It was another beautiful day today in the capital, Mexico
City. We began our morning in the Zocalo, the central plaza
of Mexico City, and as such the central plaza of Mexico
itself. At times of national celebration, and national commotion,
people flock to the vast square, big enough to fit eight
American football fields. This morning one group of workers
hurried to spruce up the square for the coming conclusion
of the presidential campaign, while another group banged
risers, stands, and shelters together for the world's media,
getting ready to descend on the square with partisans of
the new president -- whoever that ends up being.
one side of the square, running for some 200 yards, is the
national palace, and along another side, Metropolitan Cathedral,
the largest Catholic church in this largely Catholic country.
Workers were busy there, too, painters sprucing up wooden
altars, and conservators doing the painstaking small scale
work of cleaning and refreshing the many paintings stuffed
into the niches of chapels, and softly brushing gold leaf
onto the resplendent retablos containing saints relics,
and precious historic objects, like an ancient stone bowl
where, a modest label maintains, St. Phillip, martyr and
early leader of the church was baptized into the Christian
There is something comforting about passing from the din
of the Zocalo, banging and sawing and honking horns, and
its blinding sunlight, into the cool, dark church. It was
built above the ruins of the palaces and temples of the
Aztec emperors, a potent symbol of one empires descent,
and the symbols of authority of a new empire rising in its
place on sacred ground. The short, dark Indian ladies, long
braids down their backs, praying in the chapels lining the
cathedral walls are the descendants of the Mexicans who
built a deep and abiding faith in Jesus, and his beloved
mother Mary. Tradition says the Virgin Mary appeared in
brown skin to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531, just 10 years
after the Spanish conquest. Almost 500 years later, Our
Lady of Guadeloupe is seen everywhere in Mexico -- in roadside
shrines, on bumper stickers, in shopkeepers' stalls and
on T-shirts. She is the patron saint of this city, this
vast, crowded, amazing country.
Not far from the Zocalo, in the shadow of the Monument
of the Revolution, the Institutional Revolutionary Party,
the PRI, threw a rally for its candidate for president,
Roberto Madrazo, who is also the party president. Trade
unionists, school kids, party volunteers, and oil workers,
the Petroleros from the state-owned energy company Pemex,
came to cheer the party that ran Mexico without interruption
from the '20s to the year 2000, when the National Action
Party and Vicente Fox broke their streak.
It is a funny moment for the PRI. It is at one moment a
spent force, sapped of the unassailable power it held for
decades, and at the same time still very much a potent force
in national life, holding the plurality of seats in the
national assembly, a majority of the governorships of Mexico's
31 states. Pollsters have reported from the very beginning
of the campaign season that Roberto Madrazo is running well
behind his right of center opponent from the PAN, Felipe
Calderon, and his left of center rival from the PRD, Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador.
A party member all his life, Madrazo is the son of a party
president. In the old days, he might have become president
quite easily, chosen by a tap from the finger of his predecessor.
This anointing of a candidate, called the "dedazo,"
the finger, oversaw decades of PRI dominance. Now Madrazo
has to fight hard to keep his party in the spotlight, pleading
with his countrymen for another chance at power after the
PRI eviction in 2000.
a challenging balancing act. Redefine what has historically
been a party of government, a party of power, rather than
ideology, the party of the center in Mexican life. A powerful
dispenser of patronage jobs, contracts, and privilege, the
PRI did not make Mexicans wealthy, secure, or healthy in
seven decades of power. So, cheered on by the party faithful,
Madrazo tries to evoke a great past of the PRI, reaching
back well before the lifetimes of the people in the crowd
to the Mexican Revolution, the ten year conflict that ended
in 1920 with the rise of the PRI.
We are the party of revolution, Madrazo tells the PRI faithful
and their electoral partners from Mexico's small Green Party,
and at the same time, we are the party of the safe center,
unlike the rightists of the PAN, and the leftists of the
Madrazo is keeping a grueling campaign schedule, his voice
is strained by campaigning, he'll run right up to the wire,
that is, Wednesday night, when all active, public campaigning
stops in advance of Sunday's balloting. He may be trailing,
but he also can boost the fortunes of scores of PRI candidates
for the legislatures, state governorships, and mayors. The
Madrazo posters around the country promise more security,
more jobs, and less poverty for Mexico under the PRI, but
the candidate never mentions why or how the PRI couldn't
deliver any of that before, or what he would do to deliver
Leaving aside the message, the rally is an extremely competent
production -- big screen projectors beam the candidate's
image across the landmark square, the catchy campaign song
plays as the candidate presses the flesh, confetti in Mexico's
red, white, and green colors shoots from cannons, and flutters
from firework bombs exploding overhead. Buses line the avenues
approaching the square, waiting to carry away the large
crowd when the rally is done.
If the rally was all you saw, you might conclude that Madrazo
is a popular contender, leading a confident party into the
weekend vote. But the PRI has been the big loser in Mexico's
march to competitive democracy.
Upper middle class voters we spoke to later in the day
want to keep the PAN in the presidential mansion, Los Pinos.
In a more modest neighborhood support for the former mayor
of the capital, Obrador, is strong.
Maybe 15 miles away, just past the international airport,
the Basureros, the garbage people we spoke to, don't think
any new presidency is going to change their lives much.
They live in homes that are piles of discarded materials
pulled from the nearby dumps. As flies buzzed around our
heads, and the stench grabbed the back of your throat, a
woman who made her living picking garbage for 20 years showed
me her home
a place without electricity or running
water, without schools for the children of the Basureros,
a place where she lives fully convinced that the country's
leaders don't know, and don't care about her. When I asked
her what she would ask from the next president if she could
talk to him she said, we need help.
Read previous Reporter's Notebook