APRIL 7-20, 2008

1. CALDERON VISITS CHIAPAS
2. FLAVIO SOSA RELEASED FROM PRISON
3. BATTLE FOR PEMEX
4. PRD CRISIS DEEPENS
5. PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR VISITS MEXICO
6. VENEZUELA TO NATIONALIZE MEXICAN CEMENT COMPANY
7. ECONOMY TANKING
8. IMMIGRATION RAIDS AT PILGRIM’S PRIDE CORPORATION


1. CALDERON VISITS CHIAPAS
President Felipe Calderon spent two days in Chiapas during the second week of April, apparently in an effort to momentarily draw attention away from his plans to privatize Pemex and toward his social programs.  Calderon, decked out in traditional clothing from the highlands region, announced a series of poverty reduction measures in indigenous communities, including the construction of “environmental stoves,” home water filters and concrete floors.  He also offered indigenous campesinos one ton of corn for every hectare converted from farmland to forest.  The “environmental stoves” cost about US$130 to construct, more than a typical monthly wage in most highland communities.


2. FLAVIO SOSA RELEASED FROM PRISON
Flavio Sosa, perhaps the most visible leader of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), was released from prison on Saturday, April 19.  Sosa spent 400 days behind bars before a judge found that the government lacked evidence to prosecute the APPO leader for robbery, kidnapping and causing personal injuries.  Sosa gave an impromptu press conference at the prison gate where he committed to continue the struggle for democracy in Oaxaca.


3. BATTLE FOR PEMEX
The battle for control of Mexico’s oil reserves heated up during the past two weeks after President Felipe Calderon introduced legislation that would privatize major segments of the state-run petroleum monopoly.  Pemex currently provides over 40% of the federal budget and the constitution prohibits private ownership in the energy sector.  Calderon’s initiative would change a number of civil laws, opening refining, deep-water drilling operations and transport to foreign and national corporations.  He also floated the idea of selling 100 peso shares in the company to Mexican citizens, a proposal that many found odd given that Pemex is already owned by the Mexican people.  Calderon played hide-and-seek with the press for weeks leading up to the formal announcement, claiming first that his National Action Party would introduce the legislation, then turning the job over to a group of governors from oil states before finally introducing the legislation himself.  Within hours of the announcement, tens of thousands of protestors aligned with former PRD presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador blocked access to Congress, while many members of the Frente Amplio Progresista (FAP), which includes the PRD, the Labor Party (PT) and Convergencia, took over the podiums of the Senate and lower House.  As of this writing, the two legislative bodies remain closed while FAP officials maintain a 24-hour vigil over the podiums.  The FAP is demanding a broad, four-month national debate on privatization followed by a popular referendum before the legislative bodies begin to consider privatization measures.

Some PRD representatives who disagreed with the closing of the legislative bodies instead declared a hunger strike in opposition to the Pemex initiative, but it quickly fizzled after 26 hours when it became clear that most Mexicans really don’t care if corrupt party officials hunger strike.  Most of the hunger strikers were Senators or Deputies affiliated with Jesus Ortega’s “Chucho” faction of the PRD.  The Chuchos stand in opposition to most of Lopez Obrador’s initiatives, calling them “radical” and in some cases “violent.”  The hunger strike continues an ignoble tradition begun by former President Carlos Salinas, who managed to miss two meals in support of his imprisoned brother.  By this author’s count, the PRD hunger strikers missed dinner, breakfast and lunch, though they may have made up for this last culinary deficiency by taking in a late lunch at one of Mexico’s fine restaurants. 


4. PRD CRISIS DEEPENS
More than four weeks after internal elections for party leaders, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is still unable to announce a winner.  The two leading candidates for party president, Alejandro Encinas and Jesus Ortega, continue to battle over how ballots from nine key states should be counted.  Encinas wants to preclude ballots from “irregular” voting booths, including polling stations that were never officially opened, ballot boxes that reported more than 1,000 votes (each polling station was limited to 1,000 ballots), and polling sites that reported over 90% returns for one candidate.  Ortega wants to count all the ballots regardless of irregularities, then let either official election courts or party institutions sort out the problems.  Given the two positions, it is pretty clear that Encinas would win an election that invalidates irregular balloting while Ortega would win an election that counts all the votes regardless of problems. 

Currently, no one in the badly divided party wants to take responsibility for making a final decision on how to count the ballots.  The three heads of the Technical Electoral Commission, the party organ responsible for tabulating the election, resigned over the past two weeks, leaving the mess in the hands of the National Commission of Guarantees, a sort of party oversight body.  But the National Commission of Guarantees is unable to make a decision on how to count the votes, leaving the entire process in limbo.  Some party stalwarts, including Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, are calling for annulment, but so far the appeal has had little resonance among most party members.  

On Saturday, both sides agreed to extend the current party president’s mandate beyond April 20, when Leonel Cota is scheduled to be replaced, then quickly broke the agreement on Sunday when Cota publicly announced that Encinas was the real winner of the elections.  Cota accused followers of Ortega of rigging election ballots, particularly in Oaxaca.  This follows a series of “agreements” in which both sides tend to depart negotiating meetings and immediately call press conferences in which they offer contradictory interpretations of the “agreements” just reached.

Encinas enjoys the support of former PRD presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, while Ortega is supported by many party officials, much of the mainstream press and President Felipe Calderon. 


5. PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR VISITS MEXICO
President Rafael Correa visited Mexico the second week of April.  In a joint press conference, President Felipe Calderon noted the similarities between the two leaders – both 45 years old, three children, lovers of Latin American music and avid bicyclers.  Correa responded, “Indeed we have much in common.  The only thing lacking is for you to become a socialist.  We never lose hope.  To be part of the right is no longer in vogue in Latin America.  Join us, you’ll always be well-received.”  The response provoked laughter among the press corps and red faces among Calderon’s cabinet members.


6. VENEZUELA TO NATIONALIZE MEXICAN CEMENT COMPANY
President Hugo Chavez announced the nationalization of much of Venezuela’s cement industry, including the Mexican-owned Cemex, which produces almost half of the country’s cement.  The April 7th announcement met immediate opposition from Cemex owners and the Calderon administration.  Cement is an important component in Chavez’s development plans, and currently much of the national production is exported, leaving Venezuela with recurring shortages.


7. ECONOMY TANKING
Mexico’s economy may be following the US example by sinking quickly into recession.  Automobile production in March fell at an annual rate of 9.8%, while automotive exports shrank by 6.8% and national vehicle sales declined by 17%.  Mexico’s economy created only 126,000 jobs in the first trimester, compared with 256,000 during the same period last year.  The International Monetary Fund reduced growth predictions for the Mexican economy to 2% in 2008, a full percentage point less than last year’s estimate.


8. IMMIGRATION RAIDS AT PILGRIM’S PRIDE CORPORATION
US immigration agents arrested about 400 workers on April 16 at five Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation chicken processing plants.  The workers were charged with identity theft for using false Social Security numbers to obtain employment.  If convicted, they could face up to five years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000.  No charges have been filed against the company, which reportedly cooperated with federal officials.  The arrests occurred in Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, West Virginia and Texas.  Pilgrim’s Pride, the nation’s largest chicken producer, may have difficulty replacing the employees, as undocumented workers provide the vast majority of labor in the dangerous and low-paid meat processing industry.  The raids are the most recent example of the Bush administration manipulating immigration enforcement during a presidential election year.