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DISPATCH FROM MEXICO CITY

Push comes to shove in Congress

Lawmakers from competing political factions do battle in the lower house, with pizza boxes and soda cans as the weapons of choice.

December 01, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — When you cover politics in Latin America, you get used to odd happenings.

Once, I was traveling with a campaign through rural Bolivia when a presidential candidate stopped his caravan to go to the bathroom -- on a tree by the side of the road.

I've seen a president who lasted a day in office (in Argentina) and a president who owned a stolen car (in Paraguay), and met another who offered to disrobe to prove he hadn't been beaten during a failed coup.

"No, Senor Presidente," reporters shouted back as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela unbuttoned his shirt at a news conference in Caracas. "That won't be necessary!"

Even by those lofty standards, the occurrences this week in Mexico's "legislative palace" score high on the strangeness meter.

On Tuesday, the elected representatives of the Mexican people began assaulting one another with soft-drink cans and pizza boxes, and then bedded down between aisles in the chamber, staying up late into the night singing ballads like "El Rey."

Congress has been locked for months in a battle over the July presidential election. Supporters of the losing leftist candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, have said they won't allow conservative President-elect Felipe Calderon to take the oath of office today before a joint session of Congress, as required by law. Already, leftists had kept outgoing President Vicente Fox from delivering his final state of the nation speech on Sept. 1.

So on Tuesday, lawmakers of Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, took over the stage in a preemptive strike that set off a shoving match with supporters of Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

I arrived in time to see a leftist lawmaker from Veracruz with a heavily bandaged ankle being carried out of the chamber. "They threw me off the stage," Congressman Juan Dario Lemarroy Martinez told me with a grimace of pain.

On the stage lawmakers of the left and right were massed in an elbow-to-elbow scrum, each guarding a precious piece of the rostrum. When I asked them questions, I inadvertently started their argument all over again.

"This mess began when one of the PRD people pulled the tie of one of our deputies," said Congressman Obdulio Avila Mayo of the PAN. "It was clear the PRD was going to take the stage, so we assumed a defensive posture."

"That's a lie," interjected Alliet Bautista of the PRD, who was standing a few bodies away. "Play back the video, and you'll see what happened."

A few minutes later, the passions cooled: Sandwiches and cookies had arrived for the leftists. Later, the conservatives would receive sleeping bags as their occupation of the stage dragged on for hours, then for a day, then for two days.

"We're all stuck here, and there's no way out," said Congressman Carlos Madrazo of the PAN.

Two days of negotiations failed to undo the scrum. As of late Thursday, it remained unclear whether Calderon would be inaugurated there, even though Calderon insisted he would.

The PAN occupied more of the dais. At one point, Congressman Victor Varela of the PRD tried to climb on a table, in a bid to conquer more "territory" for his party. A conservative congresswoman pelted him with soda cans.

The fighting lawmakers were widely reviled at home and abroad. But, like other strange political happenings I've seen in Latin America, the melee was less strange closer up.

Mexico's is a relatively young democracy. Only once in its long history has power transferred peacefully from one political party to another. The U.S. has longer democratic traditions, but fisticuffs were once a feature of life in our Capitol, with a South Carolina senator nearly beating to death an abolitionist lawmaker in 1856.

For the moment, nothing indicates the dispute in Mexico's Congress will become more violent than your average lucha libre wrestling match (in which, of course, most of the blows are fake).

On Thursday morning there was a sign of peace. Lawmakers from both sides were still massed on the stage, unwilling to surrender an inch to their rivals. But that didn't stop them from sharing a tamale breakfast.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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