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10 January 2019

Household moving weekend…

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Passing gas

9 January 2019

It’s particularly rich that Felipe Calderón (remember him… used to be President) is whining about “collateral damage” from the crackdown on gasoline theft here.

Calderón after all, was the guy who … ridiculous as he looked in a military uniform… went all John Wayne (though he personally looked more Radar O’Reilly) when it was the US supported “drug war”… sending the military out to “wipe out” the leaders of the various narcotics export businesses. When innocent people were killed in the process, he wrote it off as “collateral damage”. Oh, but when people are inconvenienced by the government’s use of the military to crack down on wholesale gasoline theft (gas thieves are know as “huachicoleros”), it’s a whole other matter.

The ex-president is, of course, seeking to gain some legitimacy among the fractured opposition to the new government. As it so, so far, it is what is now the opposition… the former majority parties, PRI and PAN, who have the most to lose in the crack-down. Since 2000, and the beginning of the PAN-PRI duopoly on state power, PEMEX … the people’s oil company… has lost something on the order of 66 billion pesos just to people siphoning off gasoline. This was more than a few poor slugs drilling into a duct here or there (and getting themselves blown to kingdom come occasionally… the cost of doing business) or hijacking a delivery truck, but robbing the nation on a massive scale.

I don’t know how much money is estimated to be in the narcotics export trade, and “get” that criminal enterprises are socially undesirable and that people who get in the way end up dead, but I do know that the narco money was never expected to pay for state expenses… you know, for things like building highways, or paying nurses, or providing old age insurance, or health inspections, or… whereas PEMEX revenue was. It is, after all, the single largest source of government income.

But, with creeping privatization, begun under the Fox Administration, PEMEX revenues dropped precipitously. Mexfiles has always assumed that during the Fox, Calderón, Peña Neito administrations, PEMEX was mismanaged by design, the better to sell the need for privatization. But, it appears that those mismanagers had something even bigger in mind. Actively neglecting security (and, it appears, profiting by it), they allowed the huachicoleros free rein. Not the little guys stealing a few thousand liters of premium here and there, and selling it from “pop up” gas stations, but wholesale theft, requiring the cooperation of PEMEX executives, state and federal officials, and some sophisticated bookkeeping.

Those on the right who have noticed that the worst shortages are in areas where the still have control are quick to scream “Venezuela!!” as if the government is somehow devious enough to cut their area’s gas deliveries while managing to keep gas in stock in other areas… perhaps it has something to do with huachicoleros having been tolerated (and perhaps encouraged) in the old party controlled areas, but not where the new party has come to power? Maybe it’s just that where stolen gasoline was available, consumers naturally took advantage of the lower prices, and with the supply cut off, those consumers are having to compete with the honest consumers for a limited resource?

Or, as Cécile Boulnois (a particularly astute Breton who happens to live here, and knows what’s she’s talking about) pointed out, it’s something I should have already known… I wrote training documents for what was then Exxon, for controlling gasoline deliveries to stations. A pretty simple scam… normally a station sends orders for its anticipated monthly needs to a central computer, which calculates what is in the distribution center, and schedules deliveries. But, if a station is buying off the books, it just lowers its orders over time, enough to keep it profitable on paper, but not enough to draw attention by having high volume sales. WHich it does, making up the difference with supplies coming from huachicoleros… the same gasoline, so the customers don’t notice the difference. And, PEMEX doesn’t notice, because so many gas purchases are cash, which the station can easily under-report.

The consumer isn’t hurt by the scam, but the state is. Besides the gas being siphoned off (wholesale… just yesterday, the Army found a two kilometer “side duct” on a major pipeline, leading to a clandestine storage center), it was purchased at below market cost and without being taxed. Several hundred stations around the country have been closed for pulling this stunt, or have only been reopened under new management, or after changing their order processing to reflect real sales.

Major fleet buyers have also, apparently, been … er… tapping into the huachicolero market, probably under-reporting actual purchases, and submitting false invoices to the tax authorities to account for the difference. Or just under-reporting… and are said to be in a heap of trouble.

