We CAN rise again

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Thirty years ago today an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City. 1985 would mark Mexico’s history forever. The trying days that followed the earthquake would challenge our nation’s ability to regroup and recover. A level of nationwide solidarity that I haven’t seen since, helped us get back on our feet and rise from the rubble. We CAN rise again. #1985 #september #sept19 #mexico #mexicocity #earthquake #richterscale #terremoto #solidarity #society #solidaridad  

 

A Discussion about Lesbian Roles and Depictions in Mexico

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Originally published by Americas Quarterly on Aug. 18th, 2014.

LGBT cyber-activists took to the web last week to publically denounce Mexico City’s 3rd International Lesbian Festival. Through acommuniqué posted on Facebook, nearly 20 LGBT organizations and collectives and around 50 individual signatories condemned the festival as a vehicle for perpetuating misogyny and machismo. They also criticized a number of authorities for vouching for the festival and participating in its organization, including Mexico City Labor Secretary Patricia Mercado and Jacqueline L. Hoist Tapia, who is the president of the Consejo para Prevenir y Eliminar la Discriminación (Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination in Mexico City —COPRED).

It sounds counterintuitive that LGBT groups would oppose an event that claims to support their cause and promote equal rights—and which could not even be hosted in more conservative cities in the country today. So why are these groups opposing the festival?

There are a number of reasons: for one, the festival’s promotional materials include highly sexualized images of women clad in lingerie, and the festival’s agenda includes an event called “The Bunny Party,” sparking comparisons to the men’s magazinePlayboy. Also drawing criticism is the festival’s “coronation ceremony” and a workshop on applying makeup.

In their communiqué, groups opposing the festival write that “while it is fundamental to have cultural, artistic, political and leisure space for lesbians, we find it appalling that these spaces are provided under the basis of gender stereotypes that are misogynistic andmachista. Instead of contributing to the empowerment and freedom of lesbian women from the roles that have oppressed us for ages […] the festival reproduces them with singular joy.” According to the communiqué, the festival’s publicity “only represents white, thin women […]showing women as objects the way male adult magazines would.”

La Tortillería Queretana, an organization that originally participated in the festival, publically bowed out of its scheduled theatrical performance, stating that, “our view is both lesbian and feminist. We are not willing to participate in a machista event.”

Parts of the festival’s agenda seem like they could be consistent with the mission to promote equality and LGBT rights. Events such as the screening of a documentary titled“Lesfriendly,” a soccer tournament, and discussions about workplace challenges and professional opportunities for lesbian women in Mexico could all be interesting or useful to those who might have attended the festival, if not for the festival’s insensitive and objectifying portrayal of women.

Yet the outcry that the festival has generated is also a testament to the progress that Mexican LGBT advocacy groups have made in the recent years in order to get their message across.  The LGBT community in Mexico City and its surrounding cities has clearly built up an effective network that not only promotes LGBT inclusion and acceptance, but also seeks to enforce the guidelines, principles and standards of said inclusion. It is no longer about recognizing the LGBT community’s existence; it’s about being portrayed the way they want to be portrayed and defying traditional stereotypes.

Whether one agrees with the collective or not, the fact remains that these conversations are finally taking place out in the open. Hopefully, this level of activism and social engagement will spread to the rest of the country in the years to come. A cultural transformation, in which Mexicans learn to be more tolerant and respect diversity of all kinds, would help alleviate some of our strongest grievances and obstacles for peaceful interaction.

The No Re-election Taboo is Lifted in Mexico

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “The No Re-election Taboo is Lifted in Mexico“, published on December 12th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

In the midst of a heated national debate on political reform, December 4 marked a milestone in Mexico’s electoral politics, as the upper house of Congress voted on legislation modifying 29 articles in the country’s constitution to allow consecutive re-election for mayoral and legislative positions.

Re-election will go into effect in 2018, and will allow mayors to run for two consecutive terms, while legislators can run for the same position for up to 12 years—though they’re required to run under the same political party they originally ran under. (This raises a number of questions regarding officials running under flimsy party alliances, which come and go faster than the seasons.) The president of Mexico and the mayor of Mexico City will be limited to serving one six-year term, however.

