An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders Supporters

Dear Friends:

Happy Monday and here’s to a new week. Yes, the Nevada results stung on Saturday. But it’s a testament to how far we’ve come that we are disappointed we didn’t come out on top in a state we were given absolutely no chance of winning a few short weeks ago  – and one whose popular vote Obama lost by 8 points in 2008.

After Nevada, the score stands at 1-1-1 and we are tied with Clinton in the pledged delegate count at 51 each (the superdelegate issue is a whole separate story). That’s 51 each, with a total of 2,032 delegates necessary to win the nomination. There are 47 states to go. Clearly, we are in the very early days of what is the ultimate long game: an American presidential nomination.

Bernie_Sanders_by_Gage_Skidmore

Photo: Gage Skidmore

State by state, stitch by stitch, Bernie is weaving a new progressive coalition in America. This coalition is the rightful heir to the New Deal coalition, which brought us Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, FDIC banking insurance, and civil and voting rights in the South. In Iowa, he first showed he could win an overwhelming majority of young people. In New Hampshire, he added majorities of women, working-class and rural voters. In Nevada, he polled surprisingly well among Latinos. In fact, Bernie has won over 60% of the popular vote to date. All of this is a recipe for a lasting progressive majority in the United States – if the Democratic Party only knew enough to get out of its own way.

Our job now is to carry on our work with cheer and camaraderie, energy and exuberance, resilience and resolution and relentlessness. Let the media drone on with its false framing about Clinton’s “inevitability”: the fact that it totally missed this movement at the outset did not stop it from growing into a groundswell. Nor will it stop that groundswell now from rewriting the rules of American politics. I am proud beyond words to be a part of this, in however small a way. Thank you all so much.

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Photo: Bernie Sanders Facebook
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On Hillary and Hispandering

A month ago, an article was posted on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website with the title: 7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela. The subtitle: She isn’t afraid to talk about the importance of el respeto. It continues: “She’s always happy to talk about her ‘beautiful, perfect’ granddaughter, she’s an eager volunteer for babysitting duty, and whenever she travels around the country, she makes sure to bring back a gift for Charlotte—sound familiar?”

Well, yes: it sounds like grandmothers of all times, races and ethnicities, including my own nonna (If the article had been “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your nonna, boy would I have been seeing red). What does it have to do with Latin grandmothers specifically? Nothing. There’s nothing in the article – unless a picture of Hillary with singer Marc Anthony at the end counts – that shows any awareness of (or senstivity to) Latin culture whatsoever besides a few, clumsily-placed token words in Spanish. This is a perfect example of Hispandering, a term defined by Shereen Marisol Meraji as “faking interest in Hispanic issues and culture for self-serving reasons”.

Hillary Marc Anthony

Photo: hillaryclinton.com

The social-media blowback against the piece was immediate, boosting the hashtag #NotMyAbuela into a trending topic. “Our experiences cannot be equated to those of a rich and privileged white woman. It’s shameful and disrespectful to try,” said one tweet. “Hillary is #NotMyAbuela because I was separated by mine by many miles, and a militarized border,” said another. Others took issue with her record as Secretary of State: “#NotMyAbuela does not support war/dronings which disproportionatly kill children;” “#NotMyAbuela because no one in my family ever overthrew (or tried to) democratically elected leaders in Honduras, Haiti, or Ecuador;” “Hillary tries outreach to latinos but doesn’t think they remember Bill’s NAFTA that made latinos economic refugees. #NotMyAbuela.”

And this, ultimately, is the point. On one level, the “Abuela” piece is simply a more cringeworthy example of what has been a remarkably tone-deaf campaign (in the same vein as dispatching Chelsea Clinton to New Hampshire to insist that Bernie Sanders wants to dimsmantle Medicare). But something more sinister is at work here. In 2009, I sat glued to the television as deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya circled the Tegucigalpa airport in a plane, trying to land. Zelaya had been removed for attempting to hold a non-binding poll on holding a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. In her role in supporting this coup d’état, Hillary has been remarkably frank: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico,” she writes in her book Hard Choices. “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” The winner of those ‘free and fair’ elections, Porfirio Lobo, “diminished [the] rule of law,” “tightened the noose on freedom of speech, assembly and association,” and “rewarded coup loyalists with top ministries,” according to an article by Honduran scholar Dana Frank in Foreign Affairs. Since 2011, Honduras now holds the title of murder capital of the world, with 169 homicides per 100,000 people.

