Mexico discovers how to lobby

SUN JOURNAL

Government: As this country sheds authoritarian rule, negotiation and democratic give-and-take take on new importance.

September 10, 1999|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- In a colonial office building in the heart of the city, Alicia Bustamante stands at an overhead projector and spells out the basics for a group of 18 people.

Bustamante is from Movimiento Ciudadano por la Democracia (MCD), a nonprofit group that has begun holding seminars on, among other things, how to lobby. Her audience consists of grass-roots activists from all over Mexico, come to the capital to learn about dealing with the media.

What Bustamante tells them is simple, but for Mexico radically new. She goes through the basics of news reporting -- from the five W's to what makes a news story. "Not all information is news," reads one projection. She tells them they have to be prepared for reporters' questions, to be ready to show a reporter why their issue is transcendent, and to know how to shape stories to the needs of particular media.

"There's a ferocious fight out there for news space," Bustamante says. "So the information that you generate has to have larger importance."

This small meeting has larger importance as part of a wider movement. Over the last two years lobbying has come to Mexico.

About a half-dozen lobbying firms have sprung up, started by, among others, a former tourism minister, a former congresswoman and a political scientist. Hundreds of grass-roots groups, like those at Bustamante's seminar, are getting into the act -- including Mexico's first feminist lobby, known as El Consorcio.

Mexico is shaking off the authoritarian, one-party state that governed it for most of this century. A more pluralistic and democratic country is emerging, with a new political culture characterized for the first time by negotiation and democratic give-and-take. And that entails the emergence of a lobbying industry.

"One sign that society is maturing politically is that it thinks of lobbying and negotiating as something that's possible and good," says Luz Rosales, director of Bustamante's MCD. "A few years ago, we didn't think this way."

The transformation dates to July 6, 1997, when for the first time in decades, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost control of the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies.

Until then, what had passed for lobbying were perverse practices rooted in the supreme power of the president and the PRI's uncontested dominion over the country. The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies were little more than rubber stamps for whatever the president proposed. Businessmen and associations huddled with their friends in the executive branch, where the doors were almost always open.

The poor and powerless, lacking such access, had to resort to marches and public hunger strikes. On the assumption that unless you made a spectacle or a nuisance of yourself the government would ignore you, endless marches clogged traffic in downtown Mexico City. A debtors group once brought an elephant to a demonstration.

A few years ago street sweepers from a small town in Tabasco marched to Mexico City after wage negotiations with their city government broke down. For almost four months, they lived on the capital's streets, staging more marches. Two of them went on a hunger strike that lasted more than 100 days. Their colleagues invaded the Chamber of Deputies and disrobed to their underwear.

In September 1997, opposition-party congress members, with a combined majority, took office ready to enact their own legislation. The Congress went from being an ornament to an actor in Mexico's political life. More people now had to be persuaded of a law's merits before it could pass. Cabinet ministers had to court a Congress they once ordered around.

Moreover, the PRI had long barred from Congress any grass-roots organization not recognized by the party. In today's new Congress, grass-roots groups walk the corridors pressing their causes.

Lobbying is so new that many groups are still learning how it's done, skills the MCD seminars are designed to provide.

"We've made mistakes," admits Eduardo del Castillo, a member of a feminist coalition that recently lobbied the Mexico City Legislative Assembly regarding changes in the city's penal code -- with partial success. "We've duplicated work. Sometimes we've accepted promises that weren't kept. [But] we realize that to the extent we can fine-tune our proposals and make them palatable to the various parties, we'll be successful."

The Mexican lobbying industry appears to be evolving into something different from its U.S. counterpart.

Several companies, for example, see lobbying lawmakers as only part of an overall strategy to influence decision-making. These firms' services include advising companies on building alliances with grass-roots groups or unions. Often, these firms don't lobby at all, but tutor executive clients on how to effectively present arguments, on whom in which branch of government to see, on when to place an ad in a newspaper and when to appear on a talk show, and with what message.

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