Voto por voto!

Act One: The Middle Class

MEXICO CITY (August 4th) — Jacinto Guzman, an 80 year-old retired oilworker from Veracruz state, plants himself in front of the headquarters of the Halliburton Corporation on the skyscraper-lined Paseo de Reforma here and recalls the great strikes of the 1930s that culminated in the expropriation and nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum reserves.

Dressed in a wrinkled suit and a hard hat, the old worker laments the creeping privatization of PEMEX, the national oil corporation, by non-Mexican subcontractors like Halliburton, which is installing natural gas infrastructure in Chiapas. But he is less agitated about the penetration of the transnationals in the Mexican oil industry, or even Halliburton’s craven role in the obscene Bush-Cheney Iraq war, than he is about the fraud-marred July 2nd presidential election here.

The sign he holds reads “No A Pinche Fraude” (No to Fucking Fraud!), referring to Halliburton’s membership in a business confederation that financed a vicious TV ad campaign against leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who insists that he won the July 2nd election from right-winger Felipe Calderon, to whom the nation’s tarnished electoral authority, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) awarded a razor-thin and much questioned “victory.”

Mr. Guzman’s appearance at Halliburton on a Friday at the end of last month was one of myriad acts of civil resistance invoked by Lopez Obrador at a July 16th Mexico City assembly that drew more than a million participants. The campaign is designed to pressure a seven-judge panel (the “TRIFE”), which must determine a winner by the first week in September, into opening up the ballot boxes and counting out the votes contained therein — “voto por voto.”

Zeroing in on U.S. transnationals that purportedly backed Calderon, AMLO’s people have invaded Wal-Mart, picketed Pepsico (its Sabritas snack brand was a big contributor to the right-winger’s campaign), rented rooms in big chain hotels (Fiesta Americana) and dropped banners from the windows decrying the “pinche fraude,” and blocking all eleven doors at the palatial headquarters of Banamex, once Mexico’s oldest bank and now a wholly owned subsidiary of Citygroup.

“Voto por Voto!” demonstrators chanted as the bankers smoked and fumed and threatened to call the police.

Demonstrators also blocked the doors at the Mexican stock exchange and surrounded the studios of Televisa, the major head of the nation’s two-headed television monopoly, both heads of which shamelessly tilted to Calderon before, during, and after the ballots were cast.

“!Voto por Voto! Casilla por Casilla!” (Vote by Vote, Precinct by Precinct.)

Seated on a tiny folding chair outside of Banamex, Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most luminous writers and the recent winner of Spain’s coveted Cervantes Prize, reflected on the civil resistance: “We have always seen the workers demonstrate here in the Zocalo, but this is all very new for our middle class. The middle class protests too, but in the privacy of their own homes. Now we are out of the closet.”

Ironically, the concept of peaceful civil resistance by the middle class was pioneered by Felipe Calderon’s own party, the PAN, after it had been cheated out of elections in the 1980s by the then-ruling PRI. The PANistas uncharacteristically blocked highways and went on hunger strikes, and even imported Philippine trainers, veterans of Corazon Aquino’s civil resistance campaign against Ferdinand Marcos, to teach their supporters new tricks.

Recently AMLO’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD, stole a page from the PANista bible by holding a rally at a Mexico City statue of the right-wingers’ father figure, Manuel Clouthier. During the stolen 1988 presidential election, Clouthier demanded a ballot-by-ballot recount and coined the now ubiquitous phrase “voto por voto.” The PRD gathering around the statue of “Saint Maquio” left Calderon and the PAN speechless for once.

The PRD crusade could be labeled “civil resistance lite.” Led by Poniatowska, opera singer Regina Orozco, and comic actress Jesusa Rodriguez, public demonstrations have been more showbiz than eruptions of mass outrage. Nonetheless, Televisa and TV Azteca, Calderon and the PAN relentlessly rag Lopez Obrador for “fomenting violence,” purposefully ignoring the real daily violence that grips Mexico’s cities as brutal narco gangs behead rivals and massacre their enemies in plain public view.