Yeah, there is a gasoline shortage right now. It may last longer than anyone anticipates, but in the end, it should mean more revneu for the state, without much affecting the consumer cost for gasoline. He can whine all he wants, but Calderón’s crack-pipe dreams of the days when the state went after Sinaloan hill billies who were (until he came along) more a danger to each other than to the state itself, and provided a sizable second income to favored state employees are done.

Millard Fillmore: “America deserves good shit”.

9 January 2019

I’m afraid I got tied up yesterday with preparing to move yesterday, and completely missed Millard Fillmore’s 219th birthday.  FIllmore, born in a log cabin on the edge of civilization (in the Finger Lakes of New York), a self-educated lawyer, and frontier politician.  As a Whig member of the 30th United States Congress (1846) he was a leader in his party’s opposition to the Mexican War.  Like the freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, opposition to the war would cost Fillmore his seat, but… like Lincoln… he would emerge from defeat to become President of the United States.

Fillmore, chosen as his party’s Vice-Presidential candidate not only to balance the Whig ticket geographically (the Presidential Candidate, Zachary Taylor, was from Lousiana; Fillmore… about as far from Lousisiana as you can get, called Buffalo, New York his home) but also ideologically (Taylor was the hero of that unheroic war in Mexico, and opposed slavery, whereas FIllmore … to his discredit… was neutral on the subject) when Taylor was felled by a bowl of cherries (9 July 1850).

Fillmore’s has a reputation as one of the worst U.S. presidents, mostly because he signed the Fugitive Slave Act (which, somewhat like laws proposed today requiring local governments to assist in tracking down “illegal aliens”, required local governments in free states to assist in returning escaped slaves to their owners in other states), but is being reassessed based on his administration’s foreign policy successes.

Although the actual transfer of the almost 30,000 square miles of what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico did not take effect until after he left office, Fillmore does get the credit for seeing through the diplomatic initiatives that led to the The Gadsden Purchase.  As Santa Anna, who was the Mexican president who approved the sale, noted, there was a very real danger of the region becoming another Texas — overrun with U.S. squatters who would simply seize the region, and as much of the surrounding area as they could — and Mexico was broke after the US invasion a few years earlier.  That the 10 million dollars for what was then seen as marginally worthless desert was seen as “too generous” by Fillmore’s opponents, but on the other hand, the United States’ mere 17 million for the third of Mexico seized during the war was more symbolic than anything else… writing down “debts” supposedly owed the United States (for supporting Mexico’s own invasion).  That the 10 million is said to have disappeared into Santa Anna’s pockets is another story altogether.  At least it avoided another war and put some ready cash back into Mexico.

Fillmore’s term also saw the United States opening relations with Japan (the first “western” nation to do so since the 17th century) and, something of an anomaly in U.S. history, he sought to treat the governments to the south of the United States as the south as equals and partners.  His administration took a particularly dim view of “filibustros”… those free-lance practicioners of “Manifest Destiny” who sought to grab chunks of usually Mexico, but Central America was also a favored target… going so far as to apologize to the Mexican government for William Walker’s crack-pot scheme to set up the Republic of Sonora (which was never able to get into Sonora for more than a few days, though it lasted in Baja California for a week or two) and to state that, as policy, the United States had no designs on Mexican territory.

He devoted a good portion of his first”state of the Union” address to South American affairs, particularly those of Peru and Chile?  Why?  The British, Spanish, and French were all vying to control the governments of those nations, seeking the most important new commodity on the market… guano.  Peru and Chile had the best guano deposits in the world.  Ever since Alexander von Humbolt had alerted Europeans to the value of bird shit as a fertilizer (and better yet, as a source of nitrates for explosives… useful stuff in a continent addicted to blowing up their neighbors on a regular basis) there’d been a shit-rush of interest in acquiring guano.