honduras violence

Photo: Los Angeles Times

As for Mexico, where I live, then-Secretary of State Clinton affirmed that there was “no alternative” to carrying on with the U.S.-backed drug war that has killed some 100,000 people killed since 2006. “It is messy. It causes lots of terrible things to be on the news,” she said in 2011. I suppose “messy” is one way to describe it. Under the Mérida Initiative, the United States has funneled some $2.3 billion dollars to the Mexican government, thus underwriting governments that have shown no compunction in committing severe human rights abuses. As a recent article in Human Rights Watch puts it:

Since former President Felipe Calderón began a “war on drugs” in 2007, Mexican security forces have engaged in egregious violations, including torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch has documented such abuses by security forces throughout the country, including 149 cases of enforced disappearances. United Nations human rights monitors have found that torture is a “generalized” practice in the country, and that extrajudicial executions by security forces have been “widespread.”

Furthermore, through the release of State Department emails and Wikileaks cables, we now know that Clinton’s State Department worked behind the scenes to break up PEMEX, Mexico’s state-owned oil and gas company, thus paving the way for the privatization of the nation’s oil and gas industry. And not only that, but two of her former collaborators at State, David Goldwyn and former ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual, now stand to profit from the oil privatization in the private sector, Goldwyn as counsel for the law firm Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and their clients in the energy industry, and Pascual as Senior Vice President of Energy Affairs at the for-profit consultancy IHS Inc.

mexico violence

Photo: Britannica.com

Let’s be fair: all candidates pander for votes, and no one person can be expected to be an expert on the intricacies of every culture represented within their borders. The Hispanic world, moreover, is a vibrant, diverse set of cultures spreading over several continents, hundreds of languages, and over 25 countries. But what is particularly galling about Hillary’s hispandering is the glaring disconnect between her rhetoric and her record, which includes decisions that have had a direct bearing on the very people her campaign is now pandering to. That’s not something my nonna would have done.

Everything I Know About Spanish I Learned from AMLO

Some people learn Spanish by memorizing verb conjugations and vocabulary lists. Others – the more fortunate among us – seem to just soak it in through books, movies and songs. Still others go the language-exchange route, honing their Spanish chops with a conversation partner in what often turn out to be transparent preludes to a pickup attempt.

Me? I learned my Spanish from AMLO.

AMLO is Andres Manuel López Obrador, a Mexican politician, former mayor of Mexico City, two-time Presidential candidate and two-time victim of electoral fraude. This post isn’t about his politics, though, but about his language.  You see, unlike the technocratic, triangulating, telepromptered, say-nothing-but-say-it-pretty crowd of formless fluffballs that have come to occupy our television screens like scarecrows in a fallow field, AMLO has a way with words that years of media feeding frenzies have been unable to hammer out of him. He’s from the coastal state of Tabasco, you see, where saucy speech comes with the territory. All of which makes him, hands down, the best Spanish teacher I’ve ever had.

AMLO

It was AMLO, for example, who taught me that a good for nothing is a mequetrefe.mequetrefe who steals an election is an espurio (yes, the word “spurious” also exists in English, but without anywhere near the same edge to it). But the real power behind the throne is the mafia de poder, the power mafia, making the espurio nothing more than a pelele, a rag doll. And when the power mafia and their allies amongst the delincuentes de cuello blanco (white-collar delincuents) put on their little ceremonies like the Grito de la Independencia as if the espurio were actually legítimo, such spectacles are nothing more than faramallas, empty shows, or rather, numeritos – “little numbers”.

As you can imagine, AMLO’s plain-speaking ways have at times gotten him into trouble, as when, during the 2006 presidential campaign, he referred to then-president Vicente Fox as a chachalaca, apparently a rather noisy little bird and the rough equivalent of a chatterbox. Pretty mild stuff from an extranjero‘s point of view, but in Mexico, where the figure of the president has been historically sacrosanct, it amounted to high insult.

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Undeterred, AMLO has continued to tour the country, calling a spade a spade. Legislators – or anyone – who need to show some backbone need to fajarse los pantalones, or tighten up their pants. In order to keep an adversary under close watch, AMLO recommends that you traerlo a mecate corto, or keep them on a short rope. In the fight against drug trafficking, one must be intelligent in order giving un garrotazo a lo tonto al avispero, or  stupidly whacking the hornet’s nest. President Peña Nieto, who has a penchant for skipping the country when things get hot, is a candil de la calle y oscuridad de la casa, or, roughly, the “lamp in the street and the darkness at home”. In a neat example of a culinary metaphor, the unconditional support Peña – who is famed for having very little between the ears – received from the television station Televisa during the campaign of 2012 was a case of inflar a un merengue, or inflating a meringue.

