- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

LaPUERTA, Mexico — The nation’s leading presidential candidates dug in for a long electoral battle yesterday, but whoever wins will have to address the anger of voters in towns like LaPuerta, who blame economic conditions for the flight of half their residents to the United States.

About 1,000 of the original 2,000 residents of this whitewashed rural town — whose name means “the door” — have made their way legally or illegally to the United States, almost all of them settling in Waukegan, Ill. Those left — wives, children, old men — survive on the dollars sent back to them.

The joblessness that sent the young men north became a central issue in Sunday’s election, with leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promising a Mexican version of the New Deal and conservative Felipe Calderon insisting that existing free-market policies offered the surest hope for growth.

Backed by voters in the industrial north, Mr. Calderon emerged with a 400,000-vote margin after a preliminary vote count and on Monday proclaimed himself the victor as financial markets rose on the news.

But Mr. Lopez Obrador’s campaign manager said at a press conference yesterday that his party would insist that election authorities manually recount every ballot cast, a process that could delay the final outcome for days or weeks.

The Federal Electoral Institute was scheduled today to begin an official count, in which it would review the results from individual polling stations but not count the actual ballots. At least 38 million ballots were cast.

There also have been concerns that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s followers would stage mass protests over the outcome. The Associated Press reported yesterday from the southern state of Oaxaca that striking teachers had occupied businesses, boarded buses and blocked roads.

LaPuerta, like Oaxaca, is Lopez Obrador country, where voters have been counting on a victory by the leftist leader to produce the jobs that would end a migration north that all agreed has become much more dangerous and difficult.

“We hope Obrador will change the policies,” said Redentor Acosta Sarinana, whose four grown children are in the United States. At 61, Mr. Acosta still works the fields, growing corn, beans and onions to sell in the local market.

“If there were jobs for people, it would be better for them here,” Mr. Acosta said as he sat in the small, neat home paid for by his sons. “My youngest son came back two years ago in December, and by April, he went back again because he could not make money.”

The mayor of the next large town, Tonatico, said rural areas like this have been hit hard by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened new markets but left Mexico’s small farmers unable to compete.

“Some people are still using a horse-drawn plow in 2006, and we have to compete with the U.S.,” Tonatico Mayor Arturo Hernandez Tapia said. “If the crop fails or prices drop, the farmers are faced with starvation. For some, the question is, ‘Suicide or the United States?’ ”

Emigration from towns like Tonatico and LaPuerta began in the 1940s, said Juan de la Cruz Dominguez, who supports legal emigrants.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a handful more followed. It was not until the 1980s, when rural workers no longer could make ends meet, that the flow of people leaving intensified, and it peaked in the 1990s.

“With the fall of prices and modernization, many lost their jobs,” Mr. de la Cruz said. “Now the culture has changed, and the youth don’t know how to work the land.”

Mr. Hernandez, with help from the state government, is trying to capitalize on the money flowing back from the United States and has started a system of state-municipal subsidies and loans to try to get Mexican immigrants in the U.S. to invest in their hometowns — so that fewer people leave.

One project has helped to fund small bed-and-breakfast inns to draw tourists to the area’s hot springs. Another has promoted investment in more advanced agriculture, such as the greenhouses that now cover the countryside. The projects typically are run by relatives of those who live in the U.S., but also have helped those who choose to return.

Juan Rea Garcia was in Illinois six years working as a roofer and just returned to LaPuerta.

Straw hat on his head, Mr. Rea said the government had given him 50 percent of the cost of a greenhouse for about 4,000 tomato plants.

“If the project doesn’t succeed, I would have to go back,” he said simply.

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