Full Interview: Denise Dresser
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JEFFREY KAYE: Many are suggesting this is an historic election in Mexico. Why is that?
DENISE DRESSER/Political Scientist: Well, because never in the country’s history had we witnessed an election that is going to be so close. In 1988, many people believed that the candidate of the opposition Cuauhtemoc Cardenas may have won, but we frankly don’t know. The ballots were burned subsequently. There were charges of massive fraud. But, now there are polls, there’s numbers, there’s data that’s revealing that for the first time the candidate of the ruling party — the candidate of the PRI, Francisco Labastida — may not win. He is running neck-to-neck with the main contender, from the National Action Party, Vicente Fox, who has come out of nowhere over the past two years to challenge the ruling party in an attempt to turn this election into a referendum over change.
JEFFREY KAYE: Well, he hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, right? There’s been a transition taking place, isn’t that right?
DENISE DRESSER: Yes, but, he is someone who has, created himself as a political figure. He is not a traditional member of the PAN. He has an entrepreneurial background. He was the head of Coca-Cola Mexico for many years and if you’d asked anyone in the National Action Party who its candidate would have — would be for the 2000 election several years ago, no one would have said Vicente Fox. He has tried to market himself as an antiestablishment politician, who happens to be running on the back of the National Action Party. Many people who are going to vote for him will do so because he represents change, not because they want to empower the PAN the National Action Party.
JEFFREY KAYE: Let’s return to PAN and Fox in a minute, but, maybe we should explain or you can explain how Mexico made this transition and got to the point where plurality is reality in Mexican politics. How did that come about?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, over the last twelve years, since 1988, we’ve witnessed a steady decline of vote for the ruling party. There’s been a transition taking place in Mexico –a transition towards democracy that entails many substantive changes, some of them electoral, some demographic, some of them social. Electorally-speaking we’ve witnessed the rise of opposition parties, the arrival of opposition parties to state governments.
The PRI losing its relative majority in Congress, the emergence of a more plural, independent, combative media, and the emergence of Mexican voters who are questioning the political system and who are advocating change — who are saying “It’s been seventy-one years of dominance by the ruling party, perhaps Mexico is ready for a change in government,” for what we call “la denuncia.” The real possibility of an opposition party taking control of the executive.
JEFFREY KAYE: Others have traced this back to the devaluation of the peso, economic woes and economic reforms, that took place throughout Mexico along with political reforms, brought about by people, to some extent like Vicente Fox — entrepreneurial types…
DENISE DRESSER: Well, political reform and economic reform in Mexico for the past decade have gone hand-in-hand. We’ve witnessed the emergence of the more modern Mexico, economically speaking — a Mexico that has embraced free-trade, globalization, economic liberalization. Many of the controls over the economy have been lucent and we see the emergence of more entrepreneurs — more independent sources of economic activity. And this has clearly has had an impact on the political arena, where for the first time opposition politicians are having a real say in the country’s economic destiny, as well.
However, for the first time in many years, this election may not lead to an economic debacle as it has every six years in Mexico’s history. Mexico, at this point, seems to be facing a stable economic scenario — a certain amount of economic prosperity and, Mexicans seem to be willing to run the risk of change without that wreaking havoc on the economic system.
JEFFREY KAYE: How is it that the PRI got itself in this position. I mean, historically, most ruling parties in most countries don’t allow for this kind of gradual disintegration, in a way — or peaceful change and peaceful transition. How is it that this took place? How did PRI allow this to happen?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, I don’t think it’s that the PRI has allowed it to happen. It’s that the population has forced it to happen. This is a transition that has escaped the control of the ruling party. There have been some changes that are to be applauded, enacted by President Zedillo, himself.
Some say, we will have a relatively clean, fair election in contrast with the past because Ernesto Zedillo pushed things forward. His critics say it’s because he hasn’t intervened to prevent change that change has occurred. So, there’s no consensus on that in Mexico today.
JEFFREY KAYE: Can you describe what the PRI has represented in Mexico?
DENISE DRESSER: The genius of the PRI in comparison to other dominant parties throughout the world has been it’s capacity for endless reinvention. It’s capacity to shift with the winds of change and to ride upon those winds.