And, of course, all the spicy language that is to come as AMLO gears up to run for president again in 2018. A feliz navidad to all, and happy Spanish learning!

Personajes precarios

En su número de septiembre, la revista Tierra Adentro publicó mi traducción de extractos del libro Personaggi precari (Personajes precarios) del escritor italiano Vanni Santoni, publicado por Voland Edizioni en 2013. Por razones de espacio, la revista no pudo incluir todos los personajes que traduje, entonces me complace reproducirlos a continuación.

(La traducción en Tierra Adentro puede verse en línea aquí.)

vanni_santoni_personaggi_precari

BARROZZO
El barón Barozzo da Montamaro hizo venir a trescientos mercenarios de Suiza para defender el feudo de vecinos que se habían vuelto hostiles. Cuando llegaron los suizos, encontrando el feudo tan indefenso y a la vez tan próspero, lo saquearon de inmediato, violando lo violable y poniendo al castillo bajo asedio.
Las débiles defensas fueron destrozadas en una hora y media y el asedio concluyó bebiendo el vino de los barriles rotos y sodomizando al barón Barozzo entre grandes risas.

BOB
Una vez Bob (y Sarah) llamaron a uno de esos payasos a domicilio. Cuando el tipo llegó a su patio, lo provocaron de manera vulgar; en cuanto hizo señas de irse, le bloquearon el paso y lo colmaron de palazos hasta hacerlo desmayar.

PENELOPE
Cuando era niña, dormía nueve o diez horas por noche. Durante la adolescencia llegó hasta trece, luego, hacia los veinte años, parecía haberse equilibrado. En cambio, ahora que tiene 29 años y vive sola, manteniéndose con réditos financieros, en el transcurso de pocos meses llegó a dormir dieciocho, diecinueve e incluso veinte horas al día. Cuando se despierta, Penelope está siempre de óptimo humor.

precariousness

“An Homage to Precariousness” Photo: John Medina

UGOLINO
Hoy, no se sabe cómo, los sirvientes le compraron a Ugolino unos chocolates de leche de los que tienen relleno. Permanecerá de pésimo humor por días. En este momento, Ugolino está sacando el nougat del interior del chocolate con la manga de una cuchara de plata, gritando inmencionables insultos contra Suiza.

MAURIZIO
No contento con haber creado su propia página en Wikipedia, crea también una en Wikiquote, donde se reportan algunas de sus significativas afirmaciones, pronunciadas la noche del 31 de octubre de 2009 en el Bar Lerici (de Picchianti Adamo).

ANNA
Tengo que limpiar las ventanas, piensa Anna. Inmóvil como cera, desde la cama mira el vidrio. La oscuridad es una miríada de sombras, sedimentos de gotitas: cada una ha vivido medio centímetro, luego dejó atrás una idea de gris, más marcada hacia abajo. Se arrastra fuera de la cama, agarra una manzana. La sensación es mullida, desagradable. Piensa que en casa no hay provisiones, sólo manzanas marchitas y especias, cubitos de caldo, té y pasta de anchoa. Y pollo, hecho una carroña gris por estar en la congeladora sin bolsa. Se sienta a la mesa; cuando tiene que recibir a un hombre, saca los libros que considera le puedan hacer parecer más interesante, luego durante días no los vuelve a poner en su lugar. Hojea la poesía de Verlaine, ediciones Newton Compton tres mil nueve cientos liras, jamás leída, luego excava un sendero hacia el baño, mea, se levanta, se ve en el espejo con los ojos muy abiertos, exprime un poro ocluido en la nariz. En el vaso de los cepillos de dientes se está volviendo a formar el limo, piensa. Una vez encontró un pequeño gusano en el lavabo y tardó días en entender que venía del limo del vaso, un caldo primordial de minúsculos chorritos orgánicos y pasta dental y yeso caído que tiñe el pantano de gris.

It’s Not Austerity, It’s Asphyxiation

The words we use matter. And not just the words themselves, but how they are employed to form metaphors. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff talks about “conceptual metaphors,” the metaphors that actually shape how we think, rather than simply spicing up our language with some literary zest. According to Lakoff, such metaphors and “frames” are the ideas that allow us to understand what we are experiencing. “Naming is giving language to those ideas – often ideas you already have, possibly as part of your unconscious brain mechanisms,” he says. “Naming can make the unconscious conscious.” And considering that an estimated 98% of human thought goes on in the unconscious realm, the ability to pull something up into consciousness by means of an idea that gives it both shape and sense is an especially powerful tool. So powerful, that it can be very easily manipulated – and is, of course, on a regular basis.

