Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The problem with Mexico: 25 theses

The problem with Mexico and especially with Mexican elections is that:

  1. Due to poor design, mistakes of key functionaries, or lack of legitimacy, institutions remain weak.
  2. Candidates, party leaders, and key functionaries of the federal and local governments in charge of the institutions, the federal electoral authority (Instituto Federal Electoral) included, dismissed painful recent experiences emphasizing short-term goals over long-term aims.
  3. The election, especially the TV and radio ads, became a mudslinging contest.
  4. The intensity of the attacks plays now a key role in preventing agreements among the political forces.
  5. To think that “such is the modern way of a democratic polity” is misleading and appears as an ad-hoc response of the PAN to justify what was a witch-hunting campaign against López Obrador.
  6. The TV and radio, overwhelmingly owned by private corporations, emphasize their own political agendas over their commitment with truth and the free flow of opinions.
  7. Despite improvements in the literacy rate, the readership of newspapers and magazines is low.
  8. Access to Internet is heavily biased by income distribution.
  9. Numbers 4 through 8 limit our ability to communicate with each other and to reach agreements.
  10. That is why for a large number of people, the evidence presented by the IFE and the media about the July 2nd election is hard to believe.
  11. That is also why many Mexicans are willing to embark in vast social mobilization to challenge the outcome of the election.
  12. Recent efforts to improve access to electronic media, via community radio stations, have been blocked by the new laws regulating the media, one of the few reforms passed during the Fox administration.
  13. Mexico is one of the most unequal countries in a region (Latin America) known by its awful patterns of income distribution. Income distribution inequality was not invented by López Obrador and it is not true that we need to grow (more) before distributing the wealth.
  14. Party and congressional leaders have been unable to reach agreements to introduce a major tax reform to address income distribution inequality.
  15. Big business owners are unwilling to support reforms to address income distribution inequality.
  16. Blaming Andrés Manuel López Obrador of preaching “class struggle” is just a partial truth.
  17. Another partial truth is blaming Fox for not addressing the structural sources of distribution inequality or to label him as a puppet of big business.
  18. Another partial truth is to blame the PRI for these issues.
  19. However, the three major parties in Mexico have played a key role in preventing, at different points in time and for selfish and opportunistic reasons, tax reforms to address income inequality and to release some of the social pressure created by it.
  20. López Obrador needs to realize that his motives are not transparent and are not equally perceived by all the political actors in the country. For many of them he is using these features of Mexican reality for selfish purposes.
  21. Most of these failures and the source for so many partial truths come from the fact that candidates and party leaders have little or no incentives to reach agreements to confront the issues at hand, as there are much more incentives to prevent agreements.
  22. A weak presidency combined with a strong federalism, as in contemporary Mexico, makes harder for candidates and party leaders to reach agreements and hampers the chances to consolidate democracy.
  23. There is little or no interest among the political elites to talk about possible changes to presidentialism.
  24. The only option presented so far to address the maladies of presidentialism, that of ballotage or a second round of presidential elections, have had negative outcomes in other countries in Latin America.
  25. Right now, the best hope for Mexico is the Judiciary. However, a deep paradox exists there as the Judiciary was an institution heavily attacked by Andrés Manuel López Obrador during his run as mayor of Mexico City.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Mexico, Deep in the electoral labyrinth

July 2, 2006 will go to the annals of Mexican history as the night that never ended.

After more than seven decades of relatively smooth and predictable transitions from one government to the next, Mexico found itself confronted, heavily divided, and with little or no chance of a smooth solution in the near future.

The best case scenario, as things are now in Mexico, is that populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador will acknowledge what appears to be an extremely narrow but consistent defeat to share the spotlight as opposition leader with other figures of Mexican politics.

However, the chances of such “best case scenario” are slim to none as Mr. López is known for his confrontational style and, more importantly, by his emphasis on mobilization politics. Not only that, even if he was willing to acknowledge he will have to deal still with many of his supporters who are far more radical and confrontational than him.

That is why it is hard to think about a possible easy way out of the current impasse in the Mexican election.

It is true, the Preliminary Electoral Results Programme (PREP, by its acronym in Spanish), has been reporting a slight advantage for the conservative candidate Felipe Calderón Hinojosa since the closing of the election booths. The advantage has been going from less than .50% to little more than 1.2%, and by Monday’s afternoon it was of little more than 300 thousand votes.

Tight rules
However, given the tight rules of the Mexican electoral laws, the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, was unable to declare a winner and had no confidence on its own numbers to officially declare advantage to any of the candidates. His president, Luis Carlos Ugalde, a young political scientist with little or no practical political experience, appeared twice on Mexican radio and TV to congratulate the workers of the federal electoral authority, while asking the parties and their candidates to avoid what ultimately happened.

In the absence of official numbers, the IFE decided to wait, giving both López and Calderón a chance to be declared by their parties as winners. To make matters worse, the leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the party that dominated 70 years of Mexican politics, decided not to acknowledge the numbers provided by the PREP.

Mariano Palacios Alcocer, a former president of a small public university and former governor of Querétaro, asked Mr. Ugalde to avoid declaring a winner on July 2. It will be hard to believe that Mr. Palacios Alcocer had the political muscle to force something like that. Mostly, because the PRI’s candidate, a former governor of Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, had the worse performance of any PRI presidential candidate ever.

What was clear, however, is that neither Mr. López nor Mr. Calderón had the trust in their own numbers to go out and declare themselves winners. When they did so, both appear nervous. Mr. López’s fiery rhetoric was out, while Mr. Calderón appeared on TV sweating heavily, unable to spark his own plug. Both cited their own exit polls as sources, but at the same time, both lacked the spirit that shaped their performances during the electoral campaign.

Extra Bandwidth
During Monday morning and early afternoon, Mexico has been possessed by the need for extra bandwidth to keep PCs connected to the PREP’s various mirror websites where we were able to see how the data from each of the country’s electoral booths were transmitted to the IFE’s mainframe to be displayed, almost in real time, in thousands of PCs all over the country.

As much as the PAN was able to win both houses of the Congress, its candidate advantage over Mr. López never went beyond the 1.0%, probably in any other country that will be enough to settle the score of an election with a robust 59% turnout.

However, in a country marred by deep and wide social divisions, one of Mr. López’s favorite campaign topics, the rather slim margin of victory of Mr. Calderón, has prompted all kinds of conspiracy theories.

These theories find fertile ground, among many other reasons, because of the many shenanigans marring Vicente Fox’s term, most notably, his rather ludicrous attempt to promote Mrs. Fox, his wife, as his successor.

But also—and this is very important to take into consideration—because of the perception that even before election day there was a rather robust agreement among the political and entrepreneurial elites to prevent Mr. López from becoming President.

Many of the most important Mexican private firms in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey allowed for the participation of their employees in “seminars” whose main purpose was to “prove” the kinds of risks that electing Mr. López implied for the rather weak Mexican economy.

Not only that, many of the largest firms exerted their own kind of veto by signaling their reluctance to invest in Mexico if Mr. López was elected. The message, however, was not powerful enough to prevent a strong performance of Mr. López, the best ever for a candidate of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática.

Mr. López fueled these concerns by launching bitter attacks on key leaders of the Mexican entrepreneurial elite. Most noticeable were his critiques against the former owner of Banamex, Banco Nacional de México, the eldest Mexican bank which ended up its independent life when US based Citibank swallowed the Mexican bank in a heavily contested buyout.

