Voting Their Pocketbooks in Monterrey

Times Staff Writer

Erika Bremer Yturria came to the polls Sunday in this vibrant industrial city with one goal in mind: to cast a vote that would help keep leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from power.

The wife of an executive who lives in the exclusive neighborhood of Colonia del Valle, an enclave of spacious homes hidden behind high walls and electric gates, was alarmed to think that Mexico could be the latest Latin American nation to take a leftward turn. She cast a vote for conservative Felipe Calderon, the pro-business candidate supported by many in Monterrey's corporate establishment.

"I love my country ... and I don't want to see the nation divided by someone who could turn out to be another Hugo Chavez," said Bremer, referring to the Venezuelan president whose socialist revolution has polarized that oil-rich nation. "We fear Lopez Obrador. He doesn't think like us."

In a political contest that's boiling down to a referendum on free-market policies, many here appeared eager Sunday to defend the model that has turbocharged a region known as Mexico's economic engine.

If ever there was a place that has benefited from free trade, private enterprise and close ties with the United States, it is this city. Monterrey is Mexico's third-largest metropolitan area, with about 3.6 million inhabitants, and is one of the most prosperous cities in Latin America.

Known as the Sultan of the North for its business supremacy, the city is home to some of the nation's most successful corporations, including cement giant Cemex, glassmaker Vitro, and Femsa, the nation's largest beverage company.

Monterrey boasts fast growth, higher-than-average incomes, relatively low crime and one of the best standards of living in the country. Residents want to keep it that way. And for some, Lopez Obrador represents a risk that they just can't take.

A few miles away from the green expanses of Colonia del Valle, Carlos Guadalupe Beltran waited on a gritty corner for a ride to take him to his precinct to vote. Beltran works in a snack-food factory making about $500 a month. He has a wife, a toddler and new house that he purchased last year through a government-led mortgage program expanded by President Vicente Fox. Though far from rich, Beltran said he had benefited from the economic polices of Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, which is why he said he would cast his vote for the PAN's candidate, Calderon.

"Next year, I'm going to buy a car," Beltran said.

Beltran is the archetype of the upwardly mobile Mexicans whom Calderon sought to win over with his message of stability. Tight monetary and fiscal discipline after the nation's devastating 1994 peso crisis has lowered interest rates and tamed inflation.

Calderon and his business allies ran campaign ads urging Mexicans not to risk their hard-won gains by gambling their future on the populist Obrador, who planned anti-poverty programs they said would bankrupt the nation.

"People here live well. They don't want another [economic] crisis," said Efren Manjarrez Torres, a salesman at a downtown shoe store offering $400 pairs of alligator-skin cowboy boots, along with six months of free financing for those who want to buy on credit.

Manjarrez said he would vote for Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in a region that historically has shifted allegiance back and forth between that long-dominant party and PAN.

There has long been regional tension between Mexico's bustling, independent north and the bureaucratic capital and impoverished south. Many here see themselves as the nation's income generator, pulling the financial load for the rest of the country.

Thus comments by Lopez Obrador referring to businesspeople as "white-collar criminals" and "influence traffickers" struck a nerve among entrepreneurs here. Some also worried that his threats to step up tax collection to pay for social programs for the poor would mean they would be the ones targeted to pony up.

"Why do entrepreneurs fear Lopez Obrador?" said Jesus Marcos Giacoman, president of the National Commerce Council of Monterrey in an interview. "They have fear that [he'll] confiscate their houses, take their businesses or do some other mischief.

"If only the rich pay taxes," Giacoman said, "no one is going to want to be rich."

But some in Monterrey say that Lopez Obrador is right to be concerned about those who are struggling. Fat trade surpluses and low interest rates mean little for the nearly half of Mexicans who live in poverty.

Exiting a polling station in Colonia del Valle, whose parking lot was dotted with new sport utility vehicles and luxury cars, a woman who declined to give her name "because my neighbors might read this" said she thought the "smear campaign" being waged against Lopez Obrador was shameful.

"Drive a few kilometers from here and you'll see why his message is getting through," she said.

Indeed, just a few minutes away in the low-income neighborhoods of Colonia Luis Echeverria and Colonia Plan de Ayala, some residents live in houses jury-rigged from plywood, tarps and corrugated metal. Standing near a polling station in the noonday heat with a rooster crowing from a pen in a nearby yard, Alfonso Salas said the economic stability touted by Calderon wasn't enough.

The unemployed meat cutter said he voted for Fox in 2000. But he said he felt worse off now than he did six years ago. His two sons are growing fast and he wants more for them than living hand to mouth. He said he voted for Lopez Obrador in the hope that someone would listen to the aspirations of the poor and not the preaching of the elite as to how Mexico should be run.

"The rich fear him, and they should," Salas said. "He is going to win. And some of them are going to fall."

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