Saturday, January 31, 2015

Is intentionally nullifying your ballot the same as voting for a corrupt system? Javier Sicilia, the much-loved and highly respected poet and activist, thinks so. A boycott of the June 7 elections is the only way to make a difference, he says. Not everyone agrees.

Javier Sicilia is a poet and peace activist who’s urging Mexicans not to vote in the June 7 mid-term elections.
    He’s not promoting, as others are, internationally nullifying your ballot to register a countable protest against corrupt government and compromised political parties. Even that, he says, is too accommodating of an obsolete state and of a meaningless election process.
    Sicilia’s method of choice is a total boycott, mass abstention nationwide. His is not the only voice raised in that cause. But his brings with it a certain moral authority, well-earned via a track record of advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised, the poor and the screwed.
    In 2011, after his son was killed, a victim of drug-war violence, Sicilia put together a Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, demanding an end to the mounting deaths and disappearances. Unlike some of today’s activists in Guerrero and elsewhere, Sicilia’s movement didn’t resort to violence and impunity in the name of ending violence and impunity. It emulated freedom riders, caravaning in buses and walking hundreds of kilometers.
    The marches attracted tens of thousands who might otherwise have been watching soap operas. It got much media attention and led to meetings with elected officials, including then-President Felipe Calderón.
    What it did not achieve were results. Nothing changed. In fact, as we all know, things got much worse in the three-plus years that followed.
    Sicilia recently engaged in a weeks-long exchange in the letters section of the magazine Proceso, defending his abstention call against the criticisms of like-minded activists who support him in spirit but not in practice.
    One objection is that a voter boycott is nebulous. There’s no way to tell how much of a low turnout is the result of the boycott rather than of a lack of interest or energy. That distinction apparently doesn’t matter to Sicilia —as long as they don’t vote.
    Martí Batres, a former congressman of more than usual intellectual heft, insisted to Siciia that the only kind of election protest that will accomplish anything is a vote for a true political alternative. Batres, by coincidence, is president of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new Morena party, which presents itself as precisely that alternative.
    Sicilia responded politely that the problem isn’t which people run the state, it’s that the corrupted state swallows good people whole along with the bad. If López Obrador had won the 2012 presidential election, Sicilia offered by way of illustration, the only difference we’d see today is that it would be he, AMLO, on the hot seat for the crimes of Iguala and Tlatlaya instead of Peña Nieto. 
    Voto nulo advocates say the only election protest that will do any good is intentionally fouling the ballot in the booth. It’s a proactive strategy. You actually do something. And they count up the annulled votes; they’re on the record. Reach a certain percentage and the “voters” have sent a clear message: nothing matters more than ending corruption and impunity now.
    But Sicilia doesn’t want to reform what he considers an irredeemable and obsolete state. He has come to bury it and dance on its grave. He’s akin to the 19th-century ironists, perceiving the end of an established order and encouraging conditions to bring on a new one. Unlike them, though, he’s a confirmed left-wing Catholic whose politics, according to the historian Enrique Krauze, is influenced by the philosopher-priest Ivan Illich, who lived in Cuernavaca for several years and promoted, Krauze says, a sort of Christian-anarchism.
    Sicilia sees the 2015 election boycott as a step toward setting up a committee of national salvation, which will lead to a new constitution. The outcome will be a collection of small self-governing autonomous entities with direct citizen control. No more state.
    There are some problems with this vision, beyond the obvious one that none of it is going to happen. It’s not exactly democratic. If we can’t vote through elections organized by the retro state, who gets to decide who’s on the committee? Are you disqualified if you supported the energy reforms, as Sicilia has hinted? Who drafts the new constitution? Can Carlos Slim participate? Or only individuals who qualify as “the people”?
    What’s actually annoying about the scenario is that it needlessly imposes ideology and utopianism on a decidedly non-ideological, real-life situation. If the goal is pushing elected officials to do something about violence and corruption, that imposition is self-defeating. If the goal is the withering away of the state, to coin a term, then the whole enterprise is off-topic.
    Here's what's on-topic: Mexicans across the political spectrum are at the boiling point and ready for unusual action. A meaningful number of them might be convinced to convert the June election into a protest. A considerably less meaningful number will be willing to sign up for the elimination of the Mexican state in favor of a complicated proposal for radical political re-organization.
    Rule of thumb, it’s generally not a good idea to require people to overthink things when encouraging them to act — or not act, in this case. Right now there’s unprecedented support for ending corruption. But for ending the Mexican state? Not so much. One thing at a time.

