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  • Pomp and Circumstance, Mexican Style

    May 3, 2013

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Mexico City residents rarely pay attention to visiting heads of state.  Except for foreign flags on light posts along Reforma Avenue and inside Chapultepec Castle, no one really knows, cares or feels the presence of any visiting leader—except when the president of the United States visits.

    On his third visit to Mexico, President Obama was courted by Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.  On display was Peña Nieto’s desire to re-set the clock with the U.S. and his administration’s continued focus on the economy.  Peña Nieto wants to reverse his predecessor’s policies, which allowed increased cross-border surveillance, and sanctioned an unprecedented increase in technical assistance in a number of important areas, including rule of law, money laundering, and intelligence-sharing.  This assistance, I would argue, is valuable and necessary.  

    President Obama has never had a better partner in Mexico than Enrique Peña Nieto—for both good and bad reasons.  Nieto comes from the party that founded Mexico’s institutions and set the country on the international course it’s on today.  After 70 years in power, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party–PRI) lost the presidency to the Partido Accion Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) in 2000, and only recently re-took political reigns. 

    Peña Nieto is a good partner for Obama because Peña Nieto is willing to work across party lines.  His first official act was to sign a political pact covering 95 points of interest with the main opposition parties, the PAN and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD).  Unlike his predecessor, Peña Nieto is thus far willing to work with all political constituencies on critical issues.  This is a plus for the bilateral agenda.

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    Tags: President Obama’s trip to Latin America

  • This Pope Doesn’t Wear Prada

    March 22, 2013

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Everyone who is anyone from the political and religious world arrived in Rome this week to take part in a mass to coronate the Catholic Church’s newest leader, Pope Francis.  At its pinnacle, cardinals and bishops in full regalia prayed in Latin while bells rang over St. Peter’s Basilica.  It was one of the world’s oldest institutions doing millennium-old pageantry for its 265th head.

    The pageantry included receiving heads of state a day before the official mass.  Over lunch, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner asked the new pope to be a mediator on Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands.  Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe arrived, flouting an international travel ban that does not include the Vatican, whereas China sent no delegation because Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou was present.  Some 132 delegations were on hand for the Vatican’s main event.     

    There was pageantry indeed, but not for long.  The new leader, Pope Francis, is a humble man who will no doubt struggle to change the ways of church executives whose mission is to care for the poor, pray for the sick and aid parishioners—while sometimes living in splendor replete with limousines, chefs, valets, and personal assistants.       

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    Tags: Pope Francis

  • A Historic Vote in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands

    March 13, 2013

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Far south of the South American continent and east of Argentina and Chile is an archipelago known as the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas in Spanish. With a thriving economy and unparalleled natural views and sea life, what some consider inhospitable land is actually home to hundreds of families who live in one of the safest and most beautiful regions of the world. 

    Unfortunately, the islands are not primarily known for their natural beauty or safety.  Instead, the islands evoke animosity between Britain and Argentina.  Disagreement over control of the islands erupted in war in 1982, causing hundreds of deaths. The situation continues to be emotionally charged for the islands’ 3,000 inhabitants.

    In response to the continued international disagreement, local elected officials called for a referendum to determine the islands’ political status. The referendum question voted on March 10 and 11 asked: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?"

    Extensive preparations took place ahead of the vote.  Local authorities held town hall meetings to determine the wording of the referendum question, and passed a number of referendum codes designed to ensure the vote meets internationally accepted standards of transparency and efficiency.  In this light, international observers were invited to supervise the vote.  Brad Smith of California and I led the international observation team made up of political and civil society leaders and technical experts from all over Latin America.  Observers from as far as New Zealand joined Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Canada, and the U.S. for the vote.

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    Tags: Falkland Islands, Malvinas, Argentina, Britain

  • Tequila Sunrise for Mexico's International Affairs

    February 25, 2013

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    For generations, world leaders looked to the United States for consent before approaching Latin American leaders.  U.S. presidents James Monroe and Teddy Roosevelt threatened to make war if external powers sought to interfere in Latin America—and European powers, for the most part, followed the script.  The tradition continued after World War II and throughout the Cold War, but it changed the day Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) became president of Brazil.

    Disinterest, followed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and financial troubles everywhere, further removed the U.S. from Latin American affairs at the beginning of this century.  In a few short years, Silva managed to post the Brazilian colors atop the Latin America stage.  Mexico made a similar run, but its internal struggle with organized crime, corruption, dysfunctional politics and constant disputes with the U.S. over a number of political issues limited its chances.

