By Kent Paterson
Democratic Party activists Dee Dee Camhi and Larry Canady say enthusiasm is running high among the rank-and-file membership. Welcoming an infusion of new members, local chapter meetings draw between 30-60 people. What sets Camhi’s and Canady’s branch of the Democratic Party apart from many others is that it is located outside the United States, in Banderas Bay, Mexico, to be precise. First organized in November 2007, the Costa Banderas chapter of Mexico Democrats Abroad now counts more than 200 members. The chapter represents US citizens residing in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, as well as in the emerging, new gringo “colonies” located just to the north of the well-known tourist resort in the state of Nayarit.
“I think the same things that motivate (Democrats) here are the same things that motivate them in the States,” says Canady, a full-time resident of Puerto Vallarta who serves as the vice chairperson of the Costa Banderas organization. “I think they are probably a little tired of the last 8 years. I’ve seen more people enthusiastic and have more energy, more passion about this election than any other election that I remember.”
According to Costa Banderas Chairperson Camhi, immigration and Medicare stand out as two issues of particular concern for local Democrats. A Spanish teacher who is well-versed in Mexican culture, Camhi stresses that she and other US citizens living south of the border are surrounded by family-oriented neighbors who depend on remittances from family members working in the US to sustain them in a tough economy.
“We see the issue of what is supposedly immigration and illegals as not as significant as it seems to be played up in the press in the States,” Camhi says.
In Banderas Bay, many new immigrants are either retired or approaching retirement age. Camhi and Canady say US citizens are deeply concerned about the inability to tap into Medicare, a system they paid into all their lives, for payment of medical services in Mexico.
Mexico Democrats Abroad is working on a resolution for the August 2008 Democratic Party convention that would endorse Medicare coverage for US citizens living abroad. The backers of the resolution intend to have it approved as part of the party’s platform for 2008 election, Camhi says.
Another issue of keen interest to the Mexico-based Democrats is the state of the cross-border economy, Canady adds. In the last decade, Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding region experienced a real estate sales boom as more and more US citizens moved into the area or purchased second homes for extended vacations or for income-producing rentals.
Literally, signs abound that the US housing market crisis is beginning to hit Banderas Bay. For sale signs on existing properties are more common than in 2007, and the blonde-haired, English-speaking real estate agents who were once quite visible hustling potential clients on Puerto Vallarta’s streets are much harder to spot this year.
“The economy there is definitely going to spill over here, good or bad,” Canady contends. “I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg depending on what happens in the next year.”
Organizing Mexico Demorats Abroad
Jumping into politics in late 2007, Canady and Camhi found themselves charged with the task of organizing the local version of the Democratic primary. Like other international Democrats, the new Costa Banderas members plugged into the Global Primary that commenced on Super Tuesday in February of this year. Barack Obama emerged as the favorite of Mexico Democrats victor by a close margin. n the Banderas Bay election, 126 Democrats voted. According to official figures posted on the Mexico Democrats website, Barack Obama got 68 votes, Hillary Clinton 56, Dennis Kucinich 1 and John Edwards 1.
In Mexico, registered Democrats were allowed to cast their ballots via an Internet voting system or at polling stations that were set up for Super Tuesday. The primary unfolded in areas with large populations of US immigrants, including San Miguel de Allende, Lake Chapala and Mexico City.
“Paris and London are the only two cities from abroad which had more voters than San Miguel de Allende,” Canady adds.
Writing for the Mexico Democrats website, Bruce Rossley, vice chairperson of the San Miguel de Allende chapter, describes the scene where 512 US citizens voted.
“It looked like any polling place in America,” Rossley writes, “but when you looked, more clearly, you realized that you weren’t in Kansas any more. The walls and concave ceiling of the polling place were covered in vibrant colors of red and orange, with figures of ancient Aztec warriors looking down on Americans casting their votes for the first time in a foreign land.”
Pre-election campaigning for the candidates and the Global Primary varied from place to place in Mexico. Camhi and Canady say they were prohibited from setting up a public literature table by local authorities in Puerto Vallarta, but that Democrats in San Miguel de Allende were able to promote the event in public with no trouble.
A milestone event, the Democrats’ 2008 Global Primary is perhaps the most salient example to date of what Miami University scholar Dr. Sheila Croucher calls “political transnationalism.”
With some estimates of the number of US citizens residing in Mexico exceeding one million (no exact census is publicly available), both the Democratic and Republican parties have an important stake south of the border for the 2008 and future elections.
Reports have circulated of efforts to organize Republicans in Puerto Vallarta, but several individuals who have been identified as part of the initiative could not be reached for comment or did not respond in time to a list of questions sent by e-mail.
Republicans Abroad celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a Washington, D.C. event which featured Karl Rove, Republican National Committee Chair Robert “Mike” Duncan, Senator Tim DeMint, and scholars from the Heritage Foundation, among others. On its website, Republicans Abroad lists furthering anti-terrorism legislation, counting Americans overseas in the census and eliminating the double taxation US citizens working in foreign countries face as among prime issues of concern for the group On Capitol Hill, Republican Senator DeMint is involved in a bi-partisan effort with Democratic Representative Gregory W. Meeks to provide tax relief for US citizens abroad.
In the Puerto Vallarta area, Republican candidate John McCain is getting positive comments from some US-born residents, according to Camhi and Canady. “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as an election as we thought a few months ago,” Canady muses. “I see there are possibilities that nobody really considered, say, three or four months ago.”
The November general election will be very different from the Democrats’ Global Primary, which was organized for the sole purpose of selecting a Democratic presidential candidate. In addition to the presidential contest, Mexico-based Democrats will vote in congressional and local races as well. For November, the main task for the Costa Bandera Democrats will be to organize their supporters to complete and send absentee ballots to the US. According to Camhi, the ballots will be sent to the US in a diplomatic pouch via the US Consulate in Puerto Vallarta.
“What we’re looking at in the states in November is not only the president, but we’re looking at congressmen from each of the different states,” she says. “So each of us from a different state has to get a different ballot.”
Much has been written about Latino immigrants in the US being a potential swing vote this year, but could politicized US expatriates be the over-looked factor in close 2008 elections? Camhi says the impact of US citizens voting from Mexico and other places abroad will be difficult to assess because of the way absentee votes are compiled and counted in different places. “It could make a difference, but unfortunately, you’ll never know,” Camhi says.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico