Meltdown in Mexico: Ten Days that Changed the Wind
The Coup Plot to Remove López Obrador from Mexican Presidential Contest Is Imploding from the Bottom Up
By Al Giordano
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
February 24, 2005
A fresh wind is blowing South of the Border, and its name is authentic democracy. During ten days in February 2005 the direction of the wind has changed. It was blowing from above. Now it gusts from below.
Ten days ago, leading members of all three major political parties in Mexico were whispering that the “desafuero” – a proposal before Congress to remove the rights of Mexico City Governor Andrés Manuel López Obrador to run for president in 2006 – was a done deal. They universally proclaimed – some arrogantly, some in panic – that the maneuver was a fait accompli.
But to hear the wind from below gather force, you must listen very carefully. When Narco News reported on February 13th that “an unprecedented public revolt” was in the works in Mexico as a response to the anti-democracy maneuver, eyebrows were raised in the international control rooms of the Commercial Media and stomachs winced in some halls of power. They may not like us (in fact, they may really hate us) but they know that our ear is turned to the underground rumbles that pass unheard in their electronically sealed cubicles. The sound of the wind from below gathering force goes under the heads of those with their focus on the stratospheres of power. It’s the ear to the ground that hears the wind assemble.
That wonderful, whirling sound, the wind from below, is back. It makes them queasy when we say that because when we’ve declared that the wind is about to blow… well, it howls, every time, at hurricane force.
Such is the immediate history of the past ten days in Mexico.
It ain’t over til it’s over said the baseball manager Yogi Berra. The desafuero – a plot to remove Mexico’s most popular presidential candidate from contention – could still happen. An attempted coup d’état should never be underestimated. Power is irrational when its back is against the wall. The shift in the wind – from toward it to against it – is very sudden. But oddsmakers from the Mexican National Congress to Foggy Bottom are, once again, perking up their ears and realizing that all is not as it appeared to be.
The real story is that Mexico has changed. It’s no longer just a stupid slogan mouthed by simulators of “change.” Mexico has changed because the conscience of its Civil Society has grown, the fear that kept the status quo in place for so long has dissipated, and the people are ready to do anything, to take any risk, to preserve their path to authentic democracy.
This is the story of ten days in Mexico, ten days in February 2005. It will take ten, twenty, or five hundred more days to pan out, but the narrative is not what Power thought it would be when it set out, in its arrogance, to stage a pre-electoral coup against Mexican democracy.
The counter-coup is already underway…
Ten Days that Shook an Assumption
How infirm with power were some big shots to think that they could have pulled this off – eliminating the leading presidential candidate from the race on a tiny and dubious technicality? – without what the APRO news agency tonight called “The Boomerang Effect” hitting them back in the face? The news agency reports:
“The desafuero of Andrés Manuel López Obrados is farther each day from becoming concrete. Already, the PRI and the PAN parties have been affected by their threats to put him in jail and have seen their actions turn against their own desires. Instead of losing popularity, the man from Tabasco has grown in size…
“With the desafuero, the PRI and the PAN gave López Obrador a gift in the form of a propaganda campaign not only nationwide, but also internationally. The reports published last weekend from the press conference he gave for foreign correspondents and other publications like Newsweek that devoted their covers to him have raised the PRD party member’s image.
“The governor of the capital city has capitalized on this attack very well, to the level of provoking a boomerang effect to the attempted political coup that, in the beginning, the PRI and the PAN imposed…
“The explanation of this phenomenon can be found in a very simple thing: When it becomes evident that an attack has no bases nor fundament, and that its intent is solely to harm the image of an adversary, the response of public opinion is to reject a strategy that, at its root, insults its intelligence…”
But, ah, I’m getting ahead of the story here… the story of the past ten days… Because the story tells itself better than merely citing conclusions…
Internationalizing the Conflict
What the media industry calls “news” passes through three distinct filters in Mexico. The first, in Spanish… the second, in English… And then, because nearly every major Mexican news story reported in the United States press gets repeated and analyzed as itself being news in Mexico, the third filter consists of how the two versions are reconciled.
To live in the shadow of the United States is no fun even for countries halfway around the globe. For its next-door neighbor, Mexico, it is a special kind of hell.