Today's Headlines: Remember the 'Mexican Moment'? It just got cut out of the budget, along with hope, progress and $124 billion pesos.

The Mexican Moment, a phantom to start with, is dead.  El Universal’s lead head tells why: “124 billion pesos cut; GDP seen falling 0.5%." Excelsior understates it: “Finance Secretariat applies preventive cuts.” La Jornada, in a two-deck banner, the only headline on its front page, gives the bigger picture: “Crisis revealed in public treasury.” Reforma tells the medium-term effect: “Cuts will hit growth.” And Milenio brings it home by focusing on an example of the immediate fallout: “Peña cancels two emblematic projects.”
    Milenio's talking about a modern rail line across the Yucatán peninsula and, more important, a high-speed train connecting Mexico City with the commercial city of Querétaro. Neither, now, is going to be built for many years, if at all. With them dies the illusion that prosperity waits around the corner, something the Peña Nieto administration has worked hard to conjure from its first day.
    A third of the cuts, which according to Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray result from meager oil revenue, are in current expenditures, which means jobs lost and subsidies ended. The rest are in investment, which means progress stalled. Together they mean half a percentage point shaved off whatever economic growth may occur in 2015.
    The $124 billion-peso (about $8.3 billion-dollar) spending reduction exceeded analysts’ predictions. It is generally seen as a healthy facing up to cruel circumstances. It is only the beginning. Videgaray warned that the 2016 budget won’t be assembled in the usual manner — that is to say by funding programs based on the previous year’s outlays. “Reality demands a complete revision of what we spend tax revenue on,” Videgaray said.
    In other words, zero-based budgeting, which in this context sounds like code for austerity. No matter what you call it, it won’t go over well, safe to say. A sizable chunk of the population, probably a majority by now, is enraged at what they see as the federal government’s lack of attention to the country’s social ills, favoring macroeconomic policies instead. Now it looks to a skeptical nation that it can’t even do that right.

One federal mega-project that survives the cuts is the huge international airport planned for the outskirts of Mexico City. But it will have to soldier on without the participation of two major players, according to El Universal’s No. 2 headline: “Slim, Higa drop out of new airport.”
    Among the bidders for the three dozen or so major construction contracts is expected to be a consortium headed by ICA, Mexico’s leading infrastructure company. Among the nine participating partners were Higa, owned by Juan Armando Hinajosa, and CICSA, belonging to Carlos Slim.
Hinajosa built and financed a gleaming white luxury house for President Peña Nieto’s wife as he won the bidding for the Mexico City-Querétaro rail project (the sale, the bidding and now the project have all been reversed). Slim needs no introduction.
    The coverage cites sources insisting that  the Casa Blanca scandal was not a factor in the decision to drop out of the bidding. Rather, both Higa and CICSA are upset that the Peña Nieto administration seems to be leaning toward foreign firms.

