Friday, December 1, 2017

Meanwhile, there are Mexican journalists who are getting things done. Here are some you'll appreciate.

Congratulations to the talented newshounds at the online site Animal Político, especially reporters Arturo Ángel and Víctor Hugo Arteaga, for snagging the National Journalism Prize last week. 

They won it for a  series of exposés on the phantom businesses used by Javier Duarte, the corrupt former PRI governor of Veracruz, to misappropriate some 645 million pesos meant for the poor. Part of the reporters' methodology was ingenious in its simplicity —  they paid visits to the listed addresses, but were more likely to find a farmer, a confused renter, a mom and pop store or empty land than any major business activity.

And further congratulations to Alejandro Hope, Mexico’s premier writer on security issues, who received special recognition from INEGI for his press pieces, including his regular Plata o Plomo column in El Universal. 

Is it strange for a journalism honor to come from the official National Statistics Institute? In this case, it’s fitting. Hope is noted for mining and interpreting crime statistics (much of which comes from INEGI), and I’ve yet to find a writer or analyst more skilled at finding and communicating meaning in the numbers. In his words, stats are a way “to make the invisible visible.”

There was a period for about a year in 2015 and 2016 when Alejandro, the political animals and I were working in the same space in Condesa, literally steps from each other. 

I was an editor at an English-language sister publication of Animal Político, which some genius decided to name El Daily Post. We were able to adapt into English some of the early entries in the award-winning phantom businesses series before the owners pulled the plug on the site, taking care to erase all the site's articles. (If you read Spanish, the original articles in the series are compiled here.)

Hope was the security editor at the Post — excuse me, El Post — contributing a regular column in English under the name Silver or Lead. It was brilliant, clever, readable, honest, and sometimes even optimistic. Those gems have also disappeared, or at least I can’t find them. If it’s true that nothing is ever eliminated from the internet, maybe somebody can track them down.

Meanwhile, here's a video interview with Hope recorded shortly after the recapture of El Chapo last year. It gives English speakers a pretty good idea of his understanding of the issues and ability to communicate it.

The photo of some of the Animal Político staff above is from a video about them that you can see here courtesy of a reporter’s Twitter page. Go to full screen. 

One more thing about Animal Político. No other site aimed at a general audience has done more to publicize and combat gender-based abuse in this country. I don’t know if top editor Daniel Moreno (he's the one in the circle) has won any awards for encouraging his staff’s work on this, but he should. So, I hereby bestow upon him the Kagom Recognition for Journalism in the Interest of Combatting Abuse and Violence Against Women in Mexico. Congratulations. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mexico's far-flung natural wonder is now a protected marine reserve. So can the Socorro dove go home now?

Sail due west from Manzanillo for 440 miles and you’ll hit what’s known as the Archipiélago Revillagigedo, named for a late 18th-century reformist viceroy.

We don’t know if last week’s designation of this cluster of four small islands and their surrounding waters as a national park and marine reserve will really protect them. But the act itself brought welcome attention to one of the more remarkable natural wonders in Mexican territory, as well as to an intriguing suspense story.

The islands poke out of the water because of ancient volcanic activity that hasn’t quite stopped. They knew no human footprint until Spanish explorers stumbled upon them in the 16th century.  Even then, they were left pretty much alone until the 19th century.

It’s worth pondering what that tells us about life. While a series of great civilizations ran their course and died in Mesoamerica, while cities were built and leveled across what is now Mexico, wars fought, constitutions drafted, massacres carried out, elections contested, families struggled to make it, an entirely different cast of species was playing its role in life, about as far away from the human-dominated stage as it is possible to be.

The protagonists of Mexican history are mostly people, with maybe a few plants like corn and the maguey making appearances. Animals get cameos at best.

On the Revillagigedo islands, in contrast, everything alive matters — boobies, shearwaters (including the endangered Townsend’s shearwater), frigatebirds, egrets, hawks and ospreys, opuntia cacti, bromeliads, orchids, green turtles. 

More than 60 of the plant and animal species are endemic, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world, which in turn means they’ve been on their island long enough to have evolved into something different than what they were.

