A fast U-turn at the Mouse House

Day of the Dead Trade_Nost
The reaction was so fast and spirited that it was enough to make heads spin in the House that Mickey Built.

Once news broke on Tuesday that the Walt Disney Company had filed 10 trademark requests for “Dia de los Muertos” for an upcoming Pixar animated movie, social media began to boil with anger and ridicule.

A woman from Colorado, Grace Sesma, posted a petition at change.org and in less than 24 hours, more than 20,000 signatures were posted. Here is part of her introduction:

“Our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit. I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek (to) own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico.”

Disney apparently hoped to market toys, cereal, jewelry and other merchandise with the “Dia de los Muertos” phrase when a Pixar movie of the same name comes out.

For those not in the know, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday in Mexico that has been around since before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Families pray to the deceased before private altars and trade favorite candy and foods. A common symbol of the holiday is the skull, thus dancing skeletal figures like in the AP photo above.

An L.A.-based cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz, created a cartoon in which a mouse rampaging through a cityscape bears the name: Muerto Mouse (Dead Mouse). Click here to see.

With this kind of reaction, Disney went into retreat. It said in a statement:

“As we have previously announced, Disney-Pixar is developing an animated feature inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Disney’s trademark filing was intended to protect any potential title for our film and related activities. It has since been determined that the title of the film will change, and therefore we are withdrawing our trademark filing.”

Word so far is that Halloween and Christmas are still safe from Disney's lawyers.


Was it 'happy talk' on Mexico?

Mexico US Obama_Nost

President Barack Obama has just left Mexico City after a little less than 24 hours in the city. He spoke publicly on two occasions and held two private sessions with President Enrique Pena Nieto, including a working dinner Thursday night.

In his public remarks, Obama was quite effusive about changes here, describing a “new Mexico,” one that “has lifted millions from poverty” and with a “courageous press” and “robust civil society.”

A “majority of Mexicans now call themselves middle class,” Obama said Friday morning at the National Museum of Anthropology. Here’s the text of the prepared speech although he departed from text several times.

The visit certainly pleased the Pena Nieto government, which is eager to change the tone of US-Mexico relations away from an emphasis on public security and fighting crime into what Pena Nieto called “a multi-thematic” relationship that embraces trade and other issues as well.

Pena Nieto wants to get crime off the front pages, and Obama certainly offered a vote of confidence in his still-ill-defined strategy of prioritizing a reduction in violence over the busting up of drug cartels and the capture of their leaders.

As Adam Thomson of the Financial Times noted, the Obama visit was successful in broadening the bilateral agenda:

Peña Nieto, who has wowed international investors thanks to his apparent determination to push through an ambitious economic reform agenda, wants to promote trade and investment as the two guiding missions of his country’s relationship with its northern neighbor.
Mexico-US trade is already about $1.4bn a day – almost US$1m a minute for the nerds out there – but there is little doubt that it could grow significantly in the coming years. Thursday’s announcement of a joint working group to be populated by Mexican cabinet secretaries and their US counterparts was a clear step in the direction of refocusing the agenda.


But some of the coverage was far more skeptical about what Obama said and the reality of life in Mexico. Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times story that moved this morning after Obama’s speech at the museum:

Obama described a Mexico that many Mexicans do not recognize. He praised a growing middle class when, in fact, economists say the middle class in Mexico has been stagnant for years, and violence has hurt the pocketbooks of many of those who barely emerged from poverty.

Obama lauded a courageous press that holds authorities accountable, when in fact violence and intimidation has silenced most newspapers outside of Mexico City; they do not report on drug trafficking and other issues because of threats or bribes from criminals or local authorities.

His discourse, however, fits in with efforts by both Washington and the Pena Nieto administration to change the image of Mexico, regardless of the facts on the ground.

The Proceso newsweekly magazine was even harsher. It’s story (here in Spanish) said Obama hailed Mexico for lifting millions from poverty “without providing any evidence.”

This gets into tricky terrain because there is no “go to” source. Rather Mexican government agencies even disagree among themselves, and the United Nations and World Bank take sharply different tacks.

First off, Mexico’s population is about 113 million people. According to the Social Development Secretariat, 13 million of them live in “extreme poverty.” Coneval, the agency that measures poverty, said in 2011 that 52 million Mexicans live in poverty.

