Second Day: CEOs, Politicians, Academics, and Mole Amarillo
Today we took a deeper look into the systems, policies, and realities of Mexican politics, both as they pertain to this election, and to elections past. While yesterday we introduced ourselves to basic concepts, and identified our most central questions, today we got the opportunity to tackle some of those questions and flex our intellectual muscle in more elevated discussion.
The day started as we hopped in a few Ubers and zipped over to Polanco, one of Mexico City’s poshest neighborhoods, for a meeting with Agustin Barrios Gomez, a Mexican politician and Georgetown graduate. We met TK on the fourth floor of the Torres TK, a sleek tower of glass and steel with sophisticated security services and offices belonging to McKinsey, Spotify, and Deutsche Bank, to name a few. Agustin greeted us and immediately introduced us to his friend, artist Zhiavago Duncan, whose work would later become strangely relevant to our discussion. At the moment, Duncan has committed himself to an art career in Mexico City, and his current projects involve RC tanks and cars which he programs to “drive” across a canvas, completing entire paintings with appended paintbrushes. As Agustin would later mention, this sort of automation is a harbinger for times to come, when AI may ultimately replace even our most precious human occupations, like art. Agustin was, of course, speaking to the notion that Mexican manufacturing steals jobs from American workers, noting that automation, not Mexican factory laborers, was the real enemy of the American worker. As Agustin mentioned, Mexico’s economy, in its entirety, amounts to only 8% of the US economy, and therefore could not be the “executioner or savior of the American worker.” This kind of romantic thought and rhetoric, though frequently based in detailed empirical evidence, was Agustin’s evident style, and we all noticed immediately the signs of his education, his political training, and his knack for reading.
Agustin began our meeting with a breakneck recap of Mexican history, particularly the capital’s history, and a detailed explanation of Mexico’s electoral system and its various merits. According to Agustin, the Mexican voting system is “the most sophisticated in the world,” and he supplied ample evidence to back that claim. Because the system itself is so robust, he said, voter fraud is rare in Mexico. Vote-buying before the election therefore has become the most significant form of electoral manipulation in the country. Agustin provided a simple explanation for the systems effectiveness, mistrust. According to Agustin, Mexico’s electoral system is founded on mistrust, as are many of its institutions. Following Mexico’s revolution from 1910 to 1920, the country’s most powerful players established a system which would keep each other at bay and ensure the possibility of power transitions in the country. This suspicion-based system means voters in Mexico now have voter ID cards with 23 safeguards to ensure against voter fraud.
On the other hand, said Agustin, the US system operates on a basis of trust. We don’t enforce such strict voter ID laws, and when American politicians propose them, the goal is often to disenfranchise those who would face difficulty in obtaining voter IDs. Mexico’s system is expensive and far-reaching, and a similar system in the US would be onerous and taxing to operate if it were to provide services to every US citizen.
After explaining the Mexican electoral system and comparing it to the US system, Agustin turned to more macro ideas, like automation and trade between the US. Agustin’s most memorable quote when describing the US-Mexico trade relationship was, “the US and Mexico are not neighbors, they’re roommates, and if you set your roommates Duran Duran poster on fire, you’re going to get embers on your bed.” Agustin emphasized the massive scale of the relationship, condemning the current American administration for acting against its own interests by threatening the status of NAFTA. Agustin was fiery and articulate while expressing these points, and we left with a more proper estimation of the inter-connectedness of the two countries.
After leaving the tower, collecting our IDs at the security desk, and watching as a security guard scolded Paul, our videographer, for taking photos of the building, we took off on foot for lunch with our second expert of the day, Amy Glover, CEO of Speyside Mexico, at an upscale restaurant in Polanco, kitty-corner from the local Louis Vuitton and Cartier locations. To be honest, the tuna in my salad was a little dry, but Amy’s thoughts on Mexican politics were not, and it took very little time for her to re-paint, in more detail, the picture which Agustin had already begun.
Glover, a naturalized Mexican citizen (American by birth), caught my ear several times when she referred to Mexico as “we,” as if she were an elected Mexican official, or perhaps a native-born Mexican patriot. It’s no wonder, though, that she should use such language, as her involvement in the Mexican political world is deeper than most natural-born Mexicans can ever hope to achieve.