Four of the endemic species are reptiles, including the famed Clarión nightsnake (Clarión is the name of one of the islands). Its fame has nothing to do with the snake itself, but rather with the failure of any expedition, amateur or scientific, to find one after the American naturalist William Beebe brought a specimen back in a bottle in 1936. 

That inevitably led to a new moniker — the “Lost Clarión nightsnake” — until a  group that included Juan Martínez Gómez, Mexico’s leading Revillegigedo expert, spotted one a few years ago (as published in PLOS-One here and reported by the Associated Press’s Mark Stevenson in 2014 here.)

The new marine reserve designation prohibits fishing, but recreational divers and marine life enthusiasts (who can only get there by diving boats and cannot dock anywhere) have to be encouraged by the promised protection. The Revillagigedo straddles two marine bioregions, making it an important stopover for migratory marine species, thus bringing a potpourri of life forms together, like the bar in Star Wars.  

UNESCO, which named the archipelago a protected region a year before Mexico did, says the waters around the islands “host some of the largest aggregations of pelagic fauna in the world.” 

The United Nations body even notes an aesthetic appeal that divers the world over already know about: “The seascape has sheer drops in crystal clear water and encompasses abyssal plains with depths down to 3,700 meters, all contributing to underwater scenes of great beauty.”

Swimming in that beauty are more than 20 species of sharks, as well as humpback whales, which have been breeding near the islands for millennia, and, most notably, giant manta rays that interact with humans in a way that divers swear is personal.

Here’s where we come to the point in the article when, obligatorily, we warn of the threats to this paradise (to us it is a paradise; to the non-human inhabitants it just . . . is.)

First know that the major recent problems have been natural — hurricanes, plagues and the aforementioned volcanic activity. For example, a volcanic eruption in 1952 (pictured here in a famous photograph taken by Robert Petrie from a boat offshore) left one of the islands (San Benedicto) denuded — all life on it was wiped out, though it has been coming back.

Isla Socorro, the biggest and biologically richest of the islands, is basically the top of a shield volcano, the gently sloping kind like Mauna Loa. It was most recently active in 1993.

Roca Partida, the smallest of the four at about 300 by 25 feet, is a stratovolcano, lifeless save for resting birds, essentially a guano-covered rock alone in the sea. 

An early 19th century visitor to the islands was one Andrew Jackson Grayson, who discovered four endemic birds, including the Socorro dove, or Zenaida graysoni (you find it, you get your name on it).  

Two naturalists, Bayard Brattstrom and Thomas Howell, visited Socorro in the 1950s and in a 1956 report mentioned the Socorro dove (pictured here) as common around the lava rocks and under fig trees.

They were optimistic about the island’s future, noting that few ships came near, no humans lived there, and the introduced sheep population was stable and apparently harmless. 

“While this fortunate condition still exists,” they wrote. “it may be hoped that the Mexican government will guard against the introduction of mammals such as rabbits, cats, goats and others that have invariably brought disaster to the flora and fauna of insular regions.”
The next year, the Mexican government established a naval base on the island. It was (and is) small, but big enough for mammals, both human and feline. By the 1970s, no more Socorro doves were ever seen on the island. 
Feral cats have been suspected, though not convicted. Perhaps the sheep were causing more mischief than thought. Or maybe it was something — or someone — else. At any rate, the Socorro dove is extinct.
But not completely. The accurate term for the dove’s condition is Extinct in the Wild. On at least two occasions in the 20th century, specimens were collected and bred abroad. There are colonies of Socorro doves in Europe, the United States and Mexico.
The Mexican population is being prepared for release onto Socorro Island. This is no simple task; the preparation has been going on for more than a decade. Breeding aviaries have been built on the island, but there are issues.
Disease is one. So is interbreeding over the years just how Socorro-ite are the descendent captive doves? The most important, though, may be the need to make sure that the doves have the environment they require once released.
It's not restoration by restoring or reintroducing one species," says Dr. Martínez, who is leading the project (that's him exploring the island in the photo above). "At the end what you want is to restore the ecological interactions that interplay on the island. And once you do that, the island will go back to its original course."

