June 30, 2006

Mexico Election Buzz Reaches Remote Huichol Indians

By Frank Jack Daniel

PUEBLO NUEVO, Mexico (Reuters) - A few men and women slouch against adobe huts, listening through a crackly public address system to a speech in the Huichol Indian language from a candidate in a big hat and a bright patterned cotton suit.

Then everyone, including the candidate, one of Mexico's first Huichols to run for elected office, strolls off to play a dusty game of soccer under the hot afternoon sun.

It is just days before Mexico chooses a new president on July 2 and the fiercely independent Huichol people, who have resisted national politics for centuries, are getting into the spirit.

"Go on Samuel, score a goal! Then we'll vote for you!" the grinning commentator yells at mayoral candidate Samuel Salvador, to peals of laughter from the crowd.

Nationally, Mexico's election race is on a knife edge, with the two leading presidential hopefuls just a point or two apart in opinion polls.

The polls show Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has a wafer-thin lead over Felipe Calderon, the candidate for the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, at the presidential election.

And, all joking aside, these villagers are very interested in the outcome.

The Huichols, many of whom farm small plots of corn and beans, have isolated homesteads in the mountains northeast of the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta. They are best known for vivid yarn paintings and bead-work representing deities and symbols from an intricate belief system, often seen in visions while under the influence of the hallucinogenic peyote plant.

Until a few years ago, only a handful voted in elections, trusting instead in unpaid traditional leaders chosen by village elders. Those leaders still hold most sway among the Huichol, who police themselves and still punish some crimes with a spell in the stocks.

But in the mid-1990s things started to change as new roads and electricity brought the outside world closer to the Huichols' craggy pine-studded hills and gorges.

Now, most younger Huichols are registered to vote, and leaders say they expect a record turnout for Sunday's ballot even though many will have to walk several hours to get to polling stations.

"For years, the municipal, state and federal government went by unnoticed, because we have our own system of traditional government," said Salvador, running for mayor of Nuevo Pueblo and the surrounding area with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution.

"But since the parties have started paying more attention to indigenous issues, at least giving them lip service, more people are getting involved," he said. The 1994 Zapatista armed rebellion in southern Mexico helped force parties to take notice of millions of largely abandoned Indians, he said.


Also on Sunday, Huichols and others in the state of Jalisco will choose a governor, state deputies and mayors. There are over 30,000 Huichols, although many have moved to cities.

Being a Huichol may hinder Salvador's chances at the polls as the small non-Indian population which has traditionally run the municipality fear indigenous people taking control.

Even Huichols themselves worry that Salvador's loyalties would be split between their traditions and the needs of party politics if he becomes mayor.

However, Gilberto Nazario, from the hilltop village of Pueblo Nuevo, thinks it is time a Huichol took office for at least a short time.

"I want to see the Huichols run the municipality for three years, followed by three years of the non-Indians," he said,

For 71 years, Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose state governors and local mayors were often corrupt. In Jalisco, they ignored Huichol demands for simple things like roads.

Isolated, the Indians preserved their nature-based and largely pre-Hispanic belief system but were left languishing in extreme poverty.

Aurelio Torres, deputy governor of the Santa Catarina region of the Huichol lands, said his people began to take politics more seriously when President Vicente Fox ended PRI rule in 2000, proving that the old system could be beaten.

At a religious ceremony to mark the planting of new crops, Torres said he expects to see a vote in favor of Fox's PAN, which partially delivered on promises to Huichols to build roads, in state governor elections.

But the Huichols will punish the party at presidential level for failing to push through constitutional reform to protect Indian rights, he said.

"They are now in favor of Lopez Obrador, who is the only candidate who says he favors the indigenous people, who has committed himself to recognizing us at a constitutional level," he said.