Thursday, April 30, 2009

Another Honor for El Chapo

He's one of Time's 100 most influential. 

Delay?

The official campaign season for the summer elections is set to begin on May 3rd, but Mexican Senate leaders are analyzing the possibility of postponing the contests. 

I've wondered throughout this episode what the timeline is. I'm supposed to go back to work on May 6th, but is the outbreak going to be over in less than a week? At one point do people take off the masks and stop washing their hands compulsively? I suspect that no one really knows, but this report makes you wonder if the present state of emergency could continue for a while longer. 

Update: José Ángel Córdova has come out against a delay in elections.

If Only We Had a Time Machine

One of the consistent and more productive observations about Mexico's response to the swine flu is that it has neglected its public health infrastructure for decades. (I say productive because hopefully this crisis will spur more investment from the government.) This piece of info will only fuel the fire: the WHO requested more disease labs in Mexico in 1999, and the request went unheeded. 

New Report from HRW

Via the Mexico Institute, I see that Human Rights Watch has a new report out on Mexico's military abuses. I've not read its 76 pages yet, but these two paragraphs seem to capture its conclusions: 
The 76-page report, "Uniform Impunity: Mexico's Misuse of Military Justice to Prosecute Abuses in Counternarcotics and Public Security Operations," details 17 cases involving military abuses against more than 70 victims, including several cases from 2007 and 2008. The abuses include killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions. Not one of the military investigations into these crimes has led to a conviction for even a single soldier on human rights violations. The only civilian investigation into any of these cases led to the conviction of four soldiers.

"The need to improve public security in Mexico is clear," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "But, to be effective, any strategy to address security must also deal with the rampant impunity for military abuses committed during public security operations."
And this doesn't even include the ongoing Juárez operation. 

"Evidence" of a Conspiracy

One of the unlikely conspiracy theories I've heard this weeks is that the government is using the flu as a smokescreen while it legalizes drugs. Putting aside the bizarre contention that one of Calderón's secret goals is to turn Mexico into Amsterdam, there is some support for this theory. Earlier this week the Senate passed a narcomenudeo reform that decriminalizes possession of drugs by addicts while also increasing penalties for the sale of drugs. The first time an addict is caught with drugs, he (or she) will be obliged to undergo therapy. The third time, he will be forced into rehab. According to the article, this is the same plan supported and then vetoed by Vicente Fox four years ago after an outcry by the US government. I'd imagine this was something that was discussed during Obama's visit a couple of weeks ago, and, presumably, the American leader did not object. Kudos Barack! Now do the same thing in the States. 

It is perhaps a bit odd that this reform has gotten so little attention, but it had been under discussion for several weeks, and the proposal's existence was a matter of public record ever since it came before Fox in 2004. 

Gulf Traffickers Take a Hit

Last week, Zetas founder Germán Torres was arrested in Veracruz. Yesterday, Gregorio Sauceda, was also arrested in Matamoros. The media is describing the latter as a major arrest, and calling Sauceda as a high-level member of the Zetas. This is quite different from the picture of Sauceda in a number of books on the Mexican drug trade. According to Ricardo Ravelo and others, Sauceda was never really a member of the Zetas, but rather an old friend of Osiel Cárdenas. Furthermore, he was forced into retirement in 2004 because of a severe drug addiction, and, according to what I've read, was never again a major force in the drug trade. In its second to last paragraph on the arrest, the AP alludes to that: 
Sauceda Gamboa helped the Gulf cartel move an average of 10 tons of cocaine and 30 tons of marijuana across the border each month, and briefly headed the gang, police said, although they acknowledged his personal involvement in the operation had declined in recent years.
Update: Both the AP and the El Universal articles say that authorities attributed the passage of 10 tons of cocaine every month from Mexico to the US. That would be, of course, 120 tons a year. The American cocaine consumption is estimated to total about 250 tons a year. So they are trying to argue that the semi-retired Sauceda, despite controlling only one second-tier border town (Reynosa) was responsible for half of the US cocaine supply? That defies reason, and is a perfect example of why no one trusts anti-drug agencies. I hate to call someone a liar, but if that's really what was said, what else can you call it?

Post on Chávez

I was expecting the Washington Post's editorial on Obama and Chávez to be another over-the-top criticism of Obama's essentially trivial acts of goodwill toward his Venezuelan counterpart. In fact, I think the gist of it --that someone in the Obama government should have had something to say about Manuel Rosales' exile-- is reasonable:
[Keeping nations out of Iran's orbit is] certainly a worthy goal -- and we have no objection to Mr. Obama's handshake with Mr. Chávez. The administration's strategy -- to open up a constructive dialogue with Venezuela and avoid being cast as Mr. Chávez's Yanqui foil -- is reasonable; it is also the same strategy as was tried, unsuccessfully, by the previous two administrations. What doesn't make sense is to deliberately ignore steps by Mr. Chávez to consolidate an autocracy. In so doing, the administration encourages Latin American governments that have shrunk from confronting the Venezuelan strongman to continue in their own silence. It sends pro-Chávez governments in countries such as Bolivia and Nicaragua the message that they can persecute their own domestic opponents with impunity. And it makes it more rather than less likely that Venezuela, with the help of Iran and Russia, will become a threat to the United States.
Peru's democratic government is to be congratulated for its decision to offer Mr. Rosales asylum. It is shameful that the Obama administration won't say so.
However, there are a couple of issues here. First of all, "shameful" might be a bit strong. Maybe it was a calculated and uncomfortable example of realpolitik, maybe it's a little more complicated. We don't know what's going on behind the scenes, and it could be that the US embassy set up Rosales' asylum in Peru. Nor it it clear that a statement by Obama would have made life easier for other opponents still in Venezuela. 

I also think it's incredibly disingenuous to say that Obama's policy has been tried unsuccessfully by the previous two administrations. In the year and a half that Clinton's and Chávez's terms coincided, the latter was barely on the radar. It was also before several years of high oil prices filled the Venezuelan treasury, before Chávez began spending money abroad like a drunken sailor, and before the elections of Morales, Correa, and Ortega. Nothing Clinton did has much relevance on Chávez, because the situation has changed so much. It's like saying that teams should guard Lebron James a certain way, because after all in worked in 2004. 

And as far as the Bush government, yes, it (correctly in my opinion) sought to lower the temperature in the bilateral relationship, but only in the second term. Before that, as the Post neglects to remind readers, it supported (at least tacitly) an anti-democratic coup and its top officials regularly criticized Chávez. 

Calderón's Speech and Other Random Observations

Felipe Calderón spoke to the nation last night, in which he was oddly hyperkinetic. I always sort of feel that way, because I was raised on the somber formality of the Oval Office addresses, but Calderón's hand gestures and vocal cadence were even more accelerated last night. That sounds critical, but it's not; it's just a different way of doing things. Overall, it was a good speech. 

At one point, Calderón offered another reminder of how different things are in Mexico:
Today, also, it became known the WHO, the leading organization in the world on the these problems and with which we have been acting in a very coordinated fashion and following their recommendations and instructions to the letter, has elevated the alert level for the entire world to which is called Phase 5. 
You'd never hear  a phrase in which the US came off as submissive before international organizations slip from a modern American leader's lips, no matter how dire the situation. 

You also see a similar distinction between the two nations in op-ed pages, which is odd, because we don't think about American newspapers as being bastions of nationalism. But consider: American scholars of Mexico and Latin America (such as John Bailey, Peter Hakim, and George Grayson among others) publish articles that deal exclusively with Mexico regularly in Mexican media. In contrast, in the States it would be odd to have a foreign expert on the US given weekly space to talk about US affairs. The closest I can think of is someone like Andrés Oppenheimer, but even he only talks about US affairs as they pertain to Latin America, and he's lived and worked in the US for decades, so he doesn't qualify as a foreign expert. Overall, I think Mexico's approach is more healthy. I'd love to see the NY Times or the Post or the LA Times offer monthly columns to foreign analysts of the United States. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ackerman on Calderón

Earlier this week, John Ackerman penned a piece for Slate that, shockingly, slams Calderón for his response, both immediate and long-term, to the swine flu epidemic. Highlights: 
The Mexican government's initial reaction to the outbreak of swine flu does not inspire confidence. Practically speaking, its slow response has allowed the disease to spin out of control, leading to up to 100 deaths in Mexico and 20 cases of infection in the United States. From a political standpoint, Mexican President Felipe Calderón appears to be using the outbreak to consolidate his power.