This issue was particularly sensitive as later it was discovered that Roberto Hernández, one of the former owners of Banamex, was able—thanks to Mexican hole-ridden tax laws—to avoid paying any kind of tax on the huge profit that he pocketed.

Naïve Politics
López Obrador was naïve enough to assume that his bitter accusations against Hernández and many other Mexican fat-cats were going to be forgiven or forgotten by the Mexican entrepreneurial elite; one of Latin America’s more organized and sensitive to any such criticisms.

Not only that. As much as López Obrador was hitting soft-spots in the relation between Fox and key Mexican businessmen, he had a rather obscure relation with several local entrepreneurs in Mexico City. Riobóo, a local builder in Mexico City, was awarded several uncontested, unpublished contracts. Also, key members of López’s party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party were involved in a video-scandal starred by Carlos Ahumada, another local builder, who handed out undisclosed amounts of US dollars to Lopez’s underlings.

Ahumada has been in a local Mexico City jail for the last two years, following a rather anomalous process that involved being deported from Cuba where several sources claim that Mr. Ahumada was “squeezed” by Fidel Castro’s underlings. It is not clear where is the “juice” of such squeezing, but the Cuban government has acknowledged that it impounded several videos taped by Mr. Ahumada himself, where political and economic operations were recorded in painful detail.

What is clear, then is that as much as Mr. López’s criticism of the wrongdoings of the Mexican business elite are perceived by many as legitimate, his own record is far from clear.

The Desafuero

Not only that. It is necessary to acknowledge that the episode of the “desafuero,” a rather arcane process, similar to an impeachment in the US political system, by which the Mexican Congress retires the immunity that high-ranking officials of the Mexican Federal and local governments have, also prompted all kinds of criticisms against Mr. López.

Mostly because he used the powers of Mexico City’s mayoralty to mobilize media, unions, students, and the elderly (whom were benefited by a bold program of universal pensions providing little more than 60 US dollars to each person older than 65), to support him in challenging both the Congress and, more importantly, the Judiciary.

The episode took Mr. López to the peak of his popularity in Mexico City, but sparked broad concerns in other regions of the country, as they were seen as the prelude to a new wave of populist politics in Mexico, bringing back—with the help of the media—bad memories from the 1970s and 1980s and, more importantly, linking the Mexican election with other elections in South America, particularly with Venezuela and Bolivia.

Those memories played, months later, during the heat of the political campaign, a key role in PAN’s mudslinging media campaign presenting Mr. López as “a treat,” and/or as the inheritor of presidents Echeverría and López Portillo style of politics.

In the end, Mr. Fox intervened blocking the accusation brought by the Judiciary against Mr. López, leaving the whole process in a politico-judiciary limbo that strained even more his government’s relation with the Revolutionary Institutional Party, a key supporter of the proceedings to stripe Mr. López from his immunity.

In the end, the election was extremely tight. Mr. Calderón was not as attractive as a candidate as his own party, in similar fashion to Mr. Madrazo, while Mr. López out-performed the coalition of parties supporting him.

If nothing changes in the coming hours, Mr. Calderón will be president and he will have weak but consistent support in the House and the Senate of the Mexican Congress. That will give Calderón an edge that neither Mr. Zedillo nor Mr. Fox have had in recent Mexican history, as both were confronted by powerful parliamentary groups of the PAN and the PRI, respectively, unwilling to collaborate with them.

The PRD will be confronted with the demons of the rather loose coalition created by Mr. López, while the PRI, heavily wounded by his presidential candidate poor performance, will remain a key player in Mexican politics, although it is almost impossible for it to avoid a deep reform.

Otherwise, if Mr. Madrazo remains in charge with no sign of a deep ideological and organizational reform, the PRI will delude rapidly through alliances with some of the other parties.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Mussings on the Mexican Election

With less than one week before the presidential election in Mexico, the dust begins to settle as the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has sent his first conciliatory message. His message of conciliation and willingness to prevent post-electoral conflict comes as some kind of surprise as the media campaigns in Mexico reached a new low in the relatively short history of open electoral competition.

The message reflects, on the other hand, the fact that López holds a small but consistent lead in almost all the polls taken before the poll-curfew enforced by the federal electoral authority in Mexico, the Instituto Federal Electoral.

Despite this change, it is necessary to emphasize that the Mexican election confronts unexpected challenges. The most important of them come from the Southern state of Oaxaca, where Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Teachers’ Union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, decided to support long-time critics of her within the union itself as a way to “get even” with the presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, Roberto Madrazo.

Ms. Gordillo is still, nominally, a member of the PRI. Moreover, she was elected as General Secretary of the PRI at the same time that Madrazo was elected president of that party.

However, differences in the relation with the Mexican Federal government, and more specifically with Vicente Fox, broke the feeble alliance between Madrazo and Gordillo. Since then, Mrs. Gordillo has launched a series of attacks on Madrazo that included the creation of a new party, the Partido Nueva Alianza, who was expected to capture at least 1 million votes, as that is the number of members of the Teachers’ Union.

Despite such assumption, Nueva Alianza appears in most polls as unable to gather the minimum 1% of the overall vote to keep its registration.

The conflict in Oaxaca has deep roots as often times the local section of the Union has confronted on several issues the leadership of Mrs. Gordillo, however, at this point they found themselves in a situation in which both Mrs. Gordillo, the raucous local 22 of the Teachers’ Union in Oaxaca, and several former governors of the state hold—for different reasons—grudges against the current governor, Ulises Ruiz, and Mr. Madrazo.

This is more important, as Oaxaca is a vital reservoir of votes for Madrazo and the PRI, so preventing a relatively smooth evolution of the election in this state means trouble for Madrazo and the PRI at large, as they really need the votes from Oaxaca to boost their performance.

The key problem for Mrs. Gordillo, however, is that his election is showing how fragile is the hold that the old union leaders in Mexico have over their members and grass-roots organizations.

In recent days, as an example, the leader of the Confederación Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, decided to publicly express his support to López Obrador, a rather shocking development as the CROC has been a union relatively loyal to the PRI. So loyal, that the leader of the CROC in the Southern state of Yucatán rejected his national leader’s commitment, committing his own support to Mr. Madrazo.

As it is frequently the case in Mexico, the intensity of the conflict in Oaxaca has been overstated by the Mexican national media and by the international media paying attention to it, as both follow their own strategies of “news building.” However, it will be foolish to assume that there is no potential in the current conflict in Oaxaca to go out of control, specially now that the local 22 of the Teachers’ Union has increased its visibility, as it was able to force the creation of a commission seeking to establish some form of dialog between the state government and the union’s leaders.

It is interesting to stress the role that one of Mexico’s few representatives of the Liberation Theology, Bishop Arturo Lona will have, as his involvement in the solution of this issue appears as a sequel of that of the Catholic bishops during the conflict and talks in the neighboring state of Chiapas.

The risk, of course, in those kinds of scenarios is that, as in Chiapas, opportunistic "leaders" as Rafael Sebastián Guillén, aka Subcomandante Marcos, will try to seize control of the social movement to subordinate it to his larger agenda.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

The Mexican Hot Summer

On July 2, Mexico will elect President, members of the two houses of the federal congress, and an assortment of local officials in states such as Nuevo León, Jalisco, Sonora, Morelos, Chiapas, and the country’s capitol city, the Federal District.