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In recent years, no metaphor has been more manipulated – and with such toxic effects – as austerity. Under the aegis of “austerity,” nation after nation has either implemented a neoliberal economic program or aggravated an existing one, privatizing state-owned assets, slashing benefits and raising the tax burden, more often than not, on those least able to bear it. In the case of Greece, Troika-imposed austerity has caused a Great Depression comparable with the worst depressions in economic history, worse, indeed than America’s in the 1930’s. And, judging by the state of the negotiations between the Syriza government and the Eurogroup as I write, there is another giant helping to come on Greece’s plate.

Austerity has become such a household term that we tend not even to realize how powerful a framing device it is. This is precisely because its work goes on beneath the limen of our consciousness, reinforcing itself every time we repeat (or write about) it. Austerity provides neoliberal policies with a luster of responsibility, discipline, and maturity. What is more, it attributes to those policies a combination of moral virtue and aesthetic beauty which they in no way deserve. I am a great admirer of austerity. I strive to lead a simple life, with few luxuries, not only on moral or ecological grounds but because, as in the classic Shaker hymn, I consider it a gift to be simple. Even after so many years away, the plain, unadorned interior of a New England meeting house continues to speak to me more than façade after façade of Baroque excess. As does a stark winter landscape, with its denuded trees and snow. The austere scoring of a Brahms symphony sends me into raptures that all the bells and whistles of flashier composers cannot compare with. And the conflation of qualities I cherish with an economic doctrine that leads to impoverishment, egregious concentrations of wealth and the rending of a social safety net is, to me, offensive. But that is the way framing and conceptual metaphors work.

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So let’s return austerity to where it rightfully belongs: to a Gothic cathedral, to a Bresson film, to the spareness of a Wyeth painting. And let’s engage in the necessary exercise of renaming what the rest of the European Union is doing to Greece. Instead of austerity, for example, Noam Chomsky has suggested “class war”. While accurate, I think we can go one better. For a frame or conceptual metaphor to work, it has to contain a compelling visual element. I suggest asphyxiation. Just imagine how different the current debate would be if the Eurogroup were considering whether or not to asphyxiate Greece for another five years. And how appropriate that, like the word it would be replacing, asphyxiation is also Greek in origin: “asphyxia” comes from α- “without” and sphyzein, “to throb.” Not the mere stopping of breath, but of the heart.

wyeth 4

Pasolini, Fo, and Welcoming Our Overlords

As my Italian literature workshop draws to a close, we’ve finally made it up to the 20th-century authors, among them, the multifaceted pair of provocateurs, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Dario Fo.

pasolini

In the years before his unsolved murder in 1975, Pasolini – poet, novelist, filmmaker, essayist and critic – was aghast at the changes being wrought in the Italy of his time. Comparing it with the fascist regime of his youth, Pasolini considered the “democratic regime” that followed it eminently more successful at uniformizing the nation into a generic monoculture. interviewed for a RAI television documentary in the year before his death, he lamented that the culture of consumerism was “destroying our different, specific realities, stripping reality from the different ways of being human that Italy has historically produced in such differentiated ways. Its this acculturation that is destroying Italy for real. I can say without a doubt that true fascism is precisely the power of the consumer civilization that is destroying Italy.” And it was all happening so fast that people weren’t even noticing. “It’s like a nightmare in which we have witnessed Italy crumbling all around us, disappearing. Perhaps now we are awakening from this nightmare only to look around and find out that there’s nothing we can do anymore.” Forty years later, history has borne his prophecy out, with the added straitjacket of a common currency and a from-here-to-eternity austerity program.

Pasolini had grown up in the countryside, in the town of Casarsa, and spoke and wrote in the region’s Friuli dialect. Upon his move to Rome, he studiously learned the dialect of the capital city, walking the streets of the working-class neighborhoods known as the borgate, notebook in hand, jotting down notes and asking questions. So proficient did he become in the dialect of his adopted city that he was hired to write Roman dialogue for Federico Fellini’s film Le notti di Cabiria. Once he stepped behind the camera himself, his own early films were scripted in the dialect. But at the time of his interview with the RAI, the borgate were being razed to make way for overpasses and the nation’s plethora of dialects – the linguistic expression of the “different ways of being human” quoted above – were under threat from the standardizing force of television. What clearly galled Pasolini the most was that, unlike the overt tools of social control fascism had employed, consumerism was accepted gladly, willingly, with open arms literally grasping for more.

