June 30, 2006

Courting Mexico’s Reluctant Youth Vote

By Kent Paterson
Editor Frontera NorteSur

Mexican youth have the potential to swing the July 2, 2006 elections. Statistics maintained by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) report that 46 percent of all registered voters are young people aged 20-34. “The electoral strength of  youth is practically half the voter roll,” said David Delgado, an IFE spokesman. “The political parties should look at this.” Indeed, Mexico’s competing parties are tailoring their publicity in order to snare the youth vote in next week’s federal and state elections. Expensive campaign ads project youthful faces, jingles, themes, and futures.

Last week MTV Latin America featured exclusive interviews with all five Mexican presidential candidates who, dressed casually, fielded sometimes thorny questions from young people. Flirting with MTV’s host, the PRI’s presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo, showed off a picture of himself as a young, long-haired federal deputy during the 1970s. “I’m a rocker,” boasted Madrazo, emphasizing that he came of age during the “generation of the Beatles.”

But are Mexican youth impressed? Many like Irene Martinez Aguayo, a young service industry worker in the central city of Aguascalientes, are not. An urban transplant from a poor rural community in San Luis Potosi, Martinez earns about $300 US dollars a month for a 60-hour work week. The young woman said she would like to study to be a nurse but doesn’t have the money to pay for tuition.

“It’s the same whoever wins,” complained Martinez. “(Politicians) promise a lot of things, just so people will vote for them.” Martinez, who said she is registered to vote, quickly added that she does not intend to turn out to the polls next Sunday. Nor has she voted in the past.

Martinez’s non-voting record is rampant. An IFE study of electoral participation in the 2003 mid-term elections revealed that only 31 percent of registered young people aged 20-29 voted- a figure that was 10 percent less than overall rate of voter participation. According to the IFE’s Delgado, the rate of women’s participation was 8 percent more than men’s.

“One hypothesis is that young men migrate more,” contended Delgado, “and this affects the participation.” As part of a campaign to cultivate a culture of political participation, the IFE organized mock elections in public schools last week in which students were asked to vote on different questions relevant to their childhoods.

Inspired by the Rock the Vote organization in the United States, one group of young Mexicans is attempting to turn around youthful disinterest in politics. Launched in 2005 and called Your Rock is to Vote (TREV), the Mexico-City based organization has organized rock concerts this year in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and 9 other Mexican cities to promote youthful participation in the July elections.

Dozens of bands have lent for their suport for the cause, including top names Molotov, Los Angeles Azules, Víctimas del Doctor Cerebro, Ely Guerra, and others. At a Mexico City concert last February, the supergroup U2 allowed a TREV logo to be put on its stage. Additionally, the TREV has sponsored workshops, talks, writing and graphic arts contests, and film presentations in a bid to get out its message that politics directly impacts youth’s prospects for education, employment and a decent future. 

In an interview with Frontera Nortesur, Javier Antonio Lopez Ramirez, a TREV spokesman, contended that official corruption and negative political campaigning, amply demonstrated by the tone of this year’s presidential race, has created a huge credibility gap between youth and the nation’s political and governmental institutions.

“A young person with lots of desire to participate needs to see people as honest, needs to see people doing positive things,” said Lopez. “It’s similar to the dichotomy of a policeman and a thief,” he continued.

“Years ago a policeman was viewed as a hero and a thief was obviously repudiated. Now we know that police can be thieves too, so the image we have of them is negative. That’s what makes us not believe in these institutions, as well as politicians.” 

A non-profit organization, the TREV has drawn sponsorship from Mexican and US businesses, among them Coca Cola, Starbuck’s, Yahoo, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza. Some news stories have reported less-than-expected attendance at TREV concerts, but Lopez insisted that youth are joining his group’s movement. One TREV television spot has generated charges that the organization is attacking citizens’ right to vote or not to vote. Featuring a chorus of youthful voices appealing for voting, the spot ends with a message to vote or shut up. 

“We’re getting comments pro and con,” said Lopez, “but people are jumping aboard... we’re shaking the earth and the response is coming out. According to Lopez, the TREV plans to continue its organizing campaign of creating a new generation of “social activists” after July 2. Apart from future elections, Lopez said the TREV might get involved in other issues like the environment.

Some Mexican youth, while voicing a distaste for traditional politics, are nevertheless finding other ways to enage in civic life. On June 20, a group of students from the Atequiza rural teacher’s college in Jalisco state, some wearing t-shirts stamped with the intials of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, occupied a downtown plaza in Guadalajara to demand 80 teaching positions for upcoming graduates.

Several of the protestors from the Mexican Student Federation of Socialist Farmers expressed frustration at their dealings with politicians and state government officials, whom they charged were giving the classic run-around. According to a report in the La Jornada daily, the protest concluded several days later with a successful negotiation of the student’s demands.

Like the striking teachers of Oaxaca state, the Atequiza students reported overcrowed classrooms, shortages of supplies and sub-standard infrastructure at rural schools, including some which had no electricity. Protest spokesman David Carranza Velasquez said rural teachers in Jalisco earn about $500 US dollars every month compared to a monthly salary of nearly $10,000 dollars enjoyed by the Jalisco state education secretary. Teachers struggle in dilpadiated buildings while other government authorities work in air conditioned offices outfitted with fancy furniture, said Velasquez. 

Protestor Miguel Angel Gonzalez Gonzalez sounded off common anti-political establishment complaints. “I can’t remember a clear proposal from any candidate from any party. Truthfully, we lose interest and don’t believe in them,” he said. “A spot on television costs thousands of pesos, while we see that sometimes there is no electricity or water, or any desks or blackboards in good condition, in the schools where we work.” Added Gonzalez, “You can’t tell me there’s no money, when (politicians) earn millions and spend millions attacking each other.” Turned off by politcians from all parties, it remains to be seen how many Mexican youth like Gonzalez will go to the polls or just stay home on July 2.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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