[Break]

In addition, Calderón has used the health crisis to concentrate political power in his hands. On Saturday, he issued a decree that places the entire country under a state of emergency. He has authorized his health secretary to inspect and seize any person or possessions, set up check points, enter any building or house, ignore procurement rules, break up public gatherings, and close down entertainment venues. The decree states that this situation will continue "for as long as the emergency lasts."

This action violates the Mexican Constitution, which normally requires the government to obtain a formal judicial order before violating citizens' civil liberties. Even when combating a "grave threat" to society, the president is constitutionally required to get congressional approval for any suspension of basic rights. There are no exceptions to this requirement.
The New York Times also devoted significant space in a recent article to this measure. I agree that it's a bit worrying, but I think it's important to remember that, unlike the other federal power grabs that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, this is a sudden emergency, not a half-baked response to a longstanding problem, and certainly not some long-considered, coldly calculating move to squeeze the nation under Calderón's thumb. The new powers also seem to have been quite useful; the Times implies Calderón would not have had the authority to order the cancelation of public events without the new powers. Furthermore, according to Excélsior, Calderón's new powers were in fact endorsed by the Mexican Congress (including the PRD), and the Senate will play executive watchdog on this issue. Lastly, it also seems a bit inconsistent to ding Calderón for not responding decisively (although Ackerman grudgingly acknowledges his decision to close schools), and then cry bloody murder when he takes an action to make decisive response easier, although maybe I'm simplifying his response a bit too much. 

Additionally, it's way too early to conclude that Calderón's team dropped the ball in late March and early April. A trustworthy and revealing postmortem will have to wait until after the episode passes. And it should be conducted by epidemiologists and public health experts, not constitutional experts. Beyond that, as a resident of Mexico, I found the federal government's response (as well as that of the DF government) to be very reassuring. Officials from both governments have been omnipresent since late last week, offering suggestions and updates on what seems like an hourly basis. As I said at some point this week, I've no basis for comparison, but from the standpoint of transmitting instructions and soothing an anxious populace, Calderón and Ebrard seem to have performed splendidly. 

More on Calderón's Dreams for a Strong Peso

The decline in the peso one day after the official recognition of the epidemic flushed away the more than $22 billion invested by authorities since last October to support the peso. This demonstrates how futile it is to use external debt to avoid the market adjusting the peso according to its own perceptions. Trying to influence these perceptions with vast sums of borrowed money always turns out bad. 

Absolutely, in the short term it's possible and even probable that with the big credits, from the American Federal Reserve (Fed) as well as the IMF for $30 billion and $47 billion, respectively, the peso could temporarily --for example, before the elections in July-- locate itself between 12 and 13 per dollar. But it would be a dollar subsidized with public debt. 

Now when the government is dedicated to defending the exchange rate, it can't do many other things, especially spend on public works. This is because said spending provokes questions from ratings agencies over the possible fiscal deficit, well aware that tax collection is dropping because of the drop in [economic] activity. This would contradict the purpose of a strong peso.

So, despite having offered to exercise budgeted spending in an accelerated manner so as to stimulate the weakened economy, the fact is that it is not doing so. Not only have large projects been canceled, like Punta Colonet, because of the lack of private financing. In addition, the proposed Pacific highway network was also declared void. 

[Break]

If [the government] wants to support the economy it should apply other measures. One would be letting the market set the exchange rate and not misusing reserves trying to support it artificially. Second, supporting indebted businesses in dollars because they employ a lot of people, but the support must be transparent, without subsidies and guaranteed by the businesses' stock. Third, to truly support businesses, eliminating the IETU which now turns out to be an onerous burden both economically and and administratively. Fourth, to support economic activity, reduce the value-added tax to 10 percent. 
I've not read or heard any government official addressing the basic critique of its monetary policy. 

Conspiring

Jorge Fernández Menéndez on conspiracy theories and other stuff:
In the midst of an inevitable crisis that has produced the expansion of the swine flu epidemic, the conspiracy theories couldn't be absent: it turns out that, as was published, that there is an international conspiracy regarding the topic or the information is being hidden in Mexico, without comprehending that before a situation of this magnitude the information of what is happening in our country is being monitored by international organizations and by epidemiological institutions from other nations and there's no way to hide it. The authorities have been criticized for not acting with swiftness, when in reality the same day that it was known that the virus that was affecting the population and causing atypical cases of influenza was new and unpredictable, which is to say, only on Thursday, that same night emergency measures were taken. It's true that some international laboratories began to analyze the situation days earlier and warned the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the World Health Organization, that something was happening in Mexico and the South of the United States, but it was until last Thursday that there was a confirmation that the virus was new and unknown. It has been said that, as a show of that government irresponsibility, there was a stock of a million vaccines against the flu in a country of one hundred million inhabitants. The problem is that this is an atypical illness and the vaccine doesn't block it from infecting because it is concocted to attack other viruses and the traditional period of vaccination against the flu is between October and November. In other words, even if there were one hundred million doses of the vaccine, they wouldn't help address the illness. What is important is that there exist medicines that actually can cure swine flu (antiviral drugs) and there is an adequate supply of these. It has even been said that in reality everything is a media construction to distract us from the economic problems and the consequences of the fight against drug trafficking, as if the national and international media could be part of a conspiracy of this type. 
One hesitates to mount a response to such insane theories, which are emerging with increasing frequency here. Fernández point about the media is a good one, but the problem is the people who espouse conspiracy theories have no faith in the media, reserving their confidence for the crackpot email chains that have been piling up in my mailbox. Another point, which also is surely insufficient for conspiracy theorists, is that this distraction hasn't helped the government in the least. Quite the opposite: as Fernández points out, the estimated loss in commerce in Mexico City alone this weekend was roughly $200 million, and lingering fears will limit international tourists for months, if not years. This will make the economic recovery, which is vital to Calderón's agenda over his last three years, much harder. If this is all a fabricated distraction, who is coming out ahead?

A wag-the-dog strategy relies on the government drowning one embarrassing episode (supposedly a sex scandal in the Clinton years) with another that will rally the country behind the government (attacks on Baghdad). That pattern --something embarrassing and inconsequential replaced by something ostensibly noble and very consequential-- doesn't fit here. It would be more like if the Clinton White House aimed to make us forget about Monica by setting up a murder in the Oval Office. 

Are We Sure about That?

Michael Crowley has written twice today about the swine flu, calling it "much ado about not much" and saying that "people don't understand the flu". Obviously, the perspective is a bit different in Mexico, but it seems like an odd time to making that case. The WHO raised its threat level to 5 (out of 6) today, and the organization's director said, "It really is all of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic." Also, contradicting one of the articles he links, Excélsior is reporting that the WHO has confirmed 148 cases of swine flu, not 79. That number is almost certainly higher, too, as it includes only 26 confirmed cases in Mexico. Obviously we all hope that it turns out that our fears are not justified by subsequent events, and later we'll have time to analyze if the WHO and the media made too much of the bug, but it's a bit early to be definitively drawing the conclusion that they did. 

Also, I'd missed this, but ex-DF mayor and AMLO pal Manuel Camacho was released from the hospital today having been admitted on Thursday with flu-like symptoms. No word on whether or not he was suffering from swine flu. 

Update: Two more examples from Crowley today, plus another one from Michelle Cottle. Crowley's posts are based on swine flu survivors in London and Washington, while Cottle's is based on the fact that her daughter was sick a few weeks ago but survived (seriously). I repeat: my perspective in Mexico is surely quite different from theirs in Washington. I can imagine hordes of bureaucrats running around in a panic, and in such a scenario, a little levity is surely needed. At the same time, highlighting the existence of three individual survivors is just a categorically unserious approach to this. No one is saying that the flu is going to kill everyone it infects.  Indeed, if only 10 percent of those infected succumb, that would make it far worse than anything that anyone is imagining today. Furthermore, there are survivors of every disease, from ebola to AIDS. Does that mean we shouldn't take them seriously either?

Again, we all hope that our anxiousness turns out to be unfounded, but as the flu is still unfolding, I don't think anyone should be calling for the populace to take it less seriously. At least no one who's not a respected epidemiologist. 