Glover started with another description of Mexico’s “system of mistrust” in which presidents are not re-elected, and there are no vice presidents, measures which inhibit would-be power seekers from assassinating the president.
Glover went on to discuss the subject which seems inescapable in these conversations, US-Mexico relations. According to Glover, Mexico’s economy was somewhat isolated following the second world war, and it was only 20 years ago that Mexico decided to open the economy, in the same era when they decided to democratize, moving away from the party which had ruled its entire government since the revolution, the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party). This opening meant warmer sentiments in Mexico towards the US, sentiments which President Trump has drawn into question. For the second time in the day, Trump became a significant component in a discussion ostensibly about Mexican, not American presidential politics.
Glover also mentioned recent reforms which will allow for re-election in the Senate and House of Deputies, Mexico’s two legislative chambers. According to Glover, such reforms will call delegates to be more responsive to their constituents, meaning more attention to local issues and more personable politicians.
As we left lunch, we stopped to check in on the world cup. Argentina was playing Nigeria on a projector screen beside the restaurant’s spacious patio. Some of us relished a moment to relax our brains before our next meeting, others took time to process and discuss our recently-acquired expertise in Mexican electoral history.
Our third meeting of the day was a brief lecture and slide show with Professor Jeffrey Weldon of ITAM (The Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico). Through a whirlwind of algebra, graphs, and quick questions thrown to the crowd, Weldon opened us up not to the past, but the future, and what this year’s elections might mean for Mexico’s congress. In all, Professor Weldon welcomed us into the reality of Mexican electoral systems, which involve a gumbo of coalitions, restrictions, and math. Ultimately, Weldon showed us what to expect with Mexican congressional elections, and particularly focused on whether Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current presidential frontrunner by a wide margin, will secure a majority in congress for his party. Weldon thinks such a majority is unlikely, because Lopez Obrador has already given so many districts away to his coalition members, but admitted that the possibility remains, albeit slim.
Such a quantified academic approach was new in our experience, and it was a refreshing jolt to what could have become an day-long history lesson. In all, the past, present, and future of Mexican electoral politics seemed clear and tangible after these three meetings, and we would only widen our understanding at dinner with Pablo Paras, founder of OPM, one of Mexico’s leading public opinions firms. As a professional pollster, Paras was able to shed light on some of the difficulties involved in gauging the Mexican public’s sentiments. Paras also opened our eyes to the scope of vote-buying in Mexico, a practice with which he claims 40% of Mexicans have come in contact.
While Paras unpacked that idea, we busied ourselves eating guacamole with grasshoppers, and tri-colored tortillas with ant-eggs, a traditional dish in some parts of Mexico. Though some of us feigned at first, everyone eventually dug in. The restaurant, Azul Condesa, provided a uniquely Mexican, and undoubtedly quaint ambiance for the meeting. Santa Maria statuettes adorned the walls, surrounded by small white candles, some lit, some not, which formed triangles and hearts of flame around each statue. Our table was situated on the restaurant’s second-floor balcony, with a view of the trees on the avenue and access to fresh air from the rainy evening. Nothing at Azul Condesa, though, delighted us so much as the variety of moles, black, yellow, and red, which we ate for our main course.
Tonight, as we think back, we can see a few noticeable trends in our conversations with these experts. One is an emphasis on US politics as a feature of Mexican affairs. While Mexican politics may not be direct results of policies in Washington, Washington certainly maintains a towering presence in this country. North America is a meaningful geopolitical unit, and decisions from the US make an impact. The system in Mexico has its ups and downs, its faults and its strengths, but nothing has become more clear on this trip than the apparent flaws in our own political environment north of the Rio Grande. In many ways this country has provided a mirror for our own.
Third Day: Meetings, Rallies, and Tiny Cowboy Boots
This morning was an early one. The city was still dark when we walked outside to meet our bus. We rallied a few stragglers, and within ten minutes we were on our way to Leon, Guanajuato, for a meeting with two local candidates and a rally for the PAN (National Action Party). We slept for the beginning of the ride, but after an hour we woke up to pastoral Mexico State and the agave fields of Guanajuato.
We arrived in Leon in the late morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our meeting with two local candidates from the PRI, Juan Pablo Lopez Marun and Clemente Villalpando. We met the two candidates at the PRI’s local headquarters, situated on a narrow street where our bus driver had to slow down and perform an 8-point turn just to reach the front door. Although Lopez Marun later shared his thoughts in depth, Villalpando lead the majority of the meeting, providing a local perspective on a range of issues which we’d previously explored in Mexico City.
