July 1, 2006

CORRECTED: Mexico election buzz reaches remote Huichol Indians

Corrects name of town in paragraph 12 to Pueblo Nuevo from
Nuevo Pueblo

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

"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

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
Pueblo Nuevo 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.