It used to be that if the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or even Associated Press launched an attack on anyone in Mexico, that person’s days were numbered as a political or economic force. In recent decades, the narco-accusations have been seasonal with every election year. And whether they were true or not, they led to the fall of some players and the rise of others to take their places.
All that has changed with the growth of the Internet. There are, simply put, more holes in the filters now, and the information gatekeepers can’t stop the news from flowing, nor control its content as well as they once did. So when Narco News reported ten days ago that Mexico was on the verge of a social explosion in response to the attempted desafuero against the Mexico City governor’s political rights, foreign correspondents in Mexico City flooded López Obrador’s press office with calls, questions, and requests to interview the man of the hour. The politico known as “El Peje” promptly called a press conference, three days later, a special one, for the first time in recent memory, with the international press.
He spoke of the “peaceful civil resistance” he and his supporters would undertake if the State took away his political rights to be a candidate. He explained why public opinion has turned against imposed free market policies. He called forcefully for Latin American nations to unify including to be able to stand tall against such impositions. He took questions from the foreign correspondents for two hours. And the conversation went way beyond what he called, tongue in cheek, the “small matter” of the desafuero. Associated Press, for example, reported:
“…the chief executive of the Western Hemisphere’s largest city – considered the early front-runner in the 2006 presidential race – did outline platforms on everything from the economy to relations with the United States in a nearly two-hour conversation with foreign journalists.”
Reuters seemed similarly impressed, with a wire report titled “Mexican Presidential Leftist Seeks Good Ties with U.S.”
Bloomberg seemed most interested in El Peje’s comments on restructuring Mexico’s national debt. On the other end of the ideological spectrum, Cuba’s Prensa Latina reported: “Mayor of Mexico City Bolts Against Corruption.”
The Dallas Morning News and the rest of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain chose the heroic angle of a persecuted pol standing up to an unfair system: “Likely Candidate in Mexico Vows to Campaign from Jail If Necessary.” And another Knight-Ridder correspondent followed up with “Mexico City Mayor Accuses Political Leaders of Plot,” reporting:
“…the vehemence of Lopez Obrador’s denunciations and the forum he chose to make them – a rare appearance before Mexico City’s foreign press corps – are a sure sign that the embattled mayor intends to mount a political brawl for the presidency.
“‘The allegations against me are 90 percent political because I’m constantly ahead in the polls,’ Lopez Obrador said. ‘There’s a network of players who fabricate charges and twist the law to disable me from politics. It’s a strike against democracy and freedom.’”
The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is not so well understood by Mexican commercial media correspondents and columnists because, well, the State simply has never practiced it for real. But even the most banal and conservative foreign correspondents could immediately see the inherent injustice in the proposed coup, er, desafuero. And they obviously found it refreshing that such a major political contender took so much time to answer their questions, as he does every morning at 6:30 a.m. for the Mexico City press.
(It should be noted that foreign correspondents are also welcome at that daily event, but, historically lazy, they don’t like rising to work at that hour, and they prefer to run as a pack. It makes them feel important: López Obrador, mercifully, convened them in the middle of the day instead.)
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald… all the bigfeet were obliged to report a bona fide news event that they had sat on for months. Consider that Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos beat them to the story with a September 2004 communiqué against the desafuero, and its clear that they are now playing catch-up on the biggest political story of the year on their beat. National Public Radio in the United States aired an uncharacteristically interesting story, too, that is worth a listen online.
But it was an extensive report in Newsweek, by Scott Johnson, that drew the most attention in Mexico (to a large part because López Obrador was featured on the cover of the international edition). And it was the most thorough Commercial Media report of all: “Mexico: Ready For Prime Time? Mexico’s political left has never had much power—but led by Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, it’s poised to make its mark.”
By the weekend, the Mexican press had begun to react to the international press, reporting story after story about the foreign press reports. The boomerang had flown outside the national borders and was on its way home to roost…
Enter the Ombudsman
Meanwhile, in the halls of the Mexican Congress, in the San Lázaro neighborhood of Mexico City, the president of the National Human Rights Commission, José Luis Soberanes Fernández, popularly known as “the ombudsman,” dropped a bombshell on the developing story.