    However, today is another day, and Mexico has yet another opportunity to enter the big leagues. 

    Unlike his predecessor Felipe Calderón, newly-minted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has decided to place more emphasis on the economy and cross-party negotiation.  His leads on international affairs, José Antonio Meade and Eduardo Medina Mora, are experienced practitioners who understand commerce, power, diplomatic speak and international trends.  More importantly, these men have the ability to leverage Mexico’s existing relationship with the U.S. and its growing commercial relationship with Asia and Europe to project Mexico’s power and prestige.     

    Meade was named secretary of state when Peña Nieto assumed office as president.  The lawyer and Yale-trained economist has held several positions in government since 1991 in which he developed and promoted national banking and savings policies at different commissions: his most recent public posts included secretary of energy and treasury under Calderón (2006-2012).  Most notably, from 2011-2012, Meade coordinated G-20 financial policy when Mexico held the group´s presidency.  He has been tested by public opinion and Congress, is well-versed in the Mexican economy and is popular in international circles.

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    Tags: Mexico, José Antonio Meade, Eduardo Medina Mora

  • Mexico’s Crusade against Hunger

    January 29, 2013

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, inaugurated to a new sexenio last month, is doing everything in his administration’s power to abate a problem that affects close to 52 million poverty-stricken Mexicans: hunger. 

    Well before becoming president, Peña Nieto promised mothers, children and the poorest of communities that he would work to end poverty, inequality and hunger.  During his inaugural speech on December 2, he issued an executive order directing his new social development secretary to implement a program to eradicate hunger across the country. Some 50 days later, he traveled to Las Margaritas, Chiapas, to unveil an ambitious national plan known as La Cruzada Nacional contra el Hambre (National Crusade against Hunger).

    The program coordinates the ministries for social development, education and defense to work in 400 of the poorest municipalities across Mexico to provide wholesome nutrition, eradicate childhood malnutrition, educate farmers, minimize post-harvest losses, and implement community hunger eradication programs.

    Peña Nieto’s order also creates the Sistema Nacional contra el Hambre (National System against Hunger), which serves as the legal, administrative and bureaucratic manual for dialogue, agreements and action between government agencies, states and municipalities. The program and executive order, however, are not the first to appear in a country which has historically tolerated hunger amongst the ranks. Progressive programs from different presidents and land reforms have given Indigenous and disadvantaged groups crops and food, but a large portion of the population remains unimpacted by such efforts.       

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    Tags: Enrique Peña Nieto, poverty, hunger

  • Enrique Peña Nieto Takes the Long-Awaited Oath

    December 2, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    The road to the presidency for Enrique Peña Nieto started long before he won the Mexico State governorship in 2005. His uncle Arturo Montiel proceeded Nieto in the governor’s mansion (1999-2005) and cousin Alfredo del Mazo González ruled the state (1981-1986) and served as secretary of energy in the remaining years of President Miguel de la Madrid´s term (1982-1988). Politics always surrounded Nieto and ultimately, his relationships, friendships and extended family allowed for a thoughtful, long-term, strategy that culminated in his election to become Mexico´s 66th president.

    After 12 years in hiatus, the the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party - PRI) returns to Los Pinos.

    Protests, the Oath and Biden

    Thousands of riot police protected the area surrounding the nation´s lower chamber where Nieto was due to take the oath before noon on Saturday. As noted in a previous article, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his newly-founded Morena movement promised protests throughout Mexico. They did not disappoint. Morena, along with youth movement #Yosoy132, started early, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails against security walls erected around the chamber to protect Enrique Peña Nieto and Felipe Calderón.

    Near the National Palace where Nieto later delivered his inaugural speech, protestors hurled rocks at police and used metal and wooden sticks to break hotel and restaurant windows. A store was looted and public bus vandalized. Several youth protesters were arrested and more than two dozen police were treated for minor wounds and respiratory conditions related to smoke and tear gas inhalation.

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  • Mexico’s President-elect Hits the Ground Running

    November 30, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    In the lead-up to tomorrow’s inauguration, Enrique Peña Nieto and his Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) have crafted a number of legislative proposals they hope will set the tone for his six years in Mexico’s highest office.  Three key initiatives are now pending debate before the lower chamber.

    First is an initiative to fold the nation’s Secretaría de Seguridad Pública (Public Security Secretariat—SSP) into the interior ministry.  Second is a move to strengthen the nation’s Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Información(Federal Institute for Access to Public Information—IFAI).  And third is an initiative to create a national anti-corruption commission.

