Mexico: a banana republic?

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
18 April 2006

Mexico is a country of stark and illuminating contrasts. One of them is increasingly apparent in the campaign for the presidential election due on 2 July 2006: between an urbanised and educated society that has gradually knocked down the walls that isolated us from the rest of the world, and a mediocre, petty political class concerned to restrict and control this society's expression. The desire of the political class to anchor Mexico in the past is evident in its readiness to pass a new law on the operation of the broadcasting industry in the country.

The American short-story writer O Henry coined the term "banana republic" to refer to Honduras, later applied to all Latin American countries governed by a small, rich and corrupt clique that imposes its will arbitrarily and crudely on the powerless majority. (To be fair, all countries, even the most powerful, have their share of "banana republic" characteristics and one could even build a "banana index" to grade them.) The saga of the "Televisa law" – which grants Mexico's two media giants, Televisa and TV Azteca, a frequency that will allow them freely to develop multiple digital services – suggests that, at the least, a question-mark must be placed over Mexico's membership of this unattractive club.

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

"Mexican democracy in peril" (April 2005)

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (November 2005)

"The Americas' new independence"
(March 2006)

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Business and politics

In July 2000, the once-hegemonic party that had ruled Mexico for seventy-one years – the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – was defeated, and Mexico experienced alternation in presidential office. At that time, it looked as though the victory of Vicente Fox's National Action Party (PAN) would herald an era of great modernisation. It did not happen: Mexico's transformation required a statesman, but Vicente Fox proved to be just a relatively efficient administrator. Instead of fighting the established order, the newly-elected president sealed an alliance with the forces of the ancien régime. The hopes for change faded.

Six years on, the election for Fox's successor presents the establishment once more with the challenge of finding new ways to secure and extend its power. It is keenly observing the campaign of the three leading presidential candidates: Felipe Calderón of the rightwing PAN, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftwing PRD, and Roberto Madrazo of the former ruling party, the PRI. The uncertainty provoked by the possible victory of the PRD's Obrador, Mexico City's former mayor, is especially worrying.

A key battleground is the electronic media, which has been able to increase its power and wealth thanks to privileges granted by Vicente Fox's administration. Mexico's media barons decided to turn the electoral contest to their advantage by exploiting the vulnerability of candidates who depend on airtime to circulate their ideas and proposals (together, Televisa and TV Azteca command more than 95% of Mexico's television audience). True, it makes sense in strict business terms that the broadcasting industry seeks to defend its investments, but the method it chose and the political reception it received were alike scandalous: these giant corporations prepared a bill that was presented before a complicit, ignorant and/or frivolous house of representatives.

The bill, which made countless concessions to the ambitions of the media barons, was presented to the lower house in December 2005. The noteworthy, the incredible, the banana of it is that representatives from all political parties approved it unanimously – in seven minutes! The public learned only later that most of the legislators who voted for it had not even read, much less understood, a piece of legislation so crucial to Mexican modernity.

The document was sent to the upper house; by that stage, growing opposition to the law across Mexican society meant that senators could no longer hide behind their ignorance. Among the protestors were government agencies that regulate media; the main electoral authority; public and cultural media; academics and civil-society organisations; and a handful of professional politicians. Even the Mexican office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released statements reminding people that the law violated international agreements signed by Mexico.

Another of Mexico's contrasts was thus exposed: the division of the country into those with the power to impose a decision and a disempowered majority whose civic resistance took a variety of forms. Each of the seventeen stations of the federal government's Instituto Mexicano de la Radio (Mexican Institute of Radio / Imer) decided to air, during the twenty-four hours preceding the senate vote, a single tune followed by a message of protest. Mexico City's radio station Opus 94, which specialises in classical music, chose an aria from Bach's St Matthew's Passion (Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott).

This piece – beautiful and profound, melancholy and torn by anguish – seemed especially appropriate for the contradictory journey Mexico currently finds itself travelling. It captures the sadness caused by the realisation that a part of Mexico is still a banana republic, yet in context it was counterbalanced by the pride of listening to the public-radio message that followed each transmission of the aria: "a country without media plurality would be like hearing the same song all day long … Mexico needs a new law – plural, inclusive, fair – that does not favour private interests over public interest. None of these principles is part of the project under discussion."

Also in openDemocracy on Mexican politics and history:

Caroline Moorehead, "From Mexico to California, and back" (November 2003)

Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968"
(August 2004)

Isabel Hilton, "Imagining power: Carlos Fuentes interviewed"
(February, 2006)

Hank Heifetz, "Looking north: Mexicans in migration" (April 2006)

For their part, the senators understood clearly what was entailed by the passage of the bill: increasing the already excessive privileges of media barons, mistreating public and community stations, ignoring the arguments of experts, refusing to consider the education of a country of predominantly poor people. It was all useless; on Thursday 30 March, eighty-one senators from the governing PAN, the once-dominant PRI, and the so-called "Green Ecological Party" (PVEM) approved the law without changing a single comma; forty senators (including all those representing the PRD) voted against the law – thus redeeming themselves for the error they committed in the lower house.

Media and votes

The determination to pass the law was directly connected to the presidential election: the broadcasting organisations that stood to benefit had given guarantees to the candidates of the PAN (Felipe Calderón) and the PRI-PVEM (Roberto Madrazo) that it will support them to ensure that the leftist Andrés Manual López Obrador is prevented from winning July's election.

The divisions in Mexico highlighted by the bill were so great that some senators announced immediately after it had been agreed that they were preparing another bill to "correct" its flaws, while another group of senators is preparing a legal challenge before the supreme court.

Meanwhile, throughout this process President Vicente Fox has had the authority to veto the law or to ask congress to change it. If he had done so, perhaps he could have recovered – at the twilight of his term – the reformist fibre he was once credited with. Instead, he sanctioned the new law, thus allying himself with the powerful and revealing the president to be one of the most important citizens of that part of Mexico that has decided to remain a "banana republic".

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