Future Tense

Green Like AstroTurf—or Dollars

For Mexico’s Green Party, the “green” is in the branding, not the policy.

Lopez Obrador stands at a podium gesturing with one arm beside a poster displaying the logos of Mexican political parties, the Green Party among them
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a daily briefing on the Mexican legislative elections at the National Palace in Mexico City on June 7. Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The good news for Mexico’s Green Party is that it emerged from this month’s midterm elections as a powerful kingmaker. The Partido Verde Ecologista de México, or PVEM, quadrupled its number of seats in the lower chamber of Congress, which is what its ruling partner, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party, needed to gain an absolute majority in the Congress. The Greens also won a governorship in the central state of San Luis Potosí, no small feat.

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The bad news for the party is that it is in hot water with independent electoral authorities for allegedly paying social media influencers to support its candidates in the final days before the vote, when electioneering activities are prohibited. Oh, and the party’s governor-elect in San Luis Potosí, Ricardo Gallardo Carmona, is under investigation by federal authorities for alleged money laundering and illicit enrichment.

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But perhaps most importantly, the party has long been viewed by Mexican environmentalists as being green in the same way that AstroTurf is green.

At first glance, the party appears innocuous enough. Its symbol is a toucan, and its official website includes an eclectic selection of videos about DIY cat toys, how to care for indoor plants, the food items that are poisonous for dogs, and ways to recycle dishwater. But the PVEM is really much more than that: It’s a political force that keeps gathering strength through opportunistic alliances with stronger, winning parties. It has shown remarkable ideological flexibility by allying itself with the current president, AMLO, and his two predecessors, each from a different party. But its current alliance with AMLO belies the party’s professed greenness. AMLO’s government holds notorious disregard for environmentalism and bets on the nation’s oil industry at the expense of investment in renewable energy, in addition to promoting grand projects—like its Tren Maya, or the Mayan Train, a proposed railway—that are being pushed forward with little regard for their environmental impact.

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The Partido Verde’s origins trace back to 1979 and actions that do justice to its name. The party started as a group of neighbors in the southern edge of Mexico City fighting to save green spaces in their community. It became an official party in 1991 and steadily moved into the political arena’s center stage. Now the PVEM is the fourth largest political force in Mexico, measured by the congressional representation it obtained on the June 6 elections.

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Being a political party, even a marginal one, can be a good business in Mexico, given the nation’s lavish public financing system. The PVEM has received some 7.4 billion pesos in federal support since 1997, or roughly $370 million at today’s exchange rates, and more in state-level funding and other noncash logistical support.

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Critics accuse the party of becoming a tightly controlled family business, one increasingly mired in controversy. Jorge González Torres consolidated the party and was president for 10 years, succeeded by his son, Jorge Emilio González Martínez, who ruled for another decade, until 2011. The two have retained power as members of the party’s national council. In this way, “the Partido Verde is a franchise of the González Torres family and a few politicians who have used it to get into public office and also to carry shady business,” said Miguel Ángel Toro, national director of the government program at the university Tecnológico de Monterrey.

Jorge Emilio González Martínez has been a particularly controversial character, a kind of epitome of much of what is wrong with the PVEM. As the party’s president in 2004, González Martínez was captured in a leaked video seemingly accepting a $2 million bribe for the construction of hotels in the beach resort hot spot of Cancún. Following an investigation, he was cleared of all charges. The Niño Verde (“green boy” in English), as González Martínez was widely called, was known to hire models and escorts for his luxurious parties. In 2011, a Bulgarian model fell to her death from a 19th floor apartment that belonged to González Martínez. Federal prosecutors classified it as suicide, and the Niño Verde again came out unscathed. And in 2013, while he was a senator, González Martínez was stopped and detained for drunken driving.

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Questionable behavior is endemic in the party, beyond its founding family. Manuel Velasco, a PVEM senator, is being investigated for some $24 million in diverted funds in the state of Chiapas when he was the state’s governor.

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The Green Party symbolically changes color every presidential administration by siding with the political party most likely to win. It turned red, so to speak, through its alliance with the PRI, blue with the PAN, and now brown with López Obrador’s ruling party, Morena. The key to the Green Party’s survival lies in this tit for tat by which it helps the dominant parties retain power while also getting a slice of the cake. As a matter of fact, it’s not even recognized as a green party internationally. In 2009, the European Green Party withdrew its recognition after the PVEM campaigned for capital punishment.