The human rights ombudsman, responding to legislators’ questions, said that the planned desafuero against López Obrador will not be legally enforceable, because “there is no penalty” for the “crime” with which he would purportedly be charged (an administrative land-taking to widen a road to a hospital) “and therefore there is no crime.”
“We would be in a situation of discrimination,” said Soberanes, “because in other (similar) cases there has not been any punishment of public officials accused of disregarding federal orders…. Where is the principle of equal treatment under the law that Article One of our Constitution proclaims?”
His statement was front-page news in part because the Fox-appointed ombudsman has never been considered as an ally of López Obrador. One newspaper columnist went as far to say that Soberanes “doesn’t even know” the Mexico City governor.
Soberanes predicted that if Congress voted to take away Lopez Obrador’s political rights, the courts “would turn the decision around in favor of the governor. And without the desafuero being able to proceed, the political benefit would be on his behalf.”
Washington Plays Hardball
As López Obrador fought for his political life in Mexico, officials in Washington were casting a long shadow over Mexican affairs, as newly minted CIA director Porter Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Al Qaeda terrorists could be creeping across the Mexican Border any day now. The New York Times ran it as a cover story: “U.S. Aides Cite Worry of Qaeda Infiltration from Mexico.”
It was a largely gratuitous slap. The details offered by Homeland Security Admiral James Loy, also before the Senate Intelligence Committee, hedged the claim plenty: “currently there is no conclusive evidence” that Al Qaeda was planning any such thing, admitted the Admiral. Still, the image of “Osama Bin González” (as one Mexican columnist mocked the conceptual bases of the scare) raiding the Texas border like Pancho Villa was too sensational for Commercial Media outlets to pass up. That kind of fright sells newspapers, regardless of how real or not the facts make it.
Goss tossed still another grenade at Mexico during his congressional testimony:
“In Latin America, the region is entering a major electoral cycle in 2006, when Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela hold presidential elections. Several key countries in the hemisphere are potential flashpoints in 2005…
“Campaigning for the 2006 presidential election in Mexico is likely to stall progress on fiscal, labor, and energy reforms.”
Goss had wandered way off his beat of national security, revealing that stopping terrorism, impeding drug trafficking, or encouraging democracy and other such basic foodstuffs of the proclaimed policies of the United States indeed are on a lower shelf than the real mission: “fiscal, labor, and energy reforms.” By that he means the unspoken priorities of placing greater national debt upon Mexico (because an indebted nation is a more obedient nation), busting up its unions to get cheaper labor for U.S. companies, getting gringo hands on Mexican oil and other natural resources, and the holy grail of U.S.-Mexico policy: being able to build environmentally harmful power plants, including atomic ones, South of the Border to wire electricity to the North.
The Mexican press seized upon it all, terming it as a CIA prediction of political instability in Mexico surrounding the 2006 elections. Thus, the story danced a fine duet with the story of the day in Mexico City: the upcoming social upheaval if Congress really does try to remove the leading presidential candidate from the contest.
Santiago Creel’s Meltdown
The chief of staff (“minister of governance”) for the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox found himself in a pincer grip. That politician, Santiago Creel, is Fox’s hand-picked successor to run as the National Action Party (PAN, in its Spanish initials) candidate for president in 2006. To have any hope of achieving that goal, he has to get the popular López Obrador out of the way, while carving his own positive image before the Mexican public. In these days, the two goals grew more and more mutually exclusive.
Anyway, the pincer: From above, Washington was rattling sabers again, just weeks after its scare campaign, in the form of a “travel advisory,” (really, a media campaign) that sought to paint all of Mexico as unsafe for gringo tourists. (See Bill Conroy’s report of yesterday, in which he dug up U.S. government documents that show that the State Department invented a threat that its own previously private statistics disprove.)
And the other side of the pincer, developing the strength of a vise grip: From below, all the Mexican media was abuzz over this latest salvo from Washington, which was universally viewed as part of ongoing efforts by the U.S. government to meddle in the upcoming electoral process to the South. Creel (he and his boss, Fox, are viewed, according to public opinion surveys in Mexico, as the politicians most supported by Washington, and thus distrusted by large segments of the population as delivery men for gringo interests) had to say something to demonstrate that he’s not just a gringotized marionette. At the same time, he had the national ombudsman nipping at the heels of his master plan to knock the Mexico City governor out of the path of his presidential ambitions.