Act Two: Bad Gas

Hundreds of steaming AMLO supporters pack the cavernous Club de Periodistas in the old quarter of the capital, where computer gurus will diagnosis the complexities of the cybernetic fraud Lopez Obrador is positive was perpetrated by IFE technicians this past July 2nd and 5th during both the preliminary count (PREP) and the actual tally of 130,000 precincts in the nation’s 300 electoral districts.

The experts are as convinced as the audience that the vote was stolen on the IFE terminals, but have many theories as to how. They speak of arcane algorithms and corrupted software. Juan Gurria, a computer programmer who has dropped in on his lunch hour to audit the experts, recalls the 1988 election which was stolen from leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas by the long-ruling (71 years) PRI in the nation’s first cybernetic computer fraud. “In 1988, they had to shut down the computers and say the system had crashed to fix the vote – but in 2006, the IFE kept the system running and we watched them steal it right before our eyes” Gurria contends, “the difference is they have better computers now.”

18 years ago, with computer fraud still in its infancy, the PRI had to resort to hit men to carry out its larceny. Three nights before the election, Cardenas’s closest aide, Francisco Xavier Ovando, and his assistant, Ramon Gil, were executed blocks away from the Congress of the country after reportedly obtaining the password to the PRI computer system, upon which the results were being cooked in favor of its candidates, the now universally reviled Carlos Salinas de Gortari. So far, Computer Fraud 2006 has been less messy.

Although the subject is dry and technical – at one point excerpts of an abstruse Guardian of London analysis by University of Texas economist James Galbreath (son of John Kenneth) was read into the record in English – AMLO’s supporters mutter and grumble and nod their heads vigorously. “Asi es!” – that’s just the way it happened! “Voto por Voto” they rumble, “Casilla por Casilla!” after each expert scores a point. Whether or not the fix is in, they are convinced that they have been had.

The PRD is trying to keep a lid on the bad gas seeping from down below. A few days after July 2nd, Felipe Calderon, who AMLO’s people have derisively dubbed “Fe-Cal,” came to this same Club de Periodistas to receive the adulation of a gaggle of union bosses. When he tried to leave the club, he was assailed by street venders howling “Voto por Voto!”

Calderon was quickly hustled into a bullet-proof SUV by his military escort, but the angry crowd kept pounding on the tinted windows. One young man obscenely thrust his middle finger at the would-be president, The scene is replayed over and over again on Televisa and Azteca, sometimes five times in a single news broadcast, graphic footage of the kind of violence AMLO is supposed to be inciting.

Act Three: In Defense of the Voto

Lopez Obrador fervently believes he has won the presidency of the United States of Mexico. He says it often on television just to needle Calderon. The proof, he is convinced, is inside 130,000 ballot boxes that he wants recounted, voto por voto.

The ballot boxes are now stored in the Federal Electoral Institute’s 300 district offices under the protection of the Mexican army. Nonetheless, in Veracruz, Tabasco, and Jalisco among other states, IFE operators have broken into the ballot boxes under the pretext of recovering lost electoral documentation. AMLO is suspicious that the officials are monkeying with the ballots, adding and subtracting the number of votos to make them conform to the IFE’s incredible computer count. Hundreds of ballot boxes contain more votes than voters on the registration lists, and more ballots have been judged null and void than the 243,000 margin of Calderon’s as-yet unconfirmed victory.

To this end, Lopez Obrador has strengthened encampments of his supporters outside the 300 electoral districts. In Monterrey, a PANista stronghold, thugs attack the encampment, beating on AMLO’s people and tearing down their tent city. Rocks are thrown at his supporters in Sinaloa; drivers speed by hurling curses and spitting on them.

Outside the Mexico City headquarters of the TRIFE, the seven-judge panel that will have the ultimate word as to whether or not the votos are going to be counted out one by one, a hunger strike has been ongoing since the PRD submitted documentation of anomalies in 53,000 out of the nation’s 130,000 polling places. Each night a different show business personality joins the fasters, eschews dinner and camps out in the guest pup tent overnight.

From Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska to painters like Jose Luis Cuevas and master designer Vicente Rojo, the arts and entertainment world has lined up behind Lopez Obrador. An exhibition by Cuevas and 50 other top line graphic artists and writers has been installed on the Alameda green strip adjacent to the Palace of Fine Arts here. After midnight, Calderon supporters slash and savage the art work, leaving a broken jumble behind.

The next day brigades of AMLO’s people from the surrounding neighborhoods rescue what they can of the exhibit, reassemble the broken shards, sew the torn art back together, and prop up the display panels. This is what democracy looks like in Mexico in the summer of 2006.

Act Four: Se Busca Por Fraude Electoral

The integrity of the Federal Electoral Commission is in the eye of Hurricane AMLO. Lopez Obrador accuses the IFE of fixing the election for Felipe Calderon and then defending his false victory. The PRD has filed criminal charges against the nine members of the IFE’s ruling council, most prominently its chairman, the gray-faced bureaucrat Luis Carlos Ugalde, for grievous acts of bias against Lopez Obrador, including refusing to halt Calderon’s hate spots in the run-up to July 2nd.

The IFE is mortally offended by the allegations that it has committed fraud and is using its enormously extravagant budget (larger than all of the government’s anti-poverty programs combined) to run spots protesting the slurs on its integrity that are every bit as virulent and ubiquitous as Calderon’s toxic hit pieces. Actors have been hired to impersonate irate citizens who allegedly were chosen at random as polling place workers July 2nd. “The votes have already been counted” they scoff. “We did not commit fraud” they insist. The idea is preposterous, an insult to their patriotism and to one of the pillars of Mexican “democracy,” the IFE.

Luis Carlos Ugalde, the president of the IFE council, has not been seen in public for several weeks except in large Wanted posters pasted to the walls of the inner city – SE BUSCA POR FRAUDE ELECTORAL! Ugalde and two other IFE counselors are protégés of powerful teachers union czar Elba Esther Gordillo, who joined forces with the PAN to take revenge on failed PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, a mortal enemy. The nine-member council is composed entirely of PRI and PAN nominees – the PRD is, of course, excluded.

Despite rumors that he had fled the country, Ugalde shows up July 27th at the first IFE meeting since the district tallies three weeks previous where he is confronted by the PRD delegate to the Institute (each party has one delegate.) During an acrimonious seven-hour meeting, Horacio Duarte keeps waving 30 partially burnt ballots, most of them marked for AMLO, that he has just been handed by an anonymous source. Duarte wants to know where Ugalde lives so he can nail one of the ballots to his front door to expose the “shame” of the fraud-marred election. The gray-faced bureaucrat grows even grayer and threatens to suspend the session. OK, OK, Duarte concedes, I’ll just hang it on your office door.

Just then a score of protestors push their way past the IFE guards at the auditorium’s portals – the meeting is a public one. They are chanting “Voto por Voto” and carrying bouquets of yellow flowers, AMLO’s colors. A PRD deputy tries to hand one to Luis Carlos Ugalde who turns away in horror. A bodyguard snatches up the blossoms as if they were a terrorist bomb, and disposes of them post-haste.

Act Five: We Shall Not Be Moved

The clock is ticking. The TRIFE must declare a new president by September 5th. The seven judges, all in the final year of their ten-year terms (three will move up to the Supreme Court in the next administration) have just begun to dig their way into the slagheap of legal challenges that impugn the results in about half of the 130,000 polling places in the land, the ham-handed bias of the IFE prior to the election, and the strange behavior of the Federal Electoral Institute’s computers on election day and thereafter.

The TRIFE, which has sometimes struck down corrupted state and local elections and ordered recounts in a handful of electoral districts, can either determine that the legal challenges would not affect enough votes to overturn the IFE’s determination that Calderon won the election, annul the entire election if it adjudges that it was illegitimately conducted, or order a recount. If the judges determine that annulment is the only way to fix the inequities, a new election would be scheduled 18 months down the pike.

In the meantime, the Mexican Congress would name an interim president, an unprecedented resolution in modern political history here – just the fact it is being discussed is, in itself, unprecedented.

Among those mentioned for the post are National Autonomous University rector Juan Ramon de la Fuente, former IFE director Jose Woldenberg, and three-time presidential loser Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of beloved depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas. For Cuauhtemoc, who was defrauded out of the presidency in 1988 by the same kind of flimflam with which the PAN and the IFE seek to despoil Lopez Obrador of victory in 2006, an interim presidency would be a perfect solution. Fixated on fulfilling the destiny of following in his father’s footsteps, moving back into his boyhood home Los Pinos – the Mexican White House – would be sweet revenge against his former protégé and now bitter rival on the left, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

But AMLO does not want the election annulled and an interim appointed. He is obsessed with proving his triumph at the polls and is not going to sit on his hands waiting for the TRIFE to reach its learned conclusions. A gifted leader of street protest, he has summoned his people to the capitol’s Tiananmens-sized Zocalo square three times since July 2nd, each time doubling the numbers of the masses who march through the city: 500,000 on July 8th, 1.1 million on July 16th, and 2.4 million this past Sunday, July 30th (police estimates) – Sunday’s gathering was the largest political demonstration in the nation’s history.

The “informative assemblies” as AMLO tags them, have been festive occasions but underneath there is palpable anger. Lopez Obrador’s people come in family, arm babies and grandpas, often in wheelchairs are on canes. Some come costumed as clowns and pirates. dangling grotesque marionettes, lopsided home-made heads of Fe-Cal, or pushing a replica of the Trojan Horse (“El Cabellito Trojanito.”) They look like they are having fun but their frustrations can well up to the surface in a flash, say when the hated Televisa and TV Azteca appear on the scene. “QUE SE MUERE TELEVISA!” (THAT TELEVISA SHOULD DIE!), the people the color of the earth snarl and scream, pounding fiercely on the television conglomerate’s vehicles.

At the July 30th “informative assembly,” Lopez Obrador ups the ante considerably in his high stakes poker game to pry open the ballot boxes. Now instead of calling for yet another monster gathering in the Zocalo (4.8 million?), he asks all those who had come from the provinces and the lost cities that line this megalopolis to stay where they sre in permanent assembly until the TRIFE renders a decision. 47 encampments will be convened extending from the great plaza, through the old quarter, all the way to the ring road that circles the capital, snarling Mexico City’s already impenetrable traffic, raising the level of greenhouse gases and urban tempers to the point of combustion.

When Lopez Obrador calls for a vote on his proposal, 2,000,000 or so “SI’s” soared from the throats of the gargantuan throng, followed by the now obligatory roars of “No Estas Solo” (“you are not alone”) and “Voto by Voto, Casilla by Casilla.” As if on cue, AMLO’s people began assembling the encampments state by state and Mexico City neighborhood by neighborhood.

For a correspondent who once wrote a novel fictionalizing the stealing of the 1988 election (“Tonatiuh’s People,” Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, 1999), in which the people the color of the earth march on Mexico City and vote to stay in permanent assembly in the Zocalo, fantasy has turned into the actualities of daily reporting. I am not surprised by this startling turn of events.

When I first arrived here in the old quarter days after the 8.2 earthquake that devastated this capital, the “damnificados” (refugees) were encamped in the streets, demanding relief and replacement housing and liberation from the ruling PRI and their movement from the bottom reinvigorated a civil society that today infuses AMLO’s struggle for electoral democracy. This morning, the damnificados of the PAN and the IFE, Calderon and the fat cats, are again living on these same streets.

On the first evening of the taking of Mexico City, AMLO spoke to thousands crowded into the Zocalo in a driving downpour and invoked Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they beat you, and then you win.” And then Gabino Palomares, a troublemaking troubadour who has been up there on the stage at every watershed event in recent Mexican history from the slaughter of striking students at Tlatelolco (1968) to the Zapatistas’ March of the Those the Color of the Earth (2001) took the mic to lead the mob in that old labor anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and AMLO’s people thundered back in a roar that drowned out the weeping sky, “NO NOS MOVERAN!”

To be continued.

John Ross’s “ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible – Chronicles 2000-2006” will be published by Nation Books this October and Ross is hunting possible venues for presentations. All suggestions will be cheerfully accepted at johnross@igc.org