    According to Peña Nieto’s transition team, national security and public safety need higher central authority.  Analysts note that under Presidents Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), SSP ran roughshod over the government, many times trampling over the attorney general and ignoring human and procedural rights.  Examples often cited are the televised capture of French kidnapper Florence Cassez, which caused a deluge of human rights complains against the SSP and strained Mexico’s relationship with France, and the unexplained September shooting of two U.S. Central Intelligence Agency agents outside Mexico City by Mexican Federal Police.

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    Tags: Enrique Peña Nieto, Partido Revolucionario Institucional

  • Mexico Primes for the Presidential Oath

    November 29, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    For weeks, Mexico’s Estado Mayor (Secret Service) and Secretaría de Seguridad Pública (Public Security Secretariat—SSP) have been laying the groundwork for a safe and peaceful transfer of power on December 1, when Enrique Peña Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) takes the oath of office.

    The ceremony is scheduled to begin at nine in the morning with the naming of a special committee to escort Peña Nieto to the chamber of deputies, where he will take the oath.  Should the chatty bunch in the chamber decide to keep a tight schedule, Peña Nieto can expect to take the oath and deliver his first speech around 11am.      

    The new cabinet takes its oath on November 30 at midnight, hours before the president-elect takes his.  Peña Nieto´s long-time friend, confidant and campaign manager Luis Videgaray will become treasury secretary, while another PRI party heavy-weight, national president Pedro Coldwell, will take over the Energy Ministry.  Another important appointment includes the naming of seasoned político Miguel Osorio Chong to the Ministry of the Interior.  The Interior Ministry, the strongest of all the ministries, will have additional powers as Congress moves to eliminate the SSP and place all federal police operations under the control of the interior minister.       

    Peña Nieto´s main nemesis, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), promises that the inauguration of the new president on December 1 will be no picnic for Peña Nieto or the PRI.   López Obrador and his newly-founded MORENA movement will hold opposition rallies throughout Mexico´s zócalos to remind voters that Peña Nieto “did not win the presidential election.”

    Both the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) and PRI are determined to prevent the kind of spectacle the nation witnessed in 2006, when Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) deputies tried to prevent Calderón from taking the oath.  That endeavor involveded deputies sleeping near the speaker´s rostrum and over entry points in the chamber of deputies to prevent Calderón from entering the chamber.  This year, PAN deputies have publicly sworn to defend the outgoing president should any left-of-center deputies attempt any acts of violence during the ceremony. 

    Meanwhile, Peña Nieto concluded his first meeting with President Barack Obama, Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and congressional leaders from the Republican and Democratic parties in Washington DC.  In the Oval Office, Peña Nieto asserted his interest in helping Obama craft and pass meaningful immigration reform, and reiterated his desire to continue forging stronger economic and commercial bonds with the U.S. and the region.

    As the meeting took place, Republican senators John McCain, Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Jon Kyl introduced legislation to allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under certain criteria like serving in the military or attending a technical school or university.   

    Back in Mexico, PRI, PAN and PRD negotiators were haggling over a multi-party pact entitled Compromiso por Mexico (Agreement for Mexico), which seeks to set the legislative agenda for Peña Nieto´s presidency in five general areas.  The agreement emulates the  Spanish-style Moncloa Pact of 1977 to ensure democratic governance and transformational policies to make Mexico a first-rate nation.    

    The five main themes of the pact are: social justice; economic growth, employment and competition; justice and security; transparency and corruption; and governance and democracy.  Sub-themes in the agreement include: human rights, security, education reform, sustainable development, poverty, penitentiary system reform, and fiscal reform.

    PAN senators loyal to president Felipe Calderón oppose the pact, saying it will only strengthen the PRI.  PAN deputies and national and local leaders, including  party president Gustavo Madero, think otherwise.  The pact will likely be signed as this piece posts.      

    On the main issue of organized crime, a recent El Universal Buen Dia/Laredo poll reveals 59 percent of Mexicans believe the incoming president should continue the fight against organized crime.  Forty-nine percent believe Mexico´s organized crime problem began during PRI rule in the last century, and 33 percent believe drug traffickers are responsible for spilled blood in recent years, versus the 27 percent who fault Calderón for the violence.

    As Peña Nieto takes the oath and Calderón leaves for Cambridge to lecture at Harvard´s Kennedy School, one thing is clear:  Mexico´s democracy is functioning and moving at an acceptable pace.  As President Enrique Peña Nieto takes the helm, we can only hope he takes his oath seriously, moving Mexico in the right direction and improving the lives of his countrymen.      

