In Mexico, rich 'ladies and gentlemen' told to behave

This year has seen politicians and the rich sarcastically dubbed 'ladies' or 'gentlemen' for their poor behavior. Caught on camera and tweeted, some of the public shaming is working.

“Ladies and gentlemen” no longer means damas y caballeros in Mexico. At least not when preceded by a hash tag.

This year has seen politicians and the rich dubbed “ladies” or “gentlemen” for behavior that would classify them as anything but. From #LadyProfeco – the woman who had a trendy Mexico City restaurant temporarily shuttered after she was denied a table – to the #GentlemanDeIxtapaluca, a public servant whose drunken tirade against the police was caught on video this week: Mexicans are catching their public servants misbehaving and getting the word out via social networks and traditional media.

It’s a recourse for public shaming that carries on a long Mexican tradition of poking fun of the powerful, say observers. And in the face of pervasive impunity, the airing of politicians’ less than ladylike or gentlemanly behavior is having modest results. In a country where legal avenues for fighting abuses of power often fall short it is knocking the powerful down a notch or two. 

“It’s a cultural question,” says Hector Castillo Berthier, who directs the youth division of the Institute for Social Research at the National Autonomous University. “We opt for mockery, for the snub, for contempt. What’s at the bottom of it? Social inequality.” A recent study by the national statistics agency divides Mexicans into three classes: 59 percent fall into the lower category, 39 percent in the middle, and just 1.7 percent in upper class. 

He notes that one of Mexico’s most iconic images – the skeletal catrina with a wide-brimmed hat covered in flowers that has come to symbolize the Day of the Dead – was originally created by José Guadalupe Posada to make fun of the upper class during the regime of Porfirio Díaz in the late 19th century.

Another kind of protest

This week, Brazilians have taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands in protest of what started as a small bus fare hike but has erupted into mass anger about the poor quality of public services and high taxes – complaints that a rising middle class, in a country still plagued by inequality, feels empowered to make. Such frustrations aren’t unfamiliar to Mexicans.

A growing Mexican middle class has become less willing to tolerate abuses by the rich or lawmakers who believe they are above the law, says Helena Varela Guinot, director of the Universidad Iberoamericana department of social sciences and politics. And an expanding civil society is demanding greater accountability from government officials.

The shaming in the media and on social networks of politicians who behave badly “helps to control the out-of-control ambition of the political class,” Ms. Varela Guinot says, but “for accountability to be truly viable, it’s not enough to expose them. Legal consequences depend on rule of law. Unfortunately, we don’t have that in Mexico.”

When Andrea Benítez was denied the table she wanted at a popular bistro in April, she pulled strings at the consumer protection agency known as Profeco, which is led by her father. She threatened the owner and, within hours, Profeco inspectors shut down the place. The scandal that erupted grew until President Enrique Peña Nieto abruptly fired her father, Humberto Benítez, from his post.

Ms. Benítez may be the most notorious Mexican “lady,” but many others have emerged. Senator Luz María Beristain – “Lady Senadora” – made a ruckus when she arrived late for a flight and the airline refused to check her in. The video of her insulting an employee went viral. After the incident, the airline promptly launched a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign announcing low fares for “Damas y Caballeros (and not ladies and gentlemen, which is not the same)."

The “gentlemen” have fared no better. The “Gentleman of Ixtapaluca,” Francisco Javier Romo, resigned from the conservative National Action Party to which he belonged after the embarrassing video of him swearing at a police officer emerged this month. However, he didn’t resign his post as a local councilman in a town in Mexico state.

“In the political class, the recovery [from public shame] is usually rapid,” says Varela Guinot. “We’ll soon have them back on the political scene as if nothing had ever happened.”

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