Mexico’s Presidential Election: An Interview with Mariclaire Acosta
Mariclaire Acosta, the director of Freedom House–Mexico, is an academic, an activist, a former public servant, and an internationally recognized expert on issues related to the defense and promotion of human rights. She has held a number of prominent posts, including Americas director at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), special adviser to the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) on civil society affairs, and deputy secretary for human rights and democracy at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs under President Vicente Fox.
In the following interview, Acosta discusses her personal views on the upcoming Mexican presidential election and its implications for Mexico’s future.
Why are this year’s presidential and congressional elections in Mexico so important?
This year’s elections are very important because the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] is leading in the polls. The PRI ruled Mexico for a period of 71 years, from 1929—when it emerged from the 1910 Revolution and ensuing civil war as a coalition of politicians, military forces, warlords, and social organizations—until 2000, when it was finally defeated in a peaceful electoral process. During its seven decades in power, the PRI developed political machinery of an authoritarian and corporatist nature that fostered a culture emphasizing loyalty and obedience to those in power rather than the assertion of rights. Its ability to rule a country as diverse and complex as Mexico for so long stemmed from its exploitation of revolutionary legitimacy as well as a skillful combination of social reforms, cooptation, and repression of the opposition.
After the 2000 election, the PRI continued to govern in many of Mexico’s states, generally continuing the practices that have characterized it through most of the 20th century.
Although its current leadership claims that the PRI “has learned its lesson” and become a democratic party, there are numerous reasons to believe that this is not so. However, the present PAN [National Action Party] government’s failure to carry out important reforms—combined with the dismal failure of its crusade against drug trafficking and organized crime, which has yielded 50,000 casualties and thousands of victims of disappearances, kidnappings, and extortion—has reinforced the appeal of the PRI as a party of professionals who know and understand the art of governing. This message has been hammered into people’s hearts and minds by the endless propaganda of the television duopoly that rules Mexico’s airwaves and has been committed to putting the PRI back in power for several years.
Do any of the candidates stand a chance against the PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto?
Peña Nieto began losing points in the polls after he visited a private university in Mexico City and was challenged by the students. His lead is still very big, although Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City and the candidate of a coalition of left-wing parties, has been steadily gaining ground in the past two weeks.
What would a PRI victory mean for Mexico? What are the potential pitfalls of a PRI win?
I very much fear that a PRI victory would bring back the ancien régime and effectively stall the democratic reforms that Mexico needs so badly. It is imperative to ensure that it does not win the majority of the seats in Congress, so that there is a minimum of checks and balances in the national government.
Photo Credit: Marianna Fierro
How did the YoSoy132 movement begin? What if any impact do you believe it will have on the outcome of the election?
The YoSoy132 movement began in May when Peña Nieto visited the Mexico City campus of a Jesuit university, Universidad Iberoamericana, and was challenged by a group of students on his role in the violent repression of a popular protest in the town of Atenco when he was the governor of the state of Mexico. His answer did not satisfy the students, and he left the campus amid heckling. His campaign managers and the PRI immediately labeled the students as having been manipulated a small group of “fascist provocateurs” in the pay of the other parties. The television networks acted accordingly and gave the events a very biased coverage. The students protested through social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and staged demonstrations against the lack of professional and impartial coverage of the electoral process by the television networks. They rightly claimed that they were not the passive victims of a group of agents, but rather a group of 131 persons fighting for freedom of expression and the impartial coverage of the electoral process. They denounced the propaganda campaign that [the television network] Televisa has consistently been staging in favor of Peña Nieto and the diminished coverage of other candidates. The following day, scores and scores of people were sending tweets claiming to be part of the movement started by the students, under the slogan “I am number 132."
The movement has proven to be a vigorous one, bringing together students from public and private universities. It has forced the television networks to change their coverage of the electoral process, and it has catalyzed opposition to the PRI’s comeback. It had an immediate impact on public opinion, raising voter preferences for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the left. The movement recently hosted a presidential debate that was broadcast on the radio and via YouTube, although Peña
Nieto declined to participate.
The idea that the movement will turn the elections around is a rather far-fetched assumption, but it has certainly had an important impact.
How will the human rights landscape be affected by the electoral results? In particular, what might be the consequences of different electoral outcomes on the security situation and the government’s ability and responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens?
The human rights situation in Mexico is dire. This is primarily a result of the lack of structural reforms of the criminal justice system and policing—we are still living under the legacy of authoritarianism, despite ongoing efforts to overhaul the system —as well as the misguided strategy of fighting a “war” against the drug cartels. The consequences of this “war” have been thousands of disappearances, several hundred extrajudicial executions, several thousand internally displaced persons, the institutionalization of torture and detention without charges, and last but not least, the deaths of almost 50,000 people—allegedly a result of the battles between drug cartels, but about which we know almost nothing.
To make matters worse, rampant violence and ordinary crime have shot up, with kidnappings, armed robberies, rape, and extortion reaching unprecedented levels in many parts of the country. Attacks against human rights defenders and journalists are also on the rise. The level of impunity, for both ordinary crimes as well as for human rights violations, is overwhelming. Only 2 percent of serious crimes reported to the authorities ever reach a conviction.
Despite this horrendous situation, none of the presidential candidates have given any attention to human rights. On security issues, all have stuck to vague political platitudes, such as not being soft on crime and providing more jobs to the population in order to stem criminal activity. The human rights agenda and the security agenda are on different tracks, and a huge effort to bring them together is in order. Only civil society can do this. Politicians have no incentive to do so at all.