Little welcome for watchdogs

With the July 2 presidential vote nearing, foreign 'democracy observers' say Mexico is obstructing entry.

When Ted Lewis arrived recently at Guadalajara's international airport, he figured getting through the immigration check would be a breeze.

After all, the director of Mexico Projects for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights and democracy watchdog group, had visited Mexico more than 50 times since 1982. And he had already been approved by Mexico's elections bureau as a foreign observer for the electoral process leading up to the July 2 presidential election.

But Mr. Lewis was barred from entry into Mexico by immigration officials and put on the next plane back to the Bay Area.

Mexico's National Immigration Institute (INM) says Lewis has a bad habit of coming to Mexico as a tourist, but then carrying out "political" activities. Like visiting indigenous groups in the southern state of Chiapas.

But Mexican human rights and democracy-advocacy organizations say the INM has a too-narrow definition of tourism that only envisions spending greenbacks from under a palapa shade hut at the beach. What worries them more, they say, are the signals the action against Lewis sends about how the Mexican government perceives the role of foreign observers in an electoral process that is expected to be the most hotly contested in Mexican history.

"What [the government] is attempting is to dissuade the participation of foreign observers in what groups like ours believe is so important - the pre-election period," says Rogelio Gmez Hermosillo, coordinator of the watchdog group Alianza Civica.

Jaime Crdenas Gracia, a councilor with the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) adds that immigration officials are approving already-certified foreign observers at "a tortoise's pace." "The troubling suggestion," he says, "is that (INM) is trying to limit the observing to a few days around the election."

With charges of widespread irregularities, such as vote-buying in the weeks before Peru's recent first-round presidential vote, still reverberating across Latin America, democracy advocates here say the next eight weeks in Mexico require special attention. And they say that means foreign observers are needed now, not later.

"After what happened in Peru, the Mexican elections are suddenly getting more attention in the United States, Canada, and Europe," says Mr. Gmez.

Mexicans are still bused by the thousands to rallies put on by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). And stories still swirl around election days of voters being influenced with the promise of a chicken or tamales in exchange for the correct vote - especially in southern, heavily rural, less sophisticated states like Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Yucatn, and Tabasco.

Mexican elections in general have become much more transparent and equitable over the past five years, analysts say. What worries observers is that what so far promises to be an extremely close election could tempt some officials to dust off their old vote-buying tactics.

"Blatant fraud is pretty hard to carry out these days in Mexico," says Delal Baer, a Mexico analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But the closer the election - and this one looks like the difference between winner and loser could be less than 2 percent - the stronger the pressure for local officials to make sure people vote the right way. This is especially true in rural areas," she adds. "The risk increases as the paved road ends."

Global Exchange's Lewis was coming to Mexico to direct his organization's observation work in six rural states that Mexican organizations consider "at risk" of vote-buying. Lewis acknowledges that he arrived in Guadalajara with a simple tourist visa. But IFE's Mr. Crdenas says the election bureau's regulations state clearly that foreign observers are authorized to enter the country on a tourist visa, and complete observer visa requirements once inside Mexico.

The Lewis case is not the first time Mexico has raised hackles by booting foreigners out of the country. Americans, Italians, and other Europeans have been deported for fraternizing with "subversive" groups, primarily in Chiapas, while in Mexico on a tourist visa. The government calls this "revolutionary tourism," and doesn't stand for it.

But INM officials refute accusations of discouraging foreign observation of the electoral process, and hold up visa- approval statistics to make their case.

"The federal government ratifies its decision to extend all facilities so that foreigners' observation of the elections can take place, though within full compliance of the law," the Interior Ministry said last week in response to controversy over Lewis's deportation.

The ministry said that so far 44 of 53 observer visa requests have been approved. The bulk of the approved visas are for representatives of Global Exchange, Lewis's organization, INM officials say. But the government also says it denied Lewis's entry based on his failure in the past to "stick to the Mexican norms" set out in immigration regulations for foreign observers.

Critics of the immigration institute say the number of observers approved to enter the country is minimal compared to the much larger numbers needed to help ensure a transparent and fair campaign period. The federal election agency's Crdenas says IFE has so far granted credentials to 70 foreign observers - and expects something closer to 1,000 between the pre-election period and voting day itself.

Democracy watchdog groups are also upset that INM is limiting observer visas to 10, sometimes five, days. "These limitations are unprecedented for an electoral period," says Crdenas. "In terms of our democracy, it's worrying."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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