One of Mexico’s most ingrained mottos, born during the Revolution, has been “Effective Suffrage; No Re-election.” Back then, it was understandable that the country would unite under such a slogan, as the revolutionary objective was to overthrow Porfírio Diaz’ 31- year presidential tenure (with only one four-year break from 1880 to 1884).

Since then, however, political life in Mexico has evolved in ways in which allowing re-election could be positive.

On the one hand, the electoral framework has advanced enormously since the revolution. While the Instituto Federal Electoral (Federal Elections Institute—IFE) still has a lot of room for improvement and electoral fraud is far from extinct, the Mexican political system and its institutions guarantee that free elections will take place.

As part of the political reform, IFE will actually evolve into a new institute, the Insituto Nacional de Elecciones (National Elections Institute—INE), which promises to reduce local electoral institutes’ power and supposedly bring training and electoral logistics together under one roof.

That’s apparently the positive side of the story.

The other thing to consider is that elected officials often enjoy a level of impunity that almost invites them to use any number of means at their disposal to fatten their wallets. While print media is relatively effective in denouncing these abuses, a crooked politician rarely ends up behind bars.

Politicians also have little accountability in delivering on promises and providing results. Since there is one shot at a given position, once elected, many try to get as much personal benefit while in office as possible.

The possibility of getting re-elected could change that, becoming an incentive for incumbents to run based on a proven track record of results.

Yet while re-election is a step in the right direction, there are still a number of decisions that need to be addressed for the will of the people to be truly represented in Mexico’s political arena.

Chief among them is the elimination of “plurinominal” legislators, which only serve political party interests and generate an unnecessary and quite expensive payroll in Congress. Plurinominales are legislators who are not directly elected by voters but assigned to lists created by political parties. The number of people who make it from the lists to actual seats in Congress is determined by the proportion of votes the parties receive during elections.

If directly-elected legislators don’t normally feel accountable to the people in their states and districts who voted for them (since they don’t vote according to  their constituents’ interests, but by party bloc), it appears that plurinominal representatives are lucky politicians awarded what some might view as highly-paid vacations in office (senators, for example, are paid close to 150,000 pesos a month—roughly $11,700).

For a number of years now, Pedro Ferriz de Con, one of Mexico’s most influential journalists, has been a leading voice against plurinominales through something he calls“the Revolution of Intellect,” and has collected more than 7 million signatures from Mexicans supporting his fight to eliminate these public figures—but to no avail. Once again, legislators currently debating the political reform have agreed to sidetrack the issue because it does not serve their parties’ interests—and that is not only a missed opportunity, but also another broken promise from President Enrique Peña Nieto’s electoral platform.

The other missed opportunity in the political reform debate is the implementation of a run-off election process—at the very least, at a federal level. I’ve written about this and the reasons to consider this process in the past.

It seems counterintuitive that you need a majority for decisions to pass through Congress but not for a person to be elected president.  Since the IFE was created, there has not been a single president of Mexico elected by  the majority of the citizens he/she leads. There is simply no valid argument to maintain the status quo.

In conclusion: re-election, good. Comprehensive political reform? Not really.

Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform“, published on August 29th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

The first nine months of Peña’s administration have kept the press busy and all of the country’s eyes and ears focused on what will happen next. He’s been characterized as bold, action-oriented and dynamic but clearly, not a team player.

He was celebrated by many (yours truly included) in February when he presented an ambitious and much needed education reform but disappointed just as many after having this effort easily thwarted by militant and disgruntled unionized teachers from the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which has taken Mexico City hostage in the last week to avoid needed secondary laws to enact the reform passing through Congress.

The inability to prevent and the lack of resolve to disperse a non-justified blockage of Congress as well as a blockade of the city’s main arteries—including those giving access to the airport and the Zócalo—has proven once again that political leaders are taking decisions not based on the greater good, the rule of law or the citizenry’s interests, but on a political agenda serviced by interest groups holding more power than they should and unable to cooperate with each other.

