I wrote the following story with a colleague in 2009, when I was political correspondent in Mexico for Bloomberg News. The story didn't run; or rather, we changed it into an entirely new story before it did. But the original was a fun one to report, so I decided to republish it here:
Mexico Antics Reflect Power of Congress, Challenge For Calderon
So far this year, Mexican lawmakers chained the doors to Congress, camped in sleeping bags on the lower house floor and stopped colleagues from convening in their chambers to block President Felipe Calderon's energy bill.
Calderon's supporters heckled rival lawmaker Layda Sansores by likening her to a pole dancer. Key opposition leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones denounced the government for spying on him. And Senate chief Santiago Creel announced at a news conference that, while still married, he fathered a child with a popular actress.
While the high jinks amuse and disgust Mexico's citizens, they also signal the arrival of democracy less than a decade after 70 years one-party rule ended. A body that once served as a rubber stamp for Mexican presidents is now Calderon's biggest obstacle to revamping the state oil monopoly, his principal initiative. The raucous, undisciplined lawmakers with their newfound power may help determine his legacy.
``Congress has been exerting more power, pressuring the executive, and that's the reflection of greater democracy,'' said Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. ``That would have been unheard of when the president was all-powerful.''
Beneath the theatrics lies an escalating power struggle among the country's three main parties, none of which holds a majority in either chamber.
Calderon's pro-business National Action Party has a precarious hold on power with a plurality in both houses, the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is trying to reclaim its lost glory, while the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, is marred by in-fighting and refuses to formerly recognize Calderon as a legitimate president.
The president's party is trying to negotiate deals to push through his initiatives. Under former PAN president Vicente Fox, the party had its proposals for structural reform blocked. It finally won approval for changes to tax and pension laws last year.
The PRI, which has the second-most seats in the 128-member Senate, is Calderon's main obstacle. It ruled Mexico for most of last century through a system of patronage, tampered elections and an monarchic-like executive that Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once called the ``perfect dictatorship.'' It lost its congressional majority in 1997 and finally gave up the presidency three years later.
The PRD, which has the second-most seats in the 500-member lower house, tries to thwart the PAN with more brusque tactics. In 2006, its lawmakers blocked Fox from delivering his state of the union address, claiming fraud after its former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost the election by less than a percentage point.
No party is exempt from unusual characters and antics. Andres Bermudez, a PAN lawmaker, is known as the ``Tomato King'' because he amassed a fortune in the tomato industry after immigrating illegally to the U.S.
In the 1990s, legislators poured glue into electronic voting buttons used by a fellow party member, and striking sugar laborers mooned lawmakers from the front of the chamber, according to Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon's book ``Opening Mexico.''
This year, congressional debate is centering around a plan Calderon submitted in April to allow the state oil monopoly more leeway to hire private companies. The government says the initiative will help Pemex invest more in exploration and halt a decline in output and reserves.
Led by Lopez Obrador, PRD lawmakers shut down Congress for two weeks in April in protest over the bill. They say it will transfer Mexico's energy riches to local business elites and foreigners, in violation of a constitutional clause that has reserved oil to the government for 70 years.
If Calderon's party survives shenanigans from the PRD, it will still need at least some votes from the PRI to win approval for the bill. The role of potential spoiler has given bargaining chips and renewed power to PRI lawmakers such as Beltrones, its leader in the Senate.
The PAN hopes to put the bill to a vote in September. It may be a watered-down version of Calderon's plan. The PRI has submitted its own energy initiative that omits a key Calderon plan to allow the private sector to operate refineries. Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador's followers are promising more protests.
Lawmakers in this young democracy may not have enough experience to decide on initiatives as important as energy reform, said Francisco Gonzalez, professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. Legislators have trouble developing continuity and expertise because they can't serve multiple terms in the same chamber, he said.
``Don't have a clear idea''
``The vast majority don't have a clear idea of the implications of the decisions they're being asked to vote on,'' Gonzalez said.
Congress only started up this decade investigative branches similar to the U.S. Government Accountability Office to enhance their understanding of the issues they vote on.
Corruption, while perhaps not as blatant as during the PRI era, is still alive and well in the form of bribes and favors. Bermudez was accused by Zacatecas state's auditor office in 2004 of committing nepotism when he was a mayor and of giving government salaries and perks to people who didn't work for him.
In a famous case in 2002, the Attorney General asked Congress to strip immunity from three lawmakers, accusing them of funneling millions of dollars from the state oil company to the PRI for campaign funding. The legislators were later absolved from the scandal, called ``Pemexgate'' after the oil company.
Despite the scandals, these lawmakers hold the future of Mexico in their hands, and there is perhaps no issue more crucial than the fate of Pemex.
``This is where you need to have a legislature acting aggressively, responsibly and in an innovative fashion,'' said George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is the Founder & CEO of Amalga Group, a pioneering Texas-based nearshore outsourcing firm specializing in IT, software engineering, and contact center staffing.