Mexico’s Ironic Democracy

June 25, 2009

In early May, while the international media’s concern for Mexico fixated on the swine flu, two events heightened political tensions in the country, as July’s legislative and local elections began to draw near. First, a tell-all memoir called Derecho a réplica (Right of Reply), written by a small-time swindler named Carlos Ahumada, credibly implicated much of Mexico’s political class in fraud, deceit, and venality.

Ahumada, once a public works contractor and occasional fundraiser for the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), ran into trouble in 2003, when it was found that his companies were earning handsome profits for work they never completed, and in some cases never started. In 2004 he had himself videotaped delivering cash to two well-known Mexico City PRDistas, presumably for contractual favors. Both of the entrapped politicians had close political connections to Mexico City’s mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who would later run for president in the highly contested 2006 election.

The entrapment and taping, Ahumada now claims, were masterminded and funded by the ubiquitous former president Carlos Salinas, who traded the tapes to then president Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) in exchange for the pardon and release from prison of Salinas’s brother, who was being held on murder (and many other) charges. Fox, Ahumada claims, then arranged for the tapes to be strategically disseminated. Salinas got his brother out of jail, while Fox boosted the PAN’s chances of beating the PRD in the 2006 election.

López Obrador responded to Derecho a réplica immediately, claiming that Ahumada’s story vindicated his claim of having been a victim of a right-wing “mafia” that was determined to keep him from winning the presidency. He sees the whole affair as a simple personal vendetta. “The objective of the Salinas-Fox alliance,” he told the daily paper El Universal, “has been to destroy me politically.”

Then, soon after the memoir’s publication, ex-president Miguel de la Madrid gave a radio interview in which he accused Salinas, his chosen successor, of criminal activity while in office. De la Madrid, of the once hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), claimed that Salinas had misappropriated a substantial part of the president’s “secret fund” for his personal use; that he had tolerated the Swiss bank accounts and criminal connections of his brother Raúl; and that his family fortune was closely linked to drug trafficking.

An hour after the interview aired, one of De la Madrid’s sons delivered a hand-written note from De la Madrid to the interviewer in which the former president disowned what he had just said because he was old, confused, and unable to separate fact from fantasy. Something similar had occurred in 2005, after De la Madrid casually told a reporter that the PRI had lost the 1988 elections (in which Salinas came to power in a generally acknowledged fraud); a different son delivered the same retraction to the reporter.

In any case, no one has emerged smelling sweet—not Fox, who was willing to grant impunity to an accused murderer in order to keep an enemy from the presidency; nor López Obrador, whose city government apparently did a lucrative business with the corrupt, and corrupting, Ahumada; nor Salinas, who apparently organized Ahumada’s entrapments and, if De la Madrid’s radio interview is to be believed, represents the pinnacle of corruption at the highest level of government.

No wonder attitudes about corruption in Mexico’s public life oscillate between outrage and resignation. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other, and they merge into irony. In the polling leading up to the July elections, about 25% of respondents said they intended to vote only in order to nullify their ballot—an official alternative in Mexican elections, not counted as abstention and presumably not signaling a withdrawal from democratic citizenship. It is nonetheless a sign of deep resignation in the face of a thoroughly debased political culture.

Fred Rosen is NACLA’s senior analyst.


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