The follow-ups to Thursday’s children’s and maternity hospital tragedy are threefold. The most disturbing headline comes from Reforma: “Seven babies still in intensive care.” Milenio’s No. 2 head (all papers lead with the budget cuts) underscores the difficulties of the chaotic situation: “Nine babies still to be identified.” They’re using DNA testing. Excelsior goes with the inquiry: “Gas supply company under investigation for homicide.” We already knew that, but this time it’s President Peña Nieto, not Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, making the announcement.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Today's Headlines: Tragedy, grief, heroism and negligence

With 24 hours elapsed after Thursday morning’s explosion that took down most of a Mexico City children’s and maternity hospital, three of the four dailies that fronted the story went with the latest news angle, described in a word by Excelsior’s headline: “Negligence.” The exception was El Universal, which gave the basic story in its lead head: “Explosion at hospital leaves three dead.” Milenio fronted only a photo of the leveled hospital.
    The tragedy happened as follows: Most homes and businesses in Mexico City don’t receive their gas for cooking and heating via an underground network of pipes; they’re supplied by trucks delivering either small exchangeable tanks or filling through hoses larger permanent tanks in the home or business, usually on the roof. It was the latter type of tank truck, called a pipa, that arrived at 6:50 a.m. at the hospital, located in the borough of Cuajimalpa in the southwest of the city, for a routine fill-up. At 7:01 a.m. fire department officials were notified of a gas leak at the hospital. At 7:09 the truck exploded.
    A mother and newborn were killed immediately. More than 70 others were injured, at least 14 of them seriously. A Universal sub-head mentioned the heroism of the rescue workers and the general populace that flocked in such numbers to give blood that authorities later in the day had to ask them to stay away from the blood banks. Enrique Mauro Vera, a police officer who was one of the first on the scene, rushed to the incubation area and carried a newborn with head trauma out for paramedic help. His action was captured on film and a blurry still (above) circulated widely on Mexican web sites.
    It was that baby who later in the day was identified as the third death. 

La Jornada’s head reads “Irresponsibility in the Cuajimalpa tragedy.” Reforma went with “Negligence investigated.” The three operators of the pipa were taken to the city attorney’s office for questioning.
    The gas supply company itself, known as Gas Express Nieto, is also under investigation. A major enterprise with a presence in most of the nation, Nieto has been cited for a number of safety incidents in recent years. The most serious was in July of last year, when a Nieto tank truck sprung a leak after passing over a speed bump in the city of Querérato. The resulting explosion left three dead.

La Jornada’s lead head this morning — “Videgary will announce today large cuts in public spending” — makes a prediction about Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray’s planned communications today. If the cuts are announced, the implications will color headlines for many months, perhaps for the rest of the Peña Nieto administration.
    The drastic drop in oil prices, the weakening of the peso against the dollar, ongoing anemic growth and uncertainty about interest rates are just some of an assortment of factors damaging the Mexican economy and reducing government revenue.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Breaking: The death toll is uncertain at a Mexico City children's hospital that has been collapsed by a gas pipe explosion

A gas pipe that exploded shortly after 7:00 a.m. this morning has virtually collapsed a children’s and maternity hospital in the Cuajimalpa borough of Mexico City.
    Newspaper sites are reporting seven deaths, but Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera put the number of confirmed at two around noon.
    Federal government officials are asking for prudence in the citing of figures at this point. Rescue efforts are ongoing. The number of injured is so far reported at more than 60.
    At least one emergency vehicle was on site before the explosion after a gas leak had been detected. The blast was caught on video, which leaves no doubt about how powerful it was.
    President Enrique Peña Nieto promised federal help. Mancera and Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong arrived at the hospital later this morning.
    The navy sent explosives experts to the site. The news reached Pope Francis quickly. He sent prayers through his Twitter account.
    Some of the injured were taken to the Santa Fe campus of the ABC Hospital. Blood donors are urged to give at that site.
    The gas blast at the Hospital Materno Infantil was not the first in recent Mexican history. There have been eight major events in the last 30 years. Three examples:
    On November 19, 1985 a chain of gas explosions in the San Juanico neighborhood in the State of Mexico outside the capital claimed about 500 lives.
    On April 22, 1992, 210 people perished from andexplosion and resulting fire along a gas line in Guadalajara.
    Most recently, on May 7, 2013, a gas truck’s tank exploded on a highway near Mexico City, leaving 20 dead, 36 injured and 45 dwellings damaged.