No Longer A Sure Thing

The village of Lauchapan is miles from a paved road and too tiny for all but the most detailed maps of the state of Veracruz. The poor people who live in such backwaters have long been the mainstay of a mighty political machine that has produced enough votes every election to keep the PRI in power for the last 71 years. But political competition is coming even to Lauchapan.

Albeit slowly. Noemi Molina Martinez, in charge of distributing federal-welfare payments, has convinced many recipients that those benefits will disappear if they vote against Francisco Labastida. When the PRI held a rally in a nearby city, she arranged for her clients to be bused there. She also pushes her view that the new public-health clinic and running-water system would never have been built without the party. "I have been a PRI-ista since the time I could vote," says Molina, 38, whose own family is on the welfare rolls too.

But the machine is no longer firing on all cylinders. Many people in Lauchapan voted for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the 1994 election. Others complain that too many of their relatives have had to go to the United States illegally in search of work. Molina's political views have caused a rift in her own family. Her husband, Victor Manuel Elias Farias, 40, has grown tired of her proselytizing and the public-works projects that suddenly appear every election year. "The PRI is like a father who stops beating his kids before the grandparents arrive," he says. He backs Vicente Fox.

The local campaign for Labastida started last November with the PRI's internal primary. The welfare recipients were encouraged to get to the polls early and cast their vote for Labastida, the preferred candidate of the president. By the afternoon, residents say, the polling station had run out of ballots and opponents of Labastida could not vote.

The pressure has continued. On a recent Sunday morning, three party officials arrived in town. Cirilo Carling, 49, who is in charge of handing out government farm subsidies, rounded up about two dozen women. They gathered outside his home, where a bumper sticker next to the front door reads: house of a friend of labastida. The party officials had two messages for the women: persuade your neighbors to vote for the PRI; and remember the floods last year, when the party faithful delivered bags of cement, rice and beans to residents waist deep in water. "The one that helped us was the PRI," says Carling. "No other party was here."

More parties were on their way, though. Recently PAN promoters arrived in town with hats and T shirts. "There is a fear that if the PRI wins it will come down hard on us," says 70-year-old Benjamin Caballero, who stopped supporting the party a few years ago and now plans to vote for Fox. Juan Carlos Mexicano Gutierrez, 42, a farm owner who is better off than most of his neighbors, also backs Fox. But he can't persuade his workers to vote against the PRI. "Most are afraid," he says. In the fields on the edge of town, $4 a day is the daily wage for planting corn. "The PRI has burned itself," says one worker, 39-year-old Santo Castaneda Rosario. "But here it is best to vote for the winner."

No Longer A Sure Thing | News