Learning

El Universal hopes that when the next health emergency rolls around, Mexico will be more independent: 
Other countries are surprised by the Mexican response. Brazil and France have complained about the national slowness in informing about the epidemic. Along those lines, foreign correspondents have asked the Secretary of Health José Ángel Córdova: why is it that in Mexico people keep dying of a curable illness while in the rest of the world they are merely sick? His response was: "Because here they continue arriving late." If this is true, we would have to ask ourselves if the Mexican hospital infrastructure in and of itself isn't a factor that explains this mortality or perhaps also the previous health condition of the deceased.

Yesterday we wondered in this space if the national health system would be capable of attending tens of thousands of patients. There is reason to doubt it. What is certain is that without the help of foreign specialists, it would be of little benefit to have beds, face masks, and doctors for millions. We would depend on American and European experts to study our diseases, develop a vaccine and mass produce it.

We are incapable of confronting this crisis alone, not for lack of leadership or tenacity, but because we have neglected to invest for decades in universities, labs, and scientists. Let's learn the lesson.
Down the line, it'll be interesting to see if the foreign complaints have any foundation, as well as why Mexicans are so much more susceptible to swine flu. So far the WHO has been supportive, but I don't think they'd be complaining now unless the Mexican effort was woefully incompetent. But even if this editorial turns out to be a bit harsh in its assessment of Mexico's health infrastructure, the last paragraph is hard to argue with. 

Life at Ground Zero of an Epidemic

Here's a taste if life for five-year-old Édgar Hernández, who suffered and is recovering from the first confirmed case of swine flu. 
Each knock on the door brings a surprise to the Hernándezes: fumigators who sprayed her home but did not tell her for what; scientists who asked to take a swab of Édgar’s throat; even the governor of Veracruz, who arrived by helicopter on Monday with an entourage in tow and left Édgar with a soccer ball and a baseball cap.
All of the above would be in addition to visits from reporters from the NY Times, the Telegraph, the Washington Post, and the AP, among surely many others. 

Douthat's Debut

I'm not sure I agree with the Ross Douthat's first column at the NY Times (here are two opposing opinions on it), but I'm quite certain he has already surpassed in a mere 750 words the legacy of his predecessor. Which really says more about said predecessor than Douthat. 

One encouraging detail is that the column will only run once a week. The column format often is like a poorly lit room with lots of crazy shadows; everyone looks slightly uglier in it than they should. Sometimes a big idea meriting several thousand words is crammed down into too few words; more often an author's take on a piece of news consists of one original paragraph, and he (or she) spends six or eight more summarizing the episode and rehashing others' opinions. It seems to me that columns that run only once a week do a better job avoiding the latter pitfall.

Innovations

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, about whom I know little but who seems to one of the most sensible officials in the US when it comes to drug trafficking, complained that drug traffickers have been sneaking money across the border using pre-paid store cards. The cards work like a Starbucks gift card, except the it's not Starbucks credit but rather cash on the cards. Because the cards aren't covered by money-laundering statutes, American officials can't check their value at the border. A drug runner could in theory have several hundred thousand dollars in a bagful of cards, and American officials would have no way of verifying their suspicions that the plastic contained drug money. 

This is yet another example that authorities are always playing catch-up. Goddard presumably wants federal legislation to close this loophole, but by the time it is passed, gangs will already have a half dozen new tricks for sneaking cash across the border. 

Closing Doors and Chilean Hospitality

Chivas is in Chile for a Libertadores group match this week, and evidently the Chilean fans, upon recognizing the Mexican players, have been less than understanding about the health risk. According to Héctor Reynoso and Gonzalo Pineda, Chilean fans yelled, "They're they go, they're going to infect us", ostentatiously cleared a path so that the two players wouldn't come near them, used their hands to simulate a surgical mask, and laughed as they walked by. Pineda reports that they felt like lepers. Given that build-up, the goal celebrations could get really creative. If I were a Chivas forward who just drilled a golazo, I'd have a celebration in three parts: after running over to the rabid, hooligan section of the Everton crowd, I'd fake a couple of coughs, than give them the Dikembe finger, and flex like Superman. 

Also, all of the Mexican league games will be played to an empty house this weekend. The games that were to run on satellite television will also be simulcast on free TV. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yet Another Piece of Bad News

Mexico's economy contracted by 10.8 percent this February compared with the last, which is almost a full percentage point more than what economists had predicted. This represents the largest one-month decline since Inegi started measuring the data point in 1993. 

Words of Praise

Here's Eugene Robinson on Mexico's reaction
Mexico City is one of the greatest urban agglomerations in the world, a dense and teeming mountain valley with a population of more than 20 million. Wealthy enclaves have the sleekness of Manhattan or Beverly Hills, but much of the metropolitan area is gritty and anonymous. It must be an easy place in which to disappear.

Yet somehow, amid all the chaos and bustle, Mexican health authorities noticed an unusual cluster of deaths -- first just a handful, then a few dozen. That observation led to the identification of a new, potentially dangerous strain of influenza, and now governments worldwide are issuing travel advisories, readying stockpiles of medicine, canvassing hospitals for possible cases of "swine flu" and, of course, telling citizens not to panic.

The initial response to the flu outbreak, which may have the potential to become a pandemic, illustrates first of all how sensitive and responsive the global health-monitoring system has become. If the world is going to be ravaged by an infectious disease, chances are that we'll see it coming.

The unusual deaths in Mexico City that caused officials to sound the alarm were not, after all, so unusual. It's expected that people will die of flu during flu season. But it's not normal for relatively young, healthy adults to die of flu, as was happening. It was a real achievement for authorities to notice a few anomalous deaths and connect the dots.

Timely Piece, Sort Of

Arturo Córdova published an op-ed piece this Saturday titled "The End of the World According to Cormac McCarthy", which focuses on 2007's The Road. I can't decide if it was published because of the flu (which started dominating the news cycle in earnest on Friday), or if it was just a coincidence (the word "influenza" never once appears). I'm leaning toward the latter, basically because I like real-life examples of irony. 

Here's Córdova's take:
There's a metaphor in the road: just as the two characters run across rickety busses, abandoned houses, streets without a soul, citizens today walk in silence, have lost their powers of speech and pass the time in empty suburbs where people avoid each other or cram themselves into their car as though it were a bunker. It evokes On the Road, by Keroac. But it's a counterpart [to On the Road]: it's written in a world without remedy, where solidarity has disappeared and people fight for sustenance, over air. 

On the road nothing is handed over lightly, we must recognized that it coexists in the abyss where violence dictates and establishes normalcy. It's a sketch of the cancelation of humanism and it alludes to the regime of violence under which the West has decided to place itself; it signals that the destruction of civilization is the same as the scandalous disdain for the authenticity of sensitive ties, of proximity and recognition, outside of the productivism that has us eating ourselves. 
I'm not sure I have this translated one hundred percent correctly (darn poets, why can't they just write clearly?!), but you get the gist. I'm not sure I agree with all (or even most) of it, but Córdova's the poet here, so you should probably pay more attention to him than to me on all literary questions. Whatever the case, both the piece and McCarthy's opus serve as a timely reminder of how bad things aren't right now. 

Immigration Writ Small

Matthew Soerens offers a personal take on immigration that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever worked in the kitchen of a Chicago restaurant. 

Close Race

The PAN and the PRI are neck and neck in race for governor in the North's most important state, Nuevo León. In 2003, the PRI took the race by more than 20 points, but now the PRI candidate (Rodrigo Medina) enjoys just a two-point advantage over his PAN adversary (Fernando Elizondo). 

Listen to This Man!

Moisés Naím, who was a member on the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, devotes his column in the latest edition of Foreign Policy to a call for legalization. There's nothing too groundbreaking, just the same basic, irrefutably logical argument that more and more people have been making lately. Here's a taste: 
This “it doesn’t work, but don’t change it” incongruity is not just a quirk of the U.S. public. It is a manifestation of how the prohibition on drugs has led to a prohibition on rational thought. “Most of my colleagues know that the war on drugs is bankrupt,” a U.S. senator told me, “but for many of us, supporting any form of decriminalization of drugs has long been politically suicidal.”