The election has been on the making pretty much since the end of the 2000 election, mostly because of the ability of then recently elected mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to position himself as a “natural” candidate to succeed Vicente Fox.

Not only that, Mr. Fox’s presidency was marred from the very beginning from a series of shortcomings. These shortcomings were connected, on the one hand, with the novelty of the whole process. After all, it was the first president elected from a party other than the Revolutionary Institutional Party in 70 years.

There was too the issue of the lack of experience of Fox himself and key top officials of his administration, such as the former secretary of the Foreign Office Jorge G. Castañeda and the former secretary of the Interior, Santiago Creel. In addition, it was possible to notice the tensions and stress created by the constant interference of Marta Sahagún de Fox, originally the spokesperson of the Presidency and later wife of Mr. Fox. Finally, it is important to stress the role played by the very flaws in Mexican institutional.

Here it is important to notice that it is there, in the shared fascination with the presidential regime where most of the problems associated with the performance of Latin American democracies exist. However, with the exception of specialized journals and textbooks on Latin American politics, there is little about the role that such flaws have.

In Mexico, those flaws were tamed by the extra-legal powers of the presidency during the years of dominance of the old PRI. Sadly, many of the reforms pursued by the De la Madrid, Salinas, and Zedillo administrations actually undermined the power of the Presidency, without compensating with similar changes in the relations between the Executive and the Judiciary and, more importantly, between the Executive and the Congress.

The Presidential Curse

Consequently, the Mexican presidency as most of its peers in the Western Hemisphere has little or no way to build winning legislative coalitions. Consequently, the ability of the Executive branch to pursue its own goals is greatly reduced and it is forced to operate within the narrow spaces allowed by the Legislative’s branch ability (or lack of it) to reach agreements.

The phenomenon has been discussed in detail in other entries of this blog as it explains many of the misfortunes of Latin American polities, especially those related with the never-ending conflicts between the presidents and their congresses that are at the core of the endless succession of weak presidencies in countries such as Ecuador or Bolivia.

Moreover, in the cases of countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, with a rather strong federal design, the governors create an additional source of tension that fractionalize power and greatly reduces the ability of the Presidency to pursue its agenda.

These flaws in the Mexican institutional design contributed to create a climate of growing confrontation with the Congress. On top of it, it is necessary to emphasize the role played by Andrés López Mexico City’s mayor, who right from the very beginning of his administration did as much as possible to differentiate and to compete with President Fox.

While Fox was having problems transitioning from candidate to President, for López there was no real change, as he designed his administration as a six-year electoral campaign for the presidency. To do so, López borrowed many of Fox’s moves during his own run as governor of the state of Guanajuato, with the relative difference that López remained for the most part in Mexico, while Fox engaged himself on a very active international agenda.

One of López’s key moves was to develop early during his term as mayor a vast network of supporters whose main commitment was to him and not to López’s Party of the Democratic Revolution. In doing so, López was able to alienate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the founder and “moral leader” of the PRD who unsuccessfully ran for the presidency in 1988, 1994, and 2000.

Besides building the network of support for his candidacy, López launched what amounts to a bloodless pogrom against Rosario Robles Berlanga, his predecessor in the city’s mayoralty. The pogrom against Robles is still going, as Robles’s former lover and financier, Carlos Ahumada Kurtz remains in one of the city’s prison.

López’s campaign faced a major roadblock when a series of mistakes from underlings at the city’s government detonated a judiciary process that could have been defused by López himself. However, being the greedy politician that he is, he saw in the confrontation with the Judiciary, and more importantly with the Supreme Court, a chance to present himself as a nation-wide champion of those affected by Mexico’s flaw ridden judiciary.

The Desafuero

Fox, his National Action Party, and the Revolutionary Institutional Party actually went through the painful process of retiring the constitutional immunity that López, as any other governor, representative, and senator in the country has. However, after gathering enough votes in the House of Representatives to remove the immunity, Fox decided not to pursue the case.

Fox’s decision was one more of a string of shortcomings when dealing with key issues in his relation with the other branches of the Mexican government. Moreover, it prevented any possible agreement with the leaders of the Revolutionary Institutional Party who had been fighting a series of small skirmishes with Fox and his party.

The outcome of such confrontation was the inability of the Mexican government to pursue any meaningful agenda, but more importantly, it provided López with broad support for his cause.

As the confrontation with López was developing, Fox was unable to prevent an avalanche of criticism against his wife, her Vamos México foundation, and—more important—against Mrs. Sahagún de Fox’s sons from an earlier matrimony.

In the first stages of this conflict, Mrs. Sahagún de Fox remained actively involved in the day-to-day management of Vamos México while keeping open a possible run for either the presidency or Mexico City’s mayoralty for her. Mr. Fox’s presidency resented the effects of the confrontation and even the leaders of the National Action Party expressed concern with such possibility, as it will open the flood of increased criticism for Mr. Fox, while undermining the credibility of the 2006 elections.

In the end, there was no candidacy for Mrs. Fox de Sahagún, but for the most part the damage was done, as a congressional committee was formed to investigate the operations of several firms owned by Mrs. Fox de Sahagún’s sons. The committee is still working and so far, it has been possible to unearth a series of questionable practices that have been heavily publicized in the Mexican media.

Meanwhile, by the end of 2005, Mr. López was elected as presidential candidate of the PRD. Roberto Madrazo, a former governor of the Southern state of Tabasco, was nominated by PRI, after his rival, the former governor of the State of Mexico, stepped out of the primary due to a tax evasion scandal.

Finally, the ruling PAN nominated Felipe Calderón, a short-lived secretary of Energy of the Fox administration, as its presidential candidate in what was a major blow for Mr. Fox within the PAN itself.

Currently, after heavy negative campaigning from both PAN and PRD, the election is—depending on the poll used—either a three-way or a two-way tie between the candidates, and it is hard to think that any new poll will provide more insight into the possible outcome of the election.

López has centered his campaign on promises of harder laws to prevent tax evasion while increasing the role of the government as provider of key goods and services. He has offered also a major tax cut for Mexicans earning more than 500 and less than 900 US dollars a month.

Similar offers have been made by Madrazo and Calderón, who is second in the most recent polls, although they lack the Robin Hood-like approach that is the trademark of López’s “messianic” speech.

Moreover, several political commentators and analysts of Mexican politics, most notably Héctor Aguilar Camín and Enrique Krauze, consider that López’s campaign and attitudes leave little or no room for his eventual, and still possible, defeat on July 2. If that is case, they assume, the country will go deep into a period of political mobilization whose consequences are hard to foresee.

On top of the uncertainty, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that the election has been affected in recent weeks by the reemergence of rumors of imminent treats of fraud. More importantly, it has been affected by the reemergence of Rafael Sebastián Guillén, aka “Subcomandante Marcos.” After leaving Chiapas, he is now the surrealist self-appointed leader of an ghostly movement who is doing every thing within his power to magnify and capitalize minor and marginal regional movements as a way to present them as part of a large movement to introduce radical changes in Mexican politics.

The Mexican election remains, less than two weeks before the actual vote, an open game. There is little or no indication of what the future may bring to a country that has been up until now an oddity of stability a relatively good mixture of economic and political reforms in an area marred by instability, coups, and the worst income distribution patterns in the world.

