Calderón joined several regional counterparts for talks. One of the topics up for discussion was the possible social implications of legalising the sale and possession of cannabis. The Mexican leader, who has two weeks left in Los Pinos before the handover of power to Enrique Peña Nieto, has spent most of his six-year term waging a brutal and costly war against drugs gangsters in his country. On Monday he spoke of another tactic: legalisation. This is a popular idea in Latin America and former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, along with ex-Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all said legalisation has to be considered.

Another country in the Americas that has thought about scrapping national penalties on the sale and possession of pot is the US – albeit at the moment on a state rather than federal level. On 6 November the vast majority of the United States was focused on a very different set of policy arguments: the tax plans; jobs measures; foreign ideas; and grand-standing of the candidates in its presidential election. But in three (safe Democrat) western states, voters were also going to the polls over the issue of legalising the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington passed the vote whilst Oregon rejected a move to get rid of criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of cannabis recreationally. At a federal level, the United States does not currently favour the national legalisation of pot-smoking but that position is changing in the presidential offices of some of its regional neighbours.

In Uruguay, the government has faced up to the issue of weed consumption rather than trying to deny it or only discuss further penalising it. Montevideo is set to establish a ‘National Cannabis Institute’ through which the state will regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The government has said it is determined to offer what it describes as ‘better quality’ pot than that which is currently bought and sold on the Uruguayan black market. It is a novel way to confront the issue.

Socially, the Americas seem to be driving the global discussion on drugs regulation. But there are still differences from country to country. Unlike Mexico, Uruguay is not fighting a bloody civil war, wrought with the images of decapitated men and women set against a backdrop of hillsides flaming as fields of confiscated cannabis are set alight. To say ordinary Mexicans are tired of the destruction would be an understatement. They long for a way out of the violent mess. Is that exit labelled ‘legalisation’?

Consumption within Mexico is not the issue at hand – but would more wide-ranging reform of the system in the US, particularly on a federal level (or with the compliance of federal authorities to laws passed in individual states) calm the warfare to the south? Gangs would have less reason to smuggle weed into a country where it could be grown and sold legally. Mexican politicians have tried forging secret pacts with the gangs; they have tried to crush them with the civil deployment of the armed forces. They need a new way.

The policy moves at either end of the Americas underline the international dimension to the drugs debate. Could the gangs be defeated through cross-border measures and agreements? Mexico has lost a lot of energy in the war on drugs. Surely the talks hosted by Felipe Calderón this week with the leaders of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica demonstrate that there is everything to gain by closer neighbourly chats: talks over how to deliver a social policy blow to the gangs rather than using bribes or bombs?

MEXICO ELECTION V – ‘I was close to dying too’

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the vote

It is late morning in Jilotepec, a small town 90 minutes’ drive northwest of the capital, and the daily heat is starting to build. The municipal seat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is quiet the day after the end of campaigning but there are still a dozen young activists meeting in cool rooms in the flowery quandrangle. The 10ft outside walls which enclose the courtyard are coated with the names of different candidates, painted brightly in the PRI’s colours of red, white and green. The huge neat letters bellow at passers-by that the men and women of the PRI “promise to deliver” and that “Jilotepec is our commitment”.

Inside the party’s town headquarters I speak with José Alberto May Montiel, who is the secretary for electoral action of the PRI’s ‘New Mexico’ youth movement. At 24, he is my age and dressed casually with a baseball cap on to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. He speaks clearly and calmly about his love for the PRI, the once-dominant party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for more than 70 years until it lost its parliamentary majority and the presidency in 1997 and 2000.

One of the concerns I have heard from Mexicans as the PRI has built had large lead in the municipal, state, governor, parliamentary and presidential polls is that the party that would be put back in power by the people has not changed in its twelve years in opposition. They are fears that it is still the PRI of old, when winks, nods and backhand deals allowed it to maintain itself in power for decades and get rid of any opposition to its one-party rule. José Alberto admits that the PRI of the past “was bad and there was corruption” but he is iron-firm in his belief that the party has cleaned up its image, got rid of all the old problems and has a fresh, youthful team to lead it back into power.

But what will the PRI do when it gets there? José Alberto says the most important issue is to improve the education system and then to get more Mexicans into jobs. And he says this is how Enrique Peña Nieto is going to combat the appalling violence across the country. He cannot find words enough to condemn the policies of outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party (PAN), who deployed the Mexican armed forces to fight the gangsters. The PRI activist assures me that Peña Nieto would use “more subtle tactics, such as educating the people better and providing gainful employment” to tempt the gang members away from a life of crime. But these are long-term policies: what does he suggest now? “There is no immediate solution” he confesses.