Dario Fo

Such sentiments are echoed in Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a farsical reenactment of the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, the Italian anarchist who fell to his death from the fourth-story window of a Milan police building after being falsely accused of the Piazza Fontana bank bombing in 1969. Towards the end of the play, the main character – a “maniac” who has wormed his way into police headquarters pretending to be a judge – differentiates between Italy and the countries of northern Europe and the United States. In Italy, he says, crude methods (such as the dumping of Pinelli out a window or, conceivably, Pasolini’s own murder) were still being employed to keep the truth from getting out. In more “social-democratic” societies, however, scandals – be it the Profumo affair in Britain or the crimes of Vietnam (or today, Iraq) in the US – were free to come out in the open…and nothing happened more than “a little liberatory burp to remove their social indigestion.” Although Pasolini and Fo labeled the Italian government of their time in somewhat different ways, the underlying analogy was the same: the blunt, coercive methods once seen to be necessary to keep a stopper on things become less necessary in an advanced consumer society, where people accept being controlled as a matter of course. Or rather, have been stripped of the very traits that once needed controlling. In today’s world, the US National Security Agency spies on people the world over, and a majority of Americans are a-OK with that.

And amongst those aren’t, I would wager a guess that a good many, like Pasolini in the throes of his valedictory fatalism, feel that the nightmare has become so entrenched that there is nothing to do about it anymore.

10 Reasons Why the PRI Won the Mexican Midterm Elections

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A deeply unpopular privatization of Mexico’s energy industry. A highly unpopular president mired in a series of high-profile gaffes and scandals. A series of unresolved killings in places with names like Ayotzinapa, Apatzingán, Tlatlaya and Tanhuato. An economy stuck in underdrive. Violence, insecurity, and a general sense that things are getting worse. So how, in God’s name, did the ruling PRI party win this last Sunday’s midterm elections? Here are 10 reasons that should clear things up a little:

1. They didn’t actually win. The PRI’s vote share, both in terms of percentage and eventual seats in the Camara de Diputados, was actually down from the last elections in 2012. The fact that they will have a majority in the lower house in the coming session is due to…

2. The PRI’s alliance with the Green Party. Knowing that they were likely to be the victims of a protest vote, the PRI poured resources into their affiliate, the Greens. Despite its deceptive name, the Green Party has nothing whatsoever to do with ecology, but is simply a stooge of both the PRI and the Televisa broadcasting company (see point #9). The Greens racked up a series of electoral law violations, including lavish overspending, the distribution of personalized, discount debit cards to would-be voters, and a failure to respect the three-day campaign blackout before the election: on polling day, a series of hack celebrities were trundled out to tweet in favor of the Greens, tweets which received an estimated 100 million views. And the strategy, literally, paid off: the Greens racked up some 7% of the vote. It is fair to assume that a substantial number of those voters were not aware that they were effectively voting for the PRI, but their votes were enough to give the ruling party its majority. And all of this was made possible thanks to…

3. The Haplessness of the National Electoral Institute. Faced with the avalanche of irregularities committed by the Greens, the National Electoral Institute (INE) did what they always do: fined them. To which the Greens shrugged and said, “Fine”. With so much to gain by breaking the rules, any fines generated are simply factored into the electoral accounting. It’s all public money, anyway. As I pointed out in my previous post, the parties this year will receive 5,356 million pesos in public financing; with such a bonanza of funding at their disposal, what’s a little more or less? The real sanction that the INE could mete out would be to revoke the Green Party’s registro, their party registry and the public financing that goes with it. But when citizens and representatives of the other parties brought this request to the INE, it refused to even consider it. And even if they did, the Greens could always count on…

4. The Haplessness of the Federal Electoral Tribunal. The Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF is its juicy acronym in Spanish) has the final say on all electoral questions in the nation. It was the court responsible for rubber-stamping the electoral frauds of 2006 and 2012. Its justices are the highest-paid “public servants” in the nation, earning, including benefits, 563,416 pesos ($40,244 dollars) a month. That’s per month, not per year. During this electoral cycle, it busied itself by swatting down, often without debate, several of the fines against the Greens imposed by the INE for violations such as the transmission of political ads veiled as “legislative reports” and taking advantage of federal programs in campaign advertising.