The British, French, and Spanish were, by 1850, worried as much about a “guano gap” as the U.S. and Soviets worried about the “missile gap” a century later.  The United States was a guano crazed as any other up and coming power (and it would need that nitrates for explosives the following decade when everything went ot shit) and, in a fit of guano-mania mixed with a dose of Manifest Destiny, the Senate passed a bill automatically annexing any island covered with bird crap not claimed by some other country as part of the United States.  Wisely, FIllmore never gave any support to the bill, and it quietly died.  But, with Chile and Peru the primary guano suppliers of the time, and the Brits, French, and Spanish doing everything they could to subvert the two governments and impose administrations more amiable to their country’s own guano buyers (which would lead to the first great proxy war for resources, the South Pacific War — involving Chile, Bolivia, and Peru… as standins for Spain and England), the United States for the brief few years of Fillmore’s presidency, approached the guano supplying nations with open offers to buy.  Not so shitty a free trade agreement, considering such agreements usually involved gunboats in the harbors of the coutries being solicited to join in those days.

Maybe because he focused his energy on foreign affairs, or more likely because of the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore as not even nominated to run for a full term of his own.  WIth the Whigs in northern states being absorbed into the new Republican Party, he attemped a comeback via the American Party, the “know-nothings” (his defenders say he wasn’t so much anti-Catholic or anti-immigrant as he was just looking for an alternative for southern Whigs and others outside the dominant Democratic Party, and not comfortable with the Republican’s “radical” abolishionist wing).

Out of politics, he shuffled off to Buffalo… about the only place that remembers him and that brief shining moment when an American President stood up and defended the shit-holes.

Cranky old man yells at clouds?

7 January 2019

I erased my response to this post, but oh… how tempting… it was!

I’m the first to admit that I didn’t know as much as I should have when I first moved to Mexico, though I knew quite a bit (including at least rudimentary Spanish).  And, back then (when I was still in the throes of a creative mid-life crisis) I realized that my former job wouldn’t be available to me, but that my degree and background could be turned into something that would at least keep me fed and housed, but not much more than that.

I go back and forth on the question of whether or not to encourage or discourage would-be emigrants.  I have no particular love for “expats”… those that just show up here expecting to be well paid and well-received simply because… because they aren’t Hondurans or Guatemalans, just to mention a large cohort of potential additions to the labor pool that has recently shown up.  But I understand the attraction of potentially moving here.  A little money goes a long way, but one can’t expect to earn more than a little money;  and usually it’s very, very little.  “Safer” than say Guatemala, but a bit more expense (and, in the Capital, substantially more).  Which doesn’t guarantee anything.

 

Back up and move forward.

1 January 2019

This site was started on the premise that in Mexico history matters… and that our politics and political discourse is a continual recycling and repackaging of our history.  It’s so obvious, even Jude Weber finally gets it.  (I don’t have a Financial Times subscription, so stolen, and google translated from El Financiero):

The portrait and the presence of Benito Juárez are so ubiquitous in Mexico these days that one can almost forgive anyone who thinks that he, not Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), is the one who has just assumed the presidency of the country.

The image of the 19th century lawyer and former president of Mexico is at the center of the new government logo. His huge black and white image was the official backdrop of AMLO during the transition between his election and his inauguration on December 1. His face also appears on the new 500 peso bill ($ 25).


López Obrador, who often says that his dream is to be a president as good as his hero, has moved his office to the National Palace where Juarez worked and, as some newspaper articles suggest, he might even be imitating Juarez’s hairstyle.
However, although López Obrador is a somewhat clumsy public speaker, he is a clever political communicator and his use of history improves the effectiveness of his messages: the past is the prologue.

In his second week of work, he was embroiled in a dispute with the Supreme Court over insisting that no official should be allowed to earn more than his own salary as president, a level he had already set at 60 percent less than that of his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. To emphasize this point, he read a decree of 1861 in which Juarez announced cuts to his own salary.

Investors are worried about another historical parallel: their desire to place the state oil company, Pemex, at the center of the national oil industry. The intention evokes the image of Lázaro Cárdenas, the former president who expropriated American and British companies in 1938 and created Pemex, and who is next to Juarez and other heroes of independence and revolution in the new logo.

