Sunday, July 02, 2006

What Mexicans are voting for today 

Leftist raises hopes in Mexico's forgotten towns

By Greg Brosnan

When the air reeks of sewage, rain makes your street look like a plowed field and month-long water shortages mean even bucket baths are sometimes a luxury, a flushing toilet can be a dream worth voting for.

A two hour commute from downtown Mexico City on the putrid periphery of a vast urban sprawl, many in this town of housemaids and security guards will vote for a leftist in Sunday's presidential election, hoping he will change their lives.

The slight favorite in a close race, former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is counting on desperate voters in poverty traps like Chalco on the capital's forgotten fringe and across the country to help him beat Felipe Calderon of the conservative ruling party.

Lopez Obrador gave cash handouts to elderly and disabled people and single-parent families as Mexico City mayor. He has promised to spread those programs throughout Mexico while boosting incomes through welfare payments and fuel price cuts.

He also promises to make services most city dwellers take for granted available to those for long left out.

"When it rains, all the houses flood," said security guard and Chalco resident Juan Jose Lopez, 52, as he lined up to vote for Lopez Obrador in Chalco on Sunday.

He said his elderly father in Mexico City was receiving a pension thanks to the leftist, and said the candidate's humble origins made it more likely he would look out for the poor.

"He comes from below, he understands," he added.

Some already have huge expectations for a better life under Lopez Obrador.

"Our hygiene, our habits, everything would change," 32-year-old bus driver Oscar Hernandez said, sitting on a dirty sofa outside the breezeblock shack he shares with his wife, as one of his three children filled a bucket for a bath.

The older girl and boy sleep in a bunk bed above Hernandez and his wife. His three-year-old girl sleeps on a foam cushion on the floor. Hernandez's toilet feeds into a hole in the ground and a proper sewage system is his main electoral wish.


Cobwebs of wires trail from electricity pylons into houses stealing from the grid. A lone dustman with a horse-and-cart rang a bell for rubbish in the trash-strewn street while cows graze on a field visible through an empty lot.

A couple of blocks away, Carmen Bautista, 60, shares a single room shack with her son and two grandchildren orphaned when her daughter died of anemia. A corrugated iron and plastic roof sheltered a cramped space combining kitchen and bedroom.

While she swiped at flies with a plastic swat, Bautista, a diabetic, said she wanted free medicine handouts instituted during Lopez Obrador's mayorship within the official limits of Mexico City to be available in outlying Chalco.

In the squalid Iztapalapa district nearer the city center, an ocean of half-built houses laps up the bare slopes of an extinct volcano like gray concrete lava.

Lucero Nunez, 23, rents two dingy tenement rooms with her accountant clerk husband and two baby sons. They cook on a camping grill and share a stone toilet with other families.

"He promises to raise incomes, he says it on the television," she said of Lopez Obrador. "My husband is skeptical, he says seeing is believing, but I believe him ... you can tell he's a man of the people."

But in Chalco, where politicians' promises have always come cheap, many have given up hoping altogether.

"I'm not voting for any of them," Esperanza, a 44-year-old woman who would not give her surname for fear of recrimination, said as a young boy played naked in the mud beside her shack. "They're all rats who come to steal."


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