Dr. Martínez, of the Mexican Institute of Ecology, was speaking to the science writer Loretta Williams earlier this year on NPR. You can read the article here, where you can also click to the radio program. 
The Socorro dove's rescue team is competent and dedicated. But once released, the birds will do what they want, which is not necessarily what the releasers want. That's how life's been on those islands for hundreds and thousands of years.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Is it weird that a left-wing party and a right-wing party are planning to run a common candidate for the Mexican presidency? Of course.

Margarita Zavala was gathering signatures in Coyoacán recently when a woman she was chatting with introduced her female partner and two children. 
To her credit, the former first lady and federal lawmaker didn’t assume a politician's posture at this unexpected revelation. Instead, she wigged out.
Frantically waving off the video-recorder (there’s always a video-recorder), she blurted to nobody in particular that she could never be seen on video with a non-traditional family because she firmly believes that marriage is only for a man and a woman.

So do most people in the PAN, the right-wing party she was associated with until a few months ago. But most of them aren’t going to have such a conniption at the very idea of being seen with a same-sex family. More likely, being politicians, they’ll want to keep the cameras on as they try to make homophobia sound respectable. 

Zavala’s panic attack showed just how conservative Mexican conservatives can be. She’s married to Felipe Calderón, president during the second half of the nation’s 12-year delusion that replacing the PRI with the PAN would sanitize the government. His policies were hardline anti-choice, soft on church-state separation, and hardly gay-friendly.

Compare that with the PRD, the left-of-center opposition party. In control of Mexico City for most of its existence, the PRD has legalized abortion, relaxed marijuana prohibition, established gender equality as policy, and actively promoted LGBT rights.

In short, the left-right divide on social issues is alive and well in Mexico. Should be interesting to see how these two diametrically opposed parties go at each other during the upcoming presidential campaign.

Interesting indeed. What’s actually happening is this:  The PRD and PAN, with nothing in common, have joined forces in what they call a Broad Front. Counterintuitive as it may be, they plan to run a common candidate for president, and presumably divvy up the posts and power if they win. 

The candidate could be Miguel Ángel Mancera, who runs Mexico City for the PRD (though not really a member of the party). It could be Ricardo Anaya, the PAN’s party leader. Or it could be somebody else. Whoever it is, half the Front is going to have to support someone they’re usually against. 

Why would they do such a thing? Practicality, mainly. The PAN will have a hard time winning this race on its own. The PRD has no chance at all. Replaced by Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena as the flagship party of the left, the PRD is pretty much reduced to attaching itself to a larger party, as the PVEM (the faux Green Party) has to the PRI. 

El Financiero, a business daily, published a poll this week that pretty much tells the story. If Mancera and Anaya run separately with their parties, they get 9 percent and 15 percent respectively, well behind the PRI’s 25 percent and Morena’s 30 percent. If either runs as the Front candidate, he gets 20 percent. Still behind, but in the hunt.

But how, you ask, can they get away with such a hypocritical ploy? In a democracy, shouldn't the left and right be competing for votes , not bundling them? Don’t these politicians stand for anything? Is their only priority getting in so they can feed at the trough?

Good questions. My reading is that what the Front sees as most important in 2018 is getting the PRI out of Los Pinos without letting AMLO in. We can argue about gay marriage and energy reform later, their thinking goes. Let’s just get the swamp drained first.

This implies that positions on the issues are not all that important. What else is new? The only real issue in Mexico is corruption — not individual cases but the entrenched culture of corruption that has rotted government, law enforcement and business. Corruption may not have caused crime, inequality and environmental degradation, but it sure makes it hard to do anything about them.

Mexican voters are understandably jaded about a national election as a means of attacking corruption. Still, it’s a chance to do something, make some kind of statement. It’s just not obvious how backing a coalition of the PAN and PRD — both far from corruption-free over the years — is supposed to help matters. Perhaps once the attention is on the candidate, rather than the machine behind him or her, the view will change.  

Then again, the whole Front idea could collapse at any time. You never know.