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    Tags: 2012 Mexico elections, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico

  • Mexico’s Lower Chamber Passes Labor Reform

    November 26, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    After much public and legislative wrangling, Mexico’s lower chamber opted to bring the country’s labor code into the twenty-first century.  With 361 votes supporting the measure and 129 in opposition, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN), Partido Verde Ecologista de México (Green Party—PVEM) and Partido Nueva Alianza (New Alliance Party—PANAL) voted on November 13 to breathe life into the Mexican economy by overturning rules that have idled Mexico’s economic engine for four decades.  The bill was subsequently sent to the Senate for a second time, and passed.

    Absent from the new law are much-needed transparency measures intended for unions, whose boards are controlled by powerful union bosses who skim profits and use slush funds to reward friends, prop up political campaigns and finance everything from protests to public campaigns against reformers.

    Union transparency and accountability were central to the labor bill submitted by President Felipe Calderón and his PAN party to the lower chamber in September, but the PRI and its allies would not have it. In the end, forgoing strong union transparency and accountability measures allowed the bill to pass.  PRI legislators promised to hold debate on union accountability legislation in a future session.

    The Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD), Partido del Trabajo (Labor Party—PT) and Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement—MC) voted against the bill.  In their view, the bill does little to help workers, a lot to support business owners and validates union corruption.  As the bill went up for a final vote, deputies from the three parties ran a banner across the chamber´s speaker´s rostrum stating, “Those who betray workers betray their country.”

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    Tags: labor reform, Mexico, PAN, PRI

  • Mexico’s Proposed Labor Reforms: The First Test for the New PRI

    October 30, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao


    Mexico’s 62nd Congress had just been inaugurated on September 1 when legislators heard from President Felipe Calderón, who sent a labor bill to the Chamber of Deputies for consideration. Under a new fast-track authority, the executive branch can submit legislation to the lower chamber of the legislative branch, after which the lower and upper chambers have 60 days to debate and vote on the president’s initiative.

    Calderón’s labor bill asked members of Congress to modernize Mexico’s 40-year-old labor code, which was enacted at a time when Mexico’s economy and politics were closed; when dependency on international markets and investment was low; and when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) used unions to marshal grassroots support and to line the pockets of elected leaders and union bosses.

    The results are ghastly: Mexico’s current labor code makes hiring easy and firing difficult. Disgruntled employees who sue former employers collect damages plus lost salaries during drawn-out court cases that can reach five years in duration. Subcontracting is also difficult, as is holding the boundary between consulting and full-time employment—the latter of which brings in salary and benefits.

    Mexico’s antique labor laws have forced many employers to hire less and rely more on informal employment arrangements. The system also discouraged creativity and encouraged the informal sector to grow. (According to the World Bank, 50 to 60 percent of Mexicans work in the informal sector.) The World Economic Forum has also taken note, saying that Mexico’s ability to compete worldwide is constrained by its inflexible labor market.

    The informal sector costs Mexico 2 to 4 percentage points in gross domestic product (GDP) according to the nation’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (National Institute of Statistics and Geography—INEGI). It also deters tax collection: the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) places Mexico last on its members list for tax collection at 17 percent of GDP; OECD countries, on average, collect 34 percent of their GDP in taxes.

    Put simply: the country’s market policies neglect globalization, innovation and competition.

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    Tags: Enrique Peña Nieto, Felipe Calderon, Labor policy

  • Concerns in Belize: Why the U.S. and Mexico Should Pay Attention

    October 17, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    In the fight against organized crime, Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras grab the headlines—but politicos and analysts neglect to mention Belize.

    This Central American country of 330,000 bordering Mexico and Guatemala is fast becoming fertile ground for organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and piracy. At 39 murders per 100,000 persons Belize is the fifth most dangerous country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Honduras is the most dangerous with 86 homicides per 100,000, and Venezuela registers fourth at 67 per 100,000.

    UNODC also adds that “intentional homicides” have doubled in Belize City, the country’s coastal commercial capital, since 2004.

    Gangs working for Mexican cartels are to blame: according to the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB), 43 percent of youth aged 14-24 are unemployed, while 46 percent of the total labor force is illiterate. Moreover, only 12 percent of the total labor force has completed high school.

    Poor education quality and lack of economic opportunity are variables that push youth into environments of crime. Initiation into a local gang could lead to contract work for Mexican cartels that promise anything a young man could ever want: money; drugs; status; and power. Aside from routine murders and robberies, these same gangs are also responsible for the 2011 raid of the Belize Defense Force (BDF) armory in Ladyville, taking M-16 and M4 military issue riffles, 9 millimeter handguns, and grenades.

