NAM Editor’s Note: To privileged young Mexicans being groomed for leadership at an exclusive university, supporting presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador makes good economic sense. New America Media contributor David Wielenga is a former OC Weekly senior editor now living and teaching English in Mexico.

By Dave Wielenga, New America Media

MAZATLAN, Mexico–The banners promoting presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — “AMLO,” for short — hang mostly in Mazatlan’s rough and ragged barrios, several blocks backstage from the carefree sand-and-sea showcase this resort city puts on for tourists. That makes sense, considering the slogan they bear: Por el Bien de Todos, Primero los Pobres (For the Good of All, First the Poor).

Those signs are even further from the campus of Tecnologico de Monterrey, a gated oasis of manicured lawns, tennis courts and higher education carved into the scrub-covered hills beyond El Conchi, one of Mazatlan’s poorest outlying districts. That figures, too. The city’s most-fortunate sons and daughters come here, driving their late-model cars and carrying their wireless laptops, to confirm their reservations in the upper echelons of Mexico’s future. I come here to teach them English.

Yet during a campus debate presented as a mid-term project by my advanced students, it became obvious that they haven’t been automatically insulated or numbed by their advantages. Not only have they seen AMLO’s humble banners; many of them have taken to heart his egalitarian mantra. “For the good of all,” these rich kids repeated, without irony and with pretty good pronunciation in English, “first the poor.”

Although the furor over illegal Latino immigration is dominating off-year-election politics in the United States, most Americans remain unaware of the equally intense campaigning on the flip side of the issue and the border. Mexicans go to the polls July 2 to elect their next president and 628 legislators.

“Most Mexicans are embarrassed by conditions that force so many citizens to leave our country for a better life,” said Francisco Gaxiola, 20, a computer-engineering major, wrapping up his opening statement before an applauding crowd in the university auditorium. “Improving Mexico must begin by helping the poor people. That begins by electing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.”

Nearly 40 percent of the student audience supported AMLO, surpassing the percentage that kept him atop national polls for a year. That’s hard to reckon. Tec de Monterrey is no liberal arts school, where students concoct touchy-feely theories and consider utopian scenarios. It’s a technological institute, where students think in nuts and bolts — and computer chips — and bet their futures on a Mexico that is practical, modern and internationally competitive.

Voting for AMLO, the candidate of an alliance of left-leaning minor parties whose campaign platform of 50 promises includes eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy, implementing universal old-age pensions, reversing privatization of the oil industry and renegotiating provisions of NAFTA, would not seem to best serve the personal interests of these students. “To me, voting for AMLO is a question of patriotism,” said Aline Jara, 19, an information-systems marketing major, when she arrived at the podium. “I ask myself if I really love my country, my people, or if I only care about myself.”

Such idealism holds little weight among the majority of Mexico’s wealthy class, which fears AMLO’s strong candidacy. They ridicule everything from his qualifications to his accent to his followers — calling them nacos, a slang term perhaps best translated as “hillbilly.” Carlos Luken, a Mexico City pundit, assigns the Tec students’ support for AMLO to their youth, and doubts they will follow through at the ballot box. “I was part of the 1968 movement against the establishment,” he said, “but eventually I learned to appreciate and fall back on my comfortable position when voting.”

But the goal of raising living standards for Mexico’s poor and discontented majority also strikes many moneyed Tec students as sound practice.

Kidnapping rich people for ransom is still so common in Mexico that it is a campaign issue. Drug cartels — filled with foot soldiers unable to find legitimate, living-wage employment in a country where the minimum wage is about $6 a day — corrupt politicians at the high end and battle military convoys at the low end. That hurts everything from honest competition to property values. The near-ruination of the Mexican family farm by NAFTA, which has flooded the country with crops from subsidized U.S. agribusiness, has turned rural communities into ghost towns and fueled the stream of people into the outskirts of big cities — or across the northern border.

“I’d like to start a business someday,” says Maria del Rosario Michel, 20, an aspiring architect. “How am I going to do that with all Mexico’s instability? Where am I going to find customers? I’m starting by voting for AMLO.”

The enthusiasm among Tec students is an example of the goosepimply sense of democratic possibility that has swept through Mexico since 2000, when National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox became the first Mexican president in 71 years not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

It’s all sweetly nostalgic for a jaded expatriate American progressive who worked on the doomed presidential campaigns of AMLO-esque candidates like George McGovern, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader.

Lopez Obrador, by contrast, led national polls for a year after his candidacy was ensured in April 2005 by millions of protestors who reacted in anger to an attempt by the PRI and PAN to disqualify him on a technicality. But recent attack ads have been relentless. Some ads characterize AMLO as part of a dangerous wave of populist leftists — like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Michelle Bachelet in Chile — who are winning elections and threatening stability across Latin America. AMLO’s nearly double-digit advantage has dwindled into a dead heat with Fox’s protégé, Felipe Calderon.

AMLO’s supporters at Tec try to maintain a brave face, but some are already searching for a silver lining in case their hero falls.

“No matter who is elected, the new president will have to answer to AMLO’s ideas,” insists Gaxiola, in a tone far from his forcefulness when he opened the debate. “He has shown that, for the good of all, the poor cannot be ignored.”

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