Mexico Burning? Don't believe it.

S.F.'s Global Exchange wins publicity by pushing a vote recount Mexico doesn't need

Global Exchange is a San Francisco nonprofit known for pressing leftist causes by crashing sessions of Congress, stalking Hillary Clinton, agitating to be allowed onto television reality shows, and other such publicity stunts.

During the past few weeks in Mexico, however, the group has positioned itself in a role more serious than the left-wing PR-hound reputation it has cultivated in the U.S. Through press conferences and other media outreach, it has helped create the false impression among newspaper readers, especially in Mexico, that significant, neutral foreign election observers believe there were enough serious problems with vote counting during a July 2 presidential election that there should be a complete recount of all ballots.

The resulting stories potentially helped confuse public perception of the following reality: Neutral international observers representing the United Nations, the European Union, and other international groups have said with varying degrees of certitude that though there may have been technical problems benefiting one or another candidate at some polling places, there's no evidence of systematic fraud. The elections were generally fair and clean. And these groups have not said a recount is warranted.

In Mexico, Global Exchange has stepped beyond the traditional role of international election observers as neutral ombudsmen verifying the legitimacy of a vote count. There, as in the U.S., the group is employing mastery of public relations to advocate an ideological viewpoint — in this case, the idea that a recount might somehow comfort left-leaning Mexicans, irrespective of the real possibility that the original election was clean.

By confusing, rather than helping clarify, the issue of whether or not the election was legitimate, Global Exchange may be making it more difficult for Mexico to create a fair and lasting democracy.

During recent weeks, Mexico City's central area has become paralyzed by sit-in protests after the fiery leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) lost by 243,000 votes, or 0.58 percent, to the more right-leaning National Action Party's (PAN) Vicente Calderón.

López Obrador's partisans have so far fruitlessly demanded a complete, countrywide recount. This demand was officially supported last week in a San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution that passed 9 to 1, after Global Exchange's Ted Lewis testified before the Board's Rules Committee.

Lewis has become a one-man rapid media response team with dual bases in Mexico and San Francisco. When I spoke with him Friday he was juggling press calls from Australian television and elsewhere, having just returned to San Francisco following a Mexico City press conference covered by television, international wire reports, and Mexican newspapers. During previous weeks Mexican newspapers were filled with stories based on Lewis' comments calling for a full recount.

"We can't say this would affect the final result," Lewis was quoted as saying during his Thursday conference. "Our reason for backing a recount was not about partisan sentiment, but making sure there could be some stability during the years to come. Mexico has the potential to be very volatile," he said to me the next day.

"To say there's the potential for real polarization that could lead to deeper problems for Mexico between now and 2012, I don't think that's far-fetched at all," Lewis said.

This idea — that Mexico is a simmering cauldron of discontent poised on the precipice of societywide instability — is an old canard, inaccurately invoked by both left- and right-wing U.S. opinion makers for most of the previous century.

The administration of the first President George Bush used it to help explain its backing with money and political support the corrupt, authoritarian, right-leaning government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas. Without the PRI's brand of soft-dictatorship, I heard bankers and politicians assert time and again during those years, Mexico would fall apart.

Yet somehow, for the past six years since Vicente Fox was elected as an opposition candidate, the country has enjoyed democratically elected government yet remained quite intact.

Left-wing activists from all over the world invoked this teetering-Mexico idea to aggrandize the importance of a tiny, 1994 local dispute over access to arable land, in which peasants for several hours occupied municipal buildings in the small town of Ocosingo, Chiapas.

Anti-capitalists worldwide cast the Ocosingo incident as the "Zapatista Rebellion," a supposed example of simmering unrest in Mexico. At that time Global Exchange led "reality tour" visits by foreigners to the Chiapas region, an effort that may have admirably helped prevent a brutal government crackdown against the peasants. The Mexican instability myth touted by visiting foreigners, however, was based more on leftist public relations than reality. In this spirit soon after the rebellion, its leader, the pseudonymous Subcomandante Marcos, morphed from peasant leader to celebrity pundit.

The Mexico Burning fable is likewise meager pudding as the basis for Global Exchange's argument that 41 million votes from a fair election should be retallied.

Let me interrupt with full disclosure: I really wanted Andrés Manuel López Obrador to be Mexico's next president. I was briefly employed by his political party in 1990, and was friends with Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, who preceded López Obrador as president of the PRD. I've long held that Latin America, Mexico especially, would benefit from more left-leaning government. That's because during the past 24 years official Mexican policies based on privatization, free trade, and free flow of foreign capital have accompanied the disintegration of the middle class, and the worsened impoverishment of the poor.

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