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    Tags: Belize, Narcotrafficking, organized crime

  • Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador Ditches the Party

    October 2, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Dean Martin said it often: “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” And right about now, Mexico’s political Left is feeling the pinch after its alpha leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), exited the strongest of the left-of-center parties, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD), after Mexico’s electoral tribunal declared Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) president-elect.

    Many, including Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard (PRD) saw the writing on the wall, but not the millions who watched AMLO become PRD party president, Mexico City mayor under the PRD and twice PRD’s candidate for president. At a public event at the nation’s zócalo (central plaza) on September 9, AMLO made two major announcements. First, that he would not recognize Peña Nieto as Mexico’s legitimate president; and second, that he was leaving the PRD with hopes of transforming his social movement, the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement—MORENA) to a new, left-of-center party.

    In 2005, MORENA became AMLO’s grassroots arm with local committees all over Mexico. It developed coalitions with civil society organizations and other local groups in an effort to promote AMLO in the run-up to the 2006 presidential race. On paper, MORENA served as a civil society organization. In reality, and interestingly, MORENA had no formal statutes or rules for its members, except to follow the dictates of its grand leader AMLO. Fast forward to 2012 where AMLO plans to use this base of social soldiers to develop what he hopes will become the party “that will save Mexico.”

    Many question whether MORENA will find its way. First, analysts note that AMLO is no strategist—and that he loathes counsel. Second, tearing the Left at a time when the Left needs unity in the upper and lower chambers of congress will only paint AMLO as inconsiderate and selfish, and portray its newly elected deputies and senators as incompetent and disorganized.

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    Tags: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico

  • Enrique Peña Nieto: Now Mexico’s President-elect

    September 4, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    It is now official: Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) is president-elect of Mexico. The nation’s highest electoral court, the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación (Electoral Tribunal of the Federative Judicial Power—TEPJF) declared July’s presidential contest valid, after runner-up Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) questioned the credibility of the election.  Having reviewed and analyzed numerous pages of accusations of vote-buying, the court has decided Peña Nieto won, marking the PRI’s return to power after a 12-year hiatus.     

    TEPJF Justice Pedro Peñagos surmised the tribunal’s decision best: “In a democracy, one vote makes the difference. If Enrique Peña Nieto received an advantage of millions of votes in relation to the candidate that reached second place, then it follows that [Peña Nieto] should be declared the winner.”  Peña Nieto received just over 19 million votes, versus 16 million for AMLO.

    AMLO rejected the court’s decision: “The elections were not clean, free or genuine.”  Memories of 2006 now pester downtown residents in Mexico City—and with reason.  Over the weekend, the weakened #YoSoy132 youth movement, along with Mexico’s electricians’ union, marched towards the deputy’s chamber. More marches are expected, to including a demonstration at the iconic Zócalo next weekend.

    Notwithstanding, the president-elect is already moving toward setting his legislative agenda. The PRI maintains a plurality in both the deputies and senate chambers, but will need to negotiate with President Felipe Calderón’s Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) and AMLO’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) to pass legislation. In the lower house, PRI, PAN and PRD were elected to 207, 114 and 100 seats, respectively; and in the upper house 52 (PRI), 38 (PAN) and 16 (PRD) seats. In both chambers, the PRI counts on old political dogs as party leaders; Deputy Manilo Fabio Beltrones is serving a third non-conescutive term, and previously served as governor of Sonora state. He was president of the senate until last week. Senator Emilio Gamboa has also served as senator, deputy, minister, and deputy minister under two PRI presidents. Both are party men who follow former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous tactics of squeezing, prodding and logrolling to get legislation passed.

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    Tags: corruption, Felipe Calderon, Transparency, organized crime, Enrique Peña Nieto, Meixco

  • Hugo Chávez versus the Opposition, Round 4

    August 27, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Comandante Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías has come a long way since his altar boy days in Barinas state.  A landslide victory swept him to the presidency 14 years ago, and there it all began. The election of 1998 allowed Chávez to establish the Bolivarian Revolution, a national plan he developed and polished as a young army officer, and clung to while prisoner after executing a failed coup in 1992 against the Carlos Andrés Pérez administration (1974-1979; 1989-1993).

