Mexico trip replaces preconceptions.
Commerce and commentary thrive amid the beeping madness of Mexico City traffic.
You can buy anything from gum to garden rakes from the swift merchants who walk among the cars and hawk their wares during red lights. You can also find children dressed as devils with red capes and plastic masks of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas. They do tricks on their fathers' shoulders, then beg for money from a captive audience stopped at the intersection.
Meanwhile, government officials who would just as soon disown the former head of their party toil late in gleaming marble-and-glass buildings. In Mexico, say the journalists who work there, getting a return call from a source still at work at 10:30 p.m. is not unusual.
So much for the laid-back image of life in the land of manana.
Those who took NCEW's Mexico City trip June 11-15 probably replaced a few other preconceptions about Mexico with stranger-than-fiction facts. The trip was put together by Jim Boyd, deputy editorial page editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and chair of NCEW's International Affairs Committee. He had logistical help from Michael Zamba, Mexico City correspondent for The Dallas Morning News, who gets credit for lining up some high-level meetings. The trip gave 12 journalists and assorted spouses and relatives a chance to learn:
* Mexico's president Ernesto Zedillo has enough charm, looks, and wit to dispel those rumors about what a politically inexperienced nerd he is.
* Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the man from whom Carlos Salinas allegedly stole the 1988 presidential election, doesn't ooze the kind of charisma his reputation suggests. The man who was expected to walk away with the governorship of Mexico City is more severe than scintillating - despite expectations to the contrary.
* Members of Mexico's conservative opposition party are weaving conspiracy theories about the 1994 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio that are eerily reminiscent of debates over whether John Kennedy was killed by one assassin or two.
The trip was designed to be shorter, less expensive, and more accessible than traditional NCEW excursions. The idea was to attract members from papers with smaller travel budgets, says Boyd. My presence as a first-time NCEW traveler is evidence that the plan worked.
The trip was quick, but long on content. In addition to President Zedillo and Governor Cardenas, we had interviews with pollster Daniel Lurid, who explained the demographics and political mood; Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jose Angel Gurria, who told us in his Leeds University English about the challenges of dealing with U.S. politicians; and Roberto Rock, editorial director of El Universal, Mexico City's largest daily. He told us how most of his reporters quit and the government sent 50 federal police with machine guns when his paper decided to try ethics in journalism, U.S.-style.
We also met with economist Roberto Salinas Leon, and took a trip to the U.S. Embassy where nobody wanted to be quoted by name.
The trip came just before one of the most important elections in Mexican history. It gave us an insight into how a political party that has held absolute power for years can manage to give it up while deftly positioning itself to regain it.
It provided a taste of the complexities of a country whose nearness has led to stereotypes far less interesting than reality. It should be the first of many trips to a neighbor that is of increasing importance to the U.S.
NCEW member Linda Valdez is an editorial writer for The Arizona Republic.