The comeback kid of Mexican ministers

Secretary of Social Development criticized for telling indigenous women how many children to have

Luis Pablo Beauregard
Rosario Robles
Rosario Robles (right) during a visit in Guerrero. SEDESOL

The scandal began on social media. On May 2, Twitter users started talking about a speech Secretary of Social Development Rosario Robles had made on April 30 before a group of women in the western state of Nayarit. “Not having many children will give you more Oportunidades,” she said. Oportunidades, or Opportunities, is the most important welfare program for poor families in Mexico. “Oportunidades will no longer benefit those women who have several children. Instead, it will support those who have fewer because a smaller family lives better.”

Robles spoke those words in Los Encinos, an indigenous village of 350 people located on the Pacific coast. The village is one of the targets of the National Crusade Against Hunger, a new strategy to fight poverty.

Local authorities showed Robles some of the progress the program has made: homes with electricity, running water and cement floors. After the tour, the secretary said she was calling on people to “go to family planning clinics so you’ll have three children and not one more.” In her opinion, some families have children in order to receive more help from the government.

Oportunidades gives a monthly allowance of 115 pesos ( 8.8 dollars) for each child. Government assistance can reach up to 1,710 pesos (133 dollars) for primary school children and up to 2,415 pesos (186 dollars) for high schoolers. In exchange, the beneficiaries must satisfy some requirements, including school attendance and health check-ups.

[Subsidized programs] are going to “help women who have fewer children because a small family lives better,” the minister said

The secretary tried to put an end to the controversy on Wednesday. “I recognize that I was wrong to express my conviction that smaller families live better,” she said in a statement. “No indigenous woman has, or will be, excluded from the program.” Robles said the project had added 600,000 families in 2013. “Of the families that participate in Oportunidades, 13 percent have more than three kids,” she continued.

Too late for an apology. Once again, Rosario Robles has become the most controversial figure in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) administration.

She offended a country where more than half the population, 53 million, lives in poverty. Mexico is at the top of the list for teenage pregnancies among the nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The average age of a woman in Mexico at the time of her first pregnancy has for decades been 21. On average, 64 out of 1,000 girls 19 years old or younger get pregnant in Mexico. The rate for girls aged 19 and under in developed countries is 17.

More than a family planning issue, what caused the controversy was the veiled threat that the government might put conditions on a program that serves as an important source of income for millions of families.

Robles has never had trouble apologizing. “I failed you. I apologize to all the women who believed in me and thought of me as a bearer of hope. I hope you give me another opportunity,” she wrote in 2005 in With All My Heart, a personal account of her political activism on the left. At that point, her career seemed like it would come to an end after her personal life had been talked about in detail on the front pages of newspapers during an internal war within the left.

After serving in the largest leftist party in Mexico for many years , Robles decided to support the PRI candidate Peña Nieto in 2012

She founded the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in 1989. Her union background and her efforts forming networks of women in the city earned her substantial political capital. She was the right hand of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the first elected mayor of Mexico City. Cárdenas took office in 1997. Robles became mayor in 2000 when Cárdenas exited the post to enter the presidential race.

Her crime was that she had been the lover of Carlos Ahumada, a controversial businessman who made campaign donations to various PRD politicians in exchange for construction contracts. Ahumada filmed the meetings where he delivered bundles of cash to PRD members. The videos were made public in March 2004. A week later, Robles nearly had to renounce her membership in the organization she herself built and after 15 years of dedicated effort.

Mexican politics offers opportunities for self reinvention. After asking for that opportunity in her book – the work is also a chronicle of intrigues among the various internal factions of the PRD in Mexico City – Robles reappeared in April 2012 to back Enrique Peña Nieto. “I know him. I have a close, affectionate, professional relationship with him and because I believe Mexico needs a change. We cannot continue on this same path.” A reporter asked Robles if Peña Nieto had promised her a Cabinet seat. “No, I am here for Mexico.”

A straightforward “no” tends to mask a very strong “yes” in Mexican politics. No one was surprised to see her name when the president presented his Cabinet in November 2012. Her appointment was seen as a strategic play by the PRI. Peña Nieto was putting the Secretariat of Social Development, a department that moves ample resources in the fight against poverty, in the hands of a woman who knew the complexities of the welfare programs that the PRD itself designed in 1997 and that have allowed the left to remain in power since then.

Her comeback to the arena was no simple affair. In April 2013, a scandal blew up. The right-wing National Action Party (PAN) denounced vote-buying that allegedly supported the PRI in the local elections in Veracruz. PAN and PRD seemed like they were about to leave the Pact for Mexico – an agreement to promote a reform agenda signed by the three main political parties. Opposition leaders tied their continued support of the pact to a panoply of social programs and to Robles’ resignation.

President Peña Nieto responded to the pressure in the most unfortunate manner. “Don’t worry, Rosario,” he said. “We have to hang on.” PAN subsequently broke the pact and boycotted the financial reforms that had come out the agreement. It took a few days of intense politicking by Finance Minister Luis Videgaray and Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong to repair the relationship.

Nayarit marks the second scandal from the Secretariat of Social Development during the 18-month PRI administration. Time will tell whether Rosario Robles takes advantage of the second opportunity she was given.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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