He tells me that the government knows where Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán is. The most-wanted drug lord in the world, who heads up the powerful Sinaloa organisation, escaped from prison in 2001 and José Alberto is convinced that the PAN, which was in power at the time, facilitated the laughable prison break in which Guzmán made off hidden in a laundry basket.

He closes by recounting a chilling tale from 2010 when Rodolfo Torre Cantú, PRI candidate for governor in the northern state of Tamaulipas, was shot dead alongside two of his advisers. José Alberto was working on Torre Cantú’s campaign and was travelling in the convoy that was attacked by armed men. He tells me of the frightening ambush and looks at me straight in the eye to say “I was close to dying too that day”. Once again, he is certain that it was not a simple gangster attack and he accuses the police of being involved at some level. His happiness from earlier fades slightly and with a huge poster of Enrique Peña Nieto behind him, his gaze ahead suggests that he realises on a very personal level that size of the task facing his beloved candidate to try to bring some semblance of calm back to the streets of his country. But he is sure that the PRI has changed itself and can change Mexico as well if it wins power again this Sunday.

Hot air or cooling the heat?

Pioneering climate change legislation in Mexico

By Felicia Line

Following the recent approval of a national climate change law by the House of Deputies and the Senate, Mexico is on the road to being the second country in the world (after the UK) to pass revolutionary legislation aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

After more than two years of writing, rewriting and disagreements in the lower house, the law was approved without any amendments by the Senate. All that awaits the new rules now is the signature of outgoing, conservative president Felipe Calderón. It is likely that the new legislation will be officially announced around the time of next month’s G20 meeting in the Mexican Pacific resort of Los Cabos.

The law has received praise for its bold intentions to contribute to international targets of reducing the risk of temperature rise of more than 1.5 to 2°C. As a developing country, but also one of the top-15 richest economies in the world, Mexico is not required as a Non-Annex I country by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to have legally binding targets. The law however does not set any obligatory targets, instead affirming the previously announced voluntary target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% in 2020 and 50% in 2050. These aims take the baseline year as 2000 and are conditional on international financial support.

Compared to its big brother in the north, Mexico is ranked as the 11th biggest emitter in the world, at 1.5% of total global emissions. The US is the second largest polluter after China, producing 18.11% of total greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is estimated that at the current rate of emissions growth Mexico could be the 5th biggest emitter in 2050.

With an estimated 40% of the total population living in poverty, Mexico has gone further than the US in laying out the road map to contribute to mitigating global climate change and putting the country on track to more sustainable development. The law also lays out targets to source 35% of electricity production from renewable energy by 2024 as well as halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation. These targets are hoped to create new jobs in the renewable energy sector, generate savings through energy efficiency measures and direct carbon revenues to rural communities for conserving forests.

Meeting these targets will require heavy international support through carbon markets, financial and technical aid, as well as strengthening local capacities. The effective application of the law at the three levels of government will be the greatest challenge: Mexican legislation is often criticized by academics as being poorly enforced due to ‘European standards with African budgets’.

Within the country, a robust monitoring, reporting and verification of results will have to be strengthened, with better co-ordination between different levels of government and the academic, private and social sectors. Effective transparency and public participation measures will have to be ensured in order to comply with international financing standards and ensure the needs of the people are met. This will be more of a challenge at the lower levels of government, where corruption, nepotism, and a lack of continuity between government administrations are common.

The current proportionally low investment in the education system and Research and Development (R&D) will also have to be scaled up in order to encourage the development of appropriate and sustainable solutions by local talents. Innovation should be led by the academic, social and private sectors and fed into government policy in order to maximize creativity and efficiency.

Meeting the renewable energy goals will also depend on breaking up the monopoly of the National Electricity Commission (CFE) and the National Petroleum Company (PEMEX), in order to allow independent renewable energy suppliers to enter the market. Both state giants will need to reform and restructure their current subsidy systems in order to incentivise energy efficiency and renewable energy production. The law also implies phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, which might raise energy costs and reduce profits for powerful invested interests, displeasing industrial and oil lobbyists.

Luckily for the current government, with national, state and municipal elections looming on 1st July, the daunting task to meet their climate change targets, for now, has been left to the next administrations.

Felicia Line works in Chiapas, Mexico

MEXICO ELECTION I – Back to the future

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog will cover the vote live from inside the country

If the polling situation remains the same then the old political beast, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), will get their man back into the hot-seat on 1 July. There is hardly any electoral evidence or think-tank forecasting to suggest that the presidential landscape will undergo an upheaval (and it would have to be a breath-taking shift) that will shove the favourite, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, off course. As the polls stand, and as they have stood for a long time, the National Action Party (PAN) incumbent Felipe Calderón has low approval ratings (and cannot stand for a second term under the constitution anyway) and Enrique Peña Nieto is racing ahead in first place.

