I wrote this story for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on April 28, 1997.
MEXICO CITY – Talk to Mexican lawmakers and they’ll tell you that attending a session of Congress is like going to the circus. Federal deputies trip and fall into flower pots, play hide-and-seek with bananas, and stroll into restrooms reserved for the opposite sex. They place bets on the exact time hearings will end and joke about their colleagues’ height, weight – even belly-button size.
Given such antics, many lawmakers – and their constituents – don’t take Congress all that seriously.
“All those people want is to outdo each other with funny costumes and clever insults,” said Rogelio Vargas Ortiz, 27, a Mexico City street vendor.
Indeed, for decades the Mexican Congress has been a peculiar little sideshow, never the main event. But that may soon change.
For the first time, opposition parties this July have a chance of winning a majority in Congress.
If that happens, Mexico’s ruling party will no longer control Congress, and the nation’s imperious presidency will suddenly have to share power with opposition senators and federal deputies.
The implications are profound: Lawmakers could finally help shape Mexico’s destiny. They could push for an end to corruption, reform the judicial system and promote fairer elections. They could give politicians a much-needed dose of credibility.
No one knows for sure which way things will go, or even if the opposition will score a big win in July.
What’s certain is that the role of Mexican lawmakers is changing. Voters are demanding accountability – and the politicians are struggling to adjust.
“It used to be that you’d go out, get the vote and once you won, it didn’t matter whether you ever returned to your state,” said Ricardo Monreal, a senator with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. “Now you have to be more connected to the voters. You have to go home to your state, your municipality, and explain why you voted against a proposal or a law. ” Other ruling party lawmakers agree.
“Just a few years ago, you didn’t even need to campaign.
Complete unknowns could be candidates, and the PRI machinery would win the election for them,” said Sen. Amador Rodriguez Lozano.
“That’s a thing of the past. Today, society demands that we let them know what we’re doing. ” Meeting voters’ demands isn’t easy in a country that has huge problems, from crime and poverty to social injustice.
Making matters worse, Mexican lawmakers face an immense credibility gap.
“The sad luck of our federal deputies is that no one believes in them – they don’t even believe in themselves,” said Francisco Peralta Burelo, a congressman who has written three books about the Mexican Congress.
Congress, he said, needs to be more like the National Basketball Association. “It needs to have stars, people who stand out. ” As it is, Congress suffers from a bad case of “who-gives-a-damn,” said Mr. Peralta, a journalist from the state of Tabasco.
Lawmakers are bored and discouraged, and they’re tired of listening to the same speeches and seeing little change, he said.
So sometimes they simply don’t show up. Or they doze during speeches.
Mr. Peralta records such episodes in a gossipy weekly newsletter called “Stories, Anecdotes and Other Things. ” Recent “Peralta-isms” – as they’re called – tell of federal deputies who trade insults, tell X-rated jokes and wear masks.
Among those featured is Marco Rascon, who showed up at President Ernesto Zedillo’s latest state of the union address wearing a rubber Halloween mask.
As Mr. Rascon tells it, the president’s supporters stopped at nothing to persuade him to give up his crazy plan. They offered him cash, free trips, whatever he wanted. But he wouldn’t have it.
So the Honorable Congressman Rascon became Babe the Pig. And it was great fun, he said, until a foe ripped the mask off his face and punched him squarely in the stomach.
Not all “Peralta-isms” are fun and games. Mr. Peralta also writes about deputies who are deeply frustrated about not having more power to influence the course of events in Mexico.
The PRI has so dominated Congress that it is called the Steamroller. And members are shunned if they vote against initiatives proposed by the president.
Mr. Peralta recalls a lunch in which PRI Deputy Jose de la Cruz Martinez was asked how he planned to vote.
“Here at this table, against. There in the hearing room, for,” Mr. de la Cruz Martinez said.
Some deputies insist they have influence. After PRI lawmakers made 135 changes to a set of fiscal bills, PRI Deputy Francisco Suarez proclaimed, “No law was left a virgin. ” But other deputies complain that no matter how hard they try, they feel unimportant and disliked.
Mr. De la Cruz Martinez refuses to wear a lapel pin identifying him as a federal deputy. Or he pins it to the inside of his lapel so ordinary citizens can’t see it.
“People are very angry, and I don’t want anyone to know I’m a deputy,” he said.
Mexicans have endured many broken promises over the years and they’re angry – so angry that politicians can’t even count on once-loyal supporters.
Consider this example: On a recent sweltering afternoon, federal Deputy Leticia Burgos journeyed over perilous, muddy roads to visit her constituents in a village called Rancho Nuevo La Democracia.
“Your struggle is our struggle,” she told the villagers. But instead of cheering, they reacted with anger and skepticism.
“When there are elections, there’s money, food, government aid.
But once the elections are over, everything is gone,” village leader Lauro Garcia Vazquez said.
And it’s not that Rancho Nuevo was enemy territory. The region traditionally has shown strong support for Ms. Burgos’ party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD.
The PRD is one of eight parties vying for seats in Congress in the July 6 elections. In the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies, 300 seats are up for grabs, with the remaining 200 apportioned accordingly. The PRI currently controls 298; the National Action Party, or PAN, 119; the PRD, 66; and others, 17.
In the Senate, 32 of 128 seats are open. The PRI now controls 95; the PAN, 25; and the PRD, eight.
If the PRI wins at least 42.1 percent of the seats in July, it will be awarded an additional eight percent as part of what’s known as the governability clause. It was designed to ensure that the
winning party has enough votes to control Congress and effectively govern.
Although some analysts are convinced that the PRI will lose the majority in Congress, others aren’t so sure. They point out that in 1994, the ruling party won just 50 percent of the national vote, but 92 percent – or 276 – of the congressional districts.
