Even after last summer’s daily voter registration rejections in Tampa, the level of cynicism about Mexican electoral politics manifested in the limited number of conversations I’ve had about it with folks in Cholula is pretty striking. Students and others here have told me they weren’t planning to vote next July, that they didn’t care who won, or that that they were planning to cast blank ballots. Even the few people I talked to who were firmly behind a candidate were fairly resigned about future prospects. One thirty-something public employee in Fox’s PAN acknowledged significant disappointment with Fox’s term but blamed it on PRI obstructionism and union intransigence, and called the PRI’s Madrazo a selfish egomaniac and the PRD’s Lopez Obrador a corrupt socialist encouraging dependency. A student who wants to work as an engineer for Pemex (Mexico’s national oil company) told me Fox is criminally corrupt, Madrazo is out for his own power, and only Lopez Obrador seems to care about the Mexicans who are struggling – though his populism scares her. She was dubious about whether Fox and the Mexican elites supporting him would make it possible for Lopez Obrador to take office.

There’s certainly plenty to be cynical about. On the other hand, here the front-runner in next year’s election is a self-identified “humanist” who’s overcome the majority party’s legal bid to eject him from the race and seems to be gaining despite the opposition of economic elites throughout the country and abroad. Which certainly wasn’t the kind of pitch I was able to make last summer.

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Thursday while I was on a community service project with Mexican students in Puebla, a few seven year-old boys who I’d been playing with for a while told me matter-of-factly that they didn’t like Americans because we all wanted (loosely translated) “to conquer Mexico.” I suggested that the US in fact had no designs on its southern neighbor, and we discussed the difference between the policies of a country’s government and the sentiments of its people (turns out they’re not big fans of Vicente Fox either). So quick, someone call Karen Hughes and tip her off that it’s not just in the Middle East that they “hate us for our freedoms.” Unless, that is, there may be some other reason that hearts and minds the world over are finding the concept of America as an arrogant imperial power more credible than they might have a few years back.