So, how did Creel, who needed to placate the Mexican people while not alienating his sponsors in Washington and Wall Street, juggle the divergent balls in the air? Creel said of the CIA claims: “Perhaps there is a mistake in translation, I don’t know.” He added some obligatory stock text about how “The analysis made by the CIA is false. It is regrettable an agency of a foreign government is addressing Mexican matters. It is unacceptable.” He came off as a national laughing stock.
Meanwhile, from every corner of the 31 states and the barrios of Mexico City, journalists and members of Civil Society wondered aloud: Maybe the CIA is right! After all, if the Fox-Creel plot toward a pre-electoral coup d’état moves forward, what option do democracy-loving Mexicans have other than to foment the very political instability that the CIA warned about?
Adding to his reputation as national class clown (that’s “class” as in the upper classes), Creel unleashed a simultaneous diatribe against the specter of peaceful demonstrations and “civil resistance” that have been promised from many, many Mexican organizations and civic leaders if the Congress really does try to kill López Obrador’s candidacy with the desafuero. Creel said, according to the national daily La Jornada: “It is notable that this (call for demonstrations) originated with the man who is responsible to govern the city and provide for the common good. And part of this common good involves traffic, and the long traffic jams that we see when marches happen. The people lose time and also lose patience.”
Creel announced that any violence provoked by such demonstrations would be the sole responsibility of López Obrador.
What Creel and the political class of Mexico understand very well is that, indeed, people will “lose patience.” But it’s not road rage that has them worried. It’s pro-democracy rage; the kind that happens in the face of authoritarianism and its maneuvers, such as the pending coup d’état called a desafuero.
Road to Democracy Rage
As his surrogate, Creel, sputtered in full public view, it came time for President Vicente Fox himself to try and rescue the desafuero coup plot. Fox, in a public statement, proclaimed: “Mexico is a country of institutions, so it is grave error to attack them or weaken them, and a grave omission to not comply with the law, because that’s how democracy is made vulnerable.”
In other words, the last line of attack by the pro-desafuero crowd is that the federal government, the Congress, and the courts in Mexico, after just five years of Fox’s so-called “transition,” have already evolved to a level where the public must not question or protest their decrees. In this anal-retentive view of “institutions’ as suddenly sacred cows, Fox and his henchmen come off sounding like the power-drunk bureaucrats of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, in Spanish initials) that, prior to 2000, they had attacked as a “perfect dictatorship.”
The Mexican people, though, are not swallowing this call for “respect for the institutions.” As Fox made that statement at an Armed Forces ceremony in the state of Veracruz, citizens unveiled a gigantic banner, “No to the desafuero!” Similar banners were hung from the balconies of state legislatures in other parts of the country, and have begun to pop up, large and small, on shop windows, highway overpasses, and buildings throughout Mexico City and the entire country.
The political class’ worry about “political instability” was not limited to the PAN and PRI parties that are pulling their respective hairs out over the obvious rise of López Obrador as a political giant. The Mexico City governor’s own Democratic Revolution Party (PRD, in its Spanish initials) displayed great nervousness at the level of its own high functionaries. After all, the “road to democracy rage” was growing even out of its control. The manifesto published by La Jornada columnist Jaime Avilés (and translated on February 13 by Narco News), calling for a massive “civil resistance” by all Mexicans without a political party, caused the stratosphere of the PRD to begin to fret. The PRD quickly adopted its own 13-point action plan (stealing its tactics openly from the Civil Society 12-point plan of Avilés and various national youth groups) in an attempt to co-opt and control the public outrage over the desafuero plot.
The national PRD leaders (many of whom have come to enjoy patronage positions in the six, soon to be seven, PRD state governments across the country, and in the national and state congresses) went even farther in their quest to control any revolt. The party formed “commissions of order” to police demonstrations against the desafuero, “to avoid falling into provocations or violent situations.”
The public had already jumped out in front of the political parties. The pending scenario was made clear: If they take López Obrador out of the presidential race, the 2006 elections, and the national “institutions” (including the political parties) will cease to have any public respect or credibility at all.