López Obrador has already limited Peña Nieto’s historic energy reform – which put an end to Pemex’s monopoly and opened the sector to private investment for the first time in eight decades – by suspending oil auctions. Meanwhile, a capital injection of 75 billion pesos (3.7 billion dollars) for Pemex, has the purpose of financing the exploration to resuscitate the glory days of the past. But Pemex’s production has been in decline for the past 14 years and has well-deserved its reputation for bloated bureaucracy, corruption and inefficiency.

The story shows pitfalls and lessons for a leftist nationalist president that critics fear will lead Mexico to the economic crisis of the 1970s, and according to an executive director of the oil company “to the decisions of the past that did not work” .
López Obrador has faced financial markets after announcing that he will discard the new partially built airport in Mexico City, which has a cost of 13 billion dollars, after it was rejected in a referendum. But, as the historian Andrew Paxman points out, even Cardenas had to answer to the business elite after the nationalization caused the peso to lose a third of its value from March 1938 until the end of 1940.

López Obrador is a man with a vision. The president has embarked on an anti-corruption crusade, the central axis of what he grandly calls the “fourth transformation” after Juarez’s liberal reforms; the independence of Spain in the 19th century; and the Mexican revolution more than 100 years ago.

López Obrador has called another popular consultation for next year on the creation of a new national guard and on whether the last five presidents should be judged for promoting the neoliberal policies that he blames for impoverishing Mexicans. The date is surely not a coincidence: Juarez’s birthday on March 21.

The historical references of the government clearly have the purpose of being suggestive. But, in the end, López Obrador can arrange things as he wants. You just have to keep your promises.

The Incredible Profesor Zovek… for reals!

26 December 2018

Only in Mexico, that land of cross-bred culture, would you find a personality like “Profesor Zovek”… a seeming cocktail of a man, made of equal part  Harry Houdini, Charles Atlas, and Deepak Chopra… with a pinch of Teddy Roosevelt… a la Mexicana.

Born into a upper-middle class Torreon family in 1940, Francisco Xavier Chapa del Bosque was a sickly child even before he contracted polio.  His parents somewhat regretting his fondness while laid up for months at a time to neglect his studies (although he was described as a unusually intelligent boy) in favor of mythical heroes like Hercules and comic books, especially those featuring super-heroes, and with the advertisements in the back, which usually included those of former “98 pound weakling” Charles Atlas.  Encouraged by his cardiologist uncle, he began a rigorous routine of physical training of his own design, based somewhat on what he’d read about Charles Atlas, and perhaps having been trapped so long in his own, inadequate body, incorporating challenges to his own limitations… like those Houdini mastered.

Hey, it was the 60s… and Francisco — always a voracious reader — devoured the mystics, East and West.  What emerged was a character, based partially on the Mexican comic strip hero Kalimán, and partly on Superman.  THough what “Profesor Zovak” fought for was truth, justice, and the Mexican way… and the Red Cross.  He came to national attention during a televised fund raiser, escaping from a straight-jacket.  In demand not just as a physical trainer (his day job), he moonlighted as a novelty act, coming to national attention when he did 8,350 sit-ups in less than an hour on a television variety show in 1968.

With he training method focused as much on mental as physical development, he was sought out as an expert in his field… both as a physical trainer and as a motivational speaker.  With his quasi-guru persona, he attracted clients ranging from schools to rehabilitation clinics to the Mexican army… and the secret police:  a conservative nationalist, he was dismayed by the student movements of the 1960s, which seemed a rejection of his own campaign for a physically and mentally disciplined Mexico.  East European police and military officials looked favorably on Mexico’s crack-down on dissent, and began to express an interest in Zovek’s techniques, making him… briefly… international recognition.

