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March 2013 Article – Peña Nieto Out of the Gate

Peña Nieto Out of the Gate
by Jerry Pacheco

I enjoy monitoring the first year of a Mexican president’s six-year administration, especially if he is a president who comes into office mired in controversy. The need to bring legitimacy and support to a fledgling administration usually results in bold, aggressive moves. Such was the case in 1988 when Carlos Salinas assumed office, winning the presidential election with just a smidgen of a point over 50 percent. The Salinas team was accused of widespread voter fraud and corrupt election practices. Demonstrations were held throughout Mexico questioning the legitimacy of his administration.

In 2006, upon assuming office in another extremely close and controversial presidential election, Enrique Calderon faced an aggressive opposition party that refused to concede the elections and caused widespread gridlock throughout the nation. Just last December, after winning the 2012 presidential elections, Enrique Peña Nieto faced his own problems with many Mexican citizens deriding his intellectual capacity, and others fearful that the formerly powerful PRI party, which held office for nearly 71 years (1929 to 2000), was again going to be calling the shots in Mexico, to its sole benefit and to the detriment of non-PRI members.

To earn respect with the Mexican population and to prove to the nation that he was a decisive leader, Salinas immediately made an example of powerful union leaders who were accused of bilking union funds for personal gambling trips to places such as Las Vegas, Nevada. This bold move helped Salinas garner respect from sectors that initially opposed him. It also sent a message to his enemies that he was prepared to act swiftly and strongly if they did not fall into line.

Likewise in 2006, after being elected president, Calderon quickly launched a war on Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, utilizing the Mexican army to spearhead an offensive in the cartel strongholds of Mexico. Calderon’s aggressive action against the cartels surprised many people who previously viewed him as somewhat passive and conflict averse. The effects of Calderon’s war on the cartels would become the dominant issue in his administration’s six years.

It is now Peña Nieto’s turn to be aggressive out of the gate. Less than three months after assuming office, his administration arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the Mexican Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), which is the largest teachers’ union in all of Latin America. Since 1989, Gordillo has run SNTE with an iron fist, while cementing a leadership role within the PRI party, eventually rising to the rank of congresswoman. For nearly 30 years, she has been a national political power broker, often compared to former Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa.

Gordillo has been viewed by political experts as being virtually untouchable, due to her political connections and position as head of a powerful union. Indeed, she has flourished despite changes in political administrations. She has been famous for flaunting her high fashion tastes by flashing clothes and accessories by style leaders such as Hermes and allegedly dropping millions at ritzy stores such as Neiman Marcus. In 2008, she purchased 59 new Hummers to reward close aides. The media eventually caught wind of this ploy and the vehicles were quickly auctioned off before more controversy could occur.

Mexico’s attorney general, who is prosecuting Gordillo publicly, revealed that between 2009 and 2012, Gordillo earned approximately $88,000. During this time, she amassed properties in the U.S., including a $1.7 million house in San Diego and a $4 million house in Coronado, California.

Gordillo’s arrest came as a surprise and seems to have given Peña Nieto a quick reputation as somebody who deals quickly with detrimental elements to his rule, even if his moves are interpreted as being purely political in nature. In conjunction with Gordillo’s arrest, he is pushing widespread educational reform in Mexico, which has been an extremely difficult task not solved by his predecessors.

However aggressive Peña Nieto’s actions have been so far, apparently he is reluctant to address the most sacred of sacred cows, privatizing PEMEX, the national oil conglomerate. In a recent speech, he was quoted as saying that, “neither will PEMEX be sold, nor will it be privatized”. This inefficient behemoth state agency is in dire need of capital injection and technology from the private sector in order for Mexico to remain a net exporter of oil in the future. Perhaps, as the new president gets his stride, this will also cautiously be put on the table.