As Mexico gears up for the most competitive presidential election in its history, its suddenly vibrant political terrain has become a promised land for some of the leading U.S. campaign consultants and president-makers.
Lured south by competing presidential candidates, former Clinton advisors James Carville and Dick Morris and other consultants are helping to transform Mexico’s traditional autocracy into a messy, U.S.-style democracy--complete with sound bites, rapid responses, nightly polling and searing attack ads.
“It is the Coca Cola-fication of Mexican politics,” observed Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais. “The fact that [U.S. consultants] are working in Mexico has enormous consequences. It is the end of the old tradition of anti-Yanquismo.
“Who is going to shout, ‘Americans go home,’ when they are shouting, ‘Americans, please come manage my campaign?’ ”
With just over two months to go before the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party holds its first nationwide primary and 11 months before the election, U.S. consultants have invaded Mexico in force. Some, however, would prefer to keep their presence quiet.
Carville, the acerbic Louisianian who masterminded Clinton’s 1992 campaign, is advising Francisco Labastida--the former interior minister believed to be President Ernesto Zedillo’s favorite--a campaign spokeswoman confirmed. Rosa Arroyo, the spokeswoman, said Carville had not yet signed a contract with the campaign but has met with Labastida and others more than once to discuss strategy.
Reached at his Virginia office, Carville would not discuss his involvement in the Labastida campaign. “I won’t comment on anything I do outside the U.S.,” he said.
Roberto Madrazo, on leave as Tabasco state governor and mounting an aggressive challenge to Labastida in the primary campaign, has signed up a powerhouse trio of U.S. advisors: Tom O’Donnell, former chief of staff to House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.); Douglas E. Schoen, a pollster and media consultant who helped get Clinton and former New York mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins elected; and Zev Furst, a New Jersey consultant who masterminded several campaigns for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and, along with Carville, helped bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to power earlier this year.
Morris, best known for helping Clinton use polling data to shape his policies, and for later handling the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was hired by Guanajuato Gov. Vicente Fox, the presidential candidate of the conservative National Action Party, to create several campaign ads late last year. The ads portrayed Fox as “the education governor,” a theme that has played well in some U.S. campaigns. Morris is working for a presidential candidate in Argentina, but said in an interview this week that he plans to work for Fox again early next year.
The Americans are spreading their influence far beyond Mexico. As the communications revolution creates worldwide demand for expertise in using television and the Internet to achieve political ends, U.S. consultants have become ubiquitous figures in countries from Israel to Sudan, South Africa to Britain.
In Mexico, the American invasion is the byproduct of a political transformation. Since 1929, when the ruling party was founded in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, each president has chosen the party’s candidate to succeed him in a process known as el dedazo: the big finger pointing to the anointed candidate. With the opposition parties holding negligible power, the chosen one was invariably elected.
But in March, Zedillo renounced that tradition, creating the opportunity for his party to democratically choose its candidate.
“The bottom line is that this is the first time in Mexican history that there has been an open primary, and that is why this thing is taking on the properties of a serious campaign,” Furst said. “All the candidates are running scared, or at least trying to run as close a campaign as they can to what we do up here.”
The Americans, by and large, don’t speak Spanish and don’t have prior experience in Mexico. They don’t know if what works in New Hampshire will work in Guanajuato, until they try it. And until recently, the U.S. consultants and their campaign tactics have been about as welcome south of the border as the conquistadores.
But the Americans know a good, all-out political battle when they see one. They have transformed suites at Mexico City’s exclusive Four Seasons hotel into war rooms, and are flying to provincial capitals to meet with presidential candidates and shaking up the political scene in a country unaccustomed to electronic electioneering or bruising campaigns.
Working with Mexican counterparts, the consultants have mounted aggressive television and radio ads targeting their opponents. They are conducting research into the pasts of their candidates’ rivals. They are designing slogans and devising strategies. And they are constantly polling the Mexican electorate.
The Americans are careful not to steal credit from the Mexican political professionals who are running the campaign organizations and making most of the key decisions. But the U.S. consultants acknowledge that their involvement and, in particular, their polling are helping to shape the campaigns.
Madrazo’s image, for example, has been brilliantly remade from that of an old-line pol--what Mexicans call a dinosaur--to that of a maverick bent on opening up a party dominated by presidential control.
“Dale un Madrazo al Dedazo,” goes the campaign slogan, a play on his name that literally means “Give a strong punch” to the old way of picking presidents. It plays off the widely held view that Zedillo, while championing democracy, has secretly chosen Labastida to succeed him.
Another of Madrazo’s ads shows Labastida as interior minister meeting with the governor to congratulate him on a job well done, accompanied by the slogan: “The One Who Knows, Really Knows.” The U.S. consultants working for Madrazo say the credit for the slogan and ad goes to Carlos Alazraki, the campaign’s strategic planner and creative director. But “the strategy that goes into the ad is based on our input,” Furst said.
In June, Madrazo’s American campaign advisors arranged for him to meet with members of Congress and U.S. government officials in Washington. The trip, said Furst, was designed to build Madrazo’s credibility among a Mexican electorate easily impressed by Washington access. The strategy seems to have worked. The visit was heavily covered in the Mexican media.
“In Mexico, for the first time you see a burgeoning multi-party system, and with that comes competitive elections. And, of course, where you see competition you are going to see a demand for expertise,” said Rick Ridder, a Miami political strategist and president of the International Assn. of Political Consultants.
“If there’s one thing Americans can teach Mexicans it is this: Democracy is a booming business.”
U.S. consultants have been flying in and out of Latin America discreetly for decades, advising candidates in long-standing democracies such as Venezuela and Costa Rica from behind the scenes. In the past five years, some of the best-known consultants have advised candidates in Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil.
“Latin America and Europe and every other international market is following roughly the same pattern that happened in the U.S. with campaign consultants, and the similarities are so great it’s frightening,” said Phil Noble, a South Carolina native who has helped make over candidates from El Salvador to Malta.
“Campaigns are becoming globalized just like everything else. You have a similar media environment, you have similar tools and techniques, and you have similar domestic political issues.”
Mexico, traditionally prickly about interference by foreigners, especially Americans, has been slower to use the services of U.S. consultants than some of its neighbors. Its aversion to foreign influence is even enshrined in Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution.
The article gives the Mexican president the right to expel any foreigner without due process for “getting involved” in politics. It has been used in recent years as the basis for the expulsions of human rights workers and others from Chiapas, where a rebel movement emerged in 1994 to challenge government authority.
So far, nobody is talking about invoking Article 33 against the U.S. political gurus lunching at the Four Seasons. But they’re not eager to publicize the Americans’ involvement, either.
“The Mexicans have been notoriously skittish about American consultants, probably more than almost any other Latin American country over the years,” Noble said. “They, like most campaigns foreign and domestic, treat campaign consultants like hookers. They love you and they want you around and they want all your love and attention. But they don’t want anybody to know about it.”