People power grows in Mexico

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

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.

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.

The new zeal for the possibilities of self-government is taking forms Mexicans have never known before. Every Wednesday in the Miguel Hidalgo district of Mexico City, residents are invited to a sort of city hall open house. At the five-hour sessions, initiated by the district's newly elected "delegate," or president, government officials field citizen complaints and suggestions.

"Part of our job in this period of change in Mexico is to change the perception of government and who makes it work," says the Miguel Hidalgo delegate, Arne aus den Ruthen. At 29, the engineer-turned-politician is one of an army of young, newly elected officials who, like Fox, come from the National Action Party, or PAN. "In general we haven't had participation in developing the common good," says Mr. Ruthen.

Mexico City is a reflection of how participation was discouraged for decades, Ruthen says. Only in 1988 did the city get an elected council, in 1997 an elected rather than appointed mayor, and only in July were delegates elected.

The Citizen's Wednesday, Ruthen's regular Thursday door-to-door visits in various neighborhoods, and nonbinding weekend referendums he has already organized are "educational steps," he says, to reacquaint citizens with how government works, and demonstrate how they can take part.

Such initiatives are positive, citizenry advocates say, but they stress that more will have to come from the Fox government to sustain the new citizen participation beyond the initial euphoria.

Legislation to encourage development of a civil society has been proposed for four years, says Mr. Gomez of Alianza Civica, but has never gotten off the ground. "Fox says he wants to govern with citizen participation, but this kind of thing will test his seriousness." Citizens' groups are pushing for a constitutional change to allow binding referendums.

The Fox team, preparing to take the reins of government when Fox is inaugurated Dec. 1, says the new president is committed to an active role for civil society in Mexico. "The campaign operated on the assumption of growing citizen participation, and that will continue," says coordinator Gabriel Sekely.

He adds that both the citizenry and government must address shortcomings in Mexico's nongovernmental organizations, including lack of professionalism, poor funding, and the traditional Mexican tendency to want to deal only with the president. "These organizations need training in law, in human rights defense, even in how to lobby," Mr. Sekely says. "In the past, most groups have disregarded Congress altogether," but with Mexico's Congress taking on importance in a more plural political system, "they're going to need to learn to lobby members of Congress."

Sekely says the transition team is discussing ways to finance training for non-government groups without creating the impression that government is trying to coopt their work.

"There's a consensus that if you want the NGOs to play a central role in our transformation, but if you know your citizens need some assistance in making that happen," he says, "then you have to invest in it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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