“They’re just career politicians and they’re all old as hell,” Tony Barlow drawls between long pauses, gazing wistfully out into the gulf. “We needed something new… but it doesn’t matter now.” A retiree from New York in his late 60s, like many others, Tony has come here to escape politics. These guys are spent, they’re claiming their pensions – throwing in the towel and calling it a bad job.
For American expats like Tony, the morning of March third 2020 is just another day in paradise. There’s a sense of indifference; detachment. Here the sun is shining, beer is cheap and, if you’re up for it, the years of political knots can be massaged from your worn muscles for a couple of dollars. Why worry about it? The problems are a thousand miles away. Here the Democrat’s Super Tuesday is denoted by 2-4-1 margaritas – no different to any other week.
By 9’o’clock on Tuesday evening Joe Biden is pulling ahead, a dramatic twist in the political narrative, but the TV screens in Progreso are preoccupied with music videos and poker tournaments: looking around, it is clear – rarely a thought was spared for the candidates who had exhausted themselves on the campaign trail over the last few months.
Another cruise ship coasts lazily up to the pier. The descent of the cool evening air marks the end to just another long day in another coastal resort town. Of the few expats scattered on the malecon that are aware of the evening’s significance, all maintain the same line. As Andrea from Florida puts it, “I’m not hugely into politics, but probably best not to rock the boat”. Somehow, it looks like the voter turnout here will be near non-existent”.
20 minutes inland lies the city of Mérida, the capital of Yucatan state which is home to more than 5,000 U.S. expats. Here the scene is different; the close city air shakes loose the lethargy of the coast. Wandering the streets are the usual holiday-goers: hawaiian shirts and panama hats are commonplace, but some here are stoking the excitement for the primaries, unseen in Progreso. Venturing into The English Library one might find a stall emblazoned with red, white, and blue. “VOTE 2020” reads the sign, imploring residents to “get out the vote!”
The stall is manned by Jack Robinson, a volunteer and U.S. state department retiree. Jack hopes to educate people about the workings of the political system when abroad and register people to vote if they’re not already. This outreach is bipartisan, shepherding votes from both political parties – “No matter how kooky the person you vote for is, it’s your democratic right” Jack says. “Democracy has a high price and we’re willing to pay it.”
The initiative is organised by ‘Democrats Abroad Mérida’, a new division of the overseas arm of the United States Democratic party. This branch of the international organisation has been around since June 2019, but only in the last week have they seen a surge in membership from 233 to 340 by Super Tuesday.
In contrast to the retirees on the coast who are baking under the Mexican sun, we find in the city individuals making a stand against the indolence. “I’m not looking for a Margarita-ville kind of retirement, I need to be engaged,” says Beth Rosenthal, member at large of the Democrats Abroad Mérida. The compulsion for social change doesn’t have an age limit.
Twice a week volunteers pitch up in public spaces and try to engage their fellow Americans. They inform people about the significance of the upcoming election and the importance of their participation. Accessibility is the name of the game here, “When it becomes too hard, it’s not accomplished” explains Beth. The process is simplified as much as possible: distributed sheets show a flow diagram beginning with “Are you a U.S. Citizen?” and ending with where to request a ballot. The volunteers check the registration database, an ever changing bureaucratic barricade – if you’re not on it, they’ll see to it that that’s fixed.
The politically engaged here have a fight on their hands. The US state department records some 201,420 Americans of voting age living in Mexico – the third largest concentration of US expats in the world. A report by the same organization documents a turn out of a meagre 6.9% of the 3 million strong global (voting age) expat population having voted in the 2016 presidential election. Only 2.4% of those based in Mexico voted in 2016.
Trina Lawry, originally from New Jersey and now the membership and publicity chair of Mérida’s Democrats Abroad, believes they’re achieving success: the last week alone saw their membership figures jump by nearly 50% and a Super Tuesday event hosted by the group was expecting a few dozen attendees, but it found itself inundated with 127 eager voters. In a larger context it’s a small shift, and whether this will make a significant difference is undetermined, but it’s hard not to admire the steadfast dedication of this group of retirees who refuse to give up on their home nation.
“This is the most important election of my lifetime,” Jack says. Given the dramatic change in American policy both domestically and globally, it is easy to believe that this could be the most important election of any of our lives. With the results often being decided by a mere few thousand votes, it’s clear to see how the hundreds of thousands of U.S. expats living in Mexico could potentially swing the outcome. Whether or not the enthusiasm of the politically engaged few is enough to galvanise the community, and ensure their voices are heard, will become clear when the votes are counted. These volunteers are fighting the tide of apathy one ballot at a time.
For The Yucatan Times
George Chowdhury is a freelance writer currently based in Latin America. With a scientific background he writes quantitative, informative pieces that seek to democratize issues ranging from culture to climate change.
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