Mexicans respond to calls for change


MEXICO CITY -- Yesterday was a special day in Mexico, but not for Ernesto Cuautemoc Sanchez.

Dr. Sanchez recently relocated from Baltimore to Mexico City at this turning point in his country's history, but can't really take part in it. Because he had lived abroad, he was unable to register in time, so he couldn't vote in yesterday's federal elections.

"I really regret that," said the 36-year-old who formerly worked at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center and is the former head of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Committee for Hispanic Affairs. "I have always voted, and I think that's the only way we can make a change here."

So he went around the corner to his local polling place in the middle-class neighborhood of Colonia del Valle, just to have a look.

"This country needs a change," he said. "There is no way you can have 24 billionaires living next to almost 40 million poor people. That's how many we have below the poverty line."

His three-year sojourn in Maryland has given Dr. Sanchez an acute appreciation of the change in attitude that has occurred here.

"Today in Mexico there is an increasing awareness of poverty," he said. "That is mainly the result of the January revolt [of the Zapatista rebels] in Chiapas. Then came the murder of [Luis Donaldo] Colosio [the first candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)]. The rules have changed. Now I can't tell who is running the country. I think the PRI is losing control."

Were he able, Dr. Sanchez would vote for the Democratic Revolutionary Party of Cuautemoc Cardenas.

The skies were bright yesterday over the largest city in the world, and at last clear of turbulent rain clouds. It was dry at last, a day of generous sun.

Though the campaign ended Wednesday, the city still wore its festive political decor. From the palace of the late Emperor Maximilian, high on Chapultepec Hill, one could look over the Paseo de la Reforma that sweeps down toward Mexico City's ancient heart. The banners and flags of nine political parties still fluttered, flipping out their last-minute appeals: Vote for me! Vote for me!

In a polling place across from the Parque Mexico, the observer of the Action National Party (PAN) had not arrived an hour after the polls had opened. (Each party is allowed an observer in each station). But a PAN supervisor, Emiliano Vargas, doing his rounds, wasn't too concerned. The neighborhood, known as Hipodromo because a race track was once located there and the streets circle the park in never-ending ovals, favors the PAN, he said.

That assertion couldn't be proved, though an interview with Pipin, of Pipin and Teresa's Blue Garage Cafe around the corner, lent some credence to it.

Pipin, a former diver for the state oil company in Campeche, who had to retire when he injured his leg, wouldn't say who he favored. He was voting "against all the corruption and lies," he said.

The PAN party slogan during the campaign has been "A Government Without Lies."

In Colonia Roma, about two miles away, a young man named Felix Cortinez was examining the indelible ink on his thumb. It indicated he had already voted. He wouldn't say who he supported either, but hinted that it wasn't the ruling party: "Maybe this time we can get on the horse instead of the other way around."

Even as the process was under way, people were still urging their fellow citizens to vote. A kind of election chic had developed. Entertainers were touting the benefits of participatory democracy. The newspaper La Reforma published a special feature offering the opinions of young actors voting for the first time.

One of them, Natalia Esperon, acknowledged that politics "is not my strong point" but declared that she "wanted to vote for somebody young," if she could find such a candidate.

Everybody seemed to favor a change, though not everyone wanted a change in government. Antonio Montes Pineda, for instance, is very enthusiastic about the elections. He is a small, balding man with a neat little white mustache and a bright red tie. He voted at 8 a.m. before heading for the San Juan Market to open his shop, where he sells ceramics and alabaster chess sets, among other things.

"This election is going to make us well," he said. "Because we have been sick."

And his party?

"We are of the PRI. It is the party that has a majority."

"And besides, we value more the bad thing that you know than the good you don't," he added.

Asked how he could expect to bring about a change in Mexico by voting for the party that has been in power for 65 years, Mr. Montes said: "They have promised to make some modifications."

Yesterday was dry in more ways than one. To encourage sobriety as Mexicans approached the polls, the government banned the sale of alcohol from Friday midnight until this morning.

But, this being Mexico, there were ways to avoid such inconveniences. Said Pipin, the beached diver and restaurateur, apparently not averse to a tiny corruption in the interest of hospitality:

"When you come to dinner, I will hide away two cans of beer for the senor."

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