Something that we do know at this point is that neither the PRD nor the PAN will be able to control the Congress. It will be once again the PRI the party on control of the Congress. If that is the case, then it is possible to assume that Mr. López's or Calderón's presidency will be marred by many of the same problems and tensions that affect other presidencies in Latin America and the United States.

As the election approaches, I will be posting more frequently in my Spanish-speaking blog México desde fuera, where you can find more information on the current election.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Football (and any other Sport) as a Metaphor

This week and the next four, the world outside the United States devotes itself to the unique quadrennial experience of the Football World Cup, something that not even the Olympics, much less other sports, are able to match.

The wave of the World Cup affects not only the 32 national teams participating in the finals at Germany, but almost all the countries of the world, with the relative exemption of the United States(paradoxically enough one of the 32 teams participating at Germany) and Canada.

The reasons of the US disinterest in football (soccer for them) lay deep within the isolationist doctrine that populist politicians imposed as a worldview in that country back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Such worldview was matched by the development in the US of powerful leagues of professional baseball and the heated disputes (often times violent) between the owners of the two main leagues (National and American) and those of competing circuits (Federal) which ultimately were prevented from participating in professional baseball.

The prohibition, issued by the Congress, grants one of the very few monopolies that exist in the United States and has been since its inception the source of interest for economists, political scientists, and sociologists interested in analyzing the evolution of those professional leagues and, more specifically, the role that governments have in shaping not only the practice of professional sports, but—generally speaking—the practice of any sport.

Sports and Government Intervention

The protection granted to baseball guaranteed during several years a special position for the sport, despite its racist practices reflecting the reality of many communities across the United States, where racism was alive and kicking despite the Civil War and the efforts of Abraham Lincoln to put and end to slavery, hiding behind the doctrine of “equal but separate.”

Such doctrine existed even in baseball. Besides the two “major” leagues and the complex network of “minor” leagues developing “talent” for the “majors”, it was possible to find the so-called Negro Leagues, where players of African American and Afro-Caribbean ancestry “were allowed” to play.

In Latin America it is impossible to find something similar when thinking of any given sport practiced in the region. No government has granted similar monopolies to any professional sports league and, despite some bouts of racism plaguing the histories of the professional leagues in Peru, Brazil, and other countries with sizeable populations of persons of African ancestry, sports has played since the early 1930s, a key role in the development and evolution of the nation-states, the so-called “imagined communities.”

However, if one analyzes carefully some of the histories of success and failure in the region it will be possible to observe that one key feature in, let’s say the success of the Brazilian or Argentine football national teams, has been the active (or not) role of the authorities.

At different levels the cases of Mexico and Chile, on the one hand, and Brazil and Argentina, on the other, reflect this reality. While no one would be willing to question the interest (“passion” is the code word that one finds in the Sports from all over the world) of the fans and even the level of sophistication of their professional leagues, neither Mexico nor Chile have been able to come close to Brazil or Argentina when one thinks of success.

Moreover, sadly enough the fortunes or misfortunes of the teams playing the World Cup provides fertile ground for the emergence of all types of fatalistic, providentialist, and racist “explanations.”

The “Green Mice”-Cachirules Generations

In Mexico, as one of many possible examples, up until the late 1980s and early 1990s it was possible to find references to the so-called “ratones verdes” or “green mice,” a metaphor developed out of the desperation and exasperation that caused in Mexico the elimination from the World Cup played in the (then) German Federal Republic in 1974.

Mexico was coming from a rather good performance (for Mexican standards) during the World Cup played in Mexico in 1970, so there were all sorts of expectations and hopes about the possibility of becoming a regional football powerhouse in the North, Central American and Caribbean Football Confederation.

However, Mexico was humiliated in the qualifiers to the World cup played in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city. Four years after the painful performance in Haitian fields, Mexico was able to qualify with relative ease for the World Cup hosted by the military regime in Argentina in 1978.

The Mexican team was assumed to be a major contender after the Olympic selection was able to win, in an odd decision, with Brazil the Gold in the Pan-American games celebrated in Mexico in 1975. Many of the players in the Olympic team (especially Hugo Sánchez) who won the gold in the Pan-Am Games, during many years Mexico’s best feat, went to Argentina.

Sadly enough, Mexico was crushed in the first round. First Tunisia, then West Germany, the ruling World Champion, and finally Poland. The Mexican team received 12 goals and was able to score only two (to Tunisia and Poland) in what has been probably the worse record for a Mexican team in the World Cup. After the humiliation in Argentina, things were still far from any improvement. Not only that, the self-defeating nick-name of “Green mice” came to summarize both the performance of the Mexican national team and, up to a certain extent, the overall attitude of many Mexicans when thinking about themselves. For the tournament in Spain (1982) Mexico was unable to qualify.

In 1986, Mexico found itself with the chance of being, once again, the host of the World Cup. With no need to go through the qualification process, the country was able to concentrate on developing a consistent team under the guidance of Velibor Milutinovic, one of the most successful coaches in the national league with the Pumas of the Universidad Nacional team. Successful especially when thinking about the development of new talent and in achieving titles in the local league.

The Mexican team ended sixth, after a painful tie with Germany that was solved with a series of penalty kicks. Despite the relative success of the Mexican team in that tournament, things went even worse before improving.

For the Cup played in Italy, in 1990, the Mexican Football Federation reached one of its all-time lows when its chairman, Rafael del Castillo, was found responsible of registering players with fake certificates of birth and fake IDs for one of the juvenile tournaments organized by FIFA. The episode came to be known as the “cachirules,” a slang term used in Mexico to depict a crooked situation.

Del Castillo was forced out as chair of the Mexican league in the middle of a scandal fueled by the pressure of the then State-owned TV corporation Imevisión (Instituto Mexicano de Televisión) exposing the corruption plaguing the relation between Femexfut and the Mexican TV giant Televisa.

After the “cachirules” episode a process of change and adjustment in the Femexfut started but it is clear that despite the more stable performance of the Mexican national team in the tournaments held in the US in 1994, France 1998, and Korea-Japan 2002, and more importantly in the regional tournaments in North (Golden Cup) and South America (Copa América), Mexico still lags behind Brazil or Argentina when it comes to the performance of their national teams and the ability of the countries to produce football cracks.

Football, Fascism, and Populism

If one considers Argentina’s or Brazil’s football history it will be possible to find a completely different account mostly because of early and very aggressive interventions of the governments of both countries in shaping, on the one hand, the institutional framework regulating sports education and activity since the mid and late 1930s and early 1940s.

For the governments of Argentina and Brazil sports’ promotion and participation became a matter of public policy because, unlike Mexico, their governments found—early in the twentieth century—that there were a series of premiums to their involvement in this activity.

It is not out of coincidence that it was at that time that the fascist governments in Germany and Italy were colleting the fruits of their interventions in the school system favoring a more active role of physical education activities. In Germany’s case, the roots of such activities existed deep in the early and mid nineteenth century, and from there similar programs expanded to other countries in continental Europe.

Italy, as Argentina, and Brazil, found themselves developing these kinds of very aggressive and interventionist programs of physical education within the contexts of the emergence of Benito Mussolini’s fascism, the Conservative Restoration of the military governments during the 1930s in Argentina, and the populist regime of Getulio Vargas in Brazil.

It is not a coincidence that even if Mexico was living also its own populist or national-revolutionary experience with Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, in Mexico there was no real emphasis on developing aggressive programs of physical education tailored after the models in place in Germany, Italy, Brazil, or Argentina.

