It’s been only a few months since controversial South Bay water board president Jaime Bonilla stepped down from the Otay Water District, but it’s easy to see that his former position is just a speck in his rearview mirror. Bonilla’s eyes are on the future — Mexico’s future. He is campaigning for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Polls show that on July 1 López Obrador has a strong chance of becoming Mexico’s next president.
At Bonilla’s Chula Vista home, where he was interviewed in April, large wooden front doors opened into a well-appointed hacienda, such as might be seen in a nightly novela, or Mexican soap opera. Marble floors gleamed. More than a hundred trees filled the backyard. A painting by Diego Rivera hung on the wall. Bonilla took it down to demonstrate its authenticity, then leaned it against the fireplace.
Bonilla’s speech was peppered with dichos, or popular Mexican sayings — one of the many indicators that he has a foot firmly planted on either side of the border. Binational since his early days, Bonilla first attended school in Tijuana before moving to San Diego. He later earned an industrial engineering degree in Mexico City, then returned to San Diego to get a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in public administration.
Bonilla’s bonhomie flew in the face of his reputation for being contentious. “I am an opinion maker,” Bonilla said, “and I’m not afraid of being criticized.” Then, as an afterthought, “I criticize myself.”
One incident at the Otay Water District that raised collective eyebrows occurred in July 2011, when the board voted to hand some top managers and employees lifetime health benefits. A month later the board extended the benefits to all employees. Recently, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association gave the board a Golden Fleece award for those actions.
“I really got creamed on that issue,” Bonilla said. “People thought I was just trying to get benefits for myself. They went for my jugular. But the benefits were not for me or the other board members; they were for the rank and file and managers.”
Bonilla said that López Obrador, whom he called AMLO, an acronymic nickname, shares the belief that all people are entitled to lifetime health benefits, and this is one of the many reasons Bonilla had gone to work for López Obrador’s campaign.
“Just look at his biography and you will see he has been fighting for the poor for a long time. Mexico is a very unbalanced country — there are the extremely wealthy and then so many poor people. Thirty-one families control Mexico. It’s very offensive when Forbes announces that Carlos Slim Helu [Mexico’s telecom giant] is the richest man in the world when we have all this poverty.”
Bonilla has been involved in Mexican politics for years. The Diego Rivera painting was a gift from a former governor of Baja. López Obrador has been a friend for almost two decades. “He asked me to assist in his 2006 campaign, but at the time I had to say no. I had too many commitments.”
López Obrador has been chosen to run by three leftist/progressive parties, the largest being his own party, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or Party of the Democratic Revolution. He is competing against three candidates. Currently favored to win is Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for 70 years, ending in 2000. Josefina Vázquez Mota is the candidate for the National Action Party (PAN); this party has been in power since 2006, during which time 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. The last contender, Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance Party, shows less than 2 percent support in recent polls.
López Obrador was a whisker away from being president in 2006. His party claimed there were many election irregularities. A partial recount was conducted following the July 2, 2006 election, but Felipe Calderón was declared president on September 5. During this period, many believed that Mexico teetered on the edge of revolution. Estimates of the numbers demonstrating in Mexico City range from half a million to 3 million people.
While the recount was under way, the New York Times published an op-ed piece written by López Obrador. Titled “Recounting Our Way to Democracy,” the August 11, 2006 article said, “Not since 1910, when another controversial election sparked a revolution, has Mexico been so fraught with political tension. The largest demonstrations in our history are daily proof that millions of Mexicans want a full accounting of last month’s presidential election. My opponent, Felipe Calderon, currently holds a razor-thin lead of 243,000 votes out of 41 million cast….”
In the tumultuous days following the election and recount, Bonilla said, López Obrador had three choices: “to betray the people who voted for him and just walk away; just claim the election was stolen; or do a mass demonstration in Reforma [a broad avenue in Mexico City] to let the whole world know what happened.” López Obrador chose the last option, but the demonstrations did not turn violent. Bonilla attributed this to the fact that his friend is a follower of the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.
Could the same turbulent scenario play out in 2012? As the election nears, the dominant media in Mexico have tried to block coverage of López Obrador. Earlier this month, the country’s two largest television networks, TV Azteca and Televisa, did not broadcast the first presidential debate on their main channels; Azteca showed a soccer game instead.
But, “You can’t cover the sun with your thumb,” said Bonilla, gesturing toward the light.
Bonilla can help offset the lack of coverage. He owns seven radio stations in Baja and a television station in Ensenada. He believes that winning Baja is critical for López Obrador: “If he wins Baja, he will be the president.”
In the last few years, news about Mexico is more often than not related to cartel violence.
Education and employment are a part of the campaign’s solution to the continuing bloodbath, according to Bonilla. In addition to building new public schools and financing tuition for university students, López Obrador’s plan is to build five oil refineries.
Will desalinization figure into the employment plan?
When Bonilla was on the Otay water board, he advocated construction of a desalinization plant in Rosarito, to be financed by private interests. The plant would sell water to the Otay district, which would build a pipeline north from the border. The project has many detractors, who cite both environmental concerns and costs.
“The water district has awarded a $4 million contract for an engineering firm to study the plan, and spent $674,000 on $585-an-hour lobbyists and $175-an-hour consultants,” reported the Union-Tribune on October 10, 2011. In December, the paper reported that no-bid contracts connected to the plant were awarded to associates of Bonilla.
Whether López Obrador is elected or not, Bonilla will likely achieve a seat in the Mexican legislature. In Mexico, legislative seats can be either appointed or elected.
“Will you continue to promote this project?” I ask him.
“This plant would produce 100 million gallons a day,” he says. “It will produce enough to export to the United States. Baja has no water. You can worry about the flora and fauna or you can worry about the people: do they have jobs, water to drink, water for agriculture and industry?”