As we’ve seen in Mexico over the past year, for example, the PRI decided to engage in its first ever historic primary to elect it’s presidential candidate instead of that candidate being chosen by the incumbent president before he leaves office as has been the case for many years. So, the PRI sent out a message that it was willing to modernize, to democratize, to rethink it’s past practices.
Now many in Mexico that that’s not enough — that in order to completely enter into a democratic regime in Mexico, what is necessary is to boot the bums out. In other words, to take the PRI out of the executive and that that would entail real change at the level of combating corruption, tearing apart economic monopolies, doing away with the dirty businesses — business practices of the past, and adding a greater degree of transparency into economic transactions and into political practices.
JEFFREY KAYE: But, that’s been happening for a while as opposition parties have gradually become…when governors shifts, municipal elections, I mean, there has been a growth in political opposition, correct?
DENISE DRESSER: But, the polls are showing that many Mexicans think that change has to be faster — that it’s not enough for this gradualistic evolution to a more democratic and open system. Many in Mexico believe that there will not be real change until and unless the PRI loses control of the presidency.
Given that this has been such a presidentialist system for many years and that the PRI is not only a party, like many other parties, that it’s a party that has been in government for seventy-one years and that this gives it an enormous degree of power; it’s not just an incumbent party. It’s a party that has at its disposal many government resources, many state subsidies, many social programs to use at its disposal. And it’s a party that, because it has that power, has been able to block greater accountability in its actions, delving into corrupt practices, bringing into account corrupt officials.
All of that has not been possible because the PRI has also been able to reign in and pressure other independent organizations like, the judiciary in the past, like the central bank, like institutions that were allegedly created to create, that were allegedly created to bring about a balance of power, but have not been able to inject the system with more checks and balances.
JEFFREY KAYE: Well, in fact many Mexicans don’t know the difference between the government and the PRI, right?
DENISE DRESSER: The PRI has never been a real political party except in the places where it has lost and places where it lost control of the governorship of the municipal presidency and therefore was forced into adopting more modern practices that one traditionally associates with a more modern party.
JEFFREY KAYE: Let’s talk then about the rise of PAN and Fox. Who … What is the constituency, PAN’s constituency? Who is supporting PAN? Who is supporting Fox?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, the interesting thing about this election is that it’s showing a generational divide in terms of the vote. What we’re seeing is more Mexicans that are young, that are educated, that are urban, supporting Vicente Fox and supporting the National Action Party.
Whereas the PRI’s base of support comes from its traditional bases including the rural poor, impoverished women, the less well-educated, the people who don’t have college degrees. Those are becoming the tradition; those are the bases of support for the PRI today.
JEFFREY KAYE: What are the lessons that can be drawn from Guanajuato, the state Fox represented as governor?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, I think it’s important to make a distinction between Vicente Fox and the National Action Party. Because Vicente Fox has proven over the course of time as governor of Guanajuato to have a more flexible agenda than many PAN governors have had. He seems to be more open, more willing to dialogue with the opposition. He actually had an opposition Congress while he was governor; the Congress of the state of Guanajuato was dominated by the PRI actually, and he developed a good working relationship.
Fox has made an emphasis in his campaign on saying that Mexico needs to integrate further into the global economy. He’s talked about the need for a complete economic union with the United States, of perhaps thinking about a common currency. He seems to be very aware of the need to train Mexicans to face the future.
JEFFREY KAYE: But what kind of a mark did he make in Guanajuato? How was his style of operation different from what would have been more traditional?
DENISE DRESSER: Fox was a very popular governor in Guanajuato. He had a very interesting style. He’s not a desk man. He liked being out there among the people. He was very clean — keen to delegate.
He had a very strong team that surrounded him and he liked going out into the countryside, meeting with people. One of the great accomplishments that he trumpets about his tenure in Guanajuato was the creation of Institutes for Micro- Credit, providing credit to small, medium-sized businesses, empowering women through credit.