    His rule over Venezuelans has not been without scandal.  Populist programs, nationwide subsidies, land seizures and nationalizations, disputes with Colombia and the United States, arms acquisitions from Russia, energy agreements with Iran, and close ties with Gadaffi´s Libya, Belarus, China and Cuba have both earned Chávez aficionados and foes.  Through charisma and organization he won the election in 1998, beat a coup in 2002, defeated a referendum in 2004, and was re-elected again in 2006.  This year, he wants six more years in high office.  

    Luck and charisma may not be enough to save this caudillo.  Biology and economics are thwarting El Comandante´s 2012 battle plans. His cancer refuses to go, and his ship of state remains stuck in a titanic socio-political hurricane. For starters, inflation hovers at 30 percent, the highest in Latin America and the second highest in the world after Ethiopia.  Homicides are at an all-time high at 67 per 100,000 inhabitants (in Caracas the number lingers between 70 and 100 per 100,000 inhabitants, depending on the source).  By comparison, Mexico´s powerful cartels level murders at 24 per 100,000 inhabitants. 

    The figures are a direct result of high unemployment, especially among youth, and the uncontrolled sale of firearms throughout the country.  A gun law recently passed by the National Assembly aims to limit these sales, but the Chavista gesture comes too late.  The new law does as much as a 2010 ban on publishing bloody pictures in newspapers.  The ban came a month ahead of National Assembly elections to curb what Chávez called “pornographic journalism” when one of the nation´s top newspapers ran a picture of an overrun morgue in Caracas to showcase Venezuela´s crime problem.  The 2010 photo ban and the recent law barring civilians from purchasing guns do little to prevent murder.

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    Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, 2012 Venezuela Elections

  • Post-Election Mexico

    August 13, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    After last month’s mass elections, Mexico is buzzing.  Will second-place Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) take to the streets should the nation’s highest electoral court, the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación (TEPJF), fail to invalidate July’s presidential vote as a result of alleged voter fraud? Will the victorious Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) return to its old ways? And what will ever happen to the outgoing Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN)?

    An angry President Felipe Calderón summoned a number of PAN party leaders to Los Pinos for a series of meetings the week after the election. Everyone, except the party’s presidential candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota, received a mouthful from the president—with the most severe reserved for private secretary Roberto Zuarth, who ran Vázquez Mota’s failed campaign, and state governor Marco Adame whose political operation failed to prevent the PRD from taking the executive’s seat in the state of Morelos. Calderón also suggested that party president Gustavo Madero resign to allow for a rebirth of the party. It was this last suggestion that caused an intense and divisive internal battle between Maderistas and Calderonistas for power over the PAN. The battle includes naming rights over the PAN’s leader slots in the deputies and senate chambers when the new congress forms on September 1, as well as overall agenda-setting and decision-making over who keeps a job at PAN headquarters. 

    Calderón and Madero have never seen eye-to-eye. Madero considers the president worn-out, intrusive, a micro-manager, stubborn and the main reason the PAN lost the presidency. Calderón, on the other hand, blames Madero for the PAN’s loss and wants the party to continue pushing his social and anti-narco policies well after he leaves office. Both have taken to the road, meeting with state and local PAN leaders. Calderón asks for Madero’s head; and Madero asks members to respect party statute, which stipulates a vote for new party leadership no earlier than May 2013.  It remains unlikely the 300-member National Council will hold a vote before the legal date, but it is not entirely impossible. At the height of power, Calderón expelled party president Manuel Espino from party ranks for “excessive use of freedom of speech”—Espino weighed against Calderón during primaries in 2006 and heavily criticized the president in books and interviews—and replaced party presidents and executive leadership in three separate occasions.   

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    Tags: Felipe Calderon, Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Partido Acción Nacional, Partido de la Revolución Democrática, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto

  • Across Mexico, Voters Head to the Polls

    July 1, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Mexico´s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) began the day with a salute and honors to the Mexican flag before the start of an extraordinary session. Mexicans across the country began voting at 8:00 am. If all goes according to plan, the country will have a president-elect by night´s end along with 500 new deputies and senators, six governors and a fresh body of mayors and city councilmen. A total of 2,127 newly elected officials will take office between September 1 and December 1.

    Close to 99 percent of all polling stations are operational and no incidents have been reported to election authorities. Army and Marine elements are patrolling the streets to maintain order and peace in several states where organized crime may pose problems for voters or seek to corrupt the vote counting reporting process. These include the border states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas and the Gulf state of Veracruz where dozens of headless bodies have been found in recent months.

