IN 1991, PERUVIAN NOVELIST MARIO VARGAS LLOSA scandalized the Mexican political establishment by describing Mexico as "the perfect dictatorship." "The perfect dictatorship is not communism, not the Soviet Union, not Cuba, but Mexico, because it is a camouflaged dictatorship," he argued. "It may not seem to be a dictatorship, but it has all of the characteristics of a dictatorship; the perpetuation, not of one person, but of an irremovable party, a party that allows sufficient space for criticism, provided such criticism serves to maintain the appearance of a democratic party, but which suppresses by all means, including the worst, whatever criticism may threaten its perpetuation in power."
The last several years, when a democratic opposition has struggled to emerge in Mexico, have tested the "perfect dictatorship." Unfortunately, put to the test, the Mexican government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have proven Vargas' claim true.
Approaching the 1988 presidential elections, the ruling establishment expected its choice, Carlos Salinas, to win the presidency by a safe margin. But a groundswell of support for opposition leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas caught the PRI off guard.
As a result, the PRI had to resort to extraordinary measures to maintain its grip on power. The government computers used to tally the 1988 vote mysteriously failed on election eve and the actual documentation has never been released, but available evidence strongly suggests that Cardenas won some 42 percent of the vote compared to 36 percent for Salinas. The government withheld results for more than a week while Cardenas ballots were burned and the PRI vote was inflated by party "alchemists" to produce a convenient 50 percent majority for Salinas.
Proponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) conveniently overlook the fact that the legitimacy of one of the signatories to the agreement is at best highly questionable. When forced to concede that there may be some irregularities in the Mexican electoral process, and in human rights conditions more generally, they argue that closer integration of Mexico into the North American economy will bring a democratic scrutiny that will provide an impetus for reform within the country.
But the 1991 Mexican mid-term elections, which took place in the shadow of the NAFTA negotiations, suggest otherwise. While many foreign observers graded the 1991 elections as relatively clean, domestic observers and participants knew otherwise. A close examination of the election shows that fraud, intimidation and rigged procedures were as widespread as ever.
Rigging the rules
In the 1991 elections, the PRI used the institutions it controlled to tilt the field in its favor. The president and the PRI hold a 13 to 8 majority on the General Counsel of the Federal Electoral Institute. The conditions, as well as the results, of the 1991 elections reflected this lopsided composition. During the campaign, the Federal Electoral Institute:
Government control on election day was extremely tight in every state but Baja California. It was typical to find polls administered exclusively by members of the ruling party. Poll manipulation was widespread throughout the country.
A recent study of state electoral boards released by UNAM (National Autonomous University) in Mexico City revealed that the number of registered voters in San Luis Potosi dropped from almost 90 percent of eligible residents in 1988 to 76 percent last August. In just this one state, more than one quarter million Mexican citizens were deprived of their right to vote.
The "clean election"
The federal and state elections held in the northern border-state of Nuevo Leon in July 1991 were generally considered among the cleanest, least fraudulent elections in recent memory. Foreign press accounts and even Mexican news reports praised the Salinas government for "allowing" what seemed to be free and fair elections. Yet in an inspection tour of 20 polls in metropolitan Monterrey (the state capital), foreign observers encountered widespread irregularities.
In every case the local poll president and secretary belonged to the PRI. Roughly one in three polling locations visited turned out to be at the home of a PRI member. Later, upon examining the two volumes of official results from the gubernatorial and state congressional elections in Nuevo Leon, evidence of systematic fraud was readily apparent.
In the gubernatorial race, for instance, there were 123 precincts where the number of votes cast exceeded the number of persons registered to vote. In 63 of those, an effort had been made to compensate for the overenthusiasm of the ballot-stuffers by subsequently annulling enough ballots to drop beneath the number of registered voters. In another 43, generally urban, locations where the opposition National Action Party (PAN) is strong, there had been massive annulments (sometimes more than 50 percent) of ballots, often resulting in PRI landslides.
In rural areas, hard-hit by government policies that have forced down prices for agricultural commodities, the PRI nonetheless pretended to have obtained an extraordinary 100 percent of the vote in scores of localities, often with equally fantastic claims of near-100 percent voter turnouts. In fact, such shut-outs were by far the most frequent occurrence in rural Nuevo Leon, followed by locations in which the PRI claimed 99 percent of the vote, then 98 percent, etc. A sampling of 277 polls in four rural districts in Nuevo Leon found an incredible 62 polls reported 100 percent support for the ruling party. None of the polls in the sample reported lower than 64 percent vote for the PRI.
Similar results were uncovered in other states. In the gubernatorial race in Guanajuato, the PAN found 506 precincts (out of 3000 examined) in which the number of votes cast exceeded the number of registered voters, and another 597 with shut-outs (zero votes for the opposition) or near shut-outs (one to five votes for the opposition). In the governor's race in San Luis Potosi, opposition poll watchers were barred from entering about half the polling places, making a reliable parallel count altogether impossible.