He seemed to style himself along the lines of a Mexican-style Ghandi sitting under trees talking to peasants, listening to their concerns, going back to his office and making a very quick executive decision. And I think this garnered him a lot of popularity among people who are accustomed to witnessing political officials from a distance and not having any direct contact with them.
JEFFREY KAYE: But, also, I mean, wasn’t he able to get things done, raise property taxes, uh, be seen as friendly to small business owners? I mean, maybe you can talk a little bit about…
DENISE DRESSER: Given…
JEFFREY KAYE: His policies.
DENISE DRESSER: Given his business background he has been very keen to send a message that he is friendly to Mexican business, that he is friendly to private enterprise, that he is friendly to foreign investment, that he places economic growth as one of his highest priorities, that he believes in education as a key for empowering Mexicans to face the challenges of globalization.
JEFFREY KAYE: And is that in contrast to Labastida?
DENISE DRESSER: Let’s say Labastida is more of a traditional Mexican politician. His key strengths lie in the political arena — in the capacity to build consensus, to bring in members of disparate factions of the PRI. He’s viewed as a traditional bureaucrat. His fame, his claim to fame throughout the various ministries in which he worked throughout his lifetime was basically to roll with the punches, to follow orders, to keep the system going. He is not well-remembered, not well-known, for having enacted any dramatic change in any of the ministries that he was head of.
JEFFREY KAYE: Are there significant ideological differences?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, one of the things that Labastida has argued is that Vicente Fox is very socially conservative and that that is a real question mark that Mexicans should deal with. I think that this accusation — doesn’t — isn’t quite fair towards Fox, but it is fair toward the National Action Party. A party that in local government has taken it upon itself to eliminate things — prohibit things such as miniskirts for women working in government offices, that has tried to take a very strong public stance against a portion, and that has talked about the return of the church as a force in Mexican education — something that makes many Mexicans very nervous.
JEFFREY KAYE: M-hmm. But you don’t think that applies — those characterizations apply to Fox?
DENISE DRESSER: I think Fox is religiously conservative, but does not intend to impose his views on the population at large.
JEFFREY KAYE: Other than that, I mean, are there striking policy differences between Fox and Labastida? I mean, you’ve said — you’ve suggested that’s what PAN is to the right of Fox. But if you were looking at Fox and Labastida what would you say other than…
DENISE DRESSER: If you look at their economic programs I’d say that the differences lie more in style than in substance. Both are promising neo-liberalism with a human face. In other words, the need to inject more of a social dimension to Mexico’s economic reform.
To spend more on education, to spend more on social programs and to bring in, uh, the dispossessed to Mexico’s economic reform. In other words, to — one of the things that both have argued is that Mexico’s modernization has benefited a few and not the many and that it’s time to change that, to rework economic reform so that the benefits are more evenly spread. Now, I think that the differences in terms of style have to do with Fox advocating much more transparency in economic transactions.
His calling for a real crusade against corruption, saying that all public officials will make their net worth known to the public, for bringing his — he promises to create more institutions that will actually check what government officials are doing. And I think that resonates among many Mexicans who feel that the PRI has gotten away with too much, precisely because there haven’t been enough organisms of vigilance over what party officials do and say behind closed doors in Mexico.
JEFFREY KAYE: We haven’t spoken about the other major opposition candidate and that’s Cardenas who was widely believed to have — perhaps one or as many expected that he would have been the last president and would be the next president. What happened to Cardenas?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, Cardenas governed Mexico City for several years and that turned out to be his political tomb, instead of his springboard for higher office. Many criticize his tenure there because he did not take risks. He was not willing to combat entrenched interests, perhaps because he was governing with the presidency in mind. He wanted to send out a message that his government would not be tantamount to chaos. And that he could be trusted to provide stability in Mexico City which is what he did at the expense of enacting greater change.
He dashed many expectations because those who voted for him in 1997 believed that his government would bring about a dramatic watershed in terms of governance in Mexico City and that did not happen. So, we saw his support plummet form 27 percent that the PRD garnered in 1997 to anywhere between 14 and 15 percent where he stands in the polls today.
