Chávez's Image Becomes Tool for Attack in Mexican Presidential Race

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

MEXICO CITY, June 27 -- Hugo Chávez is not running for president of Mexico. But some days it's been hard to tell.

The Venezuelan president's face has been all over Mexican television at critical stages in this country's bitter mudfest of a presidential race.

For a while, the party of candidate Felipe Calderón filled its ads with shots of Chávez paired with less-than-flattering images of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-leaning Mexican presidential candidate. Later, a political activist group put Chávez back on the tube, surrounded by machine guns and soldiers, and accompanied by a dire voice-over: "In Mexico, you don't have to die to define your future -- you only have to vote!"

The strategy of López Obrador's opponents has been clear. By linking the candidate to Chávez, they have tried to frighten voters into believing López Obrador will be a carbon copy of the Venezuelan president, who has been accused of crushing dissent and crippling democratic institutions.

Mexican political experts generally agree the tactic has been effective. Calderón shot up in the polls shortly after his party began airing the Chávez spots, even though the Venezuelan leader has not taken a public role in the Mexican campaign.

"In politics it doesn't matter what is, it matters what seems to be," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City political analyst.

The Chávez imagery has gotten so intense that Mexico's electoral commission has twice ordered television advertisements featuring the Venezuelan leader off the air -- the latest order coming on Monday.

The Venezuelan president, seen as the heir apparent to Cuban President Fidel Castro as leader of the Latin American left, is an easy tool for smear in Mexico. After gaining an ally with the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Chávez was unable to use his influence to get Ollanta Humala elected president of Peru in a race against the eventual winner, Alan García.

"What we saw in Peru and we're seeing in Mexico is that Chávez has been converting into a negative," said Mexican political analyst Juan Pardinas.

Many activist groups have injected Chávez into the presidential race, but Calderón's National Action Party, or PAN, did it first. His aides spoke of Bolivarian circles -- small community groups fostered by Chávez's government -- surreptitiously working on behalf of López Obrador. Then the PAN began filling the airwaves with grainy images of Chávez, alongside images of López Obrador.

What followed was a true stunner. López Obrador, who is known for his combative style, barely responded. The PAN kept pounding him with the Chávez advertisement, but López Obrador and his Democratic Revolution Party let weeks pass before aggressively disavowing a relationship with Chávez, a decision his aides now say was a mistake.

As Calderón rose in the polls, Mexico's electoral commission stepped in, ordering the PAN to remove the advertisements in April. By then, López Obrador's once-commanding lead was gone and the race -- after a brief leap by Calderón into first place in most polls -- has settled into a statistical tie.

Arturo Sarukhan, a top Calderón adviser, said the advertisements "became a crowbar for opening the mind-set of the Mexican electorate to the issues that are disturbing to the public about López Obrador."

Chávez had been heavily criticized here for denouncing Mexican President Vicente Fox -- also a member of the PAN -- as "a lapdog" of the United States. Later, the PAN brought up the Chávez comparison when López Obrador told Fox "to shut up" about the presidential campaign, a comment widely criticized as disrespectful in Mexico.

As the campaign enters its final stage, López Obrador has begun responding more often to the comparisons to Chávez. He said in an interview this week with El Universal, one of Mexico's largest daily newspapers, that "I've grown bored with them comparing [Chávez] to me."

"It's absurd," López Obrador campaign strategist Manuel Camacho Solís said in an interview. "Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn't know Chávez, nor have they ever spoken."

On Monday, a little-known activist group -- the Center for Leadership and Human Development -- was ordered to yank its advertisement featuring Chávez and the machine guns, which López Obrador's campaign complained was a not-so-thinly disguised attack on its candidate.

López Obrador has hit back with a radio ad of his own, which tries to turn the Chávez controversy into a joke. The ad says "Chávez is for López Obrador," but does not mention a first name. The narrator then runs off a string of common Mexican surnames, such as Gonzalez and Perez, and says they're for López Obrador, too.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company