During a late 1991 visit to Washington, Sergio Aguayo of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights said that in San Luis Potosi the conditions for a free and fair election were absent: "In the first place, the local media were completely biased in favor of the PRI candidate. Second, there was an enormous disproportion in the economic resources available to the PRI and opposition candidates. Third, voter registration was defective and worked against the opposition. As for election day, we found irregularities in 54 percent of the polls. ... With the evidence we obtained, we were unable to determine who won. The only certainty was that this was not a free and fair election."
The official results of the summer 1991 elections reflect both the means by which they were secured and the effective lock the ruling party has on the electoral system. The PRI took 290 of 300 directly-elected seats in the Chamber of Deputies; 31 of 32 Senate races; all 40 directly-elected seats in the Representative Assembly of the Federal District; and all seven governorships. Although President Salinas asked the "governors-elect" of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi to "resign" for the good of the country, he has been unwilling to concede that the elections were fraudulent.
The results are even more striking in view of the fact that the single senatorship and three of the 10 congressional districts won by the opposition were in Baja, California. The only state not under PRI control (the governor's office and state congress were won overwhelmingly by the PAN in 1989) is also the only state the PRI could not pretend to win in 1991. This illustrates an important point: without exclusive access to state funds, patronage and control of the media, the PRI is vulnerable to defeat.
In October 1991 testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Douglas Payne of Freedom House in New York put the connection between the protection of human rights and expanded democracy in concise terms: "The heart of the electoral problem remains the lack of separation between the PRI and the state, and the innate structural imbalances that follow from it. In his address to the September 1990 PRI National Assembly, Salinas proclaimed that the government and party would continue to be one and the same, a reality made clear by the 1991 elections. Salinas is a deft politician, both at home and abroad, and his economic achievements are considerable. But if Mexico is to become a modern, democratic state, he must move beyond tactical concessions toward establishing the conditions for genuine multiparty politics."
Control of the electoral authorities is the key to preservation of one-party rule. That is why neither President Salinas nor his Institutional Revolutionary Party have been willing to consider any electoral reform that would create truly independent electoral commissions, as demanded by Mexico's democratic opposition. It is also why the Salinas Administration has ruled out any possibility of inviting U.N. and Organization of American States observation teams, a practice by now routine elsewhere in the hemisphere. Were Mexico's elections as clean as its government insists, there would be nothing to hide.
Control and intimidation of the media
An independent media could serve to combat some of the PRI's anti-democratic practices, but the media in Mexico is independent in name only. The government succeeds in controlling the information that reaches the public through a complex system that relies on bribes, institutional coercion, threats and intimidation.
Individual reporters who insist on maintaining a critical distance from the government and covering stories that cause official embarrassment are frequently subjected to threats, intimidation and even murder, which the Mexicans call "the ultimate form of censorship." In the months preceding the 1991 elections, a number of journalists were attacked - professionally and physically - and one was murdered:
Human rights and democracy
Lacking the popular mandate that would result from free and fair elections, the PRI regime sustains itself through a combination of subsidies for the poor, favoritism for key businesses, subtle persuasion and bribery, and force. That the latter is usually used only as a last resort against those who cannot be persuaded or bought into conformity only magnifies its effectiveness. The pattern of officially sanctioned violence is sufficiently selective to serve as a warning to others.
A March 29, 1989 commentary in Uno Mas Uno summarized the situation in Mexico with respect to acts of lawlessness by government officials: "Many Mexicans know very well what it is to feel abused, mistreated, arrested, insulted, blackmailed, tortured and even murdered by agents who represent the state's coercive apparatus or by common or higher court officials ... Suspicion of all forms of authority has almost been endemic and automatic for Mexicans, but what has happened over the past few years ... seems to be close to a deep crisis."
The political party that has most directly challenged the democratic legitimacy of the regime has suffered the worst repression. More than 100 members of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have been killed by security forces, goon squads and PRI members since the 1988 presidential election. PRD mayors have been shot at, detained on trumped-up charges of drug dealing and terrorism, tortured and imprisoned.
The persistence of major human rights violations, carried out with complete impunity, is intimately linked to the lack of democratic accountability in Mexico. As long as Mexican citizens are prevented from passing judgment on their leadership in free and fair elections, such violations - to say nothing of more generalized corruption - will remain endemic.
Commenting on the rising level of violence in the southern state of Chiapas, Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz highlighted "the anomalies" that occurred during the August 18, 1991 balloting. Electoral fraud, he said, had transformed "people's euphoria" into "great disappointment" culminating in massive demonstrations. The Bishop told La Jornada, "There are two signs pointing to the frightening growth in [government] repression. First, the people are increasingly aware of their rights and their historic responsibility; second, there is a growing urgency within the government to maintain order."
CITIZENS AND LEGISLATORS OF THE UNITED STATES BEWARE - you are currently the target of a $50 million public relations and lobbying disinformation campaign about North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The effort is being funded by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the current front man in our 64-year-old one-party rule and his political supporters among the thirty Mexican families who control over 50 percent of our Gross National Product.