A U.N. agency, the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, says 40.8 million Mexicans live in poverty while another 14.9 million are indigent (see page 14 of this study which expresses percentages rather than numbers).

Measuring the middle class is less easy, and the World Bank is the one that has touted its expansion in Mexico, saying that 17 percent of the population joined the middle class between 2000 and 2010. It describes middle class as people who make between $10 and $50 per day, so it places the bar low, too low in my opinion. Can someone making $300 a month in Mexico be considered middle class? If so, then maybe Obama wasn’t offering “happy talk” on Mexico. I’m not so sure myself.

A couple of months ago, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald noted in a column that everybody is upbeat on Mexico – except Mexicans themselves. That jibes with my experience as well. So maybe what Obama said was meant more as a pep talk than as a description of reality on the ground.


A hissy fit from a powerful daughter

Andrea Benitez went to a pricey, chic restaurant in Mexico City’s Roma district last Friday afternoon. She demanded to be seated ahead of other waiting diners.

When she couldn’t get what she wanted, she threw a hissy fit.

She sent out a tweet dissing the restaurant (“Service is the worst … I would never come back @ Maximo Bistrot), and told owner Gabriela Lopez that her daddy was the head of the Attorney General’s Office for Protection of Consumers, and she’d sic inspectors on the eatery and get it shut down.

Sure enough, inspectors showed up and ordered the Maximo Bistrot sealed. The inspectors reported “irregularities” in the system of reservations, and said a type of mezcal on sale was falsely advertised. They backed off when other diners started taping them on their cell phones.

Benitez’s father, Humberto Benitez, is now in hot water indeed.

He issued a statement on Sunday. “I offer a sincere apology to those affected by the inappropriate behavior of my daughter Andrea. She exaggerated the situation, and the inspectors, who are under me, overreacted because they were dealing with my daughter,” the prosecutor wrote.

Benitez is no small potatoes He was attorney general of Mexico from 1994 to 1996, and provided legal advice to President Enrique Pena Nieto when he was running for governor of the State of Mexico. As readers of this blog are aware, Pena Nieto’s own daughter also ran amok with some wildly inappropriate tweets a while back, creating a fierce backlash on social media. Over the weekend, critics took after Andrea Benitez under the hashtag #LadyProfeco, a takeoff on the Ladies of Polanco who once bullied police.

Andrea Benitez (@andybenitezz on Twitter) promptly took her Twitter account private.

Eying an easy target, lawmakers took up the matter Monday, pontificating on the importance of equality.

“We are in a country where everyone is equal before the law, and no one, no matter who they are the son or daughter of, should get any type of privilege,” said Fernando Rodriguez Doval, of the opposition National Action Party, according to Notilegis, the news branch of Congress.

Best to take his remarks with a grain of salt, given that privilege of the powerful trumps about everything else in Mexico. Know any important people in jail here?


The hooded students on campus

Mexico Protest_Nost

A group of some 15 students, most wearing hoods, have won headlines by seizing the administration tower at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The rebel students have been holed at Latin America’s largest university since last weekend, and images of the takeover (like the AP photo of the student above) are on the front pages of newspapers.

While the incident focuses on matters particular to Mexico, it brings together facets of university life across Latin America, especially the notion of autonomy of campuses – meaning that the police and the army must stop at the gates. Students generally play a role in Latin universities, including in academic affairs, that might seem incomprehensible on a U.S. campus, partly because student leaders are often affiliated to political forces off campus. University battles can seem like societal battles. A third element is the tolerance for violence on the part of students that might seem alien to an outsider.

So the takeover at the UNAM, as the university is called, drags on as the university rector decides whether to invite in federal police to dislodge the protesters. Police say they are ready.

The case at the UNAM, though, is not about major social issues. The hooded students are protesting the expulsion of five students from a different campus following a melee early in February.

According to news reports from Mexico City (I’m in Acapulco following a different story), some 115,000 students, teachers and staff members have signed petitions calling for the removal of the hooded students.

Some 200 student supporters have encircled the administration tower, an iconic building which houses gigantic murals by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Much of Mexico City awaits to see what will happen next.


Gouging at the pump

My taxi driver let out a hoot when he saw the hubbub at a local gas station. Inspectors had arrived and placed seals on the pumps. Some of the pumps were being shut down.