Villalpando’s opinion was strikingly bleak. He described an infestation of power-hungry politicians in the country’s politics who, according to Villalpando, pursue positions of authority without heed for the values of their party. Villalpando continued his dark description of the Mexican political system as he emphasized the scale of vote-buying and corruption across the country. The PRI candidate claimed that candidates themselves do not often win election so much as the depth of a party’s local connections, or, as he put it, the party’s “structure.” To conclude his bleak speech, Villalpando described Guanajuato as one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico, a title which it has supposedly only recently earned as narcotics trafficking grew at alarming rates in the state.
In all, we surmised the following about Villalpando’s message: the local picture of Mexican politics is certainly darker than whatever picture we could get in the capital. Mexico City, despite its fair share of poverty, can seem like a bubble in comparison to the rest of the country. With a wealth of academics and professionals at the table, conversations in the capital can become abstract and theoretical. The picture on the ground in a place like Leon is more detailed and more sinister. That said, Villalpando mentioned what he views as a coming revolution in Mexican politics in which the Mexican people will come to hold their delegates accountable and demand more sincere governance. Because of this supposed revolution, it would behoove Villalpando to paint a dark image of Mexican politics to paint himself as a solution. As our organizer, Juan Pablo Delgado, explained, Leon is not actually as violent as Villalpando proclaimed.
Moving on from our meeting, we explored Leon’s famous leather market and ate lunch al aire libre with musical accompaniment from a local guitarist. I bought a keychain with a small leather cowboy boot on it. Hanna, our chaperone, almost bought a cowboy hat (she couldn’t barter the price down enough).
That afternoon we joined thousands of supporters at a local rally for the PAN. This particular rally was the PAN campaign’s final official event before elections on Sunday (Mexican parties are required to stop their campaigns three days before election day). Present were PAN’s mayoral candidate for Leon, Hector Lopez Santillana, the gubernatorial candidate for Guanajuato, Diego Sinhue, and the party’s presidential candidate, Ricardo Anaya.
Supporters flooded into the pavilion off coach buses and farm trucks wearing matching white tee shirts and waving flags from their respective parties (there are three parties in PAN’s political coalition, all supporting Anaya for president). Some of us suspect they came only for the free tee shirts, and perhaps the turnout was larger than it would have been without the free buses and party-themed swag. We walked past the local cock-fighting ring and into the throngs under a vast white canopy. The flags were so thick that the announcers had to demand that voters lower them so the stage could be visible to the cameras.
The three candidates all generally delivered the same speech, thanking their party affiliates, their families, and their political predecessors before promising a resounding victory for the PAN. The speeches were relatively lacking in substance, though they left the candidates hoarse and perspiring, and they elicited a decent response from their supporters. One figure in the crowd who did not provide his express support was a man bearing a tall gay pride flag which he whipped in circles high above the PAN flags around him. PAN is known for its socially conservative values, and members of Guanajuato’s LGBTQ community have faced consistent resistance from the party in their political endeavors.
Towards the end of the rally, a man behind me tapped my shoulder and asked me to help him with a function on his smartphone. Before long we’d struck up a conversation, and he introduced himself as a lawyer from the southern state of Tabasco. I never learned his name, so I’ll call him Sear, like Cole Sear from Sixth Sense. I’ve chosen this name because after a while he explained to me that he had a “political sixth sense,” which he described as an uncanny ability to predict the outcome of Mexico’s presidential elections. Sear had worked with various Mexican presidents in the past and had spent considerable time working abroad, so his opinions were informed by a wealth of past experience. Though he didn’t have time to explain his reasoning, Sear told me he predicted an Anaya victory. None of us understand this theory because the polls place AMLO in the lead by a wide margin, and it would take nothing less than a miracle for Anaya to win at this late stage in the election. According to Sear, the polls aren’t necessarily a definite truth, and surprises have happened before.
If Anaya wins, there will likely be unrest in the country, as millions of Mexican voters will probably suspect foul play in the vote count (a reasonable assumption given the nature of the polls). In this case, we’re all hoping Sear’s sixth sense turns out to be his wild imagination.