Albion Monitor /Commentary

Mexican Reformers Need Help From Outsiders

by Lucy Komisar

(AR) NEW YORK -- President Bill Clinton, on a visit to Mexico this week, put a symbolic supportive arm around the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) exactly two months before crucial elections for the Mexican congress and the mayoralty of Mexico City. For someone who says he doesn't like it when foreigners intervene in American elections, it was a rather obvious attempt to prop up a government discredited among many of its own people.

Less attention was given to a couple of Mexicans who in came north to New York at about the same time. One, Father David Fernandez, heads the Miguel Agustin Pro-Juarez Human Rights Center. The other, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, is the left opposition's candidate for the capital's mayor. The message they brought was that a hoped-for democratic change in Mexico depends largely on the mobilization of civil society there and public opinion abroad.

"Human rights defenders and social leaders have gotten death threats and bomb threats"
The PRI has been in power for 70 years, using everything from vote-buying and ballot-box-stuffing to intimidation and murder to shut out the opposition. International observers agree that Cardenas of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) won the presidential election in 1988 but lost in the official ballot "count." It is also generally acknowledged that the party and government leaders are corrupt -- with the possible exception of President Ernesto Zedillo, who is said to be powerless.

While Clinton was praising Zedilla for his efforts at controlling cross-border drug trafficking, Father Fernandez was worrying about the militarization of Mexico being carried out under the guise of fighting drug traffickers or guerrillas.

"The army is targeting people of civil organizations as possible members of armed movements," he said at a meeting at the City University Bildner Center here in New York. "Human rights defenders and social leaders have gotten death threats and bomb threats. People are being assaulted and displaced from lands; many community members have been detained, tortured, held incommunicado." He said civilians are sometimes tortured to make them confess to robberies by soldiers.

Fernandez believes the government repression is partly a response to the growth of a civil society which is critical of current economic policies. He said the grovernment sought to reduce the power of NGO's by banning foreign support for civic activities. And he predicted that as the human rights situation deteriorates, there will be increased confrontation between citizens and authorities.

The human rights groups don't have links to the private sector, which supports the present economic model and has not been in the forefront of defending democracy or denouncing abuses. But there are other important links, inside and outside the country.

Fernandez, a Jesuit, noted Catholic bishops' "new independence from the government" and said bishops had gone to Chiapas in April to seek to mediate the impasse between guerrillas and the government. That same month, 10 international human rights observers were ordered out of the country. The government clearly cares about what the rest of the world thinks. Fernandez said it was important for the international community to continue to pay attention to what was happening in Mexico.

For the first time in modern history, the combined opposition parties could win
The one bright spot on the horizon is the July 6 election, which could change the political framework. For the first time in modern history, the combined opposition parties could win a majority in congress and control of the capital city hall.

Cardenas told an an audience of business people and bankers at the Americas Society, "This election will not be stolen because of international concern. The government would pay a very high cost if it decided to commit fraud as in 1988. It would be risky, especially regarding the financial sector from abroad."

If there were fraud, he predicted that Mexicans would seek to reverse a phony result through popular mobilizations and civil action. The business community cares about stability; Cardenas appeared to be using them to send a message.

The government, meanwhile, has banned external financial support for election monitoring. It is not a very favorable indication of the PRI's intentions and ought to make the rest of the world extra vigilant.

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Albion Monitor May 11, 1997 (

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