No matter who wins in July, some say it’s going to be tough for lawmakers to keep pace with an ever-demanding public.
Traditionally, everyday Mexicans have had trouble even stepping inside the hallowed halls of the Chamber of Deputies.
On a recent Wednesday morning, security guards roughed up several citizens who wanted to talk to legislators. The citizens, from El Barzon, a debtors’ society that claims more than one million members, finally made it past the first guards and metal detectors. But more guards stopped them outside a chamber known as “The Green Room. ” “We’re citizens, we’re not breaking the law, but we can’t get in,” said Francisco Villegas Samano, an El Barzon leader from the state of Sonora. “If we’re not wearing ski masks, they don’t pay any attention to us. ” El Barzon was formed to help Mexicans who went into debt after the December 1994 peso devaluation. Mr. Villegas and the others wanted lawmakers to do something about the jailing of four El Barzon members on what they called trumped-up charges.
After a brief struggle, the El Barzon protesters got into the Green Room. But they soon left, after interrupting a lawmaker’s speech, convinced that it was a waste of time.
“Mexico has so many problems, and they’re talking about gossip and rumors,” said Maximiano Barbosa Llamas, president of El Barzon.
Protesting street sweepers from Tabasco state recently took a more radical approach and stripped naked in front of legislators to show their anger over low wages and poor working conditions.
“People come all the way here and go to such extremes as nudity because lawmakers in their own districts do nothing to solve their problems,” said Sen. Felix Salgado of the PRD.
Ruling party members wanted to oust Mr. Salgado for helping arrange the street sweepers’ demonstration, but it never happened.
In late March, however, Mr. Salgado was nearly killed when his Harley Davidson motorcycle went off the Mexico City-Acapulco highway and rammed a wall. The senator, now recovering from broken facial bones and other injuries, said a car forced him from the road in what he believes was a murder attempt. Authorities are investigating.
The senator said it wasn’t the first time he’s been targeted.
In 1990, security forces beat him up, tortured him with electrical shocks, broke three of his ribs and injured his back, he said. In 1996, federal judicial police arrested him, accused him of aiding leftist guerrillas in the state of Guerrero and beat him up.
“When I told them I’m a senator, they offered an apology, but they had already hit me. If I weren’t a senator, I would have been tortured and taken prisoner,” he said. “A lot of people are put in jail that way on fabricated charges. ” Independent Deputy Adolfo Aguilar Zinzer said it’s almost impossible to challenge the ruling powers without suffering some kind of consequence. He said government officials have harassed him for initiating a corruption investigation into the government’s food-distribution agency, known as “Conasupo. ” Led by the PRI, lawmakers closed the investigation not long after it began.
If the opposition gains control of Congress, the PRI would have much more trouble killing such investigations, Mr. Zinzer said. And he sees corruption as the biggest issue in the July elections.
“There is nothing that mesmerizes the Mexican people like corruption,” he said. “Corruption explains poverty, crime, public insecurity. It’s like a spinal column linking all of Mexico’s problems. ” Mr. Zinzer said that Congress does not investigate corruption for fear of hurting the ruling powers. Nor does Congress traditionally create its own legislation, he said.
Practically all the laws passed by Congress are proposed by the presidency. During last year’s legislative session, 128 of 134 initiatives came from Los Pinos, the presidential palace. That probably would change, analysts said, if congressional control passes to the opposition.
“Unfortunately, the majority in Congress are very limited to whatever the president says,” said Ramon Sosamontes, a PRD deputy.
“We have made some advances. The opposition is taken into account.
But the PRI dominates. ” Most congressional decisions are made by a handful of PRI leaders who occupy what is known as “The Bubble. ” That’s congressional slang for the PRI leadership.
Each party has their own Bubble – and their own “Bronx. ” The Bronx is the section of the Chamber of Deputies reserved for the loudest – and often least influential – lawmakers from each party.
“If you’re in the Bronx, you’re forbidden to take the floor,” Mr. Zinzer said. “You only vote, cheer and get rowdy with people you oppose. ” The average number of federal deputies attending regular sessions last year was 295 – or 59 percent, attendance records show.
Deputies said that they don’t always show up because the outcome is often a foregone conclusion. Or they have other work to do. Or they’re simply not interested in the debate.
The opposition ends up doing most of the talking. Many PRI members don’t address their colleagues because they don’t need to convince them of anything. They’re going to win anyway.
The PRD – which lags behind the PRI and the PAN in congressional clout – last year took to the podium 47 percent of the time. They were followed by the PAN, with 17 percent; the PRI, 13 percent; and the Workers Party, 13 percent; with the rest going to other parties.
Visitors to the Chamber of Deputies are kindly asked not to spit, chew gum or raise their voices. Lawmakers, by contrast, frequently yell obscenities or tell off-color jokes during public sessions.
Whether or when the Congress can shed its reputation as a sideshow and become part of the main event, strengthening Mexico’s budding democracy, is an open question.
PRI leaders are optimistic.
“Mexico is living in a new era,” said Mr. Monreal, the PRI senator. “And from now until the new millennium, Mexico is going to experience increasingly important changes. ” Others aren’t so sure.
“This isn’t easy. I’ve been here an infinity of times, and little changes,” said one man, sitting in a legislative hearing room, hoping to get a chance to speak to lawmakers.
“Of course I won’t give up,” he said. “Nothing is futile. ” To aid his cause, he wore a mask. And no, it wasn’t Babe the Pig, but a mythical character said to terrorize livestock and humans – the so-called “Chupacabras,” or Goat Sucker.
“Sorry, I can’t tell you my real name,” he said. “Just leave it at Mr. Goat Sucker.