Moreover, in the case of Argentina it was possible to observe independent and earlier developments as byproducts of the explosive rate of European immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the concomitant expansion of civil rights of the governments of the Unión Cívica Radical.

These developments put athletic and sporting clubs at the center of processes of political mobilization that increased the interest of politicians in promoting the development of strong athletic traditions. This happened, among other reasons, because it was in there, in nurturing those athletic traditions were local political leaders emerged despite the gentrified and British titles of many of these organizations (as in the case of Gimnasia y Esgrima or Newells’ Old Boys).

Mexican "Exceptionality"

In Mexico, on the other hand, the early evolution of sports and more specifically of football was less dependent on the intervention of political leaders. Moreover, unlike Argentina, Brazil or, for these purposes, the rest of Latin America, where the only sport that allowed for the development of professional leagues was football, in Mexico it was possible to find as early as the late 1920s, despite the consequences of the Mexican Revolution, strong traditions of practice of baseball (as good as to beat twice the star-filled team of the United States in the first Baseball World Classic), and other sports such as boxing and wrestling that followed, as in the case of football, baseball, and even American football (another oddity in the Latin American context), independent paths of institutionalization and in some cases of professionalization, without the intervention of the State.

Of course, in Argentina and other South American countries it is possible to find also strong traditions of practice of rugby and even cricket, but they did not allowed for the professionalization of the sport as in the case of football or as in the case of baseball in Mexico.

It is in this important distinction between Mexico on the one hand and Argentina and Brazil on the other, where it is necessary to find the reasons that explain the differences in the performance of the three countries in the World Cup. This is more relevant when one takes into consideration the fact that despite the apparently low level or organization of the Mexican football players, the Mexican league pays higher salaries than most of the leagues of the Western Hemisphere.

This is not to say that in Mexico there has been no attempts of intervention of the public sector in sports promotion or organization. As early as the 1930s it was possible to find attempts of the Mexican government to intervene in the sector, but these attempts were not as organized as those carried by their Brazilian or Argentine colleagues.

The trademark of the intervention of the Mexican government has been, up until Vicente Fox’s support to the bid of Guadalajara to host the Pan-American games, to provide the kinds of supports necessary to host tournaments. With the games to be organized in Guadalajara in 2011, Mexico will be the only country in the region to host those games for the third time.

Moreover, it is the only one to host the Olympics, and the only one in the region to host the Football World Cup twice. It has hosted several times the Central American and Caribbean games and other international competitions such as the Universiada or World University Games.

Here is noticeable that other Latin American countries have tried to be hosts of the Olympics, and yet the International Olympic Committee has been unwilling to favor their proposals.

Structural reasons, Racist Excuses

Regardless of the outcome of the World Cup, when talking about the differences in the performances of countries with strong football traditions it is necessary to take into consideration the structural reasons that explain the differences in the performance of the teams.

“Explanations” as those spurred after the “Green Mice” generation shed little or no light on the issues at hand. Quite the opposite, they blur behind a curtain of inverse racism the true reasons behind Mexico’s “failure” in World football competitions and they converge in a rather explosive combination with other self-deprecatory “explanations” of Mexican “failure” as the epithet about the “raza de bronce” (bronze race) as a way to talk about the difficulties that Mexican athletes face to achieve more than third places (or bronze medals) in international competitions, connecting it with the coloration of the skin of large groups of Mexicans.

Moreover, those kinds of explanations blur also the deep regional and class divisions that explain in Mexico attendance and/or practice of different sports. Among the first type of divisions, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that in many cities in the Northwest and Southeast of Mexico (Hermosillo and Mérida, among others) football is second in the hearts and minds of their inhabitants after baseball, and that for many generations now in large urban areas such as Mexico and Monterrey (where baseball is also very important) football competes with strong traditions of practice and attendance via TV of American football.

For many young urban males from the middle and upper classes, football expresses at different levels all that is wrong in Mexico, while American football, a sport deeply connected with what the United States represent and requiring heavy public or private investment in training facilities, equipment, and medical services, expresses better than any other sport their desire to overcome Mexico’s backwardness.

Such fixation with American football (good enough for the National Football League to take pre-season and regular season games to Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium) reflects deeper class- and race-based cleavages, frequently blurred by double standards when dealing with issues of race and national origin: highly critical of racism in the United States and yet very discriminatory of foreigners (as in the case of Ricardo Antonio LaVolpe, the Argentine -born coach of the football team) and of Mexican Indians.

The paradoxes grow deeper, because as much as many in the country remain—at least until this Sunday morning—skeptical about LaVolpe’s role as national coach mostly because of issues of national origin (see as awful examples of it Hugo Sánchez’s trashing of La Volpe on the grounds of national origin and alleged sexual preference) many Mexicans also find comfort in rooting for the Brazilian national team as soon as the national team is eliminated in international competitions.

On a personal level, I rather stay with the “flawed” Mexican model of minimal or no governmental intervention on the field of professional or high performance sport. I think that it reflects the true nature of the authoritarian but non-ideological regime that existed in Mexico from 1929 until 1997.

However, it is almost impossible to observe how, ultimately, the lack of interventionism on this issue could play a significant role in explaining the legitimacy deficits that the Mexican polity confronted since the late 1960s. This is even more relevant when one takes into consideration not only the stories of success in football coming from Argentina and Brazil, but also the case of Cuba when it comes to baseball and other sports.

The three countries have been able, at different points in time and with different strategies, to use the successes of their national teams in different sports and international competitions to compensate for similar or even worse legitimacy deficits that those happening in Mexico after the 1960s.

The problem, of course, is that as profitable as the investment in sports programs and facilities is, questions exist regarding the legitimacy of diverting public investment into sports programs.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Alan García or the Ultimate Latin American Paradox

This Sunday Peruvians will finish the process to elect a new President for their country. The two finalists in the second round of the election are the former President Alan García and Ollanta Humala, a rather unknown leader of marginalized groups in the Peruvian countryside who follows, for the most part, the recipes of confrontation and radical mobilization that helped Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

The latest polls showed García as the frontrunner in a heavily contested election that has been deeply affected by Venezuelan interventionism and, strangely enough, by the ability of García to gather unexpected expressions of support from those who, few years ago, were his fiercest critics.

Public figures like Mario Vargas Llosa, who lost in a similar runoff to Alberto Fujimori back in 1990, and many others have expressed, one way or the other, their support for former President García.

The fact that they are doing so is not so much an expression of belief in García’s proposals or because of “happy memories” associated with his presidential term. Quite the opposite. They express one of Peru's most dramatic and painful paradoxes.

To stress the very nature of the paradox, it is interesting to hear Hugo Chávez throwing at García similar darts to those thrown at García by Vargas Llosa and other figures of the Peruvian national scene back in the 1980s.

Chávez's bitter depiction of García as “a thief” and responsible of one of the worst crisis in Peruvian (and Latin American) history is, for the most part, accurate. It reminds me of the kind of things that people said of García at the end of the 1980s, when Mr García left an exhausted Peruvian economy, and a country at the brink of civil war.

At that time, I was a junior editor in the International Desk at Mexico City’s Excélsior, then the largest newspaper in Mexico, and I read with a sense of both awe and pain the reports of both Excélsior’s correspondent, the envoys, and the wires from the Associated Press, EFE, Xinhua, and France Press.

