Gossip always the special of the day at Mexico City café

Tuesday, June 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEXICO CITY – Government operatives huddle, whispering secrets. Presidential candidates drop by, shaking hands, flashing smiles. And political gurus hold court, preaching, predicting, pontificating.

Bienvenidos, welcome, to Café La Habana, a nearly half-century-old restaurant where gossip is the main course. And with Mexico's presidential election less than two weeks away, the chitchat is piled higher than the cafe's famous enchiladas dripping with chili sauce.

It's like an all-you-can-eat special. All the rumor, hearsay and denial you can handle, free for the taking inside the airy, 240-seat cafe.

"People come here to talk, to find out the latest news," cafe manager Michel Issa said. "A lot of people start their day here with coffee and milk at 7:30. They come back for lunch at 11:30, and again for an early dinner at 4."

The chisme, or gossip, is flowing especially hot and heavy this year because Sunday's presidential race is the most competitive that Mexico has ever seen. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has hung on to the presidency for 71 years. But now a lanky cowboy-boot-clad candidate named Vicente Fox is giving the PRI a run for its money.

Cafe regulars are split over who's going to win.

A group of rowdy Fox supporters came in on a recent afternoon and insisted he'll beat PRI candidate Francisco Labastida.

"Labastida's a [expletive]. A no-good [expletive]," said Fox supporter Marta Fernández de Castro, who described herself as "mother, wife, carpenter, driver and Fox volunteer."

"But Fox hasn't said who he'll put on his Cabinet," a man in a suit interrupted. "Do you know? Well?"

"What are you anyway? A PRI supporter? My God," the woman said disparagingly.

These little exchanges are Mexican democracy in the flesh, playing live from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at the corner cafe.

The place hasn't changed much since it opened in 1954. Fans dangle from the high ceilings. Huge black-and-white photographs of Cuba are on the walls – shots of Old Havana and the seaside highway, the Malecón.

Among the cafe's early customers was bearded revolutionary Fidel Castro. He used to drop in while in exile in Mexico in 1955. Customers say Mr. Castro, then 30, used the cafe as an occasional meeting place before returning to Cuba in late 1956 to get on with the revolution.

Customers argue about whether a Cuban or a Mexican founded La Habana, along Bucareli Street near downtown. Whatever the case, it's a natural spot for political chatter. Mexico's secretary of interior, in charge of domestic security, is just two blocks away. The federal attorney general's office isn't far. Also nearby are several major newspapers, including El Universal and Excelsior.

Manuel Buendía, a columnist for Excelsior, was a regular customer. He wrote about corruption and criticized the ultraright and the CIA's presence in Mexico. His work soon brought him threats, so he bought a gun. But a paid assassin shot him in the back on May 30, 1984, before he could draw it.

A more recent regular was José Alfredo Andrade, lawyer for the late drug lord Amado "Lord of the Skies" Carrillo. Mr. Andrade wrote a book about Mr. Carrillo last year and liked to talk about it – way too much for comfort, his friends say.

Then one day he suddenly stopped going to La Habana. Federal agents showed up asking for him, but he was nowhere to be found. His family fears he has been killed.

"All kinds of people come in here, federal deputies, senators, ministers, lawyers, reporters, spies, a little of everything," said César Macín, an architect who has been going to the cafe for 40 years.
Mr. Macín, a portly man with a mustache, said La Habana lost some of its clientele after a devastating quake hit Mexico City in 1985. Scores of buildings – including his office – were destroyed, and a lot of people moved away from the city's fragile center.

Mr. Macín moved away, too, settling into Coyoacán, an old colonial neighborhood in the south. But he remained loyal to La Habana despite the commute.

"For a lot of people, the cafe's atmosphere is tasty, stimulating," he said, chomping into a crunchy pastry shaped like a fat Cuban cigar. "For others, it's upsetting, agitating to be here. The noise, the talk. But I find it soothing."

Asked to sum up the latest prattle, Mr. Macín sighed.

"Very murky. Lots of lies coming from everywhere. The media is taking sides, taking money, creating disorder, confusion. All this won't clear up until the last opinion poll is complete. The ultimate poll, the official vote on election day."

Others stopping by recently were presidential candidates Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of the late President Lázaro Cárdenas, and Mr. Fox, known for his boots, casual style and sometimes outlandish remarks.

No one recalls seeing Mr. Labastida, the PRI candidate, but he has fans at the cafe. One is Leonardo Elías Calles, grandson of Elías Calles, a 1920s-era president who pushed for what would become the PRI.

Mr. Elías is an unabashed Labastida supporter, and he usually steps into the cafe with copies of Destiny of Mexico, his magazine.

Local traffic police wearing brown uniforms and tall black boots sometimes rumble up on battered old Harleys and Kawasakis. They push several tables together and wolf down Cuban sandwiches stuffed with pork leg, beans, tomatoes and avocado for $3.50 apiece.

Government officials and political operatives also amble inside. Some carry plain brown envelopes containing documents that they press into the hands of political allies or scoop-hungry reporters.

Amid the intrigue is sobering talk about the future of Mexico, whether its people will ever see an end to corruption and taste democracy.

Serious stuff, to be sure, but some customers try not to get too wrapped up in it.

"Politics is OK," shrugged free-lance photographer Mario Torres, 54, a cafe regular for more than two decades. "But try this coffee. It's great."

La Habana's rich, dark-brown brew is seven times stronger than what the chain restaurants serve, cafe manager Issa said. And like the intrigues of Mexican politics, "it's a special blend. All grown at high altitude, then toasted for the right amount of time."

And how long is that?

"Sorry," he said. "That's secret."