One thing we do know for now is that Margarita Zavala will not be the Front candidate. She was the first PAN member to announce her candidacy — and the first to bolt the party to run as an independent. That’s why she was gathering those signatures in Coyoacán.

How’s she doing? Not bad. If she ends up being the only independent candidate (a distinct possibility given the difficulty of the qualifying process) the El Financiero poll puts her in a tie with the Front for third place. Maybe the party planners have been going about this all wrong. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Actually, None of Them Should Shut Up

You can tell we’re moving into an election season by how quickly recorded gaffes by public figures go viral. 

One of the more entertaining recent episodes involved Elena Poniatowska, the revered journalist and author who almost single-handedly exposed the truth behind the 1968 government massacre of university students. She was chatting two weeks ago with a gathering of locals in the indigenous Oaxaca city of Juchitán, which was hit hard by the Sept. 7 8.2 quake.
Elena is much admired in Juchitán and feels comfortably at home there. Which may be why she thought nothing of observing that when Tina Modotti (the 20th century photographer of whom Poniatowska has written) was shooting in that area, the women were generally thin. Now, however, after the beverage of choice shifted from pulque to beer, they’re more large-bellied.

This wasn’t meant as an insult. Physical characteristics serve as neutral nicknames; if El Chapo was ever offended at being called Shorty, we’d know about it. But the phrase Elena used for immensely pot-bellied — “panzonas inmensas” — could also be heard as “panzonas y mensas.” Which means paunchy and slow-witted.

The ensuing flood of internet commentary, almost all of it from outside Juchitán, offers an interesting data point for social researchers. Curiously, those who admire Elena heard panzonas inmensas. Those who despise her heard panzonas y mensas. 

The latter communicated their feelings in the accepted style of internet comments, favoring invective over explanation: “The old pendeja has no respect. “She’s wrinkled, senile and conceited.” “Pinche polaca.”

So let’s amend the above adjective “revered” to “revered by most.” Elena has some strikes against her in the minds of the bigots — she’s foreign-born, on in years, and female. But the root of the opprobrium is what it’s been for more than a dozen years: She’s an unwavering supporter of Andrés Manuel López Obrador for president.

Which makes her a target for personal insults, though not as much as AMLO himself. He’s the frontrunner now, so despite plenty of legitimate political arguments against him (Palling around with the CNTE thugs? Come on.) expect more of the strategy of personal attacks that worked so well over the last two election cycles. 

My favorite from 2006 was the faux indignation we were supposed to feel after AMLO suggested that the incumbent, Vicente Fox, who had been overtly (and illegally) campaigning against him, should shush. His actual words were “Cállate, chachalaca,” a homespun avian reference at once alliterative and rhythmic.

But also disrespectful to a sitting president, which his opponents reminded us of right up to election day. So given the minuscule margin of victory that year, a man who had been called a danger to the nation, a clone of Hugo Chávez, a promoter of violence, a false messiah and a traitor may have lost the presidency for being so rude as to evoke a squawking bird. 

Wonder what’s in store for us this time around?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What Gringophobia?

Are we facing a new wave of anti-Americanism in Mexico?

Andrew Paxman, a Brit who teaches history and journalism at Mexico City’s CIDE, thinks we are.

“Mexico today is ripe for overt gringophobia,” he told a gathering at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. yesterday.

That’s been assumed since 2015, when Trump threatened Mexico with economic warfare, slandered its people with accusations of criminality, and insulted their integrity by promising to wall them off.

He’s still doing all that as U.S. president. 

So where’s the gringophobia? Have you noticed a spike? I haven’t.

Anti-Trumpism, sure. There’s plenty of that. But there’s plenty in the United States too, not to mention in most of the world. If cooler heads prevail, is it out of the question that Trump’s aggression could unite decent Americans and Mexicans against a common enemy?

Maybe I should get out more, but in the year since last November’s apocalypse, I’ve run across exactly nobody who resents Americans as individuals because of Trump. Instead, there’s usually a tacit understanding that we’re in this together, that the threat of Trump’s insanity goes beyond mere bilateral issues.