Not only that, I was a subscriber of the Mexican literary and critical magazine Vuelta, whose director was no other than Octavio Paz, a close friend of Vargas Llosa and my pundit, at a time in which, because of my age, my personal views on the region were developing. Vuelta supported, of course, Vargas Llosa's bid, although I still remember how disappointed was don Octavio because, in his mind, Latin America was about to loose one of its brightest writers.

Also, a few years later, I was lucky enough to have in one of my courses a student of mine a beautiful and very inteligent Peruvian student, Vanessa, who gave detailed depictions of what it was for her, as a teenager, to grow up in a country thorn by Civil War, hyperinflation, and the (mis)deeds orf irresponsible politicians as Mr García.

I was hoping for a victory of Vargas Llosa. He was unable to win, and instead Fujimori-san took over as President launching very aggressive policies to curb inflation, as at some point at the end of the García era, it was spiraling beyond the 3000 percent mark yearly, something only surpassed by the even worse situation in Brazil and Argentina. (For an analysis of those years in Latin America click here).

Fujimori led a bloodless auto-coup d’Etat, mercilessly killed guerrilla partisans, forced the resignation of the country’s Supreme Court and Congress, and, more importantly, was able to bring some sense of order to the Peruvian markets, going through a painful renegotiation of the debt with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Peru’s renegotiation was harder than others in Latin America, because by the end of his term, Mr García decided to withhold the payments of his country’s debt while launching a desperate diplomatic blitz to gather support from other Latin American countries.

García, did so with many of the gimmicks that Chávez does nowadays. I remember a picture of him with a Mariachi hat in the very famous Garibaldi square in Mexico City, singing with a large crowd of Mariachis, his own entourage, and innocent bystanders, after seeeking to secure the support of the Mexican government.

However, as with Chávez, the gimmicks achieve little or no success outside of their countries, although, unlike Chávez, García was a “pobre Presidente de un país más pobre” (a poor President from an even poorer country), so any appeal was made on the grounds of solidarity and the Boliviarian rhetoric that is always used in these kinds of situations. Chávez, on the other hand, has oil and the support of the efficient Cuban Foreign Office to pursue his agenda.

Interestingly enough, the Peruvian citizens, as it is often the case in Latin America, dug their own grave. When confronted with the proposals made by Vargas Llosa (a “shock” plan to bring the economy back in line with an aggressive negotiation with the multinational financial institutions), Peruvians decided to elect Fujimori-san.

Unlike Vargas Llosa the writer, Fujimori-san, the populist outsider, then a bureacrat in one empoverished public college, with little or no political experience, presented himseld as unwilling to perform the “shock” plan that years before Chile and Mexico had performed. Instead, he offered a guilt-free and pain-free solution to the Peruvian crisis…

Of course, he was lying. Fujimori-san, the Peruvian samurai, applied a “shock” plan harder than the one originally proposed by Vargas Llosa and, at least when dealing with the economy and the Shining Path guerrilla, he was very successful. Vargas Llosa went back to writing and eventually became a citizen of Spain, disconnecting himself from the tensions and erosion of partisan Peruvian politics.

As it is possible to see, there are no real reasons to think that Mr García will be the best possible choice for Peru. Moreover, unlike Ollanta Humala, García has been “vetoed” by Chávez, the self-appointed oil emperor of Latin America, unless… No reasons unless one considers Ollanta Humala’s propositions, marred by the same rhetoric and ideas that one finds in Evo Morales's and Hugo Chávez's speeches.

The Peruvian electorate is, to my mind as immature as it was back in 1990 when they chose Fujimori over Vargas Llosa, and that expresses itself in the outcome of the first round of the Presidential election, as much as it expresses on many of the attitudes that distinguish Peruvian political debate. The Peruvian section at Blogalaxia provides a good sample of the kind of excesses that bloggers from that country do when arguing about politics, with more passion for personal insults and attacks and the ever present racial remarks that have marred Peru since its very origins, than with any sense of the kinds of pressures that Peru is confronting.

They are, as in many other Latin American countries, trapped in a "victim centered" discourse of their own misfortunes, unwilling to acknowledge how they have contributed, over time, to build one of the worse case scenarios of what, accurately enough, Chilean sociologist Manuel Antonio Garretón identifies as "regressions from democratic to authoritarian regimes." The other regressions in Garretón's framework are, interestingly enough, Ecuador. Bolivia, and Venezuela.

However, I think that this time around García is the lesser of two possible evils. One hopes that he will succeed not only for the sake of Peru, but also for the sake of Latin American politics at large. The last thing we need at this point is to have Peru as the fourth jewel in Chávez’s crown, although as Vanessa used to tell me, “When it comes to Peruvian politics, you never know.”

PS: I thank David McDuff, authior of One Step at a Time, for encouraging me to update this blog again. I will do my best to do it so more frecuently.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Malvinas Argentinas, but...

One of the open wounds in Latin American history has been since the mid 1800s the British occupation of the relatively small but strategic Archipelago of Malvinas, or Falkland as the British cynical stubbornness insist in calling them. The Archipelago became in the early 1980s the source of an armed conflict that unexpectedly ended the Military Junta rule in Argentina.

Unexpectedly, because the military assumed that by waging war against Britain, the people in Argentina (energized after the victory in the 1978 Football World Cup), would be willing to forget the many human rights abuses. After all, nothing suits better the needs of a weak government, than a patriotic war, as many of George Bush’s decisions attest.

Moreover, the gorillas in charge in Buenos Aires assumed that the political cleansing carried out in Argentina itself against the guerrillas, and the help they provided to the U.S. in Central America by training the counter-insurgency in Central America, were enough to guarantee that the U.S. was going to step aside in the event of a war against Britain. Not only that, the Argentine military assumed that the agreements with the then ruling military elites of other South American countries were enough to secure their support against Britain.

As it usually happens with grandiose projects, they were dead wrong. The U.S. would rather die than breaking away from their alliance with Britain (after all the Cold War was quite hot at that time), Pinochet had too much in common with Margaret Thatcher, and the Central American governments were too deep in their own problems to provide any help to Argentina.

Only Brazil assisted to Argentina during the war, and it was mostly marginal help in the form of information on the movements of the British Navy, and in the form of fuel for Argentine vessels and planes guarding-off the Argentine North-East shore.

Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president reopened the Malvinas’ wound by throwing his darts at Tony Blair’s face after the British Prime Minister criticized the close relations between Venezuela and Iran.

I certainly believe that the Malvinas Archipelago is rightfully Argentine territory and, eventually, the British must leave the islands. However, the question is if in actuality throwing the Malvinas issue to the mix of the Iranian conflict, as Mr. Chávez did, is the best path to secure the return of Malvinas to Argentine sovereignty, especially when one takes into consideration the role that the Venezuelan leader has played in providing some sort of legitimacy to Iran’s nuclear program.

I do not think so. Not only it is absurd to use once again the issue of Malvinas to polarize popular support (whether in Argentina or in Latin America at large) against a real or fictional threat, it is even more when one is doing it by connecting that legitimate claim of Argentina with the ongoing conflict between Teheran and Washington.

Moreover, Mr. Chávez attack on Mr. Blair (who is certainly a puppet of U.S. interests as any other British government would be) comes together with the decision of the Venezuelan Treasury to buy, at the request of its Argentine counterpart, bonds issued for 308 million USD. In doing so, Venezuela has become a key financier of Mr. Kirchner’s government buying since May 2005 2,300 million USD in bonds issued by the Argentine Treasury.