Mismanagement of this situation could soon spark violence and create a larger-than-ideological divide. The affected citizenry in Mexico City will only stand so much. In a recent poll by BCG-Excelsior, 52 percent of Mexicans stated that they are so fed up with the CNTE’s irrational resistance to the education reform and their militant actions that they would justify use of public force to disperse the picketers.

And while the teachers take to the streets, both Peña Nieto and the city’s government cower out of taking necessary action because of the political cost it would imply. Mexico City is not the only thing that’s paralyzed because of this—a broken education system puts the nation’s future talent pool at risk.  

The other current hot topic in the president’s agenda is energy reform. As recently described by Christian Gomez on AS/COA, “the proposal includes constitutional changes that would open up Pemex, the 75-year-old state oil monopoly, to profit-sharing contracts and foreign investment.”

This new notion of natural resources no longer belonging exclusively to the nation poses a huge shift in paradigm. Reactions from the nation’s Left include accusations related to autonomy, national patrimony and the role of government vs. private investors in extraction and having access to revenues from one of the nation’s most important sources of income. The opposition understands that PEMEX’s inefficiencies and the plague of corruption need to be addressed but they propose that a problem should not be fixed by creating another one.

One of the most respected voices from the Left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, has recently stated that both PEMEX and CFE (federal electricity company) can become highly productive without having to edit the Constitution and without allowing foreign and/or private hands in the nation’s riches. If national patrimony is challenged due to reforms to articles 27 and 28 of the Mexican Constitution, Cárdenas has warned he would call for nationwide protests and he would even take to the streets along with López Obrador’s Morena (National Regeneration) movement.

Given its current party composition, Peña can easily get approval for the energy reform in Congress but he would be naïve to think that this is the only hurdle he needs to jump and he is doing a terrible job at trying to get public buy-in to this proposal through vague infographics on TV.

If there is possibility for effective energy reform, an open and inclusive debate needs to take place. This topic is not one that his team should be discussing behind closed doors and the hard questions will require real answers, not 20-second TV spots.

Peña’s government has been characterized by a “my way or the highway” attitude which is an easier temptation to fall into than trying to build consensus in a country as complex and fragmented as Mexico. This dictatorial style is only possible because of the fact that PRI has a stellar position both in Congress and in the State governments to push its agenda forward, something neither former Presidents Fox nor Calderón had. However, Peña would do well in understanding that his constituency is not limited to the political parties or even the power elites.

Organized teachers have already proven what they can do in Mexico City given enough motivation. Sparked by national patrimony rhetoric, larger, non-organized social mobilizations could easily flare up in different key cities in Mexico and cause larger havoc. As former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza recently wrote, “these red flags, so to speak, are especially relevant given the influence and disruptive potential of many of today’s social movements. The eruption of mass street protests in Brazil is just one recent example of a government being forced to change direction on a policy initiative and find a way to rapidly and constructively respond to the desires, often inchoate, of a newly emboldened and empowered population. It’s a cautionary tale that begins with frustration and finds expression in mass action.”

Even when theoretically, Peña could powerball his reforms forward, both him and the PRI need to wake up and understand that they cannot be the only voice to determine the nation’s destiny. Vargas Llosa sarcastically called the previous PRI era “the perfect dictatorship” but today’s Mexico will not stand for a return of that so-called “perfect” model. Peña needs to learn to play well with others.

Mexico’s Response to the San Pedro Xalostoc Highway Accident

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s Response to the San Pedro Xalostoc Highway Accident“, published on May 15th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

It was 5:30 am on Tuesday, May 7, when a “full trailer” truck (which can carry loads up to 75.5 tons) transporting LP gas skidded off the Mexico City-Pachuca highway, exploded and caused a horrific tragedy, resulting in over 20 deaths and structural damage in the settlement of San Pedro Xalostoc, Ecatepec.

Initial investigations from authorities have determined that the cause of the accident was human error on the driver’s part. They’ve also stated that both the company and the transport unit involved were registered and verified and met maintenance and security standards. The gas company involved has already declared it will fully cooperate with the government’s investigation and, if deemed responsible for the tragedy, will pay damages.

