Divergent Visions for a Divided Nation

Times Staff Writer

When car salesman Alejandro Alcantar looks at the Mexican business world, he sees a new U.S.-style order and efficiency. Interest rates are relatively low. More Mexicans bought new cars last year than ever before. Salesmen are learning about a newfangled idea called “customer service.”

Corn farmer Antelmo Bahena feels like his rural world is collapsing around him. He can barely eke out a living on the three acres he rents south of Mexico City. When he can’t afford basic things such as medicine, he blames the corn from Nebraska that’s showing up in the local tortilla factories.

The divergent fortunes of the two men reflect a great economic, regional and cultural divide here. In many ways, Mexico has become two countries. And when Mexicans go to the polls today to pick their new president, one side’s idea of how Mexico should work will triumph over the other.


Caught, as always, between the United States and the rest of Latin America, Mexico will choose between one candidate who is U.S.-educated and one who isn’t. They will pick between a politician who embraces U.S.-style media campaigning and one who leads a mass movement with roots in Latin American radicalism.

Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon even claim their strongest bases of support on opposite ends of the country: Lopez Obrador in southern states such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, Calderon in northern border states such as Durango and Nuevo Leon.

The candidates’ economic proposals are as similar as those of Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“We are in favor of modernization, but built from the ground up and for everyone,” Lopez Obrador told supporters last week at his final campaign rally. He proposed increases in public spending and government subsidies. “The government I lead will always be guided by the principle: ‘For the good of everyone, first the poor.’ ”

At his own closing rally, Calderon promised to continue the policies of outgoing President Vicente Fox. “We will guarantee policies that attract investment, that will create businesses big and small, which will create the jobs we Mexicans need.”

The election of a president will determine whether Mexico continues on a path for the developing world that was laid down in the 1980s by conservative U.S. economists. Fox, who is precluded from seeking reelection, embraced the fundamentals of the neoliberal model: fiscal discipline, open markets and low taxes.

Fox’s policies have brought unprecedented stability, enabling millions to secure home and car loans for the first time.

But the same policies also produced anemic rates of growth: An estimated 4 million Mexicans have migrated to the United States in search of work during the six years of Fox’s term.

“You’ve always had a poor distribution of income in Mexico,” said Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy research in Washington. “What’s changed is that the growth levels of the economy have become so low. You can’t pull people out of poverty without economic growth.”

Frustrated by their struggles to make a living, millions of poor people are backing Lopez Obrador.

“You go to the grain buyers to sell your product, and sometimes they don’t even pay you right away,” said Bahena, the corn farmer. He rents farmland in the state of Morelos for $175 a year and barely makes enough money to pay for fertilizer and other costs.

The poverty, which causes so many Morelos residents to migrate to the U.S., is also causing a breakdown of social mores, he said. “The fathers leave to work on the other side, and the mothers are left alone and can’t control their sons and daughters.”

When the leftist Democratic Revolution Party came to his town to pitch for Lopez Obrador, Bahena listened intently.

Congressional candidate Julian Vences told a story people repeat here again and again. He had seen yellow corn -- unmistakably from the U.S. because the local variety is white -- in a local grain deposit and tortilla factory.

“Thanks to the [North American] Free Trade Agreement, it’s become a rare thing to go to a tortilleria that sells us tortillas made of white corn,” Vences said. “That’s why Lopez Obrador wants to renegotiate that treaty.”

First signed by the leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico in 1994, the treaty created a mechanism that has gradually eliminated many trade barriers among the countries. A provision eliminating the remaining tariffs on U.S. corn and beans sold in Mexico will go into effect in 2008.

Most of the country’s economic elite, and a big chunk of its middle class, is supporting Calderon. They back him in large measure because they remember the bad old days of high inflation and an unstable Mexican peso, a period that stretched, on and off, from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

“It was almost impossible to get credit,” said car salesman Alcantar, 46. “You had to get a guarantor who would assume the debt if you couldn’t pay.” Most people who bought cars did so with cash saved over years.