[Break]

The addiction to a failed policy has long been fueled by the self-interest of a relatively small prohibitionist community—and enabled by the distraction of the American public. But as the costs of the drug war spread from remote countries and U.S. inner cities to the rest of society, spending more to cure and prevent than to eradicate and incarcerate will become a much more obvious idea. Smarter thinking on drugs? That should be the real no-brainer.

Tardiness

Evidence has started to emerge that Mexico knew it had an exotic flu strain in the country, yet it delayed in notifying the world community. Brazil claims health officials knew as early as March. There is a report that a community in rural Veracruz had up to 500 cases of a swine flu-type of illness going back to December (including two deaths), but neglected to notify federal authorities. Mary Cuddahe writes from Mexico City: 
[The spread of the virus to other nations] has led some to call the government’s initial response inadequate and, at the very least, too slow. In a press conference earlier today, health officials stated they had discovered the first case was a 4-year-old boy in the southeastern state of Veracruz, who was initially tested for a different flu strain on April 2. (He survived.) By the time officials realized they were dealing with the H1N1 virus days later, containment was impossible. And it wasn't until two weeks later that the government finally told people what was going on.
According to authorities, there have been 1,995 cases in Mexico, with 149 deaths, 776 still in the hospital, and 1,070 already recovered. One additional piece of news today (beyond the steady drumroll of more cases, more deaths, in more places): Mexico City has partially closed all food establishments; diners are only allowed to order food to go. 

For more info in English, check out the Mexico blogs on the blogroll (Mexfiles and Mija Chronicles are two), as well as Mexidata

Monday, April 27, 2009

What to Say?

Although it is dominating the news, the influenza outbreak doesn't make a particularly good op-ed topic, because a) analysis is far less important than real news, and b) there's nothing to analyze. We're all anxious and unsure (people in Mexico City certainly even more so), and beyond that insight, there's not a whole lot left to say. Plus, DF commentators who write reported columns have the added disadvantage of most of the city hiding at home. 

Ricardo Raphael's innovative approach to this dilemma was to track the reaction to the epidemic on the internet. A couple of the more memorable comments: 
Various believers in conspiracy theories assured that it was the government of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa --with its infinite political calculations-- that infected us was this bacteria to distract us while the elections pass, the economic crisis is resolved or the military catches El Chapo Guzmán. 

[Break] 

Toñitito: "The swine flu arose from Mexicans being so exposed to the electoral spots from the IFE."

Christos: "If Andrés Manuel López Obrador was president of Mexico, he would surely have freed us from this epidemic." 

El Juan: "If the government doesn't cure you of swine flu, they should pay you."

Landing on His Feet

We now have another reason to go nuts on Cinco de Mayo: that day, Luis Téllez will take over as head of the Mexican stock exchange. Wouldn't it be ironic if every company with a tangential interest in the cell phone industry plummeted? 

Cool Kids

Ulises Beltrán has a poll in Excélsior showing that Marcelo Ebrard is not only among the most prominent members of the PRD, he's also the most popular. In the last seven months, he has gone from a 5.6 to 6.5 in the pollster's approval index, while he is now recognized by 77 percent of the population, which puts him next to AMLO (96 percent) and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (85 percent) as the party's most well known figures. Jesús Ortega, Lázaro Cárdenas, Alejandro Encinas, and Amalia García round out the most well known perredistas. What do you notice about them all? None are legislators. 

Somebody Powerful Has It In for Mexico

There was an earthquake measuring 5.7 just before noon today in Guerrero. 

Misrepresentation

Off the flu and on to happier subjects: torture!

I haven't seen much comment on Michael Scheuer's piece in the Washington Post, which strikes me as odd, because it is combative and provocative. The gist is that in abandoning torture, Obama is acting like a naive dilettante. Scheuer builds his case on the eventuality that we capture Osama, that he knows where and when nuclear bombs are to explode in the US, and that because we don't (or can't, thanks to Obama) torture the information out of him, the bombs go off. 

He deals with the debate exclusively in the terrain of such a scenario, so it's not surprising that it's not a particularly nuanced or balanced take on the debate. Indeed, the parts about Obama are absurd: 
...Obama gazes upon a globe that he regards as largely carnivore-free and believes that remaining threats can be defused by semantic warfare; just stop saying "War on Terror" and give talks in Turkey and on al-Arabiyah television, for example.

[Break]

Obama and his team will "reluctantly" agree to a congressional investigation of former Bush officials and serving CIA officers, politically targeted indictments from Holder's minions and perhaps even a truth commission to prove that even the United States can aspire to be a half-baked Third World country.

[Break]

Americans and their country's security will be the losers. The Republicans do not have the votes to stop Obama, and the world will not be safer for America because the president abandons interrogations to please his party's left wing and the European pacifists it so admires. Both are incorrigibly anti-American, oppose the use of force in America's defense and -- like Obama -- naively believe that the West's Islamist foes can be sweet-talked into a future alive with the sound of kumbaya.

So if the above worst-case scenario ever comes to pass, Americans will have at least two things from which to take solace, even after the loss of major cities and tens of thousands of countrymen. First, they will know that their president believes that those losses are a small price to pay for stopping interrogations and making foreign peoples like us more. And second, they will see Osama bin Laden's shy smile turn into a calm and beautiful God-is-Great grin.
The fact that he discounts Obama's promise not to interrogate CIA prosecutors from the get-go is a pretty good indication of bias, and other examples of it flow throughout. The idea that Obama thinks that holding hands, singing kumbaya, and using nicer words alone will defeat Islamic terrorists is a ridiculous, tired caricature. As is the suggestion that pleasing European pacifists weighs heavily on Obama's mind. As is the suggestion that Obama thinks that nuclear destruction of American cities would be a small price to pay for making foreign people like us more. Honestly, such a mischaracterization of Obama's point of view, hyperbolic though it may be, borders on insulting his readers' intelligence. Obama, of course, doesn't think reaching out to the Islamic world comes at the expense of American security, but rather helps ensure it. Scheuer's point would seem to be that Obama falsely conflates the two goals, and needs to forgo the former in favor of the latter. I'd be a lot more disposed to giving his argument serious consideration if his rhetoric wasn't grossly misleading. 

Take a look at Obama's campaign speech on terrorism, which, shockingly, includes no mention of kumbaya: 
Just because the President misrepresents our enemies does not mean we do not have them. The terrorists are at war with us. The threat is from violent extremists who are a small minority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, but the threat is real. They distort Islam. They kill man, woman and child; Christian and Hindu, Jew and Muslim. They seek to create a repressive caliphate. To defeat this enemy, we must understand who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for.

[Break]

There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard.

As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.

[Break]

Beyond Pakistan, there is a core of terrorists -- probably in the tens of thousands -- who have made their choice to attack America. So the second step in my strategy will be to build our capacity and our partnerships to track down, capture or kill terrorists around the world, and to deny them the world's most dangerous weapons.

I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America. This requires a broader set of capabilities, as outlined in the Army and Marine Corps's new counter-insurgency manual. I will ensure that our military becomes more stealth, agile, and lethal in its ability to capture or kill terrorists. We need to recruit, train, and equip our armed forces to better target terrorists, and to help foreign militaries to do the same. This must include a program to bolster our ability to speak different languages, understand different cultures, and coordinate complex missions with our civilian agencies. 

Precautions and Fear

Here's the scene from a department store in Torreón. El Universal is reporting that there are a dozen suspected cases of swine flu in Torreón and Saltillo, which I'd not heard as of this morning, and probably has something to do with the schools being closed. I can't help myself from analyzing every physical sensation in any part of my body (Is that a headache or did I just sleep on it wrong? Do my eyes hurt or is it just because I was reading with my glasses on?) every half an hour or so, to see if anything I am feeling corresponds with the symptoms. So far, thankfully, nothing. 

The whole city, and I suspect the country, has a really odd vibe right now. It's a fear nothing like that provoked by drug violence. When, for instance, eleven people were killed in one night in February, rumors careened around the city about upcoming and just occurred gunfights, and people mostly stayed in their homes for the next couple of days. Then, the fear was one of anger. People were pissed at the gangs and the police and the mayor and the president. Today, rumors are flying and people are mostly staying indoors, but there's no anger, because, thus far, it doesn't seem as though anyone as screwed up, so there's no easy villain. Instead, it's more of a mix of fear and novelty; the whole thing came out of nowhere, and seems more like a movie plot than something we are actually living. The fear also has a fleeting quality to it; everything outside appears normal (other a slight diminution of activity), and it just seems so far-fetched that a flu epidemic could bring our world to a stop, so it's easy to let your mind wander to other concerns. But then you check the news or your email box, and the reminders are many. 

