Monday, July 6, 2009

Booze and Politics

"Uh, we drink a lot. And then we light some fireworks."

That was my answer to Mexican friends' queries about how we gringos usually celebrate the Fourth of July up in El Norte. I was fielding these important cultural questions at an impromptu Independence Day party held this past Saturday held (indoors, due to lack o' yard space) by a fellow gringo for our little Huajuapan-based expat community. No better way to celebrate the United States' independence from England by chowing on potato salad and lighting sparklers (thus violating indoor fire codes -- you'll notice my terror above) with a handful of British a Russian, a Scot, an Irish guy and all of the Mexicans who love us.

But back to the booze. If I sound cynical, I'm not alone. An article I read recently on Slate summed up Independence Day as celebrating Americans' "freedom to drink outside during daylight hours," adding:

"Some of us will fish Bud tallboys out of an Igloo on the National Mall; others will knock back rosé on picnic blankets and applejack at backyard barbecues; still others will sip on a pint bottle of Cutty Sark on the same park bench as always. We are a diverse nation."

True that, true that. During my State-side tenure, I usually celebrated 'Merica by putting back a $12 bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz in Chicago's Grant Park.

But this year, in a very interesting juxtaposition, I celebrated one of America's drunkest days in a nation where a Ley Seca (dry law) was temporarily in effect. What's more, in another very interesting juxtaposition, this Ley Seca was in effect precisely for the reason we're supposedly so darn proud to be Americans in the first place: Democracy.

July 5 is Election Day here in Mexico. And, in efforts to make an infamously-corrupt election process a little less so, folks aren't supposed to drink. That means that no booze gets sold from midnight on July 3 through midnight on July 5. Ley Seca encourages corrupt poltiticans to be a little more creative in their vote-buying: A can of beer just won't do. Show the people the cash!

There's that cynicism again. But it's hard not to roll my eyes at the brand of "democracy" that is pushed down the throats of people here in Oaxaca. And I'm not implying that the US' brand is the solution for everyone, either. (We've got our own problems: Remember Florida and Ohio?) I'm here as an observer, not a prescriptivist, folks.

But again, I'm not alone in my cynicism. While media in the United States talked about boozing on Independence Day, the Mexican press has been a-chatter with fears that people won't even bother to vote. And that those do show up to their polling places will simply tear up their ballots in an act of defiance. For some, there's no point in "voting for the least worst candidate."

I live in one of the most marginalized areas in one of the most marginalized states of what most would call a "developing" country. Politics here is a heated topic. Three main parties -- the PRD, the PRI, and the PAN -- jockey for power. You'll usually have no trouble finding someone who will readily complain about one of those three parties; however, historically, the "most worst" has been the PRI -- the party that kept itself in power through little more than changing the name on the ballot for 70 years. Since 2000, the PAN has successfully put two men -- Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006 -- in power as president, and the PRD has developed strongholds in several Mexican states . However, Oaxaca remains "PRI Territory," at least if you believe all of the billboards that have cropped up in honor of this year's local elections.

And, if you believe the word on the street, Oaxaca is still "PRI Territory" because the politicians are extremely adept at manipulating all of the poor folks in this state. Friends say that votes are bought for as little as a can of beer, or -- slightly more optimistically -- sometimes for $50 pesos, which would buy approximately two beers.

This political mess is played out in the graffiti tagged all over of Oaxaca City, the state capital, a place I had the pleasure to visit on Sunday, election day. (Ironically, my mission in Oaxaca City was to purchase mezcal for an uncle who I will visit when I'm back home for a vacation later this month. The tourism-starved* woman at the mezcal store was more than happy to sell the booze to me, carefully coating the bottles in bubble wrap before placing them in an discreet black plastic bag. Take that, Ley Seca!)

Anyway, angry protestors (you may have heard a little something about the conflicts between the government and the teachers here in Oaxaca state, unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past, um, three years), in response to a recent bout of troubles, have decorated the walls of churches, offices and historic buildings with such uplifting messages as "¡PRI asesino!" (PRI murders) or "¡Ulises asesino!" (a crack at Oaxaca's governor, a member of the PRI party, whom I had the dubious honor of meeting in March).

Despite the all of that anger and graffiti, today -- the day after election day -- Oaxaca still remains "PRI Territory." The PRI took 11 of the state's 18 districts yesterday. In some areas, however, the PRI victory wasn't due to people tearing up their ballots or exchanging their votes for cans of beer. According to a national newspaper, " menos nueve mil 547 ciudadanos se quedaron sin votar debido a que no se instalaron 19 casillas en localidades que la autoridad electoral tenía señaladas como 'altamente conflictivas'" ( least 9,547 citizens remained without [the right] to vote because voting booths were not installed in 19 communities that electoral authorities had deemed 'highly conflictive'"). Several of those communities were right here in the Mixteca region where I live. Oaxaca's versions of Florida and Ohio, if you will.

So much for democracy. Depressing news like that kind of makes you want to knock back a cold one, right?

*Thank you, swine flu, drug war, civil unrest, and recession, for scaring away all tourists.

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