Consumers didn’t have many choices when it came to cars -- or for many other commodities. “Before, there were just five kinds of cars available here in Mexico,” Alcantar said. “When you walked into a dealership, you had to wait forever for a salesman to help you.

“Now we have literally a thousand different choices,” Alcantar said. In the new Mexico, salesmen jump to their feet when they see a client, he added.

In the final days before the vote, with polls showing Lopez Obrador in the lead, Calderon’s campaign saturated the airwaves with commercials suggesting Mexico’s economic stability would disappear if the leftist was elected and increased public spending: The ads compared him to 1970s Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo.

“Lopez Portillo made the same proposals. The result was a crisis that lasted 10 years,” intones one Calderon ad that features a Mexican family standing in a neighborhood that resembles U.S. suburbia. “You could lose the house that you bought on credit with so much sweat.... Don’t vote for another crisis.”

The differences between the two campaigns and their supporters are apparent to even the most casual observer.

Like many recent Mexican presidents, Calderon has an advanced degree from a U.S. university -- in his case, from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the affluent son of a founder of the National Action Party, or PAN.

Calderon’s supporters circulate PowerPoint presentations outlining how well Mexico’s economy has performed under Fox. Many think he’s simply smarter than Lopez Obrador. A few have circulated a rumor (denied by the Lopez Obrador campaign) that the leftist candidate doesn’t have a visa to visit the United States: Such visas are seen as a status symbol here.

The rumor goes to the heart of what many Mexicans think a leader should -- or should not -- look like. Should he be a technocrat who understands the pie charts and spreadsheets that dominate the world of the car salesman? Or should he be a man of the people who shares the anger of the impoverished peasant?

Lopez Obrador, the son of a humble merchant family, is a graduate of the public-funded National Autonomous University of Mexico. One of his first jobs in government involved traveling to the country’s indigenous villages. He comes from the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco, a tropical region that has never produced a president.

With its large crowds of passionate supporters and populist rhetoric, Lopez Obrador’s campaign draws heavily from Latin American political traditions. It’s not uncommon to see a supporter at his rally holding a portrait of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Lopez Obrador’s backers revel in the low-tech, making their own fliers with scissors and glue, photocopying them and passing them out. For some, the vote is only the latest chapter in a war for social justice.

Ascencion Jaramillo, 83, told seniors at a rally supporting Lopez Obrador in Mexico City to be ready for battle on election day. “We are at the point in the struggle where the time has come to load our weapons,” Jaramillo said in a raspy voice. “Our weapon is our vote.”

Historian Enrique Krauze has suggested that Lopez Obrador’s followers believe in him with too much zeal, that they see him as a “tropical messiah” who will upend Mexico’s political institutions in the name of social justice.

At the edge of Lopez Obrador’s rallies, you can sometimes find supporters who jokingly suggest that their candidate is, in fact, a superhero. They dress in tight red shirts in the superhero style of El Chespirito, the lovable clown of 1970s Mexican television.

El Chespirito’s costume bore the letters “CH” inside a yellow heart, but these people have hearts that announce “PG.” The letters, pronounced peh-heh in Spanish, are a play on Lopez Obrador’s nickname, El Peje, and also the name of a fish found in Tabasco’s rivers.

But the actor who played El Chespirito, Roberto Gomez Bolanos, is backing Calderon. No longer the skinny young man he was in the 1970s, but a rounded-out senior citizen, he describes the PAN slate as the only one that will keep Mexico united.

“Vote always for the PAN.” he said. Pointing to his temple, he added, “Think about it.”

Then he did something that El Chespirito almost never did: He looked straight into the camera, and winked.




A look at the two leading presidential candidates:

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 52

* Democratic Revolution Party (Leftist)

* Bachelor’s degree in political science

* Party president, 1996-'99

* Mexico City mayor, 2000-'05; promises to govern for the poor and forgotten


Felipe Calderon, 43

* National Action Party (Conservative)

* Law degree; master’s degree in economics and public administration

* Congressman; headed party executive committee, 1996-'99; Banobras bank director, 2000; energy secretary, 2003-'04; supports free-market policies


Source: Associated Press