 Partido Verde Tarjeta

5. The Inequities of the Voting System. Mexico uses the relative majority, or first-past-the-post voting system to elect 300 of its 500 deputies. The unfairness of first-past-the-post has been widely discussed, primarily because of how unrepresentative it is: candidates can win their districts, and parties can win elections, without winning anywhere near a majority of votes cast. All it takes is that they win one more vote than their closest rival. In the case of Mexico, with some ten parties in contention this time around, winning parties were able to win their districts with vote percentages, in competitive districts, in the twenties percent. (Add to this that the primary supposed benefit of first-past-the-post, the direct link between the individual representative and his or her constituency, hardly applies to Mexico, where the representative-constitutency link is virtually non-existent). First-past-the-post was particularly merciless with Mexico’s sadly divided left, with four nominally center-left parties drawing and quartering the vote: the PRD (10.74%), Morena (8.37%), Movimiento Ciudadano (6.11%) and the Worker’s Party (2.82%). Total them up and the left pulls just about level with the PRI’s share.

6. Low Voter Turnout. Some 47% of registered voters turned out for the midterm elections this year. Because overall turnout was about on par with previous midterms, this is being spun as some kind of democratic success story. In truth, the PRI “victory” looks all that much more hollow. Of the 47% of voters that bothered to turn out, the PRI won 29% of that. As the table here shows, this actually brings the PRI victory down to about 14% of registered voters or, if we take into account the 5% who spoiled their votes (making “none of the above” the third or fourth-place finisher in a number of states), even less. Why less? Because of…

7. The Catch in the Electoral Law. According to Mexican Electoral Law. spoiled votes are taken into account when calculating overall turnout, but when calculating the seats, benefits and money assigned to the parties, only “valid” votes – that is, votes clearly cast for someone – are taken into account. So ironically, although vote spoilers were attempting to voice their protest against the system in the clearest, most forceful way possible, the PRI wound up with an extra percent of vote share as a result of their efforts.

fraude electoral

8. The Voto Duro. Historically, the PRI – the “party of the state”, the only one many older voters really knew for most of their lives – could count on a built-in block of unconditional voters. In the post-revolutionary era, this “hard vote” was organized in a series of corporatist structures, organizing workers, farmers and other non-salaried workers, such as taxi drivers, whose benefits were conditioned on their casting their votes, as a block, for the PRI. This structure is not what it once was, although it is still estimated that the PRI can count on a 10 million-vote bank. And it is a truism to say that, especially in low-turnout elections, getting out the core vote is key. Add to this the voto verde, or rural vote, still predominantly loyal to the ruling party in many parts of the countryside where the PRI is the only party with a genuine presence and where critical media does not reach. But what does reach is …

9. Televisa and Media Control. Televisa, the monster of Mexican television broadcasting controls some 68% of the Mexican television market and receives 70% of its advertising, mostly from federal and state governments. It uses this revenue to feed its massive audience a steady stream of denigrating game and reality shows; sensationalistic, misleading news programs; and, its crown jewel, a steady stream of maudlin soap operas that openly reinforce sexist, classist and racist stereotypes. In a country where an overwhelming majority receive what news they get from television, the control Televisa (and TV Azteca, the other member of the television duopoly) has over the flow of information is truly sinister. One only need recall the famous quote of Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, father of the current president of Televisa: “Mexico is a country with a modest class of very screwed people, who will always be screwed. The obligation of television is to provide these people with entertainment that takes them out of their sad realities and difficult futures.” And Televisa, of course, is not only strongly allied with President Enrique Peña Nieto, he is practically a creation of theirs. During the 2012 campaign, The Guardian newspaper revealed a secret pact between the television station and Peña Nieto dating back to 2005, when he was governor of the State of Mexico, to provide him with favorable coverage on its news and entertainment programs. In March of this year, popular independent journalist Carmen Aristegui was fired from her national radio program by her employer, MVS. The firing took place just in time to ensure that her program would not be on the air during campaign season.

logo-televisa

10. The PRI Mindset. Former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari once (in)famously said, “The PRI is the way it is because that’s the way Mexicans are.” One doesn’t have to agree with him to recognize that the kind of actions we associate with the PRI – corporatist voting, vote buying and coercion, the use of public funds and programs to finance campaigns and condition votes, mafia-style intimidation tactics and even killings – occur in other parties as well, indeed, with some of the same people who jump from party to party as convenience dictates. What is clear is that the supposed “transition” to democracy that supposedly occurred in 2000 (between one right-wing party and another, hardly a transition in the sense of an alternation of right and left) has not occurred at the level of how party politics is practiced. And this is precisely why so many people, from the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the Oaxacan communities that practice town-meeting democracy, have turned their backs on a party structure which they perceive, reasonably, to be hopeless.