The removal of the Mexico City governor from the presidential contest would block the electoral path to change. And that would, by default, turn the national microphone back to the popular guerrilla leader, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and its “stubborn distrust” of political parties and leaders.
What has been brewing in Mexico over the past ten days is nothing less than a crisis of legitimacy, a scenario of revolt and resistance, uncontrollable, and ungovernable… and a stone’s throw from the United States border.
A Coup in Retreat
No slouch in times of crisis, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, part politician, part activist and agitator, with one foot in the system and one foot in the streets, went on the offensive. Last Sunday, as Newsweek International put his picture on the cover, he said:
“When freedom and dignity are defended, everything can be risked, because it is not a minor matter. We are not slaves. We don’t want anybody to place himself as the owner of a democratic country…
“Our citizen president has gotten it into his head that I shouldn’t be a candidate, and that’s why they are making all kinds of maneuvers to violate the law, using the national institutions dishonestly… God willing, the citizen president hasn’t forgotten that Mexico already is not the country of one single man, that in Mexico there is no absolute power than can crush the majority will of the people.”
Panic ensued in the two political parties trying to do him in. The bosses of the PRI tried to issue a gag order on its own members of congress to not speak against the desafuero. Over the following days, at least half a dozen of them defied that order. The PAN, too, began to implode, with calls from within its own ranks that Santiago Creel resign as chief of the government because of his conflict-of-interest in also being a presidential candidate. The Church, too, traditionally allied with the PAN, slapped down Creel. Cardinal Norberto Rivera replied to Creel’s stated fear of marches and demonstrations sarcastically, backing the citizenry’s right to protest and mocking, “the apocalypse is not coming.”
By the end of the workday on Monday afternoon, the National Palace felt itself under siege, although the multitudes who have promised to descend upon it the moment that any desafuero takes López Obrador out of contention have not yet appeared. The “citizen president” Vicente Fox sent his press secretary to the press room at five p.m. to read an official statement. According to El Universal, the nation’s largest daily newspaper:
“In a statement read Monday by a presidential spokesman, Fox characterized the land dispute case as “a lack of respect towards the institutions of the nation,” and said that a large-scale protest against the action ‘should not be part of the strategy of one who says that he wants to conduct the nation’s destiny.’
“The statement said that such strategies often serve as a “useful rhetorical tool of authoritarianism” and therefore have no place in a democracy.
“‘There are still those who believe that the law can be accommodated to fit the needs of those in government,’ he said. ‘But no one is correct in showing disrespect for the law.’
“Defending the case against López Obrador, Fox said that his government is fulfilling a promise to the country to guarantee respect of the nation’s institutions. The construction of a “culture of legality implies a certain cost,” he said, ‘and that cost is that people assume responsibility’ for their actions.”
Fox’s calls for law and order, however, were further belied this week by the unearthing of more hard data on the case of the hospital road in the Santa Fe neighborhood of Mexico City that would be the pretext for the desafuero. To repeat the basic facts: All of this tumult extends from an administrative dispute, in which the supposed “owner” of a piece of land named “El Encino” that the Mexico City government took to widen a road to a hospital claimed that the City had violated his rights, and the law, in the eminent domain procedures.
It turns out that the “owner,” according to El Universal, is not the only person claiming title to the land, and that he has been to prison twice, once for fraud in a governmental position, and a second time for tax evasion.
El Universal said of a City government document on the case:
“The document outlined that Federico Escobedo, supposed owner of ‘El Encino,’ has twice been to prison. The first time was for a fraud of more than seven million pesos in (the public housing program) INFONAVIT in 1993, and the second time for tax evasion, in 1995.
“‘This is the person who says he is owner of the property, although he’s not the only one who claims it. At least two other people claim ownership of this land in the Santa Fe neighborhood,’ the document stated.”
Fox and Creel and the other desafuero-plotters are now, stuck with a “poster boy” for “respect for institutions” that is anything but one.
The bottom has thus fallen out from the “rule of law” argument made in favor of the pre-electoral coup d’état.