We initially learned of this U.S. disinformation campaign when we joined Mexican Congressmen representing all three major political parties on a NAFTA fact- finding mission. We heard repeatedly that the failure of this NAFTA in the U.S. Congress would cause political and economic chaos in Mexico and destroy U.S.-Mexican relations. That argument is false. More recently, President Salinas has been threatening a Mexican walk out on NAFTA if it is not approved as written and immediately. This position does not represent Mexican political and economic reality, it is political posturing for international and domestic election consumption.
The reality is that Mexico's economic and political situation is mostly independent of NAFTA. The lack of democracy and the poor political policies that have been implemented in the last 65 years have driven half the population towards poverty and extreme poverty. Resolving this problem is the real issue for Mexico's future stability. Moreover, while we support a trade agreement between our countries, many Mexicans think that this NAFTA would be a bad deal for us, in part because it will lock in our intolerable political situation.
The lack of democracy not only undermines Mexican political stability; it impairs our economy as well. An "unofficial" deal-known of quite openly in Mexico as "El Pacto"- cut between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the PRI-controlled single national labor union has caused the real-buying power of the Mexican worker to go down by 50 percent in the past decade. Workers who try to organize independent unions are harassed, silenced, blacklisted and/or fired from their positions. As well, recent neo-liberal economic and domestic policies have devastated Mexico's small businesses and thrown small farmers off their land.
These miserable conditions are forcing small farmers and the unemployed to migrate to the big cities, where unemployment is already high, or to migrate North to the United States in search of better living standards.
These problems are the result of lack of real democracy in Mexico. One political party, the PRI, has maintained a tight grip over every branch and level of the Mexican political scene. As a result, Mexico is not a democratic society where citizens can hold legislators accountable for their actions, fight for a decent standard of living or ensure enforcement of our laws, much less the terms of a trade agreement.
Perhaps U.S. citizens do not know how dangerous and difficult it is to voice any opposition to the PRI machinery. Over 220 of our opposition party members have been murdered since 1989. The courts have such an intimate relationship with the government that it matters little what our constitution or laws say. Such abuses have been documented by Amnesty International and Americas Watch in recent reports.
Even getting laws enforced is risky. The government's handling of the recent grounding of the tanker, Betula, which spilled over 4,000 tons of sulfuric acid off Mexico's west coast, demonstrates the anti-democratic and deceitful behavior that typifies the current Mexican government. Despite clear evidence of environmental damage and human health effects from the spill, the Mexican government still claims no acid was released. The government proceeded to arrest local fishers who demonstrated to obtain financial and medical help with the spill.
Why do we have this one-party mock democracy? When opposition parties, such as ours, attempt to challenge the system and win support at the national level, ballot boxes are mysteriously burned. This is precisely what happened when our PRD candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, ran against Salinas in 1988. Although impartial UN observers were denied access to monitor the elections, many international reporters and unofficial observers concluded that the elections were fraudulent. Even officially, the election was the slimmest victory margin in the history of the ruling party. Many Mexicans believe Cardenas won.
Such post electoral conflicts are the norm because the PRI has become an expert at sophisticated electoral maneuvers and sham "reform" proposals to keep its tight grip. Opposition parties and non-government agencies have demanded that political reform be introduced to achieve security among citizens in the electoral processes. Unfortunately, this security has not been achieved. For instance, the PRI maintains and has maintained a tight hand over the electoral tribunal. Under the constitution, the electoral tribunal is to be chosen by the state, not the party. The PRI also decided who has the "right" to vote and who doesn't. For example, the PRI excludes off electoral lists citizens who might vote against the "party." These practices have allowed the PRI to maintain majority representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Without NAFTA it will be very difficult for Salinas to maintain his absolute political control to name his successor for the August 1994 "elections." We consider this one of the best reasons not to approve this NAFTA. We find it outrageous that U.S. trade officials have argued that a reason to vote for NAFTA is to allow Salinas to choose his successor, thus maintaining Mexican one-party rule and undermining a real democratic election here.
In July, we decided to return to Washington to clear up the misunderstandings about our country and to meet with U.S. Congresspeople. Besides clearing up the Mexico myths, we also explained our position on NAFTA and the supplemental agreements. Greater economic and cultural cooperation between our two countries needs to continue and increase. We agree with those pushing NAFTA that we live in an increasingly interdependent world and that retreating and closing our doors is not the answer. However, we feel that this NAFTA also is not the answer.
This NAFTA is a bad deal for most citizens in all three countries. The primary beneficiaries of NAFTA in Mexico will be the wealthy business leaders already reaping enormous profits from Salinas' trumpeted economic policies. The pact is not good for most Mexican workers, farmers or communities. Unfortunately, the side agreements do nothing to touch the fundamental flaws in the NAFTA text.
U.S. voters just tossed out 12 years of trickle down philosophy, but NAFTA is its international embodiment. With the Mexican presidential elections just around the corner, shouldn't Mexican citizens have the right to decide what kind of Free Trade Agreement we want?
- by Enrique Rico, Jorge Calderon, Michael Leon, and Manuel Huerta The Legislators are members of the Mexican opposition party, Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
Below are excerpts from the June 1993 Amnesty International report, "Mexico: The persistence of torture and impunity:"