Ominously, there are signs that Peña Nieto is not only treating Sunday’s elections as a “victory,” but that he will use them as a pretext to crack down on those he didn’t manage to get into line in the first half of his presidency. Just yesterday, the government announced it will break off dialogue with the striking teacher’s union (CNTE). It is also to be supposed that the train of privatizations – with water the next item on the table – will move ahead with that much greater steam. Beware the electoral mirage: it produces consequences that turn out, in fact, to be very real.

Oaxaca Occupied

As I write these lines, the State of Oaxaca, Mexico is being occupied by a combination of army, navy and federal police Units. Some 7,000 troops are being sent in order to guarantee the right to vote in the midterm elections for a Congress that will continue to get high on the government hog while leaving the rest of us to deal however we can with the effects of the nation’s ongoing disintegration.

President Enrique Peña Nieto needs the elections to go on as scheduled in order to maintain the charade that Mexico is a functioning democracy rather than what it really is, an autocratic narcostate on the verge of collapse. He needs the “legitimation” that a good electoral show can put on. Unfortunately, some wayward characters have decided to deviate from the script. Among those is the Sección 22, Oaxaca’s Chapter of the National Teacher’s Union. In recent days, members of the union have occupied the local gas distribution plant, causing gasoline shortages and gas station closures, have occupied the state’s 12 district election offices (3 of which have now been “liberated”), and have blocked the highway between Oaxaca and Mexico City, requiring the troops to land by plane.

INE ejercito

Critics have pointed out that the teacher’s union is acting out of self-interest, pressuring the federal government to drop an evaluation process for hiring, promoting and awarding tenure to teachers, one which the government announced last Friday that it will suspend. Although the criticism is undoubtedly true, the fact that a union – or any organization of any kind – is acting out of self-interested motives is hardly a revelation. What is more surprising is how much Mexican citizens have been willing to put up with for so long, to wit:

  • It pays to be a congressperson. In 2015, a diputado, or representative in Mexico’s Congress, earns 1,264,536 pesos a year, after taxes. This translates to 160,833 pesos (some $11,488 dollars) a month. Senators earn 2,729,099 pesos a year after taxes, some 262,337 pesos ($18,738 dollars) a month. These figures include the following benefits: four different kinds of insurance, a meal budget, savings fund, transport reimbursement, and a Christmas bonus worth 40 days of salary. The minimum wage in Mexico is between 68-70 pesos ($5 dollars) a day, or some $100 dollars a month. This is one of the lowest figures in the OCDE, and not enough to acquire a canasta básica of daily food intake.
  • In its issue #1969 of July 2014, Proceso newsmagazine reported a special bonus of $300 million pesos paid out to Congressional parties that voted in favor of a series of reforms, including the crown jewel, the Energy Reform Bill that privatized Mexico’s lucrative oil industry. For his part, Ricardo Monreal, head of the Movimiento Ciudadano party in the lower house, reported having received $15 million pesos in unsolicited funds. When he tried to return them to the treasury, he was denied.
  • The Mexican “partidocracy” will receive 5,356 million pesos in public financing this year. While the idea of public financing of campaigns is a good one in principle, parties in Mexico use this generous funding to maintain their stranglehold of the political process and lock other actors out. As there is no open primary process for selecting party candidates, party bosses tend to decide who receives the nominations, leading to a revolving-door rotation of many of the same names between the lower and upper houses. And although independent candidacies were finally allowed as of this year, would-be candidates are required to collect 1% of the nationwide voting roll to do so, some 780,000 signatures. This they are required to do in 120 days, with their own funds.

This not to mention the deep pit of disrepute into which the National Electoral Institute (INE) has fallen. The Institute has been responsible for two fraudulent presidential elections in a row, those of 2006 and 2012, and has proven typically negligent in policing the actions of the Green Party – a satellite of the ruling PRI party – in its multiple violations of electoral law this time around. Its head, Lorenzo Córdova, was recently recorded making disparaging comments about indigenous people. And, incidentally, the 11 councilors of the Electoral Institute take home a cool 182,212 pesos ($13,015 dollars) a month while the actual poll workers are lucky to get a sandwich and a coke.