Tourism Down in Mexico

Not a huge surprise, but here's the NY Times report. Also, schools are closed in Coahuila for at least the next two days, to see if any cases of influenza appear. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Government's Reaction

This speaks pretty well of the response from Calderón and company: according to an Imagen poll, 61 percent say they have confidence that the government knows what to do to control the epidemic. We'll know a lot more when this episode is reexamined in the future, and it may well turn out that there were lapses in judgment that we don't know about yet. But the fact that the government, given the elusiveness, anonymity, and mortality of the threat as well as a populace with skepticism written into its DNA, enjoys such a high level of confidence is quite remarkable. 

Bajo Reserva wrote about the government's response yesterday, revealing that (no surprise here) Calderón spent several hours with his advisors discussing the threat, and also meeting with (some surprise here) political rival and State of Mexico Governor Enrique Peña Nieto to coordinate the federal and state response. 


A lot has changed since 1985

Pics from Juárez

Time has a photo essay up. 

More on Open Veins

Marjorie Miller has some opinions on the book's continued relevance in this Sunday's LA Times

This Week's Unsettling Anecdote from the Torreón Police

Three hundred thirty-nine officers, or well over half the total of 600, have been suspended for not submitting to mandatory a drug test last week. Plus, more than 80 of the patrol trucks, 20 percent of the total, were to discovered to have had their GPS tracking devices intentionally dismantled, so that the patrolmen's bosses couldn't monitor their activities. 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Objecting

Jorge Fernández Menéndez did not think too highly of the Durango archbishop's performance this week, and sees it as indicative of a broader tendency of the Church to avoid confronting organized crime:
The problem, a grave one, with the declaration of the prelate González is that, first of all, he claimed to know where El Chapo lived and, second, he did it in a public forum, as a demand to the authorities that hadn't detained him despite knowing where he was. That explains the violent reaction of organized crime, which ended up costing the lives of two soldiers that really were working on locating Guzmán Loera. There hasn't been neither from the archbishop nor from the institutions of the Church even one declaration lamenting the event, as though it had no relation to the commentary.

[Break]

The strategy of washing hands, from many men in the Church, is not, cannot be, legitimate. Of course there are those who fulfill their responsibilities in many regions of the country and persecuted by the criminals. It came out this week that at least 300 priests were away from their respective parishes for that reason, and they, according the commitment made by the Secretariat of the Interior, should be protected. But the number of honest civilians, police, and soldiers (we are not talking about those who have died for being a part of one of the groups fighting and as a consequence of that activity) that have been murdered is much greater and this isn't often considered publicly by the Church. 

Flu Update

No one in Mexico City has died in the last 24 hours from the swine flu, but the total number of deaths is up to 61, out of more than a 1,000 suspected cases. Public events have been canceled, though masses have not. Schools in Mexico City are expected to remain closed for at least the next week. WHO spokesmen have voiced concerns of this outbreak turning into a pandemic, in part because of the flu's tendency to attack healthy people harder than it does the elderly and very young children. 

Symptoms include headache, fever, pain in the eyes, and a cough. If you live in Mexico (or have been around someone who has been to Mexico), health officials here recommend that you go to directly to a hospital if you begin to show said symptoms. They also recommend not shaking hands or kissing on the cheek (or on the mouth, for that matter) when you say "Hi" to someone. I plan to use that advice as an excuse to snub people I don't like for years after the flu panic has passed. 

I'll be interested to see the assessment of the Mexican authorities' response to this. I've not lived through a deadly flu outbreak before, so my frame of reference is limited to Outbreak, but it seems like they've done a good job keeping everyone informed since yesterday morning. Donald Sutherland must not be running things. 

Responding to the Abuse Report

Per the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) report released earlier this week, Ernest López Portillo argues for a thorough accounting of the army's misdeeds and the punishment meted out to those responsible: 
Felipe Calderón took an extraordinary decision to confront an extraordinary situation. He found territories and institutions kidnapped by organized crime and he didn't hesitate to call the army out onto the streets He explained that he didn't have an option before the weakness of the civil apparatus, particular the police. Now we are being informed that the army will stay on the streets and many have applauded the courage of what the perceive as a decision that was late in coming. Maybe they are correct, but the CNDH is presenting accusations of events that perhaps represent isolated cases, but are perhaps a demonstrations of a growing phenomenon of deviance among the military. In the strictest sense, we don't know the size of the problem.

And we don't know because there are no effective mechanisms of civilian scrutiny of military operations. For all practical purposes, the civil authority, even if it wanted to, doesn't have the resources or the capacity to mobilize sufficient mechanisms of accountability regarding the operation of the armed forces. 

In any case, only a commitment with acts promoted from the interior and exterior of the armed forces could make the internal and external control of military conduct effective, and the application of consequences, according to the nature of the case. The recent creation of an area of Human Rights in Sedena was justified precisely as a show of the military willingness to guarantee its respect. The signal was welcomed. 

Now it's time for new decisions, such that the president and the high military command take control, before the eyes of the citizens, of addressing what was said by the CNDH with complete transparency. The society cannot have doubts about the political compromise at the highest levels, be they are military or civilian, to investigating and if need be punishing the violation of human rights and the law by soldiers. We have lost a good part of the strength civilian institutions before organized crime. Protect the authority of the armed forces and do so under through the only possible means in a democratic state with the rule of law, which is to say, subjecting them to [external] control. What is at stake is the moral authority of the state.
I couldn't agree more. Anyone who wants the army on the street should be shouting the loudest for greater accountability, both as a moral imperative and also because it will make the army's involvement in fighting drug trafficking less fraught and more feasible in the long term. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Little More on Yesterday's Legislation

I mentioned yesterday's changes to the Federal Police earlier today, and here's a bit more (in Spanish), and still more here (in English, at Mexfiles). The gist is that the PFP will have more power to gather information, including phone taps, and set up sting operations, and will also drop the first P from its name. The goal is that this new body would replace the army as the lead agency in anti-drug combat. It remains unclear to me what would happen to the AFI, if it would be folded into the new Federal Police, as some have been proposing for years, or if it would coexist. Because the AFI has more of those investigatory powers, it seems more logical that it's the former, but the commentary I've seen has referred to it replacing only the PFP. 

I have no special opinion about this right now. Maybe that's because it's Friday afternoon, and tomorrow I'll wake up spitting wisdom like Jay-Z does rhymes. 

Lost Amid the Chaos of the Influenza

Obviously there are much more important things happening today, but Javier Aguirre released his list of convacados for a few days of practice later this month. It's hard to know how much to make of it, since there'll be no game, but there are a lot of surprises: no Oswaldo, no Venado (in fact, no one from Chivas), no Torrado, and lots of new faces all over the field, especially up front. 

Although, with the flu panic growing and weekend Mexican league games likely to be canceled, it seems possible that there will be no practice. 

Steadily More Alarming

I didn't really take a whole lot of notice to the cancellation of classes in Mexico City because of a flu epidemic that has already killed 20 pieces in the region. Silly me. Canadian and American officials are calling it an epidemic, and saying it is a never-before-seen mix of avian and swine flu. It has shown up in Sonora (two states away from me), as well as six other Mexican states and the southern US. A coworker told me that she heard a report that people from age 25 to 50 have been abnormally susceptible to the strain, and that the symptoms are almost indistinguishable from like allergies, which many people here in the North suffer from on a daily basis this time of year. I should have listened to my girlfriend and gotten the free vaccine a couple of months ago.

Schettino on Pemex

Macario Schettino weighs in on the bad news from Pemex earlier this week.
Now, the million and a half daily barrels that we consume in Mexico also generate oil profits, and that's how it will stay. The government income will depend, in this case, only the international price of crude and the exchange rate. At a greater price, more profits, and a more devalued peso, more resources in pesos for the government.