Alas, his self-created image killed him.  René Cardona Sr., a master of schlock films, the brains behind such movies as “Night of the Bloody Apes” and “Batwoman” (not Mrs. Batman… not by a long shot!) convinced the eccentric, but quite serious, Chapa del Bosque to star in a film based on his stage character in 1972.  The film was made (The Incredible Profesor Zovek) but the Profesor was only around for half the film.  As part of a publicity campaign for Cardona’s studio, the “Mexican Houdini” agreed to appear at a supermarket opening. He was supposed to make his entrance, sliding down a rope from a helicopter, but the pilot — believing Profesor Zovek had made it to the ground, and feeling the wind start to pick up, climbed rapidly, and dropped the body-building mystic before the horrified crowd.  His death, (10 March1972) was the lead story on the television news (the broke into normal broadcasts to report it) and the lede in several dailies.  And then… other than his occasional appearance in memoirs and fiction about the era (portrayed by Luche Libre perfomer “Latin Lover” in the recent film “Roma”, and mentioned in Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s mystery novel “No Happy Ending”) largely forgotten.

 

Sources:

Zovek

Shock Cinema Magazine, “The Incredible Professor Zovek”

Mario Villanueva, “ZOVEK el ultimo escapista “, Jornada, 13 March 1998

Alfonso Cuarón (writer and director) Roma.  Esperanto Filmoj, et. al 2018

Taibo II, Paco Ignacio.  No Happy Ending.  Poisoned Pen Press, 1981, 2003.

 

 

Opposition hopes crash?

25 December 2018

Puebla Governor Martha Erika Alonso and her husband, and immediate predecessor in that office, Rafael Moreno Valle were killed Monday afternoon about 4 PM in a helicopter crash in Huetjotzingo.  Within hours, conspiracy theories have started circulating, and President Andres Manuel López Obrador was announcing that there would be a full federal investigation of the incident.

It’s much to early to speculate on what the death of two important politicians will mean, though perhaps it might be useful to think of them as the BIll and Hillary of PAN… not the presidential Clintons, but the Clintons of Arkansas:  young leaders on their way up, with influence beyond their state party, whose excesses and foibles were already raising questions within their party and elsewhere.

Alonso, 45, had a degree in Graphic Design from the Universidad Iberoamericana and a master’s degree in Public Communication from the University of the Americas in Puebla (UDLAP). Her political career began in 2009 as an active member of the National Action Party, five years after marrying Moreno Valle. As “first lady” she had been honorary president of the state’s DIF (Family Services) and state party secretary.

In January of this year Alonso was designated as a candidate for the governorship of Puebla by PAN and after an election in which she was accused of exceeding spending limits, as well as outright fraud, and fomenting general violence in the state, her narrow victory was challenged by MORENA candidate Miguel Barbosa, who requested that the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF, for its initials in Spanish) annul the election.

Barbosa along with several other opponents to Alonso charged that 80% of polling sites were compromised and 70 electoral packet were stolen on election day.

On December 8 of this year, the TEPJF ratified Alonso’s victory by a four to three vote.  She was sworn into office December 14.

Her husband, Rafael Moreno Valle, during his tenure as governor was plagued by controversies including hiding the state’s 24,655 million peso debt, three times what was reported by the Superior Audit of the Federation, and by his introduction of a controversial “Ley de Bala” (Law of the bullet) that would have legalized the police use of lethal weapons against public demonstrations.

With the end of his gubernatorial tenure coming up, he campaigned ceaselessly to be PAN’s  presidential candidate in the 2018 election, but was passed over in favor of Ricardo Anaya. As a consolation prize, he was given an proportional seat in the senate for his party, and served as PAN’s senate leader.  With the three formerly major parties in disarray (even combined, they are a minority) and all of them split over how to position themselves to regain legitimacy with the voters (or at least come up with a coherent opposition platform) the loss of two up and coming (and possibly presidential candidate material) leaders is going to complicate any opposition plans… or, on the other hand, removing rivals within PAN for other ambitious politicians. One of the more surprising conspiracy theories is that ex-President Felipe Calderón ordered a “hit” on the pair, to clear the way for his wife, Margarita Zavala, to return to the party and for his faction to take control.  Others naturally blame AMLO (usually those who blame AMLO for everything), or narcotics dealers.  Me… I think helicopters are inherently unsafe.