His glee was over the punishment. At this time of year, some businesses commonly try to gouge consumers, including gas stations, which tinker with the fuel gauges.

You pay for 10 gallons of gas. But you actually get 8 or 9 gallons in your tank.

You might think it curious that a station with a Pemex sign indicating its relationship to Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil concern, would rip off consumers. Fact is, many of the Pemex stations in the country belong to third parties, often people with political connections. When they skim off the top, they usually get away with it.

Since many Mexicans travel over Holy Week, they top off their tanks before leaving the capital. It is a perfect time for station owners to fiddle.

According to this Notimex story (in Spanish), the consumer watchdog division of the Attorney General’s Office conducted 1,041 raids during Holy Week, fining 86 establishments.

My local gas station appears to be one of them.


Facing death to get the story

This is a CNN interview of Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico's most renowned investigative journalists. Cacho won her fame for reporting on the intersection between sex trafficking, pedophilia rings and powerful elected politicians. Her foes have tried repeatedly to have Cacho arrested -- or worse -- for her reports exposing their ties to sex trafficking. Read here to learn more about her early reporting on the under side of Cancun.


A black eye for San Miguel de Allende

If you travel occasionally to Mexico, certainly you have heard of San Miguel de Allende, the charming colonial city in Guanajuato state about three hours drive from Mexico City. According to this website, some 6,000 Americans, Canadians and other foreigners live permanently in San Miguel, giving it a cosmopolitan patina.

Not all is peace and love, though. A week ago, two Mexican brothers were visiting the town and local cops tried to rough them up. This is a 5-minute video that one of the young men shot through the window as a cop tried to pull the driver, who identified himself as a law student, from the car, first grabbing him, then hitting him in the groin and locking him by the neck to try to pull him from the vehicle. The police eventually tossed pepper gas to get the men out of the car. There's no explanation from the police of what they wanted. Near the end of the video, another officer approaches and tells them to stop taping the scene or that it would go "very badly" for them.

The video has gone viral. At the time I uploaded here, it's been seen by 270,000 or so people. Clearly Mexicans can related to abuse by police officers. Among those who saw the video on YouTube was Guanajuato Gov. Miguel Marquez Marquez, and he was not pleased.

This morning's Milenio newspaper says two of the four officers have been fired, and a probe may lead to more dismissals. San Miguel de Allende Mayor Mauricio Trejo Pureco is clearly worried about the consequences of the video. Earlier this week, he (@mauriciotrejop) tweeted that "my government will not tolerate abuse by authorities."

By the way, after the end of the tape, the police succeeded in getting the two brothers, Osvaldo and Alan Zuniga, out of the car. Alan Zuniga, 27, told reporters that police handcuffed him,threw him on the ground, took him to a station, stripped him and held him for 90 minutes (link in Spanish). The two brothers both had to pay 600-peso fines (roughly 50 bucks). Their car is still impounded.

San Miguel de Allende is still a lovely place. Certainly, this is atypical of life there. What's more, police are sometimes on the receiving end of terrible abuse as well. Remember the Ladies of Polanco case? If not, click here for my blog post.




Houses without dignity for the poor

This is a video I picked up from The Guardian's blog on global development, and pertains to a sham housing project in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state where 78 percent of people are poor. When contractors in Mexico win bids to erect low-cost housing projects, they often do so because of their good relations with politicians. They then sometimes cheat on the building materials, kicking back profits to the politicos. When all is done, the political parties say they fulfilled pledges to attend to the poor, the contractors build what initially appear to be extensive tracts of decent housing, then the poor are told to occupy them. Only some can't live there. The housing grows dilapidated quickly. Cracks open in walls. Then people move out. It's a sad and massive waste. 

P.S. I may have had a coding problem with the video. If it appears too tiny on your screen, either refresh the page or go to the The Guardian hyperlink above to see the video.


The need for a new 'green revolution'

Some half a century ago in the arid hills 30 miles north of Mexico City, an American agronomist and humanitarian, Normal Borlaug, developed the hybrid seeds and new ideas that became known as the “green revolution.”

Borlaug and other scientists would pass on to nations in South Asia the high-yielding varieties of grains that averted starvation among one billion people.