A Land of Surprises
It’s been quite the ten days in Mexico. The voices of inconformity to the desafuero plot grew louder and louder, each day, each hour. Unlikely allies (sworn enemies, in fact) like the students and unions at the national university and the school’s rector, Juan Ramon de la Fuente, united their discordant voices into a harmonic crescendo, all protesting against the desafuero plot. The students and unions promised “active strikes” and protests should the plot go forward. De la Fuente, who had broken a one-year student strike that had closed the largest university in the country in 2000, was suddenly on the same side as the students.
The Mexico City sanitation workers union, 22,000 strong, the men and women who remove 12,000 tons a day of garbage from the capital streets, announced a religious pilgrimage this Friday to the Basilica of Guadalupe to pray against the desafuero. If God and the virgin of Guadalupe can’t help them, a garbage collectors’ strike is the obvious Plan B.
In the countryside, peasant farmer organizations have begun to meet around kitchen tables with maps of the major highways and thoroughfares in the country that pass alongside the lands they work. They’ve blockaded them before, in isolated cases. But now many wonder, in whispers, to this newspaper, of what could happen if they all decide to block them at the same time?
As Narco News reported yesterday, Mexican public opinion has turned, sharply, against the desafuero, in favor of López Obrador, and against Fox’s heir apparent Santiago Creel.
A funny thing has happened on the way to the desafuero, that just two nights ago was still considered a done deal among political insiders from all three of Mexico’s major political parties and throughout the journalistic community in Mexico: The PRI blinked.
Having participated in the hatching of the coup d’état plot, poll-conscious PRI leaders (who had planned to vote, together with PAN legislators, to remove López Obrador from the presidential race) are suddenly expressing doubts, and signaling that they may, rather, choose to leave Fox and Creel all alone out on the anti-democracy limb.
For example, the likely PRI candidate for president, Roberto Madrazo, an arch-enemy of López Obrador (both from the same oil-rich southeastern state of Tabasco) since even before they faced off in the 1994 governor’s race, and an opportunist par excellence in politics, is suddenly making public noises that he wants López Obrador on the ballot. According to the Notimex news agency:
“The national leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Roberto Madrazo Pintado, assured that he would like to see Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the electoral ballot in 2006, since he already believes he can beat him at the ballot box.
“At the close of a PRI meeting in Mexico City… Madrazo said that this not a time for political improvisations inside the political parties to ‘take a candidate out of the running.’”
“…‘Personally, I know that I can beat him. I beat him in 1994 for the government of the state of Tabasco,’ he said.”
And suddenly the PRI leaders in Congress – who, according to López Obrador participated as architects of the desafuero plot together with Fox, Creel and disgraced former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (the most worried political power of all, because a López Obrador government may well finally bring him to justice for billion-dollar frauds and the many massacres and political assassinations that occurred under his watch in Mexico from 1988 to 1994) – are backpedaling furiously.
The PRI leader in the Congress, Emilio Chuayffet, told reporters yesterday, “Enforcing the law doesn’t mean a desafuero for López Obrador.”
The PRI is a difficult political beast to track. Its leaders are famous for saying one thing and doing another. The recent statements of backtracking may not, in the end, mean anything. But the PRI is also politically astute. And there are many at high levels of the party, including members of Congress who have declared it publicly, who believe that if the PRI legislators vote for a desafuero that it will mean the end of the party as a political force. Public opinion runs, simply, too strongly against the coup plot.
Thus, the PRI is absolutely capable of an about-face on the matter of the desafuero. If it takes that 180-degree turn, the desafuero will not survive a Congressional vote, López Obrador will then be free to run for president, and the PAN party of Fox and Creel will be left holding the coup d’état bag. It would not be the first time that the PRI betrayed the often hapless PAN in a supposed alliance. The presidential contest would then likely come down to a PRD vs. PRI race, with the PAN, impotent, on the margins.
The wheel is in spin. The desafuero that everyone said was a fait accompli two days ago is suddenly in doubt. The one-two punch of a Civil Society organizing “civil resistance,” plus the defiant pro-democracy discourse of López Obrador himself, have pummeled the conventional wisdom.
And that’s just the story of the past 10 days. There are 515 days left before the July 3, 2006 presidential election. And Mexico remains a land of surprises.
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