But, however we look at the books, we should be clear that the goose that lays golden eggs has died, and although a very nice business remains, we can no longer get out of bed at 12. Mexico has the immense fortune to have guaranteed coverage for the internal demand of energy, but it no longer has the miracle of abundance. It can no longer waste.

What this means is not a terrible energy crisis in Mexico, but only that a strong adjustment will be necessary in public finance, in addition to a correction, just as strong, in the international trade balance sheet. What oil can no longer do is substitute for tax payment and competitiveness. If we don't cover the needs of the state, there won't be oil to use. And if we don't manage to generate the resources to cover our demand, there won't be oil to give us dollars.

At bottom, this means that we will have to work more and better, and pay more taxes. The truth is that given how we have managed the country, it continues being a miracle that it's not exhausted, and that we still have opportunities. It's true that having to work sounds horrible, but so it goes. There's still a way to fix things.
This is more optimistic than most of Schettino's recent (and not so recent) commentary on Pemex, which is perhaps a bit surprising given the consistency of the bad news. Then again, as Schettino alludes to and as he has written explicitly in the past, removing Mexico's dependency on oil, while sure to be painful, is a key step in modernizing the economy and the public accounts.

TWIB

The headliner on the first of the two competing cards this weekend is Carl Froch versus Jermain Taylor. I've not seen Froch a whole lot, but his style --lots of offense, lots of carelessness-- should make it an entertaining fight. Taylor's reluctance to let his hands go could make this a much closer fight than it has to be, and I can imagine Froch taking this on pure work rate. However, I think Taylor, once forced to fight, will find plenty of openings in Froch's defense, and will batter him over the second half on his way to a unanimous decision. On the undercard, I like Allan Green by knockout over Carlos De Leon.

On the HBO card, Juan Manuel López faces the cagiest boxer of his career in Gerry Penalosa. I love López's skills, but it worries me that I've not seen him get hit a whole lot, and that he's won so many recent fights without a whole lot of effort. I don't think Penalosa, a 36-year-old with 60 fights who's moving up in weight, is going to be the guy to touch him for the first time, but if Penalosa can get the fight into the middle rounds, I think this could be more of a challenge than most López fans expect. Ultimately, however, I see the Puerto Rican winning by a late stoppage. In the opening bout, I'll take Lamont Peterson over Willy Blaine in a snoozer.

In tonight's fights, Deandre Latimore looks to make his mark as a 154-pound force (as if there weren't enough of them already) in a hometown bout with Cory Spinks. Latimore looked great in blasting out Sechew Powell last year, but he has no other name of note on his ledger. In his twenty bouts, Latimore has faced all of four men with winning records, and one of them was just 5-3, while another knocked him out in the third. I acknowledge that Spinks is a soft-punching part-time fighter who is on the down side of his career, and his legs might not be there for him, but Latimore has nothing approaching Spinks' experience. I think the veteran takes a decision.

In the other fights of note this weekend, I like Antonio Escalante over Gary Stark, Devon Alexander over Chuy Rodriguez, and Daniel Jacobs over José Varela, all by knockout.

Learning from Others

Michael Reid, the Economist editor fresh off a trip to Mexico, wonders why Mexico doesn't take a harder look at Colombia's security travails and successes:
It surprised me that few Mexican officials seem to take into account the relevance of the recent experience of Colombia (with the notable exception of Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora). In both countries drug trafficking exists in symbiosis with the weakness of the rule of law. In Colombia, a historically weak state, combined with a difficult geography, allowed for the growth of irregular armies of guerillas and paramilitaries, some time ago turned into bands of drug traffickers. Happily, Mexico doesn't suffer these evils.

But Colombia also has what Mexico lacks: an independent and relatively efficient judicial branch, a national police that enjoys the respect and collaboration of the public, and specialized bodies well trained in the techniques of criminal investigation. The security forces are beneath a single --and civil-- authority. In Álvaro Uribe, for all his defects, they have a president who has shown urgency and force in overcoming any bureaucratic sloth. Furthermore, Colombia has almost a decade of experience combining the support of the United States with its own efforts (as in the Mexican case, the aid is a small fraction of its own security expenditure).

It's true that all these efforts have not impeded the recent growth of cocaine production in Colombia. But they have achieved a significant improvement in public security, which is more important. Of course there are many differences between Colombia, a politically unique country, with a long democratic tradition, and Mexico. But the size of the challenge that Mexico confronts in the realm of security mean that it can't give it itself the luxury of ignoring similarities and extracting corresponding lessons.
I wonder if Reid doesn't understate what Mexico is doing to address those ills. Last year's judicial reforms and the drug judges I write about here every so often are a good step toward a more efficient, independent judiciary, although it will take years for the reforms to really take hold. Reforms to the federal police have been ongoing (including more developments just yesterday). Of course, none have succeeded in creating a professional, respected Federal Police, but clearly it is a goal for Calderón's team.

I'm also not sure Colombia in particular is the best example. First of all, an independent judiciary and a competent police force are both universal goods, not something Mexico needs to learn to appreciate by looking at other nations. Furthermore, of course Mexico should take what it can learn from any other country's experience, from Sri Lanka to Italy, but Colombia's challenges are fundamentally different from Mexico's. And despite all the advances the country has made, as well as the recent decline in Mexican security, Colombia remains far more dangerous than Mexico.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Most Alarming Signal about the Integrity of Mexico's Electoral Campaign I've Heard All Day

The brother of the Rafael Cedeño, the just-arrested boss of La Familia, was a Green Party candidate for federal deputy in Morelia. He resigned his candidacy in light of his brother's arrest (which occurred at a party that he himself was attending), but Rafael Cedeño was not an unknown man before he was arrested. Wouldn't a perfunctory check of the pre-candidate lists have warranted his resignation a bit earlier? If Rafael hadn't been arrested, would Mexico be faced with the prospect of the brother of a capo potentially winning a federal deputy seat? (Not very likely, since he was from the Green Party, but still.) Mexico has made a lot of noise about isolating the campaigns from the influence of drug runners. The fact that Cedeño was a candidate suggests that's all it is: noise. 

The Worst Explanation I've Heard All Day

From Germán Martínez: The PRI is attacking Vicente Fox because they fear his success.

Evidently, the bar for success has been lowered to mere existence.

The Saddest Thing I've Heard All Day (In Regard to Mexico)

Galilea Montijo is leaving Hoy, instead attempting to make it on Broadway. Waking up at 10 am on a weekday will never be the same for me.

Defending Abstention

There have been a couple of recent pieces defending Mexico's high rates of abstention in recent weeks. Here's José Antonio Crespo:
[M]y posture is that, based on the behavior of all of the parties in recent years, you can conclude that there isn't a substantial difference between them.

[Break]

[I]n the present circumstances, voting could strengthen the particratic and oligarcic arrangement that many of us perceive and about which we complain. In contrast, the "non vote", if it is sufficiently large, could grab the partidocracy's attention so that it realizes the next step in opening and political inclusion, not, in this case, of the opposition, but precisely of the citizens.

[Break]

I don't suggest that we proscribe the parties ("throw all the bums out"), but rather improve the representation. In any case, the probability of this happening is greater with a large "non vote" than with an abundant turnout, which wouldn't generate in and of itself any incentive for correction or reform.
I like Crespo's writing, but this suffers from serious logical defects. First, although they all have their flaws and lamentable characters, there most certainly is a difference in the parties. Consider the following questions: Once in power, which party would be most likely to invite private enterprise into the operation of Pemex? Which party would be most likely to resort to anti-democratic protest should its initiatives be defeated? Which party would be most likely to usher in a new era of church-state collusion? Which party has shown the greatest degree of corruption in executive office? There are definite answers to these questions.

Additionally, it strikes me as incredibly naive to think that politicians will pay more attention to citizens the less they vote. The currency for democratic politicians is, first and foremost, votes. Withholding that currency removes any incentive for the politician to pay attention to you. He (or she) is not going to be more solicitous in the hope that you come back to him (or her); he's going to move on to the voters who he knows are locks to vote. Look at the US: there's a reason social security is a sacred cow, yet the national system of college loans routinely screws millions of students out of thousands of dollars. That reason? Seniors vote, young people do not. Politicians pay attention to seniors, and they largely ignore the young.

