Saturday | March 01, 2003
South of the Border
The Washington Post has a pretty good story today -- buried back on page A14 -- about the problems Bush is creating for his Mexican amigo, Vincente Fox. And by problems, I mean crushed testicles.
In the end, Bush not only could destroy Fox's presidency, but conceivably might restore power to the PRI -- the corrupt political party that ruled Mexico with a quasi-dictatorial fist for more than seventy years. Another triumph for Operation Democracy!
For those of you who, like about 99% of all gringos, don't pay much attention to America's most populous neighbor, let me give you the short (or at least medium) version:
The PRI was created by the generals who won the Mexican revolution in the early 1920s, after they destroyed the real revolutionaries, guys like Emiliano Zapata. (Whom, in a rather stunningly ironic gesture, George Bush Sr. later named his oil company after.)
The PRI's platform could best be described as: Hold on to power by any means necessary, but try not to shoot too many people while doing it. For most of the 20th century, Mexico was a "soft" dictatorship, a kind of gigantic version of a Chicago ward in the days of Mayor Daley (the father, not the son.)
To prevent the kind of fratricidial struggles that led to the revolution, the PRI invented a system called "tapadismo" -- the veil. PRI Presidents served one term only, but got to choose the own successor, who was then "elected" by the people. The PRI bought elections with the usual machine tactics -- patronage, bribes, threats, etc -- and when that didn't work, stole them. But it usually worked and over the years the PRI became the government and the government became the PRI.
It's easy to knock it now, but the system brought Mexico better government than it had ever known before. No coups -- the army stayed out of politics and the politicians stayed out of the army. Repression was kept to a minimum. The press was semi-free. An opposition party, the PAN, was tolerated -- even if it did play the Washington Generals to the PRI's Harlem Globetrotters. By Latin American standards, Mexico was a success.
A big prop under the system was the PRI's fierce (if often fictional) defiance of the Giant of the North, a.k.a. the USA. The PRI gained enormous prestige in the '30s when it nationalized the Mexican oil industry. And during the Cold War, Mexico kept its distance from US foreign policy -- maintaining friendly relations with Castro's Cuba, for instance.
But, like most oligarchies, the PRI decayed over the years, and in the '80s began to fall apart. The left wing of the party revolted and put up its own presidential candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the guy who nationalized the oil industry. In the 1988 election, Cardenas shocked the PRI (and probably himself) by appearing to win. The PRI had to suspend the count (citing the usual "computer glitch.") When it resumed, the PRI candidate was safely ahead.
Still, it was easy to see the PRI was living on borrowed (or stolen) time. So the "winning" candidate, Carlos Salinas, set out to reform it, along with the moribund Mexican economy. He recruited a group of young, U.S.-trained economists to help him. NAFTA was one result; the collapse of the PRI was another.
NAFTA fueled an import binge but also a financial crisis. Salinas, who was monumentally corrupt (well, duh) got busted, along with his brother and good part of the Mexican banking system. The PRI split again -- with the young economists ("the technicians") on one side and the old bosses ("the dinosaurs") on the other.
By 2000, the Mexican people had had enough, and -- deprived of the usual "computer glitches" -- the PRI lost its first presidential election. Fox, the PAN candidate, took office.
Now the PAN is an odd duck: pro-church, pro-business and pro-American in a country that is mostly none of those things. (the Catholic Church was strictly regulated by the PRI, and like the army, kept strictly out of politics). The PAN is also the party of Northern Mexico, which is (by Mexican standards) rich, while most of the voters live in Southern Mexico, which isn't.
To get around all that, Fox relied on his personal charisma and the general popular disgust with the PRI. He recruited some surprising allies, like Jorge Castenada, a former fire-breating Marxist radical turned foreign minister (the Joschke Fischer of Mexico.) Castenada surprised everybody when he backed Fox, and surprised them even more when he started steering Mexico towards a pro-American foreign policy line.
But Mexico has a lot of problems and the PAN doesn't have a majority in the Mexican Congress, and pretty soon Fox was in deep political doo-doo. It didn't help that Bush basically blew him off on an incredibly important (for Fox) issue.
Fox had made a big deal about how his pal Bush was going to help get Mexicans get better treatment under U.S. immigration law. But of course, after 9/11, that particular promise died a hasty death. Which was probably inevitable, but Fox felt Bush had broken his word. It seems Shrub lies in Spanish just as easily as he does in English.
Now comes this little squeeze to Fox's gonads. Bush is putting him in a position where he either has to piss off Mexico's economic masters, or piss off his own people by looking like what every Mexican leader has tried to avoid looking like for the past 70 years: A gringo stooge.
Whether the PRI can take advantage of this to claw its way back into power is unclear. The party is just as corrupt and thuggish as ever, but almost totally disorganized. Fox's implosion might do more to boost Cardenas -- the left winger who almost knocked off the PRI in 1988. He's much more credible as an anti-American nationalist, although reportedly not too competent as a leader.
Still, it's amazing what the scent of power can do to a bunch of corrupt but out-of-office politicians. I wouldn't be surprised if the PRI manages to pull itself back together and take on Fox. And if they win? Well, I bet those election computers could use an overhaul. Wouldn't want to take any risks, right?
To paraphrase an old saying: "Pity poor Mexico -- so far from God, so close to George W. Bush."
Posted March 01, 2003 11:31 AM | Comments (22)