There are funny moments in politics like Terminator being elected governor of California twice or congressmen and women acting childishly during Obama’s state-of-the-union address. Venezuela might have the best ones, though. President Nicolás Maduro has claimed his late predecessor Hugo Chávez’s spirit blessed him through a pajarito chiquitico (really-small small bird). He also has confessed to sleeping where Chávez’s body lies to reflect. We can laugh at two clowns (no joke), Lagrimita and Costel, and a soccer player, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, running in the local elections of Guadalajara and Cuernavaca, respectively.
However, other events are no laughing matter. The disappearance and probable murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Iguala, Guerrero, and the massacre in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico, where the armed forces killed 22 people allegedly involved in organized crime with many irregularities in their procedures. The official versions of these two events have not satisfied the Mexican people.
Recently, international media has focused its attention in Mexico after the news portal Aristegui Noticias published a story on November about a house in the neighborhood Las Lomas with an estimated value of $7 million acquired by First Lady Angélica Rivera through a private credit. The owner and creditor is a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, construction firm that won multiple contracts from the federal government and the State of Mexico when Peña Nieto was governor. Criticism of the Peña Nieto administration continued when, on December, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Finance Minister Luis Videgaray had bought a $580,000 house in Malinalco property of Juan Armando Hinojosa, owner of Grupo Higa. The interest rate for this purchase, as revealed by Videgaray himself, was 5.31% at a time when the average rate at a bank was 12.17%. While some argue there is nothing illegal in this transaction, the problem lies in the possible conflict of interest given the fact that Grupo Higa, along with a Chinese corporation, had won a $3.7 billion contract to build a high-speed train line between Mexico City and Querétaro. The Peña Nieto administration revoked the contract on November 6, 2014, three days before Aristegui Noticias disclosed the information about the house in Las Lomas.
Another possible conflict of interest arose when The WSJ reported that Peña Nieto bought a house in 2005 from Roberto San Román Widerkehr. Since Peña Nieto took office in 2012, San Román’s firm has won 11 contracts from the federal government.
The response from the federal government has been along the lines of, “the purchases were conducted in a legal manner and conflict of interest is inexistent.” Whether Rivera, Videgaray, and Peña Nieto acquired these houses legally is not the question. And how can we know there is no conflict of interest?
Peña Nieto and his administration are navigating dangerous waters. His public acceptance has dropped to levels lower than the previous two presidents. Although international media has praised Peña Nieto’s administration for his energy and education reform, at home Peña Nieto faces harsh criticism. It seems they decided to stop talking about security problems as if that would make them disappear. Internationally, that worked until now.
On February 3, Enrique Peña Nieto appointed Virgilio Andrade Martínez to fill the vacant of minister of public function. Andrade’s first task, Peña Nieto said, is to investigate whether there was conflict of interest in the purchases made by Rivera, Videgaray, and himself. The Economist said, “It is not every day that a president launches an investigation into his own affairs, but that is what Mexico’s leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, has just done.” Peña Nieto, some say, is showing his willingness to be transparent.
In the following days, we learned from Andrade that he and Luis Videgaray were students at ITAM and have remained friends since. Andrade served as substitute representative of the PRI (Peña Nieto’s and Videgaray’s political party) at the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, in 1994. Moreover, he formed part of Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign as an advisor. His father, also Virgilio Andrade, defended PRI Senator Carlos Romero Deschamps in a corruption case involving PEMEX. In his column in newspaper Reforma, Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez observes, “Brilliant idea! To investigate a conflict of interest, an investigation with conflict of interest.”
The department of public function is half dead. President Felipe Calderón began the process of disappearing this department and Peña Nieto almost finalized it. The only reason it is still alive, but not well, is that the new autonomous department that will replace has not yet been created. Andrade is the head of something we don’t even know will survive this year.
Commenting on the situation, columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson wrote, “Come on, this business seems like a joke. But . . . it generates little desire to laugh.” A few days after his appointment, Virgilio Andrade admitted that he wouldn’t investigate the purchases made by Rivera, Videgaray, and Peña Nieto because the Public Function does not have competence in that matter. What Public Function can and will do, he says, is review the contracts, as well as the processes in which these were conceded, between the private firms and the federal government.
Ciro Gómez Leyva, an El Universal columnist usually on Peña Nieto’s side, remarks he “saw an outline of Peña Nieto’s autocriticism and an institutional step against conflict of interest.” If he is right, many, including me, will definitely be surprised.
It is good to laugh about politics, especially in Mexico, where we are in dire need of a laugh. Two years ago, inspired by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, Chumel Torres created a video blog on YouTube titled El Pulso de la República (“The Heartbeat of the Republic”). I am glad I can laugh because sometimes there is nothing else I can do.
Whenever El Pulso presents news about Venezuela, Chumel Torres says, “¡Que chingón que no somos Venezuela!” You can say, and I won’t judge, “I am so glad that we are not Mexico!”