I also think that tossing all of the ills of Mexico's democracy under the epithet "partidocracy" or "political oligarchy" tells us nothing. In any representative democracy, representation is inherently imperfect, but talking about a Mexican "partidocracy" suggests that Mexico's democracy is fundamentally different from others. It may be more distant from the voters than in the US, but all democracies suffer from a too-large gap between voters' will and politicians' behavior. And the best way to bridge that gap is, of course, to vote! If Mexicans set up a MoveOn.org, or some version of the Christian coalition, which is to say grass-roots groups that could deliver votes en masse to one Mexican candidate instead of another, they would find a much greater degree of responsiveness from their representatives. But if they disapprovingly isolate themselves on a mountaintop, it seems painfully obvious to me that the incentive for the politicians to conflate their own interests with those of their constituents is reduced, not increased.

César Cansino made arguments similar to Crespo's last week:
A sudden decline in said participation or a considerable increase in abstention can't be explained by reasons of a scarcely democratic political culture that drives the citizens away from the voting booths, but the opposite: the existence of a citizenry sufficiently mature and informed as to discern that the political offer being presented is poor and therefore doesn't deserve endorsement at the voting booths.
For basically the same reasons I mentioned above, I find any justification of non-voting as a legitimate form of engaging the political class rather unconvincing. Additionally, classifying Mexicans voters as extraordinarily wise specifically because of their low turnout makes me worry that in his next column, Cansino is going to try to sell me a bridge in New York.

Down the Road

Carlos Loret looks into his crystal ball:
They want Josefina Vázquez Mota to attempt to torpedo what until now figures to be [the PRI's] shining armor: they want her to run for governor of the state of Mexico in 2011, because if Peña Nieto loses the succession he can forget about his presidential aspirations, which in the PRI won't be allowed to occur. If Josefina can dent that armor, [other PRI presidential hopefuls Manlio Fabio] Beltrones and [Beatriz] Paredes will have a lot to thank her for.

Lots of Arrests

According to the Secreteriat of the Interior, some 43,000 Mexicans have been arrested for crimes related to drug trafficking during Calderón's term. The group most affected by those arrested was the Zetas, followed by the Carrillo gang and Chapo Guzmán's group.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nails

Writing about the financial problems of athletes or former athletes always strikes me as a bit vindictive and gratuitous, especially when the subject, say, Lenny Dykstra, seems to suffer from delusions. Nonetheless, this ESPN article about the ex-Phillies and Mets center fielder has so many hilariously bizarre anecdotes that I am willing to ignore the unseemliness of it all, at least long enough to finish the article. For instance:

"He thought he could keep my $500,000 and nobody would have the resources to go after him," Dada says. "But in this case, I am going after him. General surgeons are not intimidated by professional athletes.

"Like I told him, if I can cut somebody from the neck all the way down to the pubis with a scalpel, then I cannot be intimidated."

And:

When race car driver Danica Patrick appears on a TV commercial, he pipes up, "I made her, man. Put her on the cover [of The Players Club] and made her."
And:
In a second-floor hallway leading to what used to be Gretzky and wife Janet Jones Gretzky's bedroom, Dykstra spots a bat -- the flying variety -- balled up in a corner where the high ceiling meets the wall. He ducks beneath it with his hands clasped on his head, playfully screeching.
And:
Inside the office elevator, Dykstra lifts his right leg like a dog relieving itself -- he retains a degree of the old flexibility -- and farts.
My oh my. Jim Cramer appears repeatedly as well.

Going Negative on the Negative Reaction to Negative Campaigning

Yes, you read it correctly, that's a triple negative in the title.

Moving on, Ezra Shabot provides a succinct rejection of the anti-negativity electoral regime presently in place in Mexico:
And if it worked in 2006 as much for the PAN with "López Obrador is a danger for Mexico", as with the PRD with the "Hildebrando case", in 2009 it's unimaginable that the parties will renounce this recourse regardless of the legal consequences. It continues being advantageous to pay the fines that the IFE imposes for defaming the opposition, in exchange for increasing the power of the parliamentary group in the lower house.

[Break]

Negative campaigns aren't everything, but without them it is impossible to consider an integral electoral strategy, capable of delivering victory. Attempting to censure these expressions is as absurd as turning politicians into contestants in a contest of oratory. The struggle for power in a democracy is a war with certain rules that don't eliminate low blows, much less the use of effective and trustworthy weapons.
Well said. Shabot nails both the philosophical and practical absurdity of the ban on negative campaigning.

Bookgate Continued

La Jornada runs down the reaction to the newest addition to Obama's reading list, with commentary by Otto Reich, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and Andres Oppenheimer (who of the preceding doesn't belong?). Reich's is the most overheated:
It was also, frankly, an error by his team. They should have avoided this. I worked for three presidents. I don't think this would have happened with Reagan or with the two Bushes. They shouldn't have put President Obama in that shameful situation, because this is a very anti-American and also anti-European book," he commented in an interview with Newsmax TV.

And he added: It's an almost 30-year-old book, written by an ultra-left Latin American, a very unknown author. And now (with his gift), Chávez has put this book, I'm told, at the top of the list of sales at Amazon.
This is the translation of the translation, so there may be some slight errors. I'm most curious about "unknown", which was written as "desconocido" in the article. Maybe he actually said "unrecognized", because Galeano certainly isn't unknown.

Here's Fred Kaplan, with an articulate rejection of the argument that the Obama-Chávez handshake endangers the US national security:

One result of the summit, he continued, is that it's now easier for friends, like Mexico or Colombia, to work with the United States "because their neighbors and their populations see us as a force for good or at least not a force for ill."

As for less-friendly countries like Venezuela, though Obama did not say so, an unthreatening picture of America at the very least takes the wind out of Chávez, who has built power, at home and in some quarters abroad, by waving his fist at America and likening George Bush to "el diablo." And, who knows, it might maneuver Chávez more into our lane, too. "Even within this imaginative crowd," Obama said to the press corps, "I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of … having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela."

And so, Obama's talk of building alliances and listening to others is not a celebration of multilateralism for its own sake. It's a hard-headed formula for advancing U.S. interests in a world where we have less leverage than we did during Cold War times to impose our will on a whim.
Reich's words in particular are a perfect reflection of the flaws to this response generally. If you think the book is wrong-headed, by all means, attack it. Show us why it is silly. Underline the stupid passages that have been proven wrong by history. But don't just say it's written by an unknown ultra-leftist and, as such, it shouldn't be read, nor should it appear within a ten-foot radius of the president. That's just silly. Obama wasn't endorsing it. He was receiving a gift. Haven't any of these people ever disliked a gift they've received?

I've not read the book, so I'm hesitant to make a judgment, although I find the arguments against it and dependency theory in general rather convincing. Nonetheless, there's a huge difference between objecting to the book's conclusions and advocating a diplomatic row in response to its being given. Wouldn't it be a lot more sensible (and original!) for Obama to read it, and then publish an honest critique of the book in Paris Review?

Hating Your Audience

Does liking Edgar Allan Poe's stuff make me a sucker, the butt (among many others) of a 150-year practical joke? At great length and in very entertaining fashion, Jill Lepore addresses this question.

Honestly, I don't think so. An authorly disdain for the medium doesn't make the product any worse. Or maybe I just don't like the idea of being mocked by a dead man.

Really Bad News

1) The IMF says that Mexico will be the country most affected by the crisis, with a contraction of 3.5 percent his year, and inflation of 4.8 percent. Next year, the economy will begin its recovery with 1 percent growth. The big question about the recovery policies of Calderón has been when that recovery will start. If the American and Mexican economies start to bounce back later this year and early next, then everything should be OK. On the other hand, if the recovery is slower in coming, then:
[The Mexican] economy would be in an unsustainable situation, but the government will have already spent all of its reserves and taken out loans to sustain the peso artificially. The crisis in the productive sector and in the population would be much deeper and the official gamble will have been incorrect.
And all hell will break loose.

2) Revenue from oil exports dropped by 60 percent, thanks to declining production and cratering oil prices.

Aziz Nassif on the Summit

Here's his take on Obama's shuffling the plates in the Americas:
Obama has moved the stage and proposed to leave behind the old ideologies and what they produced. He wants to empty out the historical polarization and seek "pragmatic and responsible" solutions, because it now makes no sense to exhaust yourself in knowing if the right and the paramilitary groups are responsible or the insurgents on the left; nor does it make sense for Obama to push a capitalism without brakes or central planning of the economy. Deflating the ideology means leaving behind old wounds and allowing for the propulsion of prosperity and security on the continent. In both the link with Mexico plays an important role.

