The Mexican presidential debate last night might have changed the course of the election, scheduled for July 1. But probably not as much as a student-led revolt against the return of the PRI – the party that dominated the country for more than five decades under governments that were feeble excuses for democracy. The polls supposed that the Partido Revolucionario Institucional would return to power but now show that perhaps the election was called too early. Students took to the streets and the internet and seem to have reminded their fellow Mexicans of the PRI’s history. The students shouting in the streets certainly reminded me of the day in 1990 that Luis Donaldo Colossio two years before he was assassinated looked at me across the conference table in our newspaper editorial board room, a quizzical expression on his face.
A friendly man, he seemed unable to speak for a moment. As the PRI’s national chairman, Colossio had come to Austin on an editorial tour to burnish Mexico’s image as a modernizing country. Perhaps President Carlos Salinas already had told him that he had been chosen to succeed to the Presidency. Salinas had “won” the election in 1988 only after the machines counting ballots mysteriously broke down. Colossio wanted to explain the great advances the government had made to protect and secure the sanctity of the result of the next election. My question therefore seemed to stun him.
“Don’t you think that for the public and the world to believe that Mexico’s democracy is real that the PRI must lose the election? I mean, in true democracies, the party in power often loses.”
I had been invited to Salinas’ inauguration, a rather exclusive but contentious affair. I presumed I was invited for my hopeful support of Nafta, the trade agreement that would anchor U.S.-Mexico relations for years to come. I am not much of a party animal and so the lavishness of the receptions made an impression on me. Not that Mexico is not entitled to fete its guests with mountains of frozen shrimp, pounds of meats and lines of desserts. But it was unseemly.
Entering the great hall of the Chamber of Deputies the next day adorned with a massive Mexican flag draped against a wall in the background, I was struck by a weird quietness in the building. But attention soon turned to the guests that had arrived that morning. Never in my life did I ever think I would gaze upon Fidel Castro but there he was in army fatigues and iconic beard. Behind Castro several rows up sat U.S. Secretary of State Charles Shultz who appeared not amused at all.
When the time came for Salinas to enter the hall to take the oath of office, the members of the opposition exploded, plunging the place into tumult. They reached under their seats and brandished signs that accused the PRI and Salinas of fraudulently stealing the election, and they proceeded to shout Fraude! Fraude! Fraude! They banged the back of the seats in front of them and waved their arms in very real anger at the man they believed had cheated his way into power. The ferocious demonstration shocked me. Whenever the lady banging the gavel incessantly to bring the place to order thought she had the place under control, the opposition swelled again. The mayhem went on for more what seemed hours. I looked back across my shoulder at Shultz. He looked on intently with what I thought was alarm. Castro, on the other hand, wore a blank expression. He knew all about one-party rule, after all.
I saw the same empty expression on Colossio’s face four years later, a far cry from the expression of the students leading the anti-PRI campaign in the streets.
Feel free to forward these blogs adapted from previous writings, with additional thoughts published invariably in between.