Unfortunately, for a federal government concerned more with appearances than substance, this is not enough. Vast coverage on national media has urged President Enrique Peña Nieto’s team—through the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Ministry of Communications and Transport—SCT)—to seem like it is on top of things by pledging to prioritize reforms that will prevent accidents like this one in the future, no matter the collateral damage of those reforms.

Anyone who has driven down U.S. and Mexican highways can attest that Mexican highways are inferior and more dangerous. The materials used in Mexico are substandard and make roads slippery. Road development and maintenance are also terrible: highways have too few guardrails, too many potholes, poorly planned intersections, terrible signaling, and sharp inclines on dangerous curves. Many of our highways have tolls, but you wouldn’t know it from their disrepair. Moreover, there is no effective urban planning. In many cases, highway speed limits are set without consideration for residential areas near the road. Houses built within 165 feet (50 meters) of a non-protected high speed highway are normal in Mexico.

But none of these shortcomings, which cause close to 30,000 accidents a year on Mexico’s highways, have influenced the SCT’s populist response to the tragedy. Here’s why: first, mentioning them could be interpreted as an acceptance of co-responsibility in the San Pedro Xalostoc tragedy. Second, addressing these situations is hard work and would demand additional government spending. Instead, the SCT has resolved to revise NOM-12-SCT-2-2008—the norm that allows 75.5 ton trucks to transport goods throughout the country. Revisions to the regulation are expected to be in place by May 31 and will likely prohibit what are commonly referred to as “full trailers” on Mexico’s highways.

If this does happen, the federal government will have made yet another populist decision; common folk hate full trailers. They are a nuisance to drivers and are slow and hard to pass. They are also harder to control and to drive than a normal sedan. Yet, prohibiting the 75.5-ton truck will cause more damage rather than actually solving the problem.

According to SCT, full trailer trucks are involved in 3 percent of registered accidents and 2.2 percent of fatalities on highways. This is partly because drivers of any 75.5-ton vehicle need special training and certifications; on the contrary, the process to get a normal driver’s license in Mexico sometimes doesn’t even require a road test and renewals are done through simple paperwork. Experts drive trailer trucks, amateurs drive everything else.

As the Xalostoc tragedy shows, trailer truck drivers are not immune from having accidents, but the numbers put the frequency of trailer truck accidents in perspective. Outlawing full trailer trucks will not make highways significantly safer.

Moreover, given their cost efficiency, 75.5-ton trailers are used by practically all of Mexico’s large industries to transport raw materials and finished products. Changing NOM-12-SCT-2-2008 could double logistics costs for companies such as Soriana, Bimbo, FEMSA, and others. Companies will only have two options to offset cost increases: raise the prices of consumer-goods and/or cut other fixed costs (financial business jargon for massive layoffs). Neither option is good for Mexicans, but it is unlikely that many will draw the parallel to equate the SCT decision with higher prices and/or layoffs.

The suffering and loss from the Xalostoc tragedy is no small thing. Emotions are high and people want to point fingers. The Mexican people have an impulse to find someone to blame and make them pay; that’s understandable. But to solve the real problems we face, Mexico does not need a government that opts for populist decisions to put out media fires and appease its constituents. It needs a government that creates and implements effective solutions.

At a time when economic slowdown is set to burst Peña Nieto’s miracle bubble, the government should be looking for ways to catalyze industrial growth and performance, not hinder it in exchange for a positive news headline.

A list of articles I published in 2011

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During 2011 I had the honor of writing for Americas Quarterly online blog. They published 19 of my articles. Here are links to each of them. I hope you like looking back on the year through this list. Best wishes for 2012.

López Obrador Shifts Gears at Monterrey Speech

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “López Obrador Shifts Gears at Monterrey Speech
, published on Oct 12th, 2011. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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In an unlikely stop in his pre-campaign trail, Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a quick visit to the industrial, private sector-intensive city of Monterrey last week. This is hostile territory for López, since the state of Nuevo León has not traditionally sympathized with the leftists parties with which he has associated (PRD, PT, Convergencia). His visit gathered around 1,200 middle- and upper-class listeners. Some were supporters, but most were just curious as I gathered from the low intensity of response to applause moments during the event.

