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Mexico's TV Debate Lets the Public Join In

Democracy needs more such forums along with the soaps

HERE in Mexico City on May 12, Monica, the maid, was happy. Her prime-time soap opera on Channel 2, to which she is devoted, was not preempted after all. Her nightly ritual was simply moved to 8 p.m. (with plenty of advance notice) so that at 9 three men in suits could talk earnestly to her. Though she didn't know the word ``debate,'' Monica watched and paid attention.

The three leading presidential candidates were speaking to the overwhelming percentage of the Mexican population who heretofore have been in the dark about the country's political situation.

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Confrontational politics on TV was unknown in Mexico, certainly not allowed on the government-controlled Televisa stations. This was the first presidential debate in Mexico's history. As late as 1976, the ruling party's candidate, Jose Lopez Portillo, ran unopposed, and it wasn't until the last presidential election that real competition emerged. Thus the 90-minute debate was the Mexican equivalent of tearing down the Berlin Wall.

The debate went well. Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the right-center National Action Party (PAN) opposition was the consensus winner. The young candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Ernesto Zedillo, seemed stiff and insincere with his repeated reference to the people as his compatriotas. His chief competitor, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano of the left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), was the calm statesman who made the most meaningful proposal when he promised a new constitutional convention.

The debate was a continuation of the democratization process that the North American Free Trade Agreement may have begun. Earlier that day, the legislature passed electoral reforms that: allow ``citizen representatives'' to monitor the voting process; set campaign spending limits based on the percentage of the vote obtained in the previous election; and allow foreign observers restricted rights. The PRD has said the reforms are insufficient.

No matter how clean the Mexican vote might be in August, if the people don't know who or what they are voting for, democracy will be a farce. So the TV debate was an excellent first step that begs for subsequent similar encounters.

Both US and Mexican officials worry about the transfer of power to the virtually unknown and untested opposition. The apprehension is understandable. But such trepidation is the fault of the PRI, which has dominated Mexican government policy for decades. The PRI knows that Monica has her voter registration card, but they also know that neither she nor any of her friends read the newspapers.

The 10 percent of Mexicans who do read them can be well informed because the government, knowing the minimal influence of newspapers, allows freedom of the written press. But nonreading Mexican voters are dependent on television (mainly the ardently pro-PRI Televisa).

Until this debate, Televisa has fed the people sanitized, biased, manipulated, and sometimes invented ``news'' boosting the PRI and denigrating the opposition.

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For example, Televisa staged a fraudulent helicopter ``rescue'' during the first days of the January Zapatista rebellion in the state of Chiapas. The rebels responded by barring Televisa from covering subsequent peace negotiations. Shamefully, Televisa then recorded the signal from minuscule university-run Channel 11 when the rebels released a hostage, the former governor. In Channel 11's original broadcast, the crowd cheered the rebels and booed the ex-governor. Amazingly, in Televisa's copied version, the soundtracks of the people's reactions were reversed.

Other perversions are more subtle. Three hours after PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was shot on March 23, Televisa did phone interviews with prominent people to get their reactions. Most were done with anchorman Jacobo Zabludovsky on camera. However, when Mr. Cardenas spoke, the video showed images of the violence following the killing. Pure coincidence? More likely, Televisa wanted to link Cardenas to the violence.

THE failures by commission, however, are dwarfed by those of omission. Televisa has great propensity to create an intellectual vacuum. Its programming is endlessly innocuous. Soap operas dominate, with game shows, pop music, and sports sprinkled in. No regularly scheduled opinion programs are now on TV - nothing like Face the Nation, Meet the Press, C-SPAN, or call-in shows.

Until this debate, the patronizing attitude of the PRI showed a distinct fear of the people themselves. Fear, inexplicably, of people like Monica. But democracy means that Monica needs to know. She needs to have continual access to both facts and opinions and to appreciate their importance. There has to be discussion of well-defined issues. Otherwise, democracy in Mexico will continue to be a myth - no matter how clean the vote might be. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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