Today, the world needs a new “green revolution.” I heard about it at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center where Borlaug did decades of work before winning the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. That's a new bioscience facility at the center above.

I was there on a different matter but fell into conversation with Kevin V. Pixley, an American who is the director of the genetic resources program.

Here’s the key takeaway: The world population now is 6.8 billion people. By 2050, estimates say it will hit 9.2 billion. But by 2050, the developing world will need 60 percent more wheat and twice as much corn. Yes, double. Demand will soar.

“Not only is population growing but, thankfully, poverty is declining,” Pixley explained. “So what happens in India when people start to have a little more expendable income? Well, first of all they want to eat a little more dairy products. They want to eat more chicken, in the case of India. If you go up to China, they want to eat more pork and more beef.

“Those foods – the dairy products and the meat products – require several times more grain than a human (does). If I feed myself on maize and soybeans, I can eat a few kilos a week. But if I’m eating beef and chicken, those beef cattle use many kilos to produce one kilo of beef. So you need a lot more food to maintain a higher standard of diet, which of course is desirable. We want this to happen. But it does imply a lot more food than if you’re eating a basic diet of basic grains.”

But guess what? It’s harder than ever to produce more food. Water tables are falling, extreme weather is increasing, climate change is coming, and new pestilent diseases have emerged.

“We have a new epidemic in Kenya, maize lethal necrosis. We have a new disease of wheat in Brazil called wheat blast, which is completely new,” said Thomas Lumpkin, the director of the maize and wheat center.

Lumpkin laid out what may happen if scientists can’t bring about a new green revolution: “Failing to meet it will be disastrous for millions of people. … We have all the ingredients for a new global food crisis, even a political crisis.”

“We’ve already seen how high wheat prices fueled the revolutions in the Arab world – in Libya, in Egypt. I’m sure you can remember the 2007 tortilla crisis here in Mexico. The world must grow more food with less inputs, with less land, with less water, with less labor, with less fertilizer.”

Lumpkin cited the “enormous challenge” of meeting greater demand for grains. If a new green revolution comes about, it is likely to sprout from the high-tech laboratories and 200 scientists at this agricultural center in Texcoco, in the arid plains north of Mexico City.


The strange case of Florence Cassez

Mexico France Kidnapp_Nost
A couple of hours ago, Mexico’s Supreme Court accepted an appeal from Florence Cassez, a Frenchwoman, to free her from prison.

Parts of the court hearing were carried live on television, a sign of how the case had become a lightning rod in Mexico. Cassez, 38, spent the past seven years in jail, accused of being part of the Zodiacos kidnapping gang.

The imminent freeing of Cassez enraged those kidnapped by the Zodiacos, and victims’ rights advocates, too. One of the sign-carrying protesters is seen in the AP photo above. The sign reads: “Freedom for soldiers, not for Florence Cassez.”

Mexico France Kidnapp_Nost-1A Milenio television reporter interviewed a former kidnap victim, Ezequiel Elizalde, who was held for 60 days, and he sputtered in anger earlier today.

“I’m a Mexican but this is a rubbish of an institution,” he said of the high court. “In the United States, a kidnapper would get the death sentence.”

Cassez was arrested in 2005 at a ranch outside Mexico City where several abductees were found. Her former boyfriend, a Mexican, was involved in the kidnappings but she denied knowledge.

The investigation into her case was riddled with irregularities leading up to her conviction and subsequent 60-year sentence. It led to a diplomatic crisis between Mexico and France in 2011, when then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to dedicate a "Year of Mexico" cultural event to Cassez. Mexico cancelled the event in anger. I wrote about it at the time.

French Prime Minister Francois Hollande hailed the court ruling: "France thanks all those who, in Mexico as well as here at home, have fought so that truth and justice prevail.”

The case has been an embarrassment to many, including TV journalists who tailed police on what they said was live coverage of the 2005 raid on the gang’s hideout. In fact, it was a re-enactment designed to burnish the image of the police.

"I did not realize that this was a sham,” Carlos Loret de Mola, one of Televisa’s star broadcasters, said this week.

One of the wisest pronouncements today came from Luis Gonzalez Plascencia, head of the capital’s human rights commission.

“We’ll never know if Florence is guilty or innocent,” he said.

Without that knowledge, victims say they have reason to be angry.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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