For Mexico's Ecologist Green Party, 'green' mostly means money, not environment

06/18/2012 12:00 AM

06/18/2012 1:14 PM

The Ecologist Green Party of Mexico isn’t your garden-variety group advocating recycling and mass transportation. It’s swimming in cash, ideologically flexible and tainted by scandal.

And it plays an outsized role in the campaign that’s leading up to this country’s presidential election July 1. For one thing, it’s in a coalition with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the odds-on favorite to recapture the presidency. It may form part of the next government.

Environmental advocates say the Mexican party hijacked the “green” label and has leveraged its growth by association with the global green-party movement. Politicians from green parties hold elected positions in 25 countries, largely in Europe but also in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

“The truth is that there is nothing ‘green’ about this party. It is not interested in the environment,” said Araceli Dominguez, the head of the Mayab Ecologist Group in Mexico’s Yucatan region. “They’ve never worked with us on campaigns.”

Even illiterate voters can recognize the party’s symbol on the ballot, a toucan with a huge yellow and red bill. The party’s ads are ever present, including at movie theaters as lead-ins before feature presentations.

One of the more surprising positions of the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico, known by its Spanish initials as the PVEM, is its demand to reinstate the death penalty as a way to cut crime. The position led European Green parties to sever ties with the Mexican group in 2009, declaring they could “no longer consider the PVEM a member of the green political family.”

Mexico’s green party has zigzagged since it emerged in 1986, at one time or another lending support to leftist, centrist and center-right parties.

Instead of ideology, what knits the party are friendships and clan ties to its founder, Jorge Gonzalez Torres, who led it from the late 1980s to 2001, and to his son, Jorge Emilio Gonzalez, who’s widely known by the moniker “Green Boy.”

In the early years, the elder Gonzalez espoused concern about the environment but interest weakened when the son took over in 2001.

The party was shaken in 2004 when “Green Boy” was caught on video appearing to negotiate a $2 million bribe to help win approval for a hotel development near Cancun that would require destroying mangrove trees.

The son was linked to another scandal on April 2, 2011, when a 25-year-old Bulgarian woman who’d arrived from Europe a day earlier fell 19 floors to her death from a Cancun balcony that news outlets said belonged to the Gonzalez family. Prosecutors said suicide couldn’t be ruled out, and no charges were pressed.

Scholars say the Ecologist Green Party is an example of dysfunction that allows small parties to collect huge payouts from the central government for their activities while striking deals with bigger parties at election time.

Mexico has imposed government financing of parties as a way to keep underworld money out of politics.

“It is profitable to run a political party,” said Ulises Corona, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the nation’s biggest. “We’re talking about billions of pesos that the central government gives these parties for their campaigns and administrative costs.”

For the current campaign, a spokesman for the Ecologist Green Party, Arturo Escobar, estimated that the party had received 150 million pesos, or about $10.7 million.

Corona said the five current planks of the Ecologist Green Party’s campaign platform were “designed perfectly” to help the much larger Institutional Revolutionary Party – the PRI in its Spanish initials, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 – appeal to a broader swath of voters.

The party calls for state vouchers for medicines, an end to fees for basic schooling, life prison terms for kidnappers, greater investment for water systems and – the only pledge related to the environment – regulation to make polluters pay reparations.

The presidential candidate who pollsters say is in the No. 2 position, leftist former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, this week ridiculed the Greens’ call for state vouchers to obtain medicines at private drugstores.

“Do you know why the Greens are supporting Pena Nieto? Why they say they want to deliver free medicines? It’s because the owners of the Greens have franchises and are in the business of medicine,” Lopez Obrador said, speaking of the PRI’s candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto.

News reports say the extended Gonzalez family owns all or part of the El Fenix, Ahorro and Similares drugstore chains and Best pharmaceutical firm.

Escobar, the party spokesman, said the criticism “saddened” him because vouchers were “the most fair of all platforms under consideration by the Mexican people.”

“The medicine vouchers are aimed at guaranteeing that supplies of medicines in the federal social security system are sufficient and, if not, that voucher holders won’t have to wait,” Escobar said.

Currently, the Ecologist Green Party holds one Senate seat and seven seats in the lower house. But it holds significant sway in some states and municipalities, especially in Quintana Roo, the Caribbean state that surrounds Cancun, where it governs in alliance with the PRI.

Development near Cancun has uprooted mangroves to make way for hotels. A few environmental groups voice alarm and say the Greens are part of the problem.

“They remain quiet. And they are allied with the party that sells anything available in Quintana Roo,” said Guadalupe de la Rosa Villalba, head of Moce Yax Cuxtal, a nonprofit environmental group.

Some environmental groups temper criticism.

“We have to be objective. It’s not that they are all bad,” said Gustavo Alanis Ortega, the head of the Mexican Environmental Law Center, adding that some legislators had helped with laws on climate change.

Yet even though the Ecologist Greens are allied with the nation’s most powerful party, “the subject of the environment has been almost entirely absent from the campaign,” he added.

Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst and civic rights advocate, described the party as a “family business” that’s benefited from the environmental label.

The party, he said, “waves the very legitimate and well-known ‘green’ banner and takes advantage of the ignorance of a lot of people.”

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