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Viva Rudy?

I arrived in Mexico City on the night before May Day. This was my third visit there, but my first since the downfall of the PRI. More important, this was my first trip in the Giuliani era. I took comfort in the fact that the city’s streets would be safe, its windows no longer broken.

That Rudy will “clean-up” Mexico City is of course a ridiculous notion. After all, this is a task far greater than single-handedly rebuilding one city in the wake of terrorist attacks. Yet Rudy’s work down south will surely be celebrated, no matter whether it succeeds or not. You see, when it comes to Rudy, only the legend matters.

Photo illustration by Smack.
Photo illustration by Smack.

Why this is so has everything to do with what is invested in the former Mayor of the World. When I recently asked a New York City politician what Rudy is up to these days, he replied, “he’s making money.” But while it is true that Giuliani Partners is charging big bucks for its priceless crime-fighting advice, one should not forget about the other shareholders in Rudy.

The Republican Party has its future riding on him. Not in 2004, of course—but definitely in 2008, by which time the party will have to expand its base well beyond the Christian Right. The Latino vote will be crucial, and what better way for Rudy to bolster his stature than by bringing his law and order show to Mexico City? If he can stop crime there, he can stop it anywhere.

The 2008 showdown between Rudy (and his conservative running mate from the Deep South) and Hillary (and her conservative running mate from the Deep South) is certainly a long way off. The Republicans still have more wars to fight, as well as more taxes and social programs to cut. And, even if they win the next election, the Democrats will likely offer a program of a few less wars, a few less tax cuts and a few less social programs.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, the pendulum is actually shifting leftward. The PRD may capitalize on its successes in Mexico City over the past few years, initially by gaining strength in this July’s nationwide midterm elections. And it may continue to grow over the next three years, with a good chance of winning the national elections in 2006, succeeding Vicente Fox’s PAN. Ironically, Rudy’s efforts in Mexico City may thus end up helping the left.

Since December of 2000, Mexico City has been governed by its PRD mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. More commonly referred to as simply Lopez Obrador, he has implemented a populist program, creating pensions for the elderly, investing in housing and schools, and expanding services. And he has committed his government to large public works projects, including a massive plan to build a second tier for the Periferico, Mexico City’s version of the Beltway. In some ways, Lopez Obrador seems like Robert Wagner and Robert Moses, all rolled into one.

No small amount of power for someone who came to Mexico City in the late 1990s with a reputation as an “outsider.” Lopez Obrador is from the state of Tabasco, which is on the Atlantic near the Yucatan. There he earned his political stripes as governor in the early 1990s when he successfully seized control of Tabasco’s oil fields from a very corrupt local PRI regime. His roots also have given rise to his nickname—more playful than derisive—of “Pejelagarto,” a fish with a crocodile-like head, which is native to the Tabasco region.

Lopez Obrador has capitalized on his outsider status, presenting himself as a steadfast foe of corruption. One of his first actions as mayor was to cut his own salary, not exactly a move borrowed from the PRI’s playbook. He also drives himself to work each day, getting to the office at 6 a.m. A man of pomp and fanfare he is not.

Lopez Obrador in fact looks and acts like a dedicated civil servant. He is known for his long, meandering speeches, full of numerous pauses during which he searches for the right words. But his shtick, if you can call it that, is clearly working: two polls taken in early May showed him to have a greater than 80 percent approval rating among Mexico City residents.

A year ago, Lopez Obrador’s approval rating was 70 percent, suggesting that his administration would be popular with or without Giuliani coming to town. Public works and social programs are clearly what the vast majority of Mexico City and its 20 million residents want and need. But now the Lopez Obrador administration has taken up the added challenge of fighting crime at the same time it fights poverty—and only 15 percent of those most recently polled disapproved of the overall effort.

Giuliani is actually being paid his sizable fees—in this case $4.3 million—by a consortium of Mexico City businessmen, but Lopez Obrador was clearly instrumental in the hiring. When the move was announced last fall, the leftist La Jornada attacked Lopez Obrador, whom it usually supports. The paper editorialized against the recruiting of Giuliani, a “proverbial repressor of the poor and marginalized.” A dogmatic statement, perhaps, but is it untrue? Remember workfare, stop and frisk policing, and Patrick Dorismond.

After his ballyhooed visit to Mexico City in January, Giuliani’s two initial recommendations—to end police corruption, and to increase police salaries—were somewhat laughable, as 4 million bucks seemed like a high price for stating the obvious. But in late April, the city’s legislative assembly showed its clear endorsement of the Giuliani approach. By a vote of 45-7, it passed a new law imposing jail sentences on those convicted of small robberies or thefts, replacing the fines previously in place. Specifically citing the city’s new ability to punish those who “rob on buses,” a supportive Lopez Orbador stated that “Theft is theft no matter what the amount is.”

Iris Santacruz, one of the seven dissenting city council persons, tied the new measure directly to Rudy. “It seems these changes are being carried out strictly to apply Giuliani’s program of zero tolerance,” she told Reuters. Santacruz further explained that a petty thief who stole less than $50 could spend a year in one of the city’s overcrowded jails before coming to trial. Zero tolerance, though, is clearly in vogue, regardless of Mexico City’s poverty problem, which by all accounts is growing rapidly due to the ongoing, nearly uncountable migration of the rural poor to the sprawling city.

In the city’s central business areas, the cleanup is well underway. In early May, the nightly news featured reports of crackdowns on “los limpiavidrios,” the city’s version of “squeegee men,” the mostly rural migrants (i.e. Indians) who wash car windows at red lights along the Paseo de la Reforma and at other major intersections in the city. But rather than the 100 or so squeegee men who “terrorized” New York City before Sheriff Rudy locked them up, Mexico City has thousands of window washing men (and sometimes women), fire-eaters, bric-a-brac vendors, and vagabond children to deal with on its street corners.

“Zero tolerance” in Mexico City will be treated as a success as long as the poor are pushed to the outskirts, to areas in the north like Nezahualcóyotl, a section of more than 4 million people where outsiders dare not tread. In the process, both Rudy—who hates crime and social programs—and Lopez Obrador—who hates crime but likes social programs—will benefit from the media fanfare and popular perceptions about the new safety.

Lopez Obrador is widely touted as a presidential contender in 2006, and based on his extraordinary approval ratings at the moment, he stands a very good chance of winning. But only if he decides to run. In early May, he said of the race that “you can leave me out. I’m not thinking about 2006. You should look somewhere else and leave us to work.” Such a posture, though, is typical of candidates everywhere when the race is a ways off, and in this case it is consistent with Lopez Obrador’s no-nonsense political persona.

What’s less typical is the embrace of a right-wing position by a politician who remains on the left in both rhetoric and practice. Any doubts regarding Lopez Obrador’s overall political philosophy should be put to rest by another recent stance he took, this time regarding a dubious move by the U.S. Congress to link any future immigration agreements with Mexico to the opening of the nation’s state-run oil industry to U.S. private investment. Flatly opposing any such deal, Lopez Obrador declared that “the oil belongs to all Mexicans.”

Committed to state intervention (and in the case of oil, outright ownership), along with public works and social spending, Lopez Obrador is nobody’s neoliberal. So when it comes to zero tolerance, he has a crucial choice: to apply it only to the poor, or to target crimes committed by the police, white-collar businessmen and renegade corporations as well. While Rudy’s blueprint only calls for going after easy targets, Lopez Obrador should be held to task for maintaining a sense of justice in his war on crime.

Special thanks to my friend Alvaro Figueroa for his research assistance.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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