Paradoxically enough, as the Argentine newspaper La Nación reports, the Argentine bonds are in high demand in the Venezuelan market because it is one way that Venezuelan investors have to bypass the tight exchange controls in their own country:

La compra de bonos locales le genera un buen negocio al gobierno de Venezuela, que ya revendió más de US$ 600 millones a bancos de su país que los colocaron entre clientes deseosos de contar con un vehículo de inversión que les permita fugar dólares y evitar los férreos controles cambiarios. Tal vez por este motivo, el ministro de Finanzas de Venezuela, Nelson Merentes, afirmó recientemente que su país compraría bonos argentinos cada vez que desde aquí se lo pidan.

It is noteworthy that the Argentine media did not highlight Mr. Chávez’s request to the British government. La Nación published a brief note on this Friday February 10th edition (page 3) with a picture of Mr. Chávez rallying in Venezuela. Clarín omitted any reference to Mr.Chávez’s cry. Even the leftist and pro-Kirchner Página 12 buried Mr. Chávez’s reference down in its page 17, publishing merely two paragraphs with a small picture of the Venezuelan leader.

Apparently, the Argentine media know better how to deal with the Malvinas issue. This is more relevant when one takes into consideration how painful is this issue. Not only there are, as with many other wars, many veterans affected by the loss of limbs wandering in the streets of Buenos Aires, seeking a coin or two as a way to deal with their needs, but also Argentina is starting to acknowledge the magnitude of the hoax posed by the military Junta. It is as a part of such process, that Iluminados por el fuego, a film on the war in Malvinas, received the Goya a few days ago, the equivalent of the Oscar in Spain to the best foreign film.

To my mind, Mr. Chávez’s attitudes provide little or no fope for a solution to the Malvinas issue. More so now that he has decided to tie this issue with the larger and broader conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the U.S. government. It is not that I believe in Mr. Bush’s claims about Iran, especially when one takes into consideration how the U.S.“intelligence” services faked information on Iraq, but because the path of conflict and confrontation that Mr. Chávez follows is very dangerous not only for Venezuela but for the entire region.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Inflation's Intimidating Return in South America

In the last two weeks newspapers and magazines in Argentina and Brazil have been commenting on the growing rate of inflation in both countries. Moreover, in Argentina, Ernesto Kirchner's government attempted to establish some mechanism to prevent sudden changes in the prices of key products.

Kirchner's efforts, however, confronted an unwilling Sociedad Rural Argentina, a powerful association of meat and grains producers that has a long history of confrontations with the current president that reached a peak when in the (austral) winter of 2004 the President decided not to assist to the yearly expo and convention of "la Rural," as the association is popularly known.

With La Rural other two major groups (the Confederaciones Rurales Argentinas and the Centro de Consignatarios de Hacienda) representing most of the 190 thousand meat producers in Argentina rejected the agreement proposed by Felisa Miceli, the Economics Minister. Soon after La Rural's rejection, Aníbal Fernández, the Interior Minister announced that the Argentine government will not hesitate to increase the taxes that the Argentine national government imposes on meat's exports.

How rejecting an agreement to limit increases on the price of the meat connects with the need to raise taxes is--at least to my mind--impossible. Taxes should never be tools to punish unwilling political or social actors, much less economic agents and yet--in its desperation to prevent increases in the rate of inflation--the Argentine government seems to be willing to go down a road that will only increase the level of conflict and distrust in its ability to conduct the economy, which ultimately will lead to more tension, distrust, and yes, more inflation.

Despite the partial failure with the foodstuffs producers, Kirchner's ministers have been able to sign agreements with U.S. based Procter & Gamble and with the Molinos firm, that produces and distributes all sorts of foods, breads, and groceries in Argentina. Procter & Gamble will freeze the prices of 31 of its products and Molinos will do it with 9 key products (oil, rice, bread, and pasta).

In Brazil things are not easier for the government of former labor leader Luiz Lula da Silva. On the one hand, the prices of fuel keep growing despite the efforts of the Brazilian government to reach an agreement with the producers along the lines of the one negotiated with the meat producers in Argentina. The key price of the hydrated alcohol went from R$ 1.724 on January 14, to R$ 1.735 on January 21, as a sign of the weakness of an agreement that included this critical type of fuel for the Brazilian market.

As a consequence, the Brazilian equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Banco Central do Brasil issued a less than optimistic forecast for the Consumer Prices' Index. Two weeks ago, the Banco Central forecasted a 4.58 yearly for 2006. One week later, the Index had gone to 4.61 yearly for 2006, with a rate of growth for the year of 3.5. It is important to notice, however, that for the twelve months going from November 2004 to November 2005, the Banco Central set an inflation rate of 6.22 per cent.

The inflation rates in both Argentina and Brazil still far from the rates reached by the mid and late 1980s that forced the shock plans, but they prove that there is something wrong in the economies of both countries and that the work of the political leaders is not enough to induce the trust to help prevent any new growth of the inflation. Both countries and Latin America at large are aware of the consequences that inflation had for the markets in the 1970s and 1980s and yet, trapped in the labyrinth of populist politics á la Chávez, the political leaders leaders of the region seem to be unable to find the right combination to secure growth and to avoid inflation.

If you are interested on the issue of inflation you can also read from the Archives of this website:

Latin America before the Neo-Liberal Wave

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Parallel Presidencies?

This weekend, two issues overwhelmed Latin American news services. On the one hand, the public relations blitzkrieg launched from La Paz, Bolivia, by former coca-growers’ leader and new President Evo Morales. Hurricane Evo visited four continents in the short period between his election and his inauguration. In some cases, he brought relief, as in Brazil, as Morales seems to have changed his mind about expropriating several oil refineries of Brazilian capital, and in some others, as in Mexico, heightened concerns about the future of Bolivia and its role in the Latin American relations, as Morales hinted the possibility of limiting the exports of gas to Mexico.

On the other hand, in Chile it was all about good news. Michelle Bachelet not only confirmed her success in the presidential election, as hinted in the first round of the elections, but she was able to increase the margin of support for the Concertación, expanding the base of social support for the coalition that Christian-Democrats and Socialists have maintained in Chile for almost 20 years now.

Both electoral stories provide interesting hints about the possible future of the rest of the region. On the one hand, Morales faces challenges that seem to overwhelm him. Not only he already is backing away (for good) from offers made during his presidential campaign, but he has decided to ignite other conflicts in the region with a rhetoric that seems carbon copied from, and in some cases more radical, than Hugo Chávez’s. The difference is that Venezuela never actually confronted a major process of structural reform, while Bolivia confronted the exact opposite situation.

It should not come as a surprise that in one interview with Argentine newspaper Página 12, Morales expressed nothing but rejection for the policies sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. It is important to stress, however, that the tragedy of Bolivia during the 1990s was co-written by the IMF and local politicians as Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Moreover, it is necessary to stress—once again—that in the 1980s and 1990s the IMF sponsored many different policies in Latin America and elsewhere.

The radical policies pursued by Sánchez de Lozada may appear as similar to those sponsored by the Concertación in Chile or by Carlos Menem in Argentina or by Carlos Salinas in Mexico, but there were key differences that is necessary to keep in mind for a meaningful analysis of contemporary Latin America. For starters, neither Mexico nor Chile denationalized key industries such as the oil or copper, while in Argentina and Bolivia, the political elites carried away what in the 1990s were called “Garage sales” of pretty much all within their reach, so to assume that it was only the IMF’s fault is, to say the least, absurd.