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The PVEM usually gets a small percentage of the popular vote but wins through the alliances it forges with other parties. In this election, the PVEM joined an alliance called Juntos Haremos Historia (“Together We’ll Make History”) with Morena and the Workers Party, PT. The three parties agreed to run for 183 seats together, 50 of which would go to the PVEM if the coalition won. On June 6, the PVEM got about 2.5 million votes, 5.4 percent of all national votes. But its victory really lies in the success of the coalition. “The Partido Verde is a very pragmatic party that has no ideology,” said Miguel Ángel Toro. “It’s been with parties who are on the right, center, and the left.” Critically, Toro says, “the big parties overestimate the votes the Partido Verde can bring in, so the party always ends up with more seats than they would have gotten. That gives the Green Party more life than it should have.”

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The party also has a history of violating electoral law to lure voters. The PVEM is currently being investigated for allegedly paying influencers to promote it when the period for campaigning in this year’s midterm elections had ended. The investigation involves 95 people and could force the party to pay fines or lose its registration. Yet this tactic is not new; the PVEM has often relied on celebrities to win popular support. In a 2015 election, the party paid a soccer star up to $50,000 for an endorsement, and in the 2018 presidential elections, it violated electoral law by having celebrities tweet in its favor when campaigning was no longer allowed. The National Electoral Institute has condemned this behavior many times, imposing several fines of millions of pesos on the PVEM for breaking the law regarding campaign expenses and tactics. The party has also kept a close relationship with TV conglomerates Televisa and TV Azteca, which have essentially lent their celebrities for endorsements and given the party hundreds of thousands of spots. Ninfa Salinas Sada, for example, daughter of business tycoon and TV Azteca owner Ricardo Salinas Pliego, was a senator for the Green Party.

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The PVEM’s current partnership with Morena will most likely demand loyalty to the president’s national agenda—which can’t precisely be called “green.” The party’s leader, Karen Castrejón, claimed before its sweeping success that the Green Party will uphold its values, particularly those having to do with the environment, and will stand against the president if it disagrees with him. “The Green Party is environmentalist, and above all the Green Party is with the citizens,” she said in an interview with Expansión.

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But López Obrador’s role in Mexican politics has proved almost messianic, and his influence over his administration is overpowering. A green party can’t support the president’s vision and national agenda without compromising its environmental values. López Obrador has been criticized since taking power for undermining the environment by investing millions of dollars in a new refinery project and vowing to “rescue” the beleaguered state oil company, Pemex, which already has six other refineries operating at about half of their capacity, use highly polluting fuel oil, and are lagging in output. The new refinery, Dos Bocas, is estimated to cost more than $8 billion and is being built over protected mangroves, which it razed. On top of that, Pemex acquired the full stakes of the Deer Park refinery in Houston, Texas, for $596 million as part of the president’s pledge to become self-sufficient in gasoline and diesel.

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AMLO’s ruling party is also pushing legislation that harms the renewable energy sector in an effort to favor Pemex and the state utility company, CFE. This administration has changed regulatory rules, canceled energy auctions, and raised what used to be some of the cheapest electricity prices for renewable projects in the world. Now, dozens of renewable energy companies are fighting the changes in court. Antitrust agency COFECE and Greenpeace both won injunctions over actions that threatened new clean energy power plants from moving forward. At its current pace, Mexico is failing to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement—in particular, two goals: generating 35 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2024 and adjusting its target to cut even more emissions by 2030.

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Another one of the president’s flagship projects, the Mayan Train, is particularly worrisome to environmentalists and faces strong opposition from Indigenous groups and activists who are seeking to protect their land in the face of dispossession. In February, a federal judge suspended construction of sections of the railway in the state of Yucatán after local residents complained of a lack of information about the project and demanded a comprehensive study on the train’s environmental impact.

The Green Party does push for legislation that addresses climate change, deforestation, pollution and waste management, animal rights, and water rights, and it supported the 2013–14 energy reform that opened the door to clean energy. But within the party, the lack of political will and the prioritization of corporate interests over public and environmental ones prevent the Partido Verde from living up to its appealing branding. How legislators vote on green issues and reforms depends a lot of times on their relationships with industry lobbyists and what they can gain from them, rather than a strong front in defense of the environment. That’s what eventually blocks or sends proposals to the back burner despite the facts, science, and evidence that support each of them.

The activists, civil society groups, and private sector actors who are spearheading the defense of Mexico’s fragile environment—and at times with deadly consequences—are still awaiting the arrival of a truly green party to join their fight.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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