2016-07-27
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CUERNAVACA, Mexico, July 6 (RNS)--To understand something of the historic change Mexico underwent Sunday when voters threw out the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 years in power, it is instructive to hear the stories of people like Fernando Malacara Briones and Angeles Arizmendi Bobadilla.

The couple, both 65, are long-time activists in the Base Christian Community movement in Cuernavaca and would have seemed to have been natural supporters of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Their activism has taken them to the embattled southern Mexican state of Chiapas and they talk strongly of the need for ``standing in solidarity'' with the poor there.

``It's good to pray,'' said Arizmendi Bobadilla, ``but it is also good to act.''

In short, they are the type of people for whom liberation theology-- the theology that developed in Latin America in the 1960s combining biblical reflection, social action and Marxist social and economic analysis--remains relevant and alive.

Yet the couple cast their ballots for President-elect Vicente Fox Quesada and other candidates of the center-right party, the National Action Party (PAN), and so, too, apparently, did others aligned with the BCC movement, a network of church-aligned activists that has flourished for nearly 30 years despite attempts by an increasingly conservative church hierarchy to quash it.

To an outsider, BCC members voting for a candidate of a party founded by a group of conservative Catholic intellectuals may seem startling. It's even more so since the BCC members live in Cuernavaca, a city that was once a haven for leftist U.S. expatriates during the McCarthy era of the 1950s and is the capitol of the state of Morelos, the home of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution.

But Malacara Briones, a taxi driver, said it is not true that all BCC members are politically to the left. Faith is ultimately more important than politics, he said.

Besides, he added, the choice this year was self-evident: the PRD remained fractured and, with many former PRI members as party officials, viewed by many as something of an extension of the PRI. And even before his third, and presumably final, defeat as the PRD presidential candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was being talked about as a figure of the past.

By contrast, Malacara Briones said, the PAN had a solid record of governing in Cuernavaca, as did Fox himself, a former Coca Cola executive who had served as governor of the state of Guanajuato.

In Cuernavaca, the PAN government had improved roads, built bridges and brought potable water to some, Malacara Briones said, while the PRI, the party that had ruled nationally and had formerly run the local Cuernavaca government, had a dismal record, fraught with corruption.

``The most important thing in this election was removing the PRI,'' Malacara Briones said, and the best way to do that, he said, was to support the PAN.

Of course, not all BCC activists voted for the PAN. Some, maybe many, may have remained loyal to the PRD. And already, some aligned with the BCCs have begun expressing concern that the PAN's overwhelming victories--which in addition to the presidency include important gains in both houses of the federal legislature, as well as control of the governorship of Morelos--will need to be checked by other political parties to avoid the kind of abuse prevalent under the PRI.

But interviews with political analysts aligned with the PRD and supportive of the BCCs and with grass roots BCC members themselves offered a clear contrast between PRD party loyalty, even ideological purity, among the analysts, and enthusiastic admiration for the PAN among the grass roots BCC members.

To at least one observer, the BCC support for the PAN made sense, given the reality of local politics. ``I think people in Morelos, including those in the BCCs, were being pragmatic and realistic,'' said Eric Olson, senior associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, a church-financed advocacy group on Latin American issues.

Sergio Estrada Cajigal, the PAN candidate for governor, was well-known, had done a reasonably good job as mayor of Cuernavaca, Olson said, ``and had a reputation for being honest, and producing results, especially infrastructure projects. The PRD candidate was an ex-PRIista whom no one knew or trusted.''

``The Base Christian Community folks may share a lot of ideological space with PRD intellectuals like Cardenas,'' Olson said, ``but they know the PRD is a very complex animal and not everyone who wraps themselves in the mantel of the PRD is necessarily a good governor watching out for the best interests of the poor.''

How long the grass roots support for the PAN will hold is anybody's guess. In addition to the poor, impressed with Fox and the PAN's governing record, Fox's supporters are a disparate coalition of conservative Catholics, the party's traditional base; a growing business class; some ecologists; and media-attuned young people.

At some point, the interests of some groups will have to defer to the interests of others, and with expectations now so high, some will undoubtedly become unhappy.

The interests of BCC activists, for example, may clash with those of Juan Cintron, a Cuernavaca-based international business consultant who supports increasing privatization in Mexico and hopes the PAN will ``get the Mexican government out of the business of running business.''

In a country of nearly 100 million where only 20 million are in the game of earning a livable wage, Cintron sees the role of Mexican president as ``aggressively courting the international marketplace,'' a role of economic salesman that in many ways, he said, must now take priority over the traditional role of day-to-day political leader.

While that role may come easily to the charismatic and Jesuit-educated Fox who is at ease with English and the ways of international business, activists will be watching to see if Fox can turn that role to the advantage of the majority of Mexicans who still struggle daily to make a living.

``In the next few months, there is going to be a lot of intense pressure by grass roots movements on the political parties to do what they said they will do,'' said Juan Manuel Zaragoza, a coordinator of municipal democracy programs at the Cuernavaca-based Center for Encounters and Dialogue.

Activists will also be closely watching the situation in Chiapas, which continues to be heavily militarized amid a stand-off between the Mexican military and the Zapatista guerillas. Malacara Briones said he has hopes Fox can bring a fresh perspective to the situation and end the six-year stalemate.

Human rights activist Rafael Alvarez of the Jesuit-founded Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center in Mexico City said he is concerned that with the new president not assuming power until December and outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo ``losing power by the day,'' the situation could slowly deteriorate, with the military trying to gain the upper hand over civilian power.

On election night, PAN supporters loudly and jubilantly took to the streets of Cuernavaca.

Among them was Mayari Hernandez, 17, of Cuernavaca, who with her command of English and possession of an e-mail account seemed to be just the kind young person the media-savvy and youth-conscious PAN wants to court.

When asked if the PAN's religious roots were important to her, Hernandez said that after years of PRI corruption, it might not be bad to ``have a government that supports religion.''

But Hernandez said she did not think the religious element was an important factor in the PAN's overwhelming win. ``People are just so tired after 71 years,'' she said.

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