Moreover, in Morales's interview with Página 12, Bolivia's new president emphasizes how there are not going to be anymore "imported models," just to talk immediately about the micro-credits program that he will launch. And of course, any person that has read a little bit the programs of micro-lending sponsored by the World Bank, the sister institution of the International Monetary Fund, cannot but smile at Morales's naïve attitude, because even on that policy, he will be following a program brought from outside, revealing once again the pattern of lies that constitute the backbone of the recent wave of Latin American populists. Read here, by the way, a critique authored by Aminur Rahman of such microlending programs in Bangladesh, following a rationale developed by Indian economist Amartya Sen.

Sadly enough, the excesses of liberal (conservative in the U.S.) president Sánchez de Lozada, combined with the structural failure of Latin American presidentialism (and particularly with the Bolivian version of it) had created all the necessary conditions for the emergence of these kinds of nationalist and nativist approaches emobodied by Morales. These nativist approaches assume that only what has been thought in Latin America or more specifically in their own countries is good to deal with delicate issues. Such approach seems out of line, because as rich as the Aymara tradition is it would be ludicrous to assume that a mere return to such roots will guarantee the solution of Bolivia's problems.

Morales will help himself by turning his head to Lima, the capital of Peru, to see the troubled presidency of the other Aymara president in contemporary Latin America, Alejandro Toledo, who assumed the presidency of Peru under similar circumstances to find himself, 4 years, later pretty much unable to do anything with a political leadership that appears exhausted and confronting a disillusioned public opinion.

Here it is important to stress how in Bolivia all the market-centered fallacies of the liberalism (or conservatism in the United States) were applied. The all-encompassing privatization carried by President Sánchez de Lozada left thousands of persons without access to water and other public goods and services, triggering a popular movement to resist any form of market-inspired solution to the issues affecting the Andean country. It should not come as a surprise that the privatization launched in Bolivia has now, as one of its unexpected consequences, the emergence of Morales's charismatic leadership, with all its contradictions and risks not only for Bolivia itself but also for the entire region.

Interestingly enough, on the other side of the Andes, in Chile, Michelle Bachelet—the first female to be president in Chile—appeared with a fresh and conciliatory message in her discourse, and more important without any pretension to have all the answers in the backpack of Chilean or Latin American “culture.”

Quite the opposite, President Bachelet appears willing to embrace more intensely than ever the Chilean vocation to open markets with a very active and very responsible public sector willing to intervene whenever such interventions seems necessary, while acknowledging the role that markets should play in allocating scarce resources.

This is more relevant when one takes into consideration key aspects of her biography. She and her family suffered the excesses of César Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Bachelet’s presidency will be more important because she is the only true socialist in a continent where many populist leaders, as Hugo Chávez or Ernesto Kirchner, disguise themselves as leftists, whithout having gone through the painful experience that represented for the Chilean Socialist Party acknowledging its own mistakes in pursuing its policy goals without paying attention to the delicate mechanisms of the market.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Peruvian Shadows

This Tuesday January 11, the Board of Elections in Peru decided to refuse former President Alberto Fujimori a chance to seek what would have been his third Presidency. The decision hardly surprises anybody, but it provides an excellent chance to see at the painful state of contemporary Peruvian politics.

As with other countries that I have considered in this blog before, I do not think that we should assume that what is happening nowadays in Peru will happen later in Argentina or Mexico. The intricacies of Peruvian politics prevent from any possible contagion, and yet it is possible to see in Fujimori's biography some glimpses of the kinds of things that are wrong region wide in Latin America.

First it is necessary to acknowledge that as repulsive as Fujimori may be for some in Latin America he was able to address critical issues in Peruvian politics that many others before him were unable or unwilling to address. The problem, of course, exists in the kind of means that he used to pursue his goals. For one, we have the case of Vladimiro Montesinos, the former chief of the political police in Peru who gained fame as one of the bloodiest torturers in a region full of them.

In addition, one can think of Fujimori's decision to dissolve the Peruvian Congress and Supreme Court. The "auto-golpe" or "self-coup" as it came to be known in the early 1990s was with his aggressive counter-terrorist tactics and his economic shock plan, the features that gained "El Chino" (The Chinese), as he came to be known, world fame. By the way, if you are interested in Peruvian politics and you like movies, watch The Dancer Upstairs, an excellent movie directed by John Malkovich dealing precisely with aspects of the counter-terrorist tactics used by Fujimori and Montesinos.

These aspects of Fujimori's biography have been the subject of many commentaries and criticism, some of them accurate and fair, some of them exaggerated by Fujimori's foes. What is more relevant, however, is to ask how a former professor in a technical university (Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina), ended up walking the path Fujimori walked.

To my mind, Peru and Fujimori provide a text-book case to understand what is wrong with presidential regimes and the kind of contradictions that constitute the core of such regimes. I cannot think that a guy such a Fujimori, a college professor in Agronomy, was since his early youth the corrupted and mischievous politician that was forced out of his country to seek refuge in his unique condition as both former President of Peru and Japanese citizen.

Quite the contrary, people who knew the early Fujimori, the one who came to be the president of his Alma Mater, have expressed over and over their surprise with the kind of policies, and more specifically with the decisionmaking processes used by Fujimori as President of Peru.

First, of course his decision to shutdown the Peruvian congress and Supreme Court. He did so after it was clear that his government had no chance to overcome the grip that before him had affected former presidents Fernando Belaúnde Terry and Alán García during their terms. Belaúnde ended up being ousted by a coup back in the 1960s, and García avoided any further confrontarion with the Congress by becoming more radical than the Congress and the leaders of APRA itself.

No wonder, by the end of his term Peru was deep into the worst crisis of its history confronting two choices, Alberto Fujimori as the rather surprising candidate of Cambio 90, and Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist turned into politician who was unable to defeat Fujimori when El Chino was able to gather the support of García and other leaders of APRA who expected to be able to control his presidency.

Fujimori himself contributed to such perception as his first presidential campaign was based on a bold rejection of the structural reform policies that Vargas Llosa openly proposed to the Peruvian electors. However, Fujimori proved to be a resourceful politician gathering the support of the Armed Forces to launch, rather late when compared with other Latin American countries, an ambitious reform program. The program included not only the usual shock policies to freeze the mounting inflation rate, but also a broad diplomatic effort to recast Peru's relation with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Fifteen years later, Fujimori is nothing but a shadow of his old self, and sadly, Peru is in no better shape. After Fujimori's exile in Japan, the administration of Alejandro Toledo faced, as his predecessors did, the negative consequences of presidential regimes, making the very process of government almost impossible.

Despite the decision of the Peruvian electoral board it is important to stress that the Fujimoris are coming. Keiko, the former president's daughter and Santiago, the former president's brother are already registered as candidates. It is not clear, however, who will takeover as Santiago running mate, now that it is clear that Alberto will not be able to run as presidential candidate to compete with Ollanta Humala and another shadow from the past, former President Alán García who expects to become the newest of Hugo Chávez's partners in Latin American politics.

The problem, however, is in the institutional designs and more specifically in presidentialism. That is why politicians with different approaches to politics such as Belaúnde, García, Fujimori, and Toledo share all similar fates, similar flaws. It is not in the Peruvian or in the Latin American "culture," but in the rules of a perverse game that we are unable to stop.

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