One important part of the thermometer of this new context is what could happen with Cuba. Raúl Castro's government knows that there is a good opportunity to become part of a new era, but at the same time it will have to understand that the Cuban transition belongs to a new generation. The offer of dialogue has been proposed and now the ball is in the island's court. Obama dismantled that which Antonio Caño called the alibi of anti-Americanism: "The peoples of the region, with good reason, fear everything. But, at least, something very important surges immediately from Puerto España: the leaders of this continent are incorrectly going to be able to take shelter now in the alibi of anti-Americanism" (El País, 4/19/09). Despite the speeches about unity and the augurs of good times, there are observers who noted two blocs that predominate in Latin America in regard to the role of the United States. The axis isn't between right and left, but rather between public policies of regulation of the market and respect for democracy.

According to Moisés Naím, on one side are Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica, and on the other, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Honduras (El País, 4/19/09). This division manifested itself in the final document of the Summit: consensus was achieved, but not unanimity. Which means that the countries of the Bolivarian Alternative didn't subscribe to the text because there wasn't a condemnation against the Cuban embargo. Nevertheless, there were commitments in security, the environment, energy, and the fight against poverty. Obama sparked the reconciliation, we'll see what the response is to the new context...
Repeating an observation from a couple of days ago, he makes only the scarcest allusion to Calderón's proposed energy market, which, truth be told, is more attention than most have granted it.

Optimistic Take

Here's Jairo Calixto's reaction to the government survey showing that the percentage of Mexicans' who approve of the nation's political parties lies in the single digits:
Gómez Mont's survey reveals how ungrateful we Mexicans are, because the parties are an inexhaustible source of happiness and good cheer.

Lack of Coordination

A GAO report that criticizes the lack of inter-agency coordination (particularly the DEA and ICE) in combating drug smuggling raised eyebrows here. It was evidently written in March and released yesterday, and I suspect it was part of the reason behind the naming of a border czar. But I'm not convinced a new czar is going to alleviate these issues; since the border's problems are very much related to drug smuggling, won't Bersin inevitably conflict with the drug czar?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Humble Disagreement

Fresh from a Pulitzer victory and some praise in Gancho itself (clearly the latter stands as the more momentous achievement), Eugene Robinson penned a column today that I didn't think a whole lot of. The argument was that Obama should have pushed back at Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, and the anti-American Latin American left.
But when Obama shook the man's hand, he should have telegraphed clearly, through posture, expression and language, that he was not amused. Chávez's gift of the book was meant to affront, not to enlighten, and I would have advised Obama to reciprocate in kind.

[Break]

Obama was right to show respect for the leaders of neighboring countries big and small at the Summit of the Americas. Those who were not gracious enough to show respect for him deserved to be given -- metaphorically, of course, and in the spirit of hemispheric cooperation -- the back of the presidential hand.

The question about whether he deserves it is really beside the point; I just don't see what would have been gained by an unfriendly moment with Chávez. Obama wouldn't maintain and therefore couldn't win a weeks-long shouting match with Chávez, and it would just drag the binational discourse into the gutter. And it would make a normalization of relations with Venezuela (and other like minded governments) harder to achieve; unless you think the freeze in diplomatic relations between the US and the Latin American thorns in its side is a good thing, I don't see how this would have been a constructive move.

Even beyond the absence of benefit for the US, such a moment would have likely been a godsend for Chávez himself. Now he is the uncomfortable position of having to reconcile a decade of Bush-fueled anti-Americanism with the arrival of a vastly more popular American leader. For Obama to show him up would spark a war of words, which places the US in the ideal role for Chávez: that of arrogant hegemon.

As long as we're on the topic, here's Chris Beam with more on Ortega's performance in the Summit of the Americas.

Good Stuff in the Post

Today's The Washington Post has a lengthy report from Juárez by William Booth and Steve Fainaru, who have together delivered some good reporting from the country in recent weeks. It offers lots of tidbits about the militarization of the city (for itstance, I didn't know that soldiers are now writing traffic tickets) and the benefits the recent deployment has brought, and also offers a more complete picture of the human rights abuses that have resulted. The latter is certainly worrying, and I expect many more similar stories to come trickling out of Juárez in the coming months. (There's also been some of that here in the Laguna in the last couple of weeks.) For Juárez residents, I guess the question is whether the increased risk of abuse at the hands of a soldiers a reasonable price to pay for such a significant drop in drug violence? I suspect that for most the answer is yes. I hasten to add that I am not excusing incidents like those mentioned in the story, which are truly horrible. A certain spike of such complaints is inevitable in a situation like Juárez, and it's incumbent upon the army to address the complaints publicly and openly, rather than just sweeping it under the rug.

The article also mentions the panel of anonymous judges tasked with processing criminals arrested for drug crimes, which has always struck me as one of the more interesting recent innovations in Mexico's criminal justice system.

Fighting with Fox

One of the week's ongoing spats is between Vicente Fox and the opposition legislators in the Chamber of Deputies, who have refused to approve his expenses during two years of his term. In response to the rejection and calls for an investigation, Fox called the legislators "crazy" and "dummies". In response to the response, priísta Samuel Aguilar offered a deft couplet that finished with the declaration, "Fox is messed-up in the head."

To celebrate, Ricardo Alemán takes a trip down memory lane, examining how attitudes toward Fox have changed, although his blustering has remained constant:
It seems that one of the favorite sports of politicians, parties, and citizens is taunting Fox, a politician who captivated many between 1997 and 2000, who unleashed passions and hopes with the birth of a new century, and whom today they would like to burn at the stake.
Update: Aguilar must like the attention he receives for being humorous: today he offered to pay for the therapy sessions for Germán Martínez, so that the PAN leader could get stuff off his chest in private, rather before the eyes of the nation.

More on Galeano's Opus

When I heard that Chávez had given Obama The Open Veins of South America, I immediately thought of Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, which devotes several thousand words denouncing Galeano's tract. Here's one of the book's authors (Álvaro Vargas Llosa) with an update on his distaste, in honor of Chávez's largesse.

More from Vargas Llosa here.

Not a Huge Surprise

Via The Plank, the Obama administration has said that it won't look to reopen Nafta. The article doesn't mention it, but this comes on the heels of the (only) difference of opinion expressed during his visit to Mexico, during which Calderón expressed adamant opposition to reworking Nafta. This has to be a minor moment of triumph for Los Pinos, although proper decorum dictates no public shows of celebration.

Polls

Mitofsky's March polling is in. It shows a similar though not quite as severe drop in support for the PRI as was demonstrated by Berumen's polls a few weeks ago: the nine-point lead in February has dropped to five, with the PRI enjoying just over 32 percent support, while 27 percent said they would vote for the PAN. Twenty percent did not express a preference.

Felipe Calderón remains popular, with 68 percent of those polled expressing approval of his term. This is the seventh consecutive increase in the Mitofsky survey, and contradicts other polls that have shown a slight decline in approval in recent months.

Until Obama's Second Term

A presidential spokesman has said that, absent any significant change, Mexico's army will be used in the fight against drug traffickers until 2013 at the earliest.

Reminder

Néstor Ojeda reminds us that Andrés Manuel López Obrador's peccadilloes go beyond the reaction to the 2006 election:
Recently the fate of the first great protagonist of the video scandals that have occurred in Mexico in recent years became known. I refer to Gustavo Ponce, the ex-secretary of finance of the government Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for money laundering.

Ponce was filmed playing in the VIP rooms of the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, gambling with the money of the businessman Carlos Ahumada, intellectual and material author of the video scandals who has revealed that those trips formed part of the web of corruption between the government of El Peje and the construction magantes of the Distrito Federal.

Today, while Gustavo Ponce is in jail, López Obrador continues on his campaign across the country, calling on the downfall of the federal government, wishing to impose his will on the parties that support him and run for the second occasion for the presidency of the republic.

And up to now, López Obrador continues being untouchable. All of the parties have denounced the dubious origin of the resources with which he has financed his movements and the electoral authorities don't do anything.