MEXICO ELECTION – “The PRI is not dead”

One small-town PRI MP tells this blog what his party needs to do after its historic defeat

As the car horns blared, loudspeakers boomed and thousands of people poured into the Zócalo main square in Mexico City on Sunday evening, Andrés Manuel López Obrador must have been pinching himself. He was president-elect, at the third time of asking, and there was unbridled joy in the plaza in front of him.

The mood in the camps of the defeated, establishment parties would have been funereal. There are high hopes for López Obrador, or AMLO, and there is no way of knowing yet if he will go down in history as a brilliant leader or another scorned and discarded president. What is certain is that he was carried to victory on the back of both direct support for him and millions of protest votes against the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

A street in the town of Jilotepec, north-west of Mexico City, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

25-year-old federal deputy Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, a PRI member of congress from the small town of Jilotepec, about 90 kilometres north-west of Mexico City, thinks though that there is a way back for his party. He admits that this is a “step backwards and a moment of reflection” for the PRI, which governed Mexico in an unbroken period of 71 years until 2000.

Meeting him at the town council offices, we are both offered sugary black coffee before heading to his office. He is young, smart and affable. “We need to remodel our party or we are finished,” he says. “The PRI is not dead. This is actually a good opportunity for us.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, in his office in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

It was remarkable that we were even talking about the PRI still being alive here. It should be in perfect health. Jilotepec is in Mexico State, the country’s most-populous entity, and this is the PRI heartland. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), was born in Atlacomulco, just up the road from Jilotepec. The current state governor, Alfredo del Mazo Maza (PRI), was born in the state capital, Toluca, and is the son and grandson of former PRI Mexico State governors. President Peña Nieto is del Mazo’s cousin. Given all this, Morena’s near-clean sweep of the lower house representatives in Mexico State (winning 42 out of 45 seats) is a stunning upset.

I asked Nogués Barrajas what went wrong for the PRI’s candidate for president, José Antonio Meade, who came third in the race for the top job. The MP lays the blame squarely at the incumbent’s door. Enrique Peña Nieto, the outgoing president, has had some of the lowest approval ratings for any Mexican leader in history, he has been caught up in corruption scandals, and – though he promised to get a handle on the violence – has presided over more than 109,000 murders during his six-year presidency.

Meade, a 49-year-old technocrat who served under PAN president Felipe Calderón as well as Peña Nieto, was an effective administrator but had limited experience when it came to winning elections, the MP told me.

The rejection of the PRI and the political class as a whole was a message that came through clearly from the electorate, I suggested. “We have to call time on distant politics; we need our councillors, MPs and senators to be more like citizens and less like politicians,” Nogués says. “We need to be more sensitive to the needs of the people and AMLO understood this. His MPs go to shops with the voters, they queue at the banks, they wait at the doctors’ surgery just like everybody else.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas in the main square in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

However, the young congressman lamented the tactics employed by AMLO’s party. “The people swallowed a lot of Morena propaganda. We had many excellent candidates – really good and experienced people – and now Jilotepec, for example, is going to have a mayor from Morena with absolutely no political know-how.”

But isn’t a change exactly what the people wanted? The PRI has had 77 years in power since 1929; surely that was long enough to show the people the party could govern in a trustworthy manner, I put to him.

“We have many doubts about an AMLO administration. When the expectations are so high, the disappointment hits you so much harder.”

Do you not think that despite worries over any possible disillusionment with AMLO the voters are simply tired of establishment parties and endless corruption scandals, the seemingly uncontrollable violence and the scarring inequalities, I asked him.

“Look, I congratulate Andrés Manuel. I like his personal style,” he says. “A change of parties is good for Mexican politics. I think Morena is here to stay as a political force. We now have a chance to demonstrate that the PRI can change – here in Jilotepec and throughout the nation.”

The Church of St Peter and St Paul in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As he drains the rest of his coffee, he appears more conciliatory.

“AMLO has a great responsibility to carry out the promises has has made to the people but a bad president is bad for the country. If things don’t go well for him, Mexico as a country will hurt and feel the effects. Nobody wants that. I applaud him.”

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MEXICO ELECTION – “I will not fail you”

A progressive landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

It was a spectacular night for the veteran left-winger, finally landing the top job after two previous presidential defeats. For the first time in 89 years, a party other than the centrist PRI or conservative PAN has control of the country, and it is a 64-year-old progressive at the helm.

López Obrador took a decisive 53% of the presidential vote, driving home his campaign polls advantage and leaving his two main rivals biting the dust. His party, Morena – which has only existed formally since 2014 – also played its part by winning five state governor races, the coup of the Mexico City mayoralty and heading for a major influx of MPs and senators in parliament.

A mother and daughter attend Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election night victory speech in Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As the realisation dawned on the Mexico City population on Sunday evening just what was happening – that the bubble of the established parties had truly been burst – thousands of AMLO supporters flooded the city’s central Zócalo square.