But yes, the elections must go on. Unresolved killings across the country, the case of 43 missing students being covered up until it’s forgotten about, but the elections must go on.  I will vote tomorrow, but I understand the millions of people who will abstain or spoil their ballot. Not everyone has as high a tolerance for farce as a playwright.

The Power of Uncertainty

A couple of nights ago, I saw the movie Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa, for the first time. The central event of the film is the death of a samurai in the woods. But what made the film so epoch-making when it came out in 1950 was not the event in itself, precisely because there is no “in itself”: the film presents four plausible versions of what happened, told by two participants (a bandit and the samurai’s wife), an outside eyewitness (a passing woodcutter), and even the dead man himself told through a medium. And Kurosawa, thankfully, does not engage in the director’s prerogative of collapsing the quantum field of multiple possibilities into one authorized reality, but rather lets us roam freely through the uncertainty. Although he does provide us with a “resolution” of sorts – at the film’s conclusion, the woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby even though he already has six children at home, providing some proof of humanity’s potential for goodness despite the atrocity in the woods drummed into us by four different tellings – the resolution is a false one, a palliative, and, existing as it does only in the frame story, is practically extra-diagetic. The woodcutter, his companion the priest and we the viewers may be mollified by the scene with the baby, but the death of the samurai is no nearer to the solution that it will never have.

The ability of narrative art to provide aesthetic satisfaction while daring to remain in the uncertainty zone is an important element in contemporary fiction. This authorial refusal to “tie things up” is one of the hardest things for average readers to accept, and, in the more artless cases, smacks to them of laziness. And rightly so. We may have left the era of the well-made play long behind, but if the author wants to ask us to assume the psychological cost of remaining in a state of ambiguity with respect to the narrative playing out in front of us on the stage, screen, or page, they’d better damn well make it worth our while. In Rashomon, the uncertainty ties us in compassion to the woodcutter, who, right from the beginning, while staring out at the rain, a party to the multiple versions of the killing, states over and over that he “just doesn’t understand”. That he is later the one who adopts the baby makes the conclusion, well, all the more satisfying of a palliative.

rashomon woodcutter

Sometimes, however, we are not even administered a palliative. In the Italian literature course I’m currently teaching, we recently read the story Qualcosa era successo (“Something Had Happened”) by Dino Buzzati. The terse title is remarkably descriptive: not only had “something” happened, but, whatever it was, it had already happened before the events taking place in the story, a nightmarish train trip up the entire Italian peninsula while hordes of people outside the windows flee in the opposite direction from some unnamed apocalypse the train’s passengers are heading helplessly into. When the train arrives at the deserted train station at the end of the line (I immediately thought of Milan’s Stazione Centrale, but even that is left undetermined), all the terrified passengers discover is the shadow of a train worker slipping out of view and, then, the voice of a single woman screaming for help. Her shouts bounce off the glass ceiling of the station with the “empty sonority of those places abandoned forever.”

I would argue that the fact that neither we nor the train’s passengers know what they’re heading towards heightens the dual effect of anguish and excitement. Buzzati is masterful at ratcheting up the tension as the train hurtles north: first, a single girl receiving news from someone running towards her, then several people running through a field, then people in building windows hurriedly packing their bags, then a boy shaking a newspaper at the train that a passenger only manages to grab a tiny fragment of, and so on until they arrive at the deserted station. If we knew what the actual cataclysm in question were, the story would be more like Bradbury’s “The Highway“, where the road fills with cars heading north from Mexico to the United States at the outset of an atomic war. Bradbury’s story is fine in its own right, and has stayed with me all these years since I read it in eighth grade, but I believe Buzzati’s story, precisely because it forces us to participate in an uncertainty that is not based on the outcome of concrete, future events but, rather, is built into the very parameters of the world he has created, cuts deeper.

buzzati_treno_fellini

Uncertainty is the revelation of our times. Schrödinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead, the position and momentum of a particle can never be known at the same time, the very foundations of all that classical mechanics taught was real have dissolved into an amorphous mass of mere tendencies. We can either look to literature as an escape into a world of a truly fictional certainty where we can all just sit back and push the catharsis button on our consoles. Or we can see it as a guide into a new world where the ontological decision-making is more democratic, one which must be, at least partially, of our own fashioning. As an anonymous English author wrote in the 14th century, only by entering voluntarily into a cloud of unknowing may we approach the divine.