Paxman has done a lot of research into historical anti-Americanism in Mexico, much of it for his recently released (in English) biography of William Jenkins, the U.S.-born 20th-century industrialist who spent most of his life in Puebla as, at times, the richest man in Mexico. Paxman’s concern about a surge in anti-Americanism has to do with next year’s Mexican presidential elections.

It’s a safe bet the candidates will compete in the tough-on-Trump category (though smart-about-Trump would be more helpful). Mexican politicians have a long history of stoking the electorate’s indignation at the actions of the U.S government, just as the U.S. government has a long history of deserving it. Now Trump is the U.S. government. Buckle up.

Still, voting based on an ongoing threat from a U.S. president is not the same as gringophobia, which is personal and implies disgust at all things American. The candidate who can stoke such visceral feelings may have an advantage, but the stoking won’t be as easy as it once was. Unless I’m wrong (God help us all if I am) he or she won’t be able to fire up the mob, but instead will have to find politically legitimate enticements to snag the anti-Trump vote.

There are a number of reasons why that’s true, most of which were mentioned by the Mexico Institute’s Christopher Wilson at that same conference yesterday. Put simply, Mexicans have a better opinion of Americans than they used to — because they know them better.

The number of Mexicans who have lived in or visited the United States and then returned has soared. As anybody who’s ever traveled knows, there’s nothing like actually being somewhere to change how you perceive it.

The economies have integrated after two decades of NAFTA and Mexicans approve of that. Learning English, once unhip, even unpatriotic, is now common in Mexico, even officially encouraged. 

Young people in general have a positive opinion of the United States. So do the wealthy. So, especially, do those living in the northern part of the nation.

Social media has demystified much about the northern neighbor. As a result, Mexicans, especially the young, are less likely to think negatively about it just because a magazine or politician or activist tells them they’re supposed to.

We can be fairly sure the Trump card will continue to be played in Mexico as long as that man is in the White House. But the gringo card? No longer a sure thing.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Moon Over Paradox

I’ve been notified several times this week about a rare heavenly phenomenon soon to take place over the Valley of Mexico. On Nov. 14, the rising moon will be at once full and at its closest proximity to the earth. That means it will look larger than usual. 
The news has been coming via the usual social media sources, with breathless excitement. This supermoon, we’re told, hasn’t been seen in 68 years. It won’t be witnessed “by humankind” again until 2034. It is not to be missed.
The tone might have been even more urgent, given how lovely the full moon looked from my neighborhood just a week ago as it rose over the hills beyond the Torres de Satélite. I’m pretty sure that two full moons in 11 days is more than a once-in-68-years anomaly. The Astronomical Society of Mexico offered no help; in fact its page is down. Neil deGrasse Tyson had no light to shed. Guess you can say anything you want on the internet. 
But . . . what have we here? La Jornada, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 edition, page 31, a column by José Cueli running under the title “What Will Happen on Tuesday, the 14th?” He’s talking about the supermoon. In print, mind you. 
Like many Jornada columnists, Cueli is more academic than journalist, and usually takes extra care to keep his texts as impenetrable as possible. But today he seems genuinely touched by last week’s moonrise, which he describes as “the color of juicy grapefruit dappled with quetzal feathers which leave the earthquakes behind in space and foreshadow a new conception of time and space that will be reaffirmed on Tuesday the 14th.”
I don’t know if “a new conception of time and space” refers to the premature second full moon. Nor am I sure how you can “reaffirm” a future new conception
But unless he’s totally putting us on (out of character) I think Cueli expects something to happen on Tuesday. He concludes: “How will the moon enlighten us next Tuesday, the 14th? What surprises will appear with its brilliance?”
You can wait four days to find out, or you can go back a year to Nov. 14, 2016 (a Monday, not a Tuesday) when a supermoon, not seen for 68 years, not to return until 2034, glowed over Mexico City. 
  That ruins the surprise, granted, but it saves who knows how many from staying up until 3:26 a.m. (Tuesday’s scheduled moonrise) to search for a waning crescent moon, normal-sized, and not especially bright.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: Uncovered