One of the main drivers behind AMLO’s overwhelming results has been the large numbers of protest votes, or votos de castigo, cast by millions of Mexicans fed up with corruption, violence and the gap between rich and poor and his supporters honked horns, flew flags and cheered in a combination of disbelief and hope as Latin America’s second-biggest economy toppled entrenched interests and establishment parties with a powerful, progressive left hook.

Crowds leave the Zócalo square in Mexico City after AMLO’s victory speech, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

MEXICO ELECTION – Rivals concede, AMLO on course

Victory is all but confirmed for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

There was to be no stopping him this time. After two defeats in presidential elections in 2006 and 2012, the exit polls released after voting ended made very ugly reading for  Ricardo Anaya, representing the leftist-rightist coalition and José Antonio Meade, standing for the governing party. Both of them have conceded and congratulated AMLO on his historic victory.

MEXICO ELECTION – Anger at lack of ballot papers

Anger among people who could not vote due to an insufficient number of ballot papers

Joel, 28, an engineer working in automation in the city of Houston in the United States, happened to be in Mexico renewing his visa and tried unsuccessfully to vote at the special polling station. He and his wife, Linda, 29, were incredulous that not enough ballot papers had been printed and that there had been no official guidance from the electoral authorities, meaning their six-hour wait in the queue to vote had been in vain.

Two unsuccessful voters show what number they were in the queue to vote / Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / ©rosscullen.co.uk

Blanca Góngora, a 55-year-old lawyer from the northern city of Monterrey, said she was “just angry – simply angry” that she had been turned away from voting. She had been hoping to cast her vote for the independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, also know as El Bronco.

One couple from the state of Querétaro, 35-year-old Gilberto and 27-year-old Dani, were disconsolate at the thought of being turned away. For them, education was the most important issue in the election and it was “just horrible” that they were not going to be able to vote.

The special polling station where this blog reported from in the video above was located near the city’s main railway station, and lines streamed around the block, totalling many thousands of people, all from different states across Mexico, as you can see below, in what would ultimately be a futile attempt to vote.

As the news filtered through that the polling station was going to be closed because there were not enough ballot papers, the queue dispersed and the crowd divided – some left and simply gave up; others demanded answers as the mood soured.

MEXICO ELECTION – Third time lucky?

The probable victory of populism south of the border

Mexico presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Abrader presents his manifesto in Mexico City, November 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

On Sunday 1 July, more than 80 million Mexicans go to the polls in a sweeping election, the biggest in the country’s history. There are 3,416 posts up for grabs, from local positions at state level, through MPs and senators, all the way up to the presidency itself.

This is a crucial election for an embattled country. There are a number of major domestic and international issues at play, including (but not limited to):

+security – there were a record number of murders in 2017, making last year the bloodiest 12 months in Mexican history

+the country’s relationship with the Trump administration – all the candidates have rallied against the proposed border wall

+migration – Central American migrants often face discrimination, extortion and killings in Mexico long before they reach the US border

When it comes to the top job, there is only really one candidate on the pitch.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the runner-up in 2006 and 2012, has seen his big poll lead from early in the year become a truly enormous advantage as the election approaches. One poll on Wednesday, from the business newspaper El Financiero, puts him 32 points ahead of his nearest challenger. Even looking at the average surveys from multiple sources, he has at least a 20-point lead.

López Obrador, known across Mexico by his initials as AMLO, said on Wednesday that he hopes that this will be “his last campaign” after the two previous defeats in presidential elections. He ran in those campaigns for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution but this time he is on the ballot representing the party he founded in 2014, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration). He is standing on a loosely-defined manifesto, speaking out against governmental corruption, calling for a possible amnesty for low-level criminals and urging caution over energy reforms that opened out the sector to private investment.

The business community likes these reforms and they are also pleased about a planned new airport for the capital – an idea that AMLO wants a second look at. There has been unease among business about the impending victory of a man they fear as populist, left-wing and statist.

However, there are the opposite worries among his supporters. The election coalition he has formed has seen MORENA tie up with the anti-abortion, conservative Social Encounter party – not a natural fit with AMLO supporters. Moreover, MORENA has outgrown its social activist and left-leaning stripes to become a catch-all party, with many defectors from the rightist National Action Party (PAN) and the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In fact, much of the swelling support for AMLO is not direct backing for him, but rather a protest voto de castigo from an electorate furious over corruption and violence.

The two other leading presidential candidates are trailing in the wake of the AMLO powerboat. Ricardo Anaya is lying second at the moment, and he is running for the strange coalition of PAN (conservative) and PRD (socialist). Behind him is José Antonio Meade, who is standing as the governing party candidate.

Anaya is young and polished but his campaign has been hamstrung by internal divisions in the PAN with former first lady Margarita Zavala quitting the party early on and going it alone as an independent candidate, though she has since withdrawn. And the coalition with unlikely bedfellows the PRD adds another fragility to Anaya’s position.