His message was somewhat different from his usual populist rhetoric. The radio and TV spots, as well as his speech in Monterrey have all toned down. Wearing a slick suit and tie (as opposed to his usual more down to earth Guayaberas) and talking to the business community, López portrayed himself as a modern leftist, blaming the media for showcasing him as an “enemy of the wealthy.” One of his new soundbites states “I am not against businessmen. I am against wrongfully accumulated wealth.” López is not clear about what he means when he says that wealth is wrongfully accumulated, but he did mention a couple of specific targets as culprits: large media corporations Televisa, Telmex and TV Azteca and the PRI and PAN bureaucrats.

 López accused Televisa and TV Azteca of controlling the news, limiting his exposure and pushing PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto as their candidate in order to maintain control of Mexico. In his words, Peña Nieto is “the candidate of the power monopoly.”

While López is definitely right in saying that mainstream media in Mexico is biased, this bias holds true for both media that love and loath him. In this sense, he is no more a victim of the media than any other politician. He’s just become less effective at wooing most of them. You don’t see him complaining about all the media coverage he used to get when he headed Mexico City’s executive and knew how to play the media’s game.

Moreover, he really can’t blame newspapers and TV for having a tarnished image. Because it wasn’t the media that blocked Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma or kidnapped Mexico City’s Zocalo (Main Square) to install the famous National Democratic Convention after López decided that a majority vote against him meant that someone had stolen the election. At the time he called this “peaceful civil resistance” and in all fairness, he did send out messages to his followers asking them not to fall into any type of provocation that would lead to violence… but creating chaos and blocking business? No problem!

López’ post-2006 election antics were undoubtedly a political mistake. In a poll by EL UNIVERSAL 71 percent of Mexicans disagreed with López and the PRD’s attempt at blocking Calderón from accepting the presidency in the Mexican Congress. Nobody likes a sore loser and everybody hates a sore loser who gets in their way and paralyzes a city. And yes, most people disagree with López creating a fantasy “legitimate government” and taking a monthly paycheck from obscure sources over six years in order to keep campaigning for 2012, making him an intricate part of that “putrid system” he so vocally opposes.

During the recent event in Monterrey, López cynically defended taking a city hostage as a means to control the rage of supporters after “Calderón stole the election.” His pitch is that millions of people were ready to take arms to defend his “legitimate government” so he had to do something. I guess walking away and accepting facts was not in the cards. When did organizing blockades of banks and other businesses—costing a city millions of pesos in damages and commercial transactions lost—and causing chaos in highways and main streets become an appeasement tactic? Fact: in 2006, López showed his rabble-rouser face and most of Mexico didn’t like it, so now he’s changing up his game and telling a different story.

In Monterrey he attacked Televisa, TV Azteca and Telmex of wrongfully accumulating wealth, but he went on to say that they should be allowed to accumulate more of it by letting Telmex enter the TV business and Televisa explore going into VoIP, because “that promotes open competition.” He also said that if he reaches the presidency, he “will not expropriate anything or anybody. What we will have, is more competition.” This is an unlikely sales pitch from somebody who within the first five minutes of his speech called neoliberalism “a policy of greed.”

It is obvious that López is once again trying to reach out to non-hard line supporters and undecided voters from the center-left, center and center-right ideologies, as he claims that the “MoReNa movement” he heads is inclusive and welcomes all schools of thought and creed. During his speech he also called for more efficiency and competitiveness in the energy sector. That’s a real hard sell coming from him. López cannot be the appeasement, open market and competitiveness candidate and at the same time attack economic liberalism and support the legally extinct but still combative SME (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas), one of the main sources of incompetence in the energy sector. Mr. López, you can’t have it both ways.

In his closing remarks, López’ proposals included putting young people to work, combating corruption, better coordination between military and police forces, better coordination between federal and state authorities, and alleviating poverty. All important issues, yes, but do enough people believe that López is the one who would actually solve them? Within the political left, Marcelo Ebrard seems a more likely candidate. And even in the unlikely event of him regaining the people’s trust, López is a little late in the game to shift gears. Plus, his clunker might have taken too big of a beating in 2006 to catch up.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.