Mexico City. 2 July 2006.
PRD Press Center, Hotel Marquis, Mexico City. 6:48pm. Lopez Obrador has yet to make his appearance. The woman standing next to us quietly confides that she is hoping PAN will win. As she tells us this, a little boy stands in front of three cameras waving an AMLO doll. After hours of waiting, with no sign of the progressive candidate, we make our way through the entrance of the hotel and approach a barricade of security guards. We flash our PRD press credentials and the officers wave us inside.
Upon reaching the main press room on the second floor of the hotel, we see the initial PRD exit poll data. AMLO is up by 3% but there is still 2 hours to go before the official announcement from IFE, the electoral commission. At 10:14pm the PAN party President states, “There are some polls favorable to Obrador and some polls favorable to Calderon.” Yet he does not cite PAN’s own exit poll data, suggesting to many a sceptical journalist that PAN’s own polls show Obrador ahead.
Reports are coming in that the main square in Mexico City, the Zocalo (Obrador’s strongest front), is packed and the celebration party has already begun. But, still, no one knows for sure, and won’t for another 45 minutes. Immediately following IFE’s announcement, Obrador will address the massive press corp gathered in this room. We’re all exhausted and everyone wants him to come out, declare victory, and finish his speech so we can go to the party in the Zocalo.
We had started the day at 7am. Over coffee with John Gibler in the hotel restaurant, we received confirmation that the previous night’s meeting of La Otra Campana was a disappointment to many of the supporters of the Zapatistas. This was a sentiment we shared, as the majority of the evening seemed to consist of soap box speeches and people talking over each other in a docile chaos. We then tried to hunt down an internet cafe to post the previous day’s blog. We had no luck, as most of Mexico City was shut down for the election.
Ciudad Universitaria, the modest neighborhood where Obrador would cast his vote. 9:22 am.
Arriving minutes before Obrador dropped his ballot into the transparent box, Matt made his way to the center of the cluster of photo journalists and television cameras positioned outside, hoping to catch the money shot. John stayed back with the rest of the print media and questioned for a moment whether he needed to hop in and pull his buddy out of the near stampede that resulted from too much press on too narrow a street. Before he could make up his mind, Matt was shoved onto the white Volkswagen Beetle parked just outside the polling site, leaving an indelible print of his ass on the hood. The chaos subsided and Obrador walked down the street to cheers from the crowd gathered on the sidewalks.
Las Aguilas, the upper middle-class neighborhood where Calderon cast his vote. 10:34 am.
In stark contrast to Obrador’s spot, the people lining up to vote had fresh nose jobs, designer clothes, and a vast appreciation for Starbucks. We were taken by surprise when suddenly Calderon appeared, walking down the sidewalk with his family. We had assumed he would show up with his standard caravan of SUVs in spite of the fact that his house was only one block away. He opted to enter the voting booth two times, once for the federal ballot and a second time for the state and local – granting himself the opportunity to pose for the press twice. It was on this second round that his cheers were combatted by the chants of the dozen protestors who had appeared on bicycles. “Libre a los presos de Atenco!” (Free the prisoners of Attenco!) they shouted.
45 minutes outside Mexico City, the town of San Salvador Atenco. 12:48 pm.
As soon as we step out of the car, the demonstration in the central plaza catches our attention and Matt starts snapping shots of a little girl leading a chant as a number of the town people drop pieces of paper, symbolic of their voter registration, into a ballot box engulfed in flames at the center of the circle. Standing out from the crowd, a somber local holds a machete upright, his face wrapped in a mask made of gauze. Because we’ve caught the tail end of this portion of the demonstration and because we are two of the few members of the international press that has shown up today in Atenco, they burn some more for our cameras. The red paint splattered all over the plaza, a reminder of the bloodshed that occured here only a few months ago when 3,000 federales reclaimed the town from (for lack of a better word) the “rebels” who had seized it in retribution for removing flower sellers from their traditional market place to pave the way for a new Wal-Mart. The events of that day are still unclear. However, we do know, according to the Mexican government’s own Human Rights Division, that most of the women who were arrested in Atenco were brutally raped by the authorities. Many are still being held. What is also clear is that the driver we’ve hired to take us here, Benito, is antsy to leave because of the relatively low rate we have negotiated with him. He doesn’t want to spend all day with us.
PRD press center. 11pm.
IFE makes the official announcement that the election is too close to call. The new president of Mexico, we’re told, will not be named until Wednesday, July 5th. Miercoles.
“Miercoles?” is all Matt can hear under the breath of the shocked Obrador supporters around him at the foot of the stage where Obrador will soon address the room. There is an eerie silence as hundreds from the international press corps look around, not quite sure of what to think, do, or what this will mean. A few minutes later Obrador enters the room from a side door and walks up to the podium. He makes a five minute statement in which he says, “We know we won – we are up by 500,000 votes,” hinting that should the IFE proclaim Calderon the winner on Wednesday, he may claim fraud.
As we’re walking out, we see Calderon making his statement on a TV in the hotel bar. “There is not the slightest doubt that we have won the election.”
Navigating the packed streets, trying not to go deaf from the blaring unison of car horns honking in support of Obrador, Matt takes pictures of people from all generations as they wave yellow PRD flags, celebrating what they see as a clear victory for Obrador. We are pleased to find the square has not erupted into a riot, but instead has the feel of a block party, sandwiched between the presidential palace and the grand cathedral – two of the most beautiful buildings we’ve seen since arriving in Mexico City.
“It is important that you, the international press, are here. Our national press isn’t. They are not showing us in the streets,” a middle-aged woman tells Matt after grabbing his press credentials and examining them closely. It’s true. As we look around, we can find little more than a small handfull of independent international journalists. Zero national press.
Another woman tells us, “We don’t want a repeat of the fraud that happened in the election of ’88,” a worried look on her face, as if this may be inevitable. The consensus among most of the people we speak to in the Zocalo is that Obrador has won and that now they must fight to prove it. One man suggested violence, another a general strike, but most were unsure of what will take place between now and Wednesday.
“The U.S. is definitely behind this!” shouts a drunken man who bears an uncanny resemblance to a Mexican Charles Bukowski and seems to have an unfocused rage in his eyes, directed (for lack of a better target) at us. “Someone must do something about it!” We are reminded not only of the poor image our own country has abroad, and the fact that this six-year-old version of Mexican multi-party democracy could still fall apart, but also, of the fragile nature inherent in all democracies. Reminded of the reality that if it is not tended to diligently and constantly, democracy can be taken away from the people right in front of their eyes. The next three days in Mexico will be its latest test.
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John Buffalo Mailer is a playwright, actor, and Editor At Large for Stop Smiling Magazine. He is the author of Hello Herman, and co-author of The Big Empty.
Matt Pascarella is an award-winning reseracher and producer for investigative journalist Greg Palast. You can view his reports at www.GregPalast.com
If you are interested in Central and South American politics and its effect on the rest of the world, look for more dispatches from The Gringos Project.
You can also see here for photos from Mexico’s 2006 Presidential Election.