The outlook is even worse for José Antonio Meade. Handpicked by the outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto to represent the PRI, a deep dissatisfaction with the governing party, several government corruption scandals – added to Meade’s undeniable ties to the last two administrations (he served as finance secretary under both the PAN’S Felipe Calderon and current PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto) – leave him tarnished as a member of the disliked elite.

All of this paves the way for López Obrador to sweep the board on Sunday, with MORENA set to do well in the lower and upper house elections too. If he avoids a shocking upset and wins the top job at the third time of asking, it will be a fleeting moment of joy for AMLO. Overseeing his unwieldy coalition, sorting out a stumbling economy, trying to rectify a growing migrant crisis and working out how to deal with with a belligerent counterpart to the north will force him away from the woolly rhetoric and out into the open; for decades an opponent from the sidelines, he will now have to prove that he is indeed capable of doing the job he has coveted for so long.

This blog is in Mexico, covering the election from the capital, Mexico City

El Búho’s ‘Balance’ – review

Balance opens like a springtime morning, with “Coro del Amanecer” nudging the door ajar to let in the light of birdsong.

It moves gently to add layered beats, the coming or going of footsteps, the tinkle of water and Veronica Valerio’s echoing voice. By the time we get three minutes into the song, we are up to full strength, but this is a soft power which fades to end.

The record is El Búho’s first full-length offering and, going by this example, there will be many people chomping at the bit for even more.

El Búho (‘The Owl’) is Robin Perkins, a British producer who has become something of a sensation in the folktronica scene. He has now moved back to Europe after a productive spell in Mexico, where he explored the country’s indigenous music, traditional instruments and – especially through the rivers, forests and sounds of the deep south – the overwhelmingly natural beauty.

It is the integration of natural elements into his work that makes El Búho stands out. This is not any old hip-shaking and rum-swilling Latin music (as enticing as that can be): this is organic electronica.

It is borne from simple ingredrients: the wash of waves, the calls of birds, the sounds of sunshine glinting through a million trees.

On “Tlacotlan” we hear the chirps of songbirds and the croaks of crows whilst “Ynglingtal” calls to mind sand through your toes against spilling breakers on the beach.

He demonstrates his depth of skill on “Papan” with the layered keys, strings and beats clipping together with nods to glitch-notes here and there.

Three-quarters of the songs are collaborations and El Búho reaches far and wide for his featured artists, from the madness of Cairo, to the floating airs and hills of Bolivia, via Mexican poetry.

The warbling on “Madre Tierra” may not be for everybody and “Brigantes” doesn’t really feel as though it goes anywhere as a piece but overall this is a beautiful record.

Balance is his first album and it drops just as he completes his move from Mexico City to Paris. We spoke to him before he left Mexico and we spoke to him again to find out a little more about Balance and the effect of Mexico on his music.

What’s the next stage for your music? What can you learn from this album?

I have a hundred ideas floating around in my head, going back to music inspired by birds, to music inspired by the folklore of my own country (the UK), making some EPs inspired by the places I have lived, another album. The other thing I would love to do is release a “tapes” or “beats” album of all the many, many unreleased tracks I have sitting on my hard drive! I think I learnt that an album should represent a period in your music growth or in your life. So much time passes between actually making the tracks and releasing them that to you they sound old even though no-one else has heard them! You have to just get to the point of accepting it and being happy with it representing a period of your life but I really think as a music producer you never stop learning and challenging yourself to improve.

Now that you have come back to Europe, which countries are you hoping to take your tunes to next?

Well, I played in Berlin for the first time recently and it was one of the best gigs I have played in a long time. Such an incredible, open-minded, approachable, respectable crowd of beautiful people dancing the night away to 80BPM music! It doesn’t happen everywhere. I will be playing in Spain soon and hopefully the UK for the first time soon as well (kind of crazy!)

And what’s your sense reflecting on the influence that Mexico had on you?

I think it was quite profound actually, going back to Latin America and understanding the incredibly different, complex and diverse context of Mexico, musically but also socially and politically. For my music it definitely opened me up to new ideas, to new histories, to new styles and genres and showed me, yet again, just how diverse Latin America is.

There was a bunch of music I made there on the Tamoanchan and Chinampa EPs and I feel it is pretty different, you can’t put your finger on it. I also always forget that Cenotes, which I kind of see as my breakthrough EP, was written in Mexico as well as most of tracks on the album! I think the other thing was the incredible reception I received in Mexico at shows. I felt a bit like an adopted Mexican to be honest and I’d love to go back and play soon.

What does the future hold for Shika Shika, the collective you run with Argentinian producer Barrio Lindo?

We are astounded by the incredible music that surrounds us. We just put out three beautiful edits of South American folk by our friend, the Argentinian producer Barda, and in a few weeks we are going to release our third compilation to celebrate our two-year anniversary! It is called Eco and it has some absolutely beautiful, killer, slow, deep, textured global sounds on it.

This article first appeared on Sounds and Colours.

What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.

Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.

Mexican stand-off

 

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.