U.S. Media on the Mexican Election
The August 21 Mexican elections, which the U.S. media have characterized as “generally fair and clean” (New York Times, 9/27/94) despite widespread protests to the contrary, have presented establishment media in the U.S. with a serious problem: how to make people believe that a ruling party, which could only win elections through massive fraud in good times, could suddenly win an honest election by a landslide — after reducing workers’ real wages by 30 percent in the six-year administration of incumbent President Carlos Salinas, as the New York Times itself has quietly acknowledged in articles in its Business section (9/27/94).
The middle class has been decimated by the government’s Wall Street-dictated neo-liberal economic policies, the peasantry has been reduced to desperation, and the country’s biggest bank says that 23.5 percent of the working population is unemployed or severely underemployed.
Meanwhile, the number of billionaires (in U.S. dollars) has soared from two to 24 in the last three years, according to Forbes magazine (7/21/91; 7/18/94), the newly arrived being friends of President Salinas who were practically given public sector enterprises under the government’s “privatization” program.
Salinas himself is acknowledged by election officials to have won power through the most absurd forms of fraud, and his rule has been suspiciously coincident with the murder of hundreds of his political opponents, whose deaths inspire no serious official investigation. His own party’s first presidential candidate was assassinated in March, in a hit so widely believed to have been ordered by the government party itself that many officials don’t even try to pretend otherwise.
In the midst of this democratic flowering, the U.S. corporate media tell us, millions of Mexicans flocked to the polls in a generally honest election to give the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Ernesto Zedillo, more than 50 percent of the vote, easily outdistancing the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and leaving the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, behind in the dust.
The U.S. media’s acceptance of the results as free and fair, with a few minor “irregularities,” led a cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor (8/24/94) to wonder, with apparent sincerity, why the PRI had bothered to steal the elections in the past, since they could win a fair vote so easily.
Early on, it was clear that transnational corporations, the Clinton administration and the corporate media all wanted a PRI victory. Foreign banks and corporations were especially interested, because PRI control of the trade union apparatus made possible the continuation of an economic “pact” between corporations and the unions.
“Without the pact, it would have been extremely difficult to have the real-wage declines that Mexico went through,” declared a Goldman, Sachs banker (New York Times, 9/27/94). The Times itself praised the pact as”enhancing the attractiveness of Mexico as an emerging market,” apparently a labor market, since the slashing of wages would do little for consumers’ disposable income.
The election fraud was easy enough to organize. PRI operatives are old hands at that, and did not intend to be caught napping as they were in1988, when they were humiliated by being forced to unplug the election computer when they saw that Cardenas was winning. (by the time it was up and running again 10 days later, Salinas had leaped from third to first place.)
The problem was making anybody believe the fraudulent results. The transnational media did their part.
The media began to focus international attention on dubious public opinion polls, even though both the New York Times (8/10/94) and Washington Post (7/21/94) had run stories in previous weeks questioning their reliability and methodology. But the polls were essential to the official U.S. effort to claim that a PRI victory was free and fair.
The New York Times quickly changed its tune. “Polls and other measures of support indicate that it may be Mr. Cardenas’ chances of being elected president that will be interred, not the Institutional Revolutionary Party,” the Times‘ Anthony DePalma wrote (8/14/94). Most of the polls were commissioned by newspapers with close ties to the PRI and with a long history of cooking poll results to suit their purposes. The Times and the rest of the U.S. media simply ignored other polls that predicted a Cardenas victory.
Worse was to come after the election. The U.S. media censored reports of widespread election fraud, preferring to quote such disinterested sources as the U.S. ambassador and other official and semi-official “observers” who declared that while there were some “irregularities,” they were insufficient to affect the result. (One semi-official U.S. observer was Curtin Winsor, ambassador to Costa Rica during the Contra war, who earned his spurs corrupting Costa Rican government officials and undermining the country’s democratic institutions.)
