During the past few weeks in Mexico, however, the group has positioned itself in a role more serious than the left-wing PR-hound reputation it has cultivated in the U.S. Through press conferences and other media outreach, it has helped create the false impression among newspaper readers, especially in Mexico, that significant, neutral foreign election observers believe there were enough serious problems with vote counting during a July 2 presidential election that there should be a complete recount of all ballots.
The resulting stories potentially helped confuse public perception of the following reality: Neutral international observers representing the United Nations, the European Union, and other international groups have said with varying degrees of certitude that though there may have been technical problems benefiting one or another candidate at some polling places, there's no evidence of systematic fraud. The elections were generally fair and clean. And these groups have not said a recount is warranted.
In Mexico, Global Exchange has stepped beyond the traditional role of international election observers as neutral ombudsmen verifying the legitimacy of a vote count. There, as in the U.S., the group is employing mastery of public relations to advocate an ideological viewpoint in this case, the idea that a recount might somehow comfort left-leaning Mexicans, irrespective of the real possibility that the original election was clean.
By confusing, rather than helping clarify, the issue of whether or not the election was legitimate, Global Exchange may be making it more difficult for Mexico to create a fair and lasting democracy.
During recent weeks, Mexico City's central area has become paralyzed by sit-in protests after the fiery leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) lost by 243,000 votes, or 0.58 percent, to the more right-leaning National Action Party's (PAN) Vicente Calderón.
López Obrador's partisans have so far fruitlessly demanded a complete, countrywide recount. This demand was officially supported last week in a San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution that passed 9 to 1, after Global Exchange's Ted Lewis testified before the Board's Rules Committee.
Lewis has become a one-man rapid media response team with dual bases in Mexico and San Francisco. When I spoke with him Friday he was juggling press calls from Australian television and elsewhere, having just returned to San Francisco following a Mexico City press conference covered by television, international wire reports, and Mexican newspapers. During previous weeks Mexican newspapers were filled with stories based on Lewis' comments calling for a full recount.
"We can't say this would affect the final result," Lewis was quoted as saying during his Thursday conference. "Our reason for backing a recount was not about partisan sentiment, but making sure there could be some stability during the years to come. Mexico has the potential to be very volatile," he said to me the next day.
"To say there's the potential for real polarization that could lead to deeper problems for Mexico between now and 2012, I don't think that's far-fetched at all," Lewis said.
This idea that Mexico is a simmering cauldron of discontent poised on the precipice of societywide instability is an old canard, inaccurately invoked by both left- and right-wing U.S. opinion makers for most of the previous century.
The administration of the first President George Bush used it to help explain its backing with money and political support the corrupt, authoritarian, right-leaning government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas. Without the PRI's brand of soft-dictatorship, I heard bankers and politicians assert time and again during those years, Mexico would fall apart.
Yet somehow, for the past six years since Vicente Fox was elected as an opposition candidate, the country has enjoyed democratically elected government yet remained quite intact.
Left-wing activists from all over the world invoked this teetering-Mexico idea to aggrandize the importance of a tiny, 1994 local dispute over access to arable land, in which peasants for several hours occupied municipal buildings in the small town of Ocosingo, Chiapas.
Anti-capitalists worldwide cast the Ocosingo incident as the "Zapatista Rebellion," a supposed example of simmering unrest in Mexico. At that time Global Exchange led "reality tour" visits by foreigners to the Chiapas region, an effort that may have admirably helped prevent a brutal government crackdown against the peasants. The Mexican instability myth touted by visiting foreigners, however, was based more on leftist public relations than reality. In this spirit soon after the rebellion, its leader, the pseudonymous Subcomandante Marcos, morphed from peasant leader to celebrity pundit.
The Mexico Burning fable is likewise meager pudding as the basis for Global Exchange's argument that 41 million votes from a fair election should be retallied.
Let me interrupt with full disclosure: I really wanted Andrés Manuel López Obrador to be Mexico's next president. I was briefly employed by his political party in 1990, and was friends with Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, who preceded López Obrador as president of the PRD. I've long held that Latin America, Mexico especially, would benefit from more left-leaning government. That's because during the past 24 years official Mexican policies based on privatization, free trade, and free flow of foreign capital have accompanied the disintegration of the middle class, and the worsened impoverishment of the poor.
But the prospect of real democracy, and the corruption-suppressing effect of pluralistic competition for power, is far more important for Mexicans' prosperity than installation of left-leaning administrators. Wholesale larceny by Mexican political bosses has pauperized the country more than any official policy ever has.
Ironically, the Mexico-on-the-precipice yarn was one of the tools the old, corrupt one-party political system used to keep democracy at bay.
López Obrador's threats to destabilize Mexico with impugnaciones y plantones or protests and sit-ins harken to an ugly Mexican past in which an authoritarian government included manipulated social protest, along with electoral fraud, in its quiver of techniques of getting its way. Large street protests in Mexico City during the 1980s and 1990s were daily occurrences, and in no way suggested notable social unrest. They were a caricature of unrest meant to signal that a political chieftain wished to send a message to one of his rivals so that the two might eventually cut a deal. For 70 years these sorts of smoke signals among competing strongmen called caciques were accompanied by perennial deal-cutting, patronage-spreading, and occasional violence, all adorned by bogus elections.
These strategies were designed as an alternative to democracy, which is defined as a system where aspirants to power compete according to established laws, with results authorized by independent courts.
The idea that a political leader, such as López Obrador, would threaten to destabilize the entire country with protests is not a good reason by itself to acquiesce to his demands at least not if the country wishes to become a functioning democracy.
López Obrador himself is a maestro of the impugnacion, having begun his career leading sometimes-violent oil worker protests in Southern Mexico. His efforts have helped the country in the past he protested his loss to fraud in a Tabasco state governors' election, compelling the national government to back down.
His current cause célebrè, however, falls short of the moral authority his Tabasco protests enjoyed.
During the past couple of weeks, López Obrador has promised evidence of significant electoral fraud. He then failed to produce such evidence. His party filed piles of lawsuits alleging electoral irregularities. Then López Obrador failed to acknowledge judges' determinations that the suits lacked sufficient merit to require a recount of the country's 41 million votes.
Mexico seeks to leave behind the portion of its history in which political bosses get their way through fraud, force, or other means. For many decades progressive elements within Mexico have dreamed of a country with lawful elections, run by legitimate bureaucracies, in which people's votes really count. This is the real Mexico Burning, to be distinguished from the oft-manipulated caricature of a south-of-the border republic populated by people prone to insurrectional violence at the drop of a sombrero.
International observers' response to Mexico's July 2 election excepting Global Exchange suggest the country has achieved this dream. And even Global Exchange's Lewis won't bring himself to deny this possibility for the record.
Nonetheless, Lewis has been working furiously to stir up media coverage with the message that international observers have not signed off on the legitimacy of Mexico's July 2 vote.
From a publicity-hound perspective, Global Exchange's campaign has been a monumental success.
But it will do nothing to enhance the group's reputation for seriousness, nor Mexicans' progress toward democracy.