The Mess in Mexico: The Scandalous Indictment of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Has Roiled Mexico. but It Hasn't Produced Any Outrage at Foggy Bottom

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MEXICO'S FRAGILE DEMOCRACY is under attack from its own government--and may not survive. Yet the Bush administration's neoconservatives, who almost daily proclaim their commitment to protect--and indeed impose--free elections in the world's every nook and cranny, are silent. Turns out that their defense of democracy extends only to candidates who meet their approval.

For more than a year now, polls have shown Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the populist, left-of-center mayor of Mexico City, leading all potential candidates in next year's presidential election. In response to this populist threat, the two major parties, both heavily supported by Mexican big business, have colluded to deny Lopez the fight to run for president. On April 7, their combined majority in Mexico's Congress in effect ordered the federal government to indict Lopez Obrador on a transparently trumped-up charge. He is accused of approving a city project to widen a road to a public hospital on a small piece of land that his predecessor had acquired for the city, but whose ownership was still in dispute. The Mexican constitution prohibits anyone under indictment from running for president, and the government of President Vicente Fox has signaled that it will drag out the proceedings long enough to deny Lopez Obrador a place on the ballot--and might even put him in prison until the trial takes place.

Fox, of the Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), and the leaders of the major "opposition" party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), have piously portrayed their scheme as a demonstration that "no one in Mexico is above the law." But under their management, Mexico has been riddled with massive corruption and lawlessness. Narcotics traffickers have infiltrated the higher levels of government, public service is widely seen as a way to get rich, and street crime has reached epidemic proportions. At least one current member of the Senate, who has been charged with embezzling millions, remains safely in his seat. In this context, Lopez Obrador's crime--if indeed he is guilty--hardly rises to the level of a parking ticket. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans, whatever their party, believe the charges are pure politics.

The night of the congressional vote, 300,000 outraged citizens turned out in the Zocalo, Mexico City's main plaza, to protest this return to the authoritarian past. Mexico is suddenly in a serious political crisis. It could well dissolve into a protracted and violent class war that would inevitably spill over the porous borders and into the United States.

The roots of the current conflict go back at least to the election of 1988. For the previous 60 years, Mexico's government had been controlled by the PRI, an umbrella party of national unity formed to settle a 20-year civil war. The PRI managed a one-party system in which Mexico's oligarchs allowed some of the country's wealth to be shared with farmers and urban workers. The PRI was authoritarian, but the system worked reasonably well; until the early 1980s, the economy prospered, incomes rose, and inequality and poverty declined. But in the early 1980s, a younger generation of the leading wealthy families led by Carlos Salinas de Gortari took over the PRI. They deregulated trade, sold off government enterprises to their cronies, and slashed the small subsidies for the poor.

Salinas was hailed in Washington as a modern reformer who would bring capitalism and democracy to the benighted Mexicans. But economic growth stagnated, and the living standards of the vast majority of people fell. Just before the 1988 election, a group of progressive PRI members broke away to form the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD), and on election night their candidate--Cuauhtemoc Cardenas--appeared to have the most votes. The government abruptly announced that the election computers had broken down. Three days later the computers were "fixed," and the official count went to Salinas. …