There are three other candidates for the top job but they are floundering away well below Mr Peña Nieto. He is closing in on securing 50% of the votes, putting him securely into the head of state’s residence, Los Pinos, later this year. Pretty much tied for second place are the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota and the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who interchange second and third place and both are on about 25%). López Obrador was the runner-up last time round, in 2006, to Calderón, (by an incredibly small margin, and one which he disputed for months afterwards, camping out in the capital and rallying his supporters). Back then it was the old opposition, the PRD and the PAN, slugging it out for the presidency, having finally ditched the PRI from the country’s leadership in 2000 after 70 years of running Mexico as a one-party state through a mix of corruption, fiddling results and a sprinkling of rhetoric.

But it seems that the nation is looking backwards for its next step forwards. The PRI may have been missing from the top job for the last twelve years but they have always been there or thereabouts in Congress. They have a healthy majority in the Cámara de Diputados lower house heading into the 1 July vote. After two successive presidencies of the conservative PAN, it seems the electorate is ready for a change. And they do not want the PRD man to be the new jefe de estado.  They want the old guys back.

Has the PRI changed? Does it even matter? Josefina Vázquez Mota has not been able to secure the votes of women happy at the chance to give their country una presidenta. That would certainly be a sign of progress, shaking the old scourge of machismo and following many neighbours with female leaders. In fact, it is Peña Nieto who has the lead in women voters, many of whom openly admit being seduced by his dashing good looks rather than his policies.

Finally, there is the PANAL candidate, Gabriel Quadri de la Torre. He knows what his problem is: particracy. He has openly acknowledged his is fighting an uphill contest against the three big parties that tend to gobble up all the votes. He presents himself as a fresh choice for an embattled country but he is wobbling around at the bottom of the polls. Maybe he is too much of an unknown, risky punt for the voters. But then even the liberal PRD are finding it tough electioneering, not to mention former cabinet minister Josefina Vázquez Mota, tainted by links to criticised President Calderón. Maybe the only option then is to go back to what you know: a handsome young man from an old, somewhat less clean-shaven party.

Enrique on the way

In a year’s time Mexico will have a new president and it seems the race to Los Pinos is one man’s to lose

The state governor elections in the year before the Mexican presidential election are often taken as a barometer of public opinion in the lead-up to the crunch vote. The barometer is showing pressure building in two areas and for two very different reasons.

Firstly, the president, Felipe Calderón, is seen more and more as a lame duck leader. Heads of state in Mexico only get one, six-year turn at the top and on 1 July, 2012 his time will be up. His defiant ‘war on drugs’ has claimed more than 35,000 lives since it was launched when he came into office in 2006, his reforms have stalled (notably his education changes) and he has lost his majority in the lower house. Constitutionally, he himself has to leave office. But notably, after 12 years in the presidential residence of Los Pinos (first with 2000-2006 president Vicente Fox and then with Calderón), the National Action Party (PAN) is also heading for the salida as Mexico’s dominant political force.

And returning to the fray will be the country’s political behemoth: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Their likely presidential candidate is the second man under pressure: Enrique Peña Nieto. He was the outgoing governor of Mexico State who was replaced by Eruviel Avila in a landslide win in the elections on 3 July. Free from state politics, he now has a year in which to ram home his growing advantages over his rivals.

Peña Nieto leaves behind a state with many healthy public works projects and many unhealthy crime and poverty problems. But two years ago, in the middle of his term as state governor, nearly everyone I spoke to had already signalled him out as the main man to take on the PAN at the next presidential elections. They were in awe of his photogenic charm and smooth political operating. He has overcome personal tragedy, losing his first wife to a heart attack associated with epilepsy. He has remarried a soap star. He is younger than Calderón and has the backing of the most populous state in the country (Mexico State; population 15 million) and will now set out to win over the rest of the country.

Mexico is ready to be won over; it is ready for a change. The drugs war is making very slow and very bloody progress. The government is tired. In 2000 Calderón’s PAN managed to boot out Peña Nieto’s PRI from office after more than 70 years in power. After eleven years in opposition the PRI machinery is oiled and ready for its presidential comeback. The PAN is seemingly already beaten, going by the Mexico State election results. The PRI now has to see off its rival opposition challengers, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, whose candidate for the presidency may well be the combative and equally smooth Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard. If Peña Nieto can do that, Los Pinos is his for the taking.