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People power grows in Mexico

Free from one-party domination, Mexico is on a second honeymoon with democracy. Will it last?

By Howard LaFranchi Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2000



MEXICO CITY

Eulalia Cruz Islas was for years a typical Mexican housewife, limiting her attention and energy to caring for her home and family, participating little in the affairs of her central Mexico City community.

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Then last year something clicked.

"One day I got tired of seeing the garbage in the streets, the clogged drains, the poor services," she says. "I decided I couldn't expect things to change if I didn't get involved." So she joined her neighborhood improvement committee and now makes regular visits to city hall.

Mrs. Cruz is part of a wave of citizen participation that is transforming Mexico and strengthening faith in democracy.

Long a country where people kept to close-knit families but left public affairs to a paternal and distant government, Mexico is seeing its concept of democracy overhauled as thousands of Mexicans realize their demands for change will only be realized if they pitch in.

The boom in citizen activism reflects a new plurality since the crumbling of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which almost single-handedly governed Mexico for much of the last seven decades.

It also mirrors a broadening of democracy that resulted in the election of Vicente Fox to Mexico's presidency on July 2. Mr. Fox ran a very different campaign from anything Mexico had known before. Over several years he developed grass-roots organizations and favored building contacts with citizen groups instead of sticking to his own political party.

Even the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement since 1994 has played a role. The free-trade agreement began a process of opening Mexico to global influences and encouraged formation of watchdog citizen groups to evaluate social, labor, and environmental aspects of Mexico's economic shift.

The emergence of international human rights standards has worked in a similar way to create interest in government-oversight activities.

When Fox won the presidency, he called on all Mexicans to take part in the country's transformation.

People are responding by submitting resumes to propose themselves for high government posts; manning weekend cleanup brigades; setting up impromptu, albeit nonbinding local referendums; and speaking out at meetings with government officials.

"Fox's election was like a spark, igniting enthusiasm for participation and involvement after 70 years of a system based on a single party," says Silvia Aguilera Garcia of the nongovernmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. "The question now will be how to sustain that enthusiasm long enough to change the political culture of a country."

Says Rogelio Gomez Hermosillo, coordinator of the national democracy watchdog group Alianza Civica: "People are no longer interested in confrontation; they want shared responsibility, but that will require new laws and mechanisms to translate this desire into something concrete."

The new-found citizen enthusiasm is evident in surveys. A poll last month in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma showed the number of Mexicans satisfied with the way democracy is working has jumped from 29 percent in October 1999 to 51 percent now. The survey also showed large increases in confidence in institutions like the federal election agency, the federal government in general - and even NAFTA.