Dead Voters, Phantom Towns
Months before the election, evidence began to surface of wholesale fraud in the voter lists. Quoting from PAN and PRD investigations, the Mexican weekly Proceso noted (6/6/94), for example, that 156 registered voters were listed as living in a police station and another 70 in a public park; that people who had died at least three years ago had turned up to be photographed for their voter credentials; that the registry included nonexistent families and even phantom towns. The government responded that it depended on the “goodwill of the citizens and cannot investigate whether their credentials are fake.”
The U.S. press, although devoting very heavy attention to the elections, ignored the reports.
The PRD asserted that as much as 20 percent of the voter list was simply wrong. Armed with video cameras, Global Exchange, an unofficial U.S. observer group, did a sample check of the PRD’s findings and reported that all 12 of the “residences” they visited in one district of Mexico City showed the PRD’s assertions to be accurate. A photograph of one such “residence,” a luncheonette where the staff claimed never to have heard of the registered voter supposedly living there, was published in one opposition Mexico City newspaper, but the photo did not make it into the major U.S. press.
The fraudulent voter lists were apparently judged insufficient by PRI operatives, for even worse fraud was to come on election day. One foreign election observer reported that the PRI election official in his district simply grabbed the ballot box as the polls closed, ran out the door and jumped into her car. Other election officials tried to follow her but lost her trail. An hour or so later she returned with the box, claiming that she’d had an errand to do at home, but was now ready to count the ballots.
The Mathematics of Fraud
“Of the people who live in poverty, three times as many voted for the PRT’s stiff, Yale-educated former budget minister than for the leading candidate of the left, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of a revered former president,” the New York Times straightfacedly declared the Sunday following the election (8/28/94). “That result alone suggests that Salinas’ huge anti-poverty program, his subsidies to poor school children, and his checks for small farmers convinced at least some of them that a better future remains with the PRI.”
That was one way of depicting the mathematics of the PRI victory. Another type of arithmetic turned up in the state of Chihuahua, District 9, Voting Booth 2423, as reported by the opposition newspaper La Jornada (8/27/94). According to the document signed by election officials at the opening of the polls, they had been given 525 ballots. At the end of the day, they took 1,263 ballots out of the box. Privately, PRI party activists told foreign reporters that this was standard stuff—but that normally, the polling documents would be more competently falsified.
U.S. media strenuously argued that the margin of victory was so great that, even factoring in the fraud, Cardenas had obviously lost. The argument, accepted even by many honest journalists with little knowledge of the history of Mexican elections, was that there was no way the PRI could have stolen the 20 percent of all votes Cardenas would have needed to catch up with Zedillo.
While it is impossible to know who would have won if the election had been fair, in the 1992 gubernatorial election in Cardenas’ home state of Michoacan, the PRI had originally given itself 52 percent of the vote, compared to the PRD’s 30 percent. The New York Times (9/16/92) proclaimed this as evidence that support for the left was collapsing even in its own stronghold. This was a few weeks before the fraudulently elected governor, confronting paralyzing mass demonstrations, gave up the grotesque pretense that he was elected and quit.
Perhaps the most dishonest report on the elections was in a New York Times article August 28, reporting on a massive rally by Cardenas supporters in Mexico City’s central plaza: “Rather than the ringing defiance with which he has spoken out against many elections in the past, Mr. Cardenas sounded a sober, somewhat self-critical note,” the Times‘ Tim Golden declared, “announcing an end to his presidential hopes and calling on his supporters to contemplate a ‘much longer’ struggle for democracy.”
Readers, accustomed to Times reports claiming that Cardenas had failed to inspire many supporters, could easily draw the conclusion that he was blaming himself for his poor showing.
A tape of Cardenas’ speech reveals that these were his only “self-critical” remarks:
At that point the crowd erupted in cheers, chanting the name of the leader of the Zapatista guerrilla movement:
Mark Cook, who has frequently written for Extra! about coverage of Latin America, reported on the Mexican elections for WBAI and KPFA radio.