However, Cardenas is in a win-win situation paradoxically, because even though he will not win the presidential race, and that is clear, he will go home on July 3rd having achieved a great deal for his party, the PRD, the Party of the Democratic Revolution.
That party will have a large representation in Congress and in all likelihood it will win Mexico City, where its candidate is running twenty points above his closest contender. So with that in mind, Cardenas can spend the next six years preparing Mexico for a transition — a real transition in his mind that would be led by the Mexican left not by the National Action Party that he views as a party that has governed too closely with the PRI.
JEFFREY KAYE: Given that, why are so many on the left in Mexico supporting Fox?
DENISE DRESSER: Because there are many members of the left who supported Cardenas, who voted for him in 1997, who now believe that a vote for Cardenas is a wasted vote — and that they want to use their vote in a useful fashion. The way Fox has been campaigning has been to draw out the “voto util,” the useful vote. To say, “vote for me because your vote will actually bring about change.”
And many of those who are shifting form the left to vote for Fox are doing so, not for ideological reasons, but for pragmatic reasons. In other words they want to see the PRI out of power and are willing to give their vote to whoever can accomplish that, regardless of whether that man is on the left or on the right of the political spectrum.
JEFFREY KAYE: A couple more questions. Now let me ask you one about the — first about the election itself and how PRI runs an election, a campaign. What are the hallmarks of the PRI campaign in terms of social programs, public works projects, media coverage? What should one look for and see and expect in a PRI campaign?
DENISE DRESSER: Well, what we’ve seen over the past month is the machinery of the PRI being turned on and put into full gear. When the Labastida campaign realized that the PRI was losing points dramatically and that Labastida had lost the two presidential debates, the Labastida campaign made dramatic changes.
It brought in many of the old party bosses of the political dinosaurs in an effort to reunite a divided PRI and to put the machinery into place. And what does the PRI machinery mean? It means, public works being advertised to benefit the ruling party, it means social programs being put to work in favor of the ruling party in some ways legally, such as saying, “Reward us with your vote because we have given you social benefits.
We’ve given you checks; we’ve given you subsidies; we’ve given you vaccinations and medicines and in some senses that machinery works — or could work in an illegal fashion — which is to condition, further benefits to a vote for the PRI.” And we may or may not see that in this campaign.
But it has occurred in the past and is a real possibility. This would not be overt fraud, but it would be pressuring, vote-buying — about fuzzy gray area where the federal electoral institute cannot intervene to sanction those who endorse those sort of practices and carry them out.
JEFFREY KAYE: And in media coverage?
DENISE DRESSER: In media coverage it means, it means skewing coverage in favor of the ruling party candidate. We’ve seen a turn towards fair media coverage, equal time allotted to each one of the candidates. But the content of that coverage has not always been fair.
Labastida, in many cases, is portrayed as more presidential, as more serene. His policies are given a greater — when his policies are mentioned the head of the newscast will say that they are favorable and attractive. The content still has yet to change in some cases. And what the national media has done in turn of fairer coverage has yet to trickle down to the local media, where we see many of the practices of the past still in place.
Local newspapers and local radio shows endorsing the candidate of the PRI because they believe that if they don’t, they will be sanctioned or concessions, to radio stations will be taken away or editors will be fired or other sanctions will be applied as they have been in the past.
JEFFREY KAYE: Finally, in terms of bilateral relations between Mexico and the U.S., will there be any significant difference in the foreign policy of Labstida vs. Fox?
DENISE DRESSER: Labstida is a man of the past in many ways. He does not speak English. He doesn’t feel comfortable visiting the American audiences. I think in that sense U.S./Mexico policy would continue along the same lines, perhaps with a less intense degree of engagement given his personal background, the fact that he was not educated in the United States, that he does not come from the cadre of modernizing technocrats that share in many of the views of their Washington counterparts. So perhaps the climate of cordiality would prevail, but not the intensity, the common ties, the common view of the world, the common mindset that has bound many Mexican and American officials together over the past twelve years since Mexico moved to a — towards a more technocratic government.