Three of our five dailies front the first announced candidate for the next president of Mexico, who happens to be the former first lady during the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-20012). Reforma’s headline: “Margarita Zavala uncovers herself for 2018.”
    That’s not as risqué as it sounds. Destapar really does mean “uncover,” which was the verb of choice for how 20th-century presidents revealed their chosen successor during the PRI’s perfect dictatorship. Those days are gone, but the verb remains, shifted to the reflexive.
    Zavala of course has some advantages by virtue of her marriage, but that’s not all she’s about. The two met as young National Action Party (PAN) militants more or less on even footing, and she served in the Chamber of Deputies before Calderón assumed the presidency.
    That said, her announcement on Sunday, via YouTube, is a little weird. For one thing, it came just a week after the Sunday midterm, and a full three years before the presidential election. What’s the rush?
    The short answer is that it was her way of sticking it to her rivals within the PAN. Margarita and Felipe last year backed a sympathetic candidate for the party leadership against the faction led by Gustavo Madero, who’s assumed to have presidential aspirations of his own, though he denies it.
    (His latest denial emphasized vehemence over credibility. When asked if he wanted to run for president of Mexico, he replied, “No me chinguen.” Try Google translate.)
    The Calderón/Zavala faction lost that battle, and Margarita was soon punished by being denied a PAN candidacy for a return to the Chamber of Deputies. She responded by threatening to run for the party presidency next time around, but decided to run for president instead.
    Her pre-emptive announcement was clearly her way of telling the party leaders that she has no intention of letting them decide her fate. She’s out there on her own now, and her game plan seems to be to accumulate enough support to force her nomination. She certainly has enough time to do it.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: The course of coverage of Mexican elections starts with trouble at the voting stations and works its way to trouble in the counting room. In between, there are results.

Catching up on the week, the progression of top front-page election headlines in La Jornada provide a useful summary of post-election-day coverage. Sunday’s online updates were all about troubles at the voting booths, since there was nothing else to cover. They were serious — polling stations burning down is news — but not nearly as widespread as the daylong focus seemed to indicate.
    Then came the news, day by day. 
    Monday morning: “In Nuevo León, the winner would be the independent El Bronco.” That conditional tense (sería in the original, instead of es or será) recognizes how early the returns were, but Jaime Rodríguez’s historic win in the governor’s race was so overwhelming that he got the glory headlines before anybody else. He's the first independent to win a major public office in modern Mexican history.
    Tuesday morning: “PRD and Morena tie in the DF Assembly.” It looked at the time that the two left-of-center parties would each win 16 of the 40 directly elected seats on Mexico City’s 66-member legislative body. If that result had stood up, it would have marked an impressive debut for Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s nascent Morena party. But the next day . . .
    Wednesday morning: “Morena the top political force in the DF Assembly.” The updated results were more than impressive. "Staggering" might be the word. They gave Morena 18, the PRD 14, the PAN five and the PRI three. For Morena, it was 0 to plurality in one election. For the PRD, it was the end of its majority.
    Thursday morning: “INE will recount the votes in 60% of the precincts.” This recounting by the National Electoral Institute was for accuracy. It sounds like a lot at 60%, but it was 56% in 2012. This head takes us to the next stage of the usual election coverage sequence, which starts with election-day logistics, then preliminary results, then more solid results, then technical glitches, which continued, in La Jornada at least, the next day . . .
    Friday morning: “INE vote count provoking chaos in the election figures.” Part of that “chaos” (a favorite hyperbolic expression that all the papers like to use) had to do with INE figures that gave results with “100.62%” of the vote counted. After glitch coverage comes the next stage  . . . the challenges.
   This morning: “Morena demands annulled elections or recounts in six delegations.” Morena also nabbed more Mexico City delegaciones, or boroughs, than the PRD, but it wants more. The party is claiming that irregularities in the borough chief vote in six of the boroughs that it didn’t win are serious enough to annul those boroughs' election or at least require a vote-by-vote recount. It may sound like Morena is acting like a sore winner, but these challenges are a permitted part of the process that all the major parties resort to at one time or another — though AMLO is the undisputed king of the impugnaciones.