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    Tags: Mexico, 2012 Mexico elections

  • Mexico: Election Day Approaches

    June 29, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Never a dull moment just days before Mexico´s presidential poll on July 1.  Two days after candidates concluded campaigning, a number of allegations, counter allegations, false arrests, accusations, and finger-pointing overwhelm already tried and tired campaigners.  Making matters worse is intrigue and possible underhandedness encircling the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, whose Little Jet had an emergency landing in the state of Puebla earlier this week as Nieto traveled to one of his final campaign appearances.  Mechanical failure was blamed for the unscheduled landing.         

    The National Action Party (PAN), which remains in third place behind the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has been busy trying to win over voters and collect evidence of possible fraud. The charge is that the PRI is providing charged debit cards in exchange for the support of voters in economically depressed neighborhoods.  Campaign manager Roberto Gil Zuarth held a full press conference, complete with debit card, to showcase one of his opponents´ tricks in the run-up-to the vote—a tactic that he, and many others concede, is part of the PRI repertoire dating back to the 1930s.  Nothing will happen, however, as candidates are rarely sanctioned directly.  Mexico´s campaign laws only sanction political parties, and normally after Election Day.  If a sanction does take place, a fine is paid and life continues for the party.            

    While polling companies are easily bought by campaigns and candidates with funds derived from state and municipal coffers, there is an obvious, across-the-board tendency: Enrique Peña Nieto maintains a strong and healthy lead with 44 percent of the intended vote, followed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the PRD with 29 percent, and the PAN´s Josefina Vázquez Mota with 25 percent.  Nieto´s 15-point lead is, by all means, difficult to shatter.  Notwithstanding, the PRI may need this strong advantage as disenfranchised youth energized by social movement #YoSoy132 take to the polls. They will vote for everyone except Nieto who they label as a young politico in dinosaur cloak who will reintroduce the PRI´s authoritarian and godfather brand of politics into political administration.                      

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    Tags: Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vázquez Mota

  • Mexico’s Final Presidential Debate

    June 11, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    The second and final debate between Mexico’s four presidential contenders last night acted in accordance with public polling. Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI) succeeded in not jeopardizing his lead.  Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), now in second place, held back negative attacks to gain independents’ backing. Josefina Vázquez Mota of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in third place, pounced on all three opponents in an effort to tie AMLO for second place.  And Gabriel Quadri of Partido Nueva Alianza (PANAL), polling in the single digits, continued to draw attention to the PAN, PRI and PRD and their failed policies.    

    Among the electorate, Mexicans from all corners left nothing to chance on debate day.  An estimated 90,000 protesters from youth movement YoSoy132 tied up downtown Mexico City as well as Guadalajara where the debate took place. These university students protested against Peña Nieto and honored the fallen on the 41st anniversary of the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 when government-sponsored paramilitary soldiers killed more than 100 students in Mexico City during anti-government protests.  House arrest and formal charges against ex-President Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) for homicide and genocide would follow, but the Supreme Court eventually lifted the house arrest and exonerated Echeverría citing statute of limitations precedents.      

    Enrique Peña Nieto arrived tanned and fresh, but became tongue-tied as he spoke of more efficient government with independent citizen candidacies for federal office, introducing referenda for all Mexicans and offering a leaner congress with fewer legislators. He also lamented Mexico’s violence and poor security, which caused a decline in Mexico’s international standing; he showed a graph placing Mexico only above El Salvador on citizen security issues and declared Mexico’s security situation impedes economic growth and allows competitors like Brazil a disproportionate amount of foreign investment. Peña Nieto led few attacks, but did place on display PAN’s and PRD’s false pretenses of ideological purity by reminding viewers that both parties forged electoral alliances in recent years to win state and local elections against the PRI.  The candidate constantly reminded voters his only mission as president will be to ensure “Mexicans win.” He promised better-paying jobs, economic growth, universal health coverage, free school utensils for all public education students, and to purge hunger from student rolls. 

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    Tags: Mexico, Felipe Calderon, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vázquez Mota

  • Vicente Fox's Fury

    June 8, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    With 24 days remaining until election day, Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN) has been unable to manage its public relations faux pas with former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006). Over the weekend, Fox said the nation will need to unite behind the winner on July 1—referring to Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who maintains an 18-point lead over his three rivals.     

    Days later, at a speech before the Monterey Chapter of the Harvard Club, Fox repeated his claim that Peña Nieto is above in the polls and likely to become Mexico’s next president.  While Fox maintains his allegiance and affection to the PAN, he said his comments are a reflection of his party’s inability to do its homework in the past six years.     