I think that if Fox came into power we would see an attempt to engage the United States more directly and with more enthusiasm because he is someone who has advocated closer ties, who has called for the need to sit down to the table and renegotiate current immigration laws, and he’s even talked about the need or the desire for further and fuller integration between Mexico and the U.S. That may or may not happen, but we’ve seen in his campaign, a willingness to bring it about.
DENISE DRESSER: One of the more dramatic changes that we’ve seen in Mexico over the past six years has been the decline of presidential power and authority. President Zedillo has enacted a new style of presidentialism, which is much less vigorous, much more subdued. He has let other powers flourish in Mexico such as the Congress, the media, opposition parties and opposition leaders. And that is a trend that will, in all likelihood, continue.
The prize that will be won the day of the election will be, yes, control over the executive, but a much leaner executive. An executive that has to contend with other sources and accountability in the Mexican system. So, that’s a good thing for Mexico. Regardless of who they empower, that president will not be able to rule at his whim nor at the whim of the ruling party…whatever party that will be.
(Discussion off mic/producer question)
DENISE DRESSER: I think that what this election has revealed is that there are “many Mexico’s.” And those many Mexico’s are supporting different candidates for different reasons. As I said earlier, I think the young, the prosperous, the people who have staked their professional future on Mexico’s integration with the global economy, the dot-commers. They are supporting Vicente Fox because the view him as emblematic of change. Change at the level of the executive.
Change in terms of the political stripes of the many who would be in office and change because of the rhetoric that he has espoused throughout his campaign. However, there are many in Mexico who don’t share those views — who want change at a slower, more subtle pace, who are more conservative, who don’t want to gamble on a raucous, aggressive, risk-taking president, who would rather see someone serene and gray and perhaps a bit more somber, but more trustworthy, in their view, at the helm of the presidency.
And there — and co-existing with those two groups are many rural, impoverished, uneducated Mexicans who are willing to vote who — for whoever grants them social benefits and whoever assures them that those benefits will continue. And they may not run the risk of voting for the opposition for fear of losing those benefits.
JEFFREY KAYE: One thing we didn’t talk about that you eluded to and, that is, for many people PRI, for good or bad, and particularly for poorer people, represents the known.
DENISE DRESSER: Yeah.
JEFFREY KAYE: It represents stability, isn’t that right?
DENISE DRESSER: The PRI, for many Mexicans, represents stability. They look at their situation and they compare it to the Colombian “narco-democracy” or to the troubles in Peru and they say, “Well at least the PRI has guaranteed, continuity, stability, a certain amount of economic reform, a transition towards democracy, even if it is at a slow pace.”
And for many Mexicans the PRI is a source of income. It’s their lifestyle. It’s the way of making a living. Millions in the bureaucracy will vote for Labastida, not because they don’t believe in change or wouldn’t support Fox in other circumstances, but because their own lifestyles, their own ways of earning a living, their political survival, their economic survival is at stake.
They have staked out many years of work in the Mexican bureaucracy on the continuity of the PRI. Empowering the opposition would mean a dramatic change at all those levels of the Mexican bureaucracy.
JEFFREY KAYE: You’ve mentioned there are many Mexico’s, but there’s also more than one PRI in a sense, right? I mean, a PRI that’s adaptable, the old guard…the dinosaurs and by the same token what’s been called the new PRI.
DENISE DRESSER: Well, but the new PRI is something that many Mexicans had hoped would come about as a result of the primary. And many saw their hopes dashed with the changes in the Labastida campaign.
He seemed to toss out the new PRI — out the window — and we empower, we invigorate many of the members of the old guard, the old party bosses. But, perhaps if this election is contested enough and if the signals of change come across clear enough for Labastida even if he wins, he may be forced to take on the banner of change within the PRI looking towards the year 2006 and looking towards many of the local elections and the mid-term elections that will take place throughout his tenure.
However, the incentives for the — for that change will also have to come from outside the PRI itself. And, in all likelihood, they will. Even if Labastida wins, he will not have a mandate. In all likelihood he will win by a very small percentage in which case he will have to negotiate power with other interlocutors. He will not be able to just administer it from above.
JEFFREY KAYE: Good, we’ll leave it there.