Mexico's Potential First Female President Strikes Difficult Balance
Vazquez Mota addressed her unique position, as well as Mexico’s future role in the global economy and to a lesser extent her plans for national reform, during a talk Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles.
But what began as a fairly tame event in the Zocalo Public Square series became an, at times, tense affair as audience members settled into their seats. The 7:30 p.m. start time came and went. People began to check their watches and murmur impatiently, wondering what could be taking the guest of honor so long. Zocalo founding director Gregory Rodriquez scuttled out in front of the crowd to apologize. “We’re trying to get her down here,” he said, adding fuel to the speculative flame.
Finally, nearly an hour late, Vazquez Mota took to the stage. The evening’s snafus didn’t end there. Technical difficulties seemed to plague event organizers as microphones screeched and cut out. The simulcast translation devices distributed turned out to be a saving grace even for those equipped to understand the all-Spanish dialogue.
Vazquez Mota then attempted to diplomatically—and, it must be noted, generically—answer questions regarding the challenges facing her country. It wasn’t long, however, before anonymous members of the audience began shouting out to interrupt her. No political affiliation for these demonstrators could be independently verified, but the discontent they voiced is largely characteristic of Mexico’s citizenry.
The candidate maintained an air of grace throughout the interruptions. "I thank you for being here," she frequently told the audience, even after one man's aggressive accusation that she was blind to the plight of Mexico's impoverished population. Vazquez Mota assured him she was well aware of the economic inequities, pointing out that the poverty rate fell while she was secretary of social development. "I've been in the most poor areas of Mexico," she said. "I know how the communities live here."
That seemed to mollify the critic, but he is not alone in his disapproval. One thing has already become clear in the race for Mexico's next president: It won’t be an easy road for Vazquez Mota. For starters, there’s the issue of her gender. The former congresswoman and education minister finds herself in an unenviable position, tackling head-on a machista culture that has only just begun to accept women in places of power.
Mexican officials have made attempts to encourage that shift. An electoral reform in 2002 set a requirement that major parties select female candidates for at least 30 percent if the seats they attempt to secure in Mexico’s congress. Today, women hold 30 percent of the seats, 13 percent more than in the United States, according to the Tucson Sentinel. The country’s ruling National Action Party, PAN, which nominated Vazquez Mota, also put forth Isabel Miranda de Wallace in Mexico City’s mayoral race, to be decided July 1.
But even as women break through glass ceilings in politics and industries like finance and manufacturing, there’s question whether the country is prepared to elect a woman to its highest office.
“One of the hardest questions I have been asked,” Vazquez Mota told El Universal newspaper, “is, ‘How will you manage the army if you are having menstrual cramps?’”
That resistance seems to have only strengthened her resolve. “I will be the first woman president of Mexico in history,” she said in February as she accepted PAN’s nomination. On stage at MOCA, her appeal was more pragmatic. “We’re more than half the population, she said. “I’m here because women have the capability in Mexico to become the highest power.”
The 51-year-old mother of three looks to join a small field of women who have occupied the presidencies in their countries—Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
To do so, Vazquez Mota has embarked on something of a Palin-esque campaign. She markets herself as the “everywoman” to female voters in Mexico, women who are the sole breadwinners and/or homemakers to their families. Meanwhile, she’s asserted a conservative stance on women’s social issues in line with her party’s Catholic ideals.
But PAN has become increasingly unpopular in Mexico, especially during current President Felipe Calderon’s six-year term. Aligning herself with the party’s platforms any more than necessary may not be in her best interest. The party took control of the presidency in 2000. Most recently, Calderon has come under serious criticism not only for uninspiring leadership, but also for the brutal war on drugs he introduced five years ago that has killed more than 50,000 people.
“You can’t consider death a collateral damage,” Vazquez Mota said.
Playing the gender card, she’s offered to mother her country besieged by drug cartels. Rodolfo Hernandes Guerrero, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, told the Los Angeles Times in February, “She wants to show that she can take care of Mexicans the way she takes care of her family, that she can make them feel safe.”
But she has yet to outline a specific plan for handling security in a sufficiently different way than Calderon’s militaristic approach.
“I don’t believe the way is to negotiate with organized crime,” Vazquez Mota said Friday. “There is nothing more important than the security of the family. I think [Calderon] is trying to make the families feel secure, but we have to stick to justice. I think we learned some important lessons.”
When pressed on what those lessons might be, she said she was limited in discussing the specifics of her plans by electoral regulations. Her somewhat vague solutions included improving local police, depersonalizing the Mexican institution and offering better support to victims of drug trafficking violence.
“They need much more solidarity,” Vazquez Mota said. “We need to go about it with understanding. This is something we need to keep in mind at all times. The law needs to be applied without privilege, without prejudice. The security agenda should not be in conflict with a human rights agenda.”
In addition to high crime rates and evidence of institutional corruption, Mexico’s economy is no less problematic. According to the U.S. Department of State, whatever administration is next in line will have to address “the need to upgrade infrastructure, modernize labor laws, and make the energy and manufacturing sectors more competitive.”
While the World Bank may consider Mexico an upper-middle-income country, roughly 44 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Fixing that kind of destitution will require more than a backrub from a soothing mother figure.
Vazquez Mota acknowledged the need to develop the national economy, assigning blame to an uncompetitive internal market. But beyond that, she seemed reluctant to dwell on Mexico’s problems. “We have to talk about the rest,” she said, pointing to tourism and examples of immigrants who have found success outside of the country. “We have to acknowledge when we do something good and communicate that in a better way.”
Mexican voters haven’t been quite so ready to accentuate the positive. January polls showed former governor of Mexico state Enrique Pena Nieto of the rival Institutional Revolutionary Party leading by a double-digit margin. Vazquez Mota has since tightened the race to a difference of just seven percentage points, according to a poll conducted and published by national newspaper Milenio.
Still, given the public’s consensus that PAN has been ineffective at best in leading the country, she will have to convince constituents her administration will not be more of the same.
Campaigning officially begins March 30. Her strategy will likely continue to be a balancing act of seemingly incongruous ideals: tough but warm, conservative though progressive, familiar yet novel.
In a telling anecdote, Vazquez Mota recalled a recent exchange with Vice President Joe Biden in which Biden compared her to his own commander-in-chief. Some similarities did come through as she persevered through the interruptions during her visit to MOCA and offered her optimistic solutions to Mexico’s social and economic woes.
“We have to let go and work together. We’re hardworking,” she said, her words ringing with “audacity of hope” rhetoric. “This is the best part of us—the strong spirit of Mexico.”