    Fox’s comments angered both his party’s leadership and leftist presidential contender Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). The former said Fox´s comments are insulting and ungrateful to the party that helped him become president. The latter dismissed Fox as “riff-raff” and attributed his comments to a fear that AMLO is only four polling points from the PRI frontrunner. (The figure has been questioned by pollsters, experts and other seasoned campaign consultants since the statement was made earlier this week.)

    This is not the first time the former president has spoken positively of the PRI, the PAN’s lifelong nemesis. In April, Fox told reporters the PAN’s nominee, Josefina Vazquez Mota, needs a “small miracle” to win the presidency. Outcry from panistas ended when Vázquez Mota and Fox met to discuss campaign strategy and later posed for pictures with the media.  

    Vazquez Mota and Fox have a long history: she served as his social development minister for all six years of the Fox administration, a job she executed with high integrity and total devotion. Vázquez Mota worked 18-hour days to reverse the ministry’s traditional politico-electoral operation to support pockets needed to win local, state and national elections. She carried out a census to truly determine how many poor lived in Mexico and brought monitoring and evaluation metrics to the ministry.  The relationship, however, was not always friendly due in large part to the First Lady Marta Sahagún and her interference with Vázquez Mota’s decision-making; the first lady wanted the ministry to promote her political agenda as a preamble to her running for president in 2006.

    PAN President Gustavo Madero says the party will have to consider sanctioning Fox. But such a move could further wound the party. Former PAN Party President Manuel Espino (2005-2007) was both sanctioned and expelled from the party in 2010 after criticizing President Felipe Calderón both publicly and through two published books. Three weeks ago, Espino, a lifelong panista from Durango, held a large gathering alongside Peña Nieto to announce his support for the PRI in next month’s elections. In Mexico, expelling one´s once loyal party leaders comes at a high cost.         

    Should the PRI win the presidency in July, the PAN will have a leadership vacuum among its most senior ranks. If defeated, Vázquez Mota seems unlikely lead the party; Calderón’s appointees will have no moral or political fuel left to reconstruct the party; and the party’s current leadership will lack the clout necessary to carry out any significant changes.  

    Thus, it may be up to individuals like President Fox and a handful of state governors to set new standards and lead the PAN. While Fox’s comments are unfortunate, the party may have to think long-term before making any rash decisions about one of its most respected leaders.

    Juan Manuel Henao is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.

    Tags: Mexico, Felipe Calderon, Partido Acción Nacional, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Vicente Fox, Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vázquez Mota

  • Mexico's Presidential Race: Arrests, Restless Youth and Inequality

    May 31, 2012

    by Juan Manuel Henao

    Mexico's presidential race does not disappoint. Like any good Latino novela, the campaign has a remarkable ability to weave extramarital affairs, dirty money, lies, accusations, paybacks, hitmen, and cover-ups into a national storyline that has Mexicans, diplomats, investors, the Church, and experts questioning the country´s future. Arrests, restless youth and growing social inequality are some of the major issues facing mexicanos and their presidential candidates ahead of an important election in which voters will either reward the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) for its policies since la alternancia of 2000, or reinstate the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which shaped Mexico's present-day institutions and held power for 70 years. 

    The most recent episode of the saga includes the arrest of former Tamaulipas Governor Tomas Yarrington in Houston for allegedly accepting and laundering millions of illicit dollars from the Gulf cartel. Prosecutors in Texas seized properties in South Padre Island and Austin, and Mexican authorities began investigating fraud claims reaching $800 million by Yarrington, his son and close associates. 

    In the meantime, Mexico's attorney general was also busy arresting ex-Baja California Sur Governor Narciso Montano and four retired generals (one a former Under Secretary of Defense). Montano was charged with the alleged misappropriation of $5 million during his time in office, and the generals were brought in for ties to organized crime.  The arrests resuscitated questions regarding former PRI President Humberto Moreira, who along with senior officials allegedly falsified legal and financial instruments to balloon state debt from $200 million to $3 billion during his term as governor of Coahuila.  To date, Moreira remains free.   

    University youth too have come to be a critical part of the series.  This important group between the ages of 18 and 29, which carries 30 percent of the electoral roll, has decided to march, protest and heckle all presidential candidates—especially leading contender Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. Under the banner of Yo Soy 132, the movement has become the Mexican version of Spain's Indignados. They demand a fair and transparent election free from media favoritism as well as general freedom to access government information. Like other similar movements, they denounce Mexico’s poor public education system, lack of economic opportunity for youth, official corruption, and inequality. 

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    Tags: Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto

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