Mexican state has own pharaoh Eccentricity: Some of the people of Tamaulipas love their governor's oddities, but his cowboy hat and pet pyramids are accompanied by a tight grip on power and suspicions of corruption.

Sun Journal

November 06, 1997|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico -- To the people of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, it's unclear whether their governor's views on air conditioning are the cause or a symptom of what they sometimes refer to as his "esoterismo."

Tamaulipas borders Texas from Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico, then stretches south into the Tropic of Cancer. In such a sweltering region, air cooling, to those who can afford it, would seem a necessity. But Manuel Cavazos Lerma will not cool his office -- though it is said that the stables where he keeps his thoroughbred horses are air-conditioned.

The governor's reasons go beyond self-denial. He doesn't want any interference with the positive energy emitted by his electric crystal pyramid that's connected to a wall socket and to a small chair on which he sits.

In Mexico, whose national politics is noted for producing strange behavior, the story of Manuel Cavazos Lerma stands out.

He grew from humble beginnings in Matamoros and rose further than Mexico usually permits a poor man's son to rise. He attended the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics and went on to teach economics at two of Mexico's most prestigious universities.

In the late 1980s, he was part of the vanguard of U.S.-educated "technocrats" that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari gathered around him to remake Mexico into a free-market system.

And then he came home to Tamaulipas.

Partly to isolate traditional politicians who didn't support free-market reforms, Salinas appointed Cavazos to run the state's branch of Solidaridad, the community self-help program the president had created to end-run entrenched local interests.

Through Solidaridad, Cavazos controlled federal funds that flowed to Tamaulipas; thus he controlled the state itself. In 1992, he was elected governor.

That's when another side of Manuel Cavazos emerged.

A short, bald man with an intense stare, he insists on wearing a cowboy hat even to formal functions. He greets crowds with a slow up-down motion and a circle. He insists that marching music be played in state buildings. He tried to make transcendental meditation part of the elementary-school curriculum. He had his Cabinet take courses in positive thinking and mind control. Yet his ferocious temper is legendary and he frequently belittles subordinates in public.

As governor, Cavazos proclaimed a "Nuevo Amanecer," a New Dawn, for Tamaulipas. He still refers to the state as "New Tamaulipas."

He spoke of "total quality" and doing away with negativity. He recruited instructors from the Maharishi University of Latin America to try to rehabilitate 600 prisoners by teaching them transcendental meditation. The program failed and cost taxpayers $300,000.

Cavazos apparently believes pyramids emit positive energy. He has his electric pyramid in his office and often travels with a pyramid in his car. The new Environmental Laboratory in Ciudad Victoria, the state capital, has a (taxpayer-funded) pyramid in front. He holds his hands in a pyramid when he gives speeches, including the entirety of this year's state-of-the-state speech.

Cavazos has spent millions of pesos making his "Mano con Mano" (Hand in Hand) logo a ubiquitous talisman of Tamaulipan life. The words are formed together with red, white and green zig-zags, looking like either pyramids or M's.

They are on everything the state touches: government buildings, driver's licenses, birth certificates, water tanks -- even on the reflectors along the highways and the plates on which poor schoolchildren eat their government-provided breakfasts.

At a youth prison, there is a Mano con Mano flag, but no Mexican flag. On Tamaulipas highways, tractors doing roadwork have small flags flying the logo.

Like politicians everywhere, Cavazos puts his name on public-works projects. But in addition to his name, Cavazos has put his birthday, March 12, or the name of his son or late wife, or "Nuevo Amanecer" on streets, neighborhoods, bridges, schools, highway extensions and plazas.

The new Reynosa-Pharr bridge was christened Nuevo Amanecer and the new highway from Matamoros to Reynosa is named March 12. A boulevard in Matamoros is named for the governor.

The Cavazos administration's crowning project was to be the Tamaulipas Intracoastal Canal, running the length of the state at an estimated cost of $756 million with a connection in Brownsville to the Texas canal system. Construction was to have begun this year on, of course, March 12.

But it didn't happen and probably won't.

The project has no funding and is opposed by environmental groups in both Mexico and the United States. Texas Gov. George W. Bush says he won't support a connection with the U.S. canal system.

Some Tamaulipans predict that the project will limp along to line politicians' pockets as long as Cavazos' term lasts -- it's in its last year. The Monterrey daily newspaper, El Norte, recently reported that the governor's father purchased land along the canal's route near Matamoros.

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