President Who?

A question of office splits a venerable Hispanic organization

Darkness had already fallen two weeks back when 20 leading members of Houston's Hispanic community gathered in an East End classroom. The chalkboards still bore the dusty tracks of lessons, and the adults had to wedge themselves into desks better suited for teenagers. To an outsider, the gathering might have seemed an improbable occasion for a power struggle. But the people in attendance felt they had a serious task ahead of them: wresting control of the Comite Patriótico Mexicano from a president who, they said, couldn't tell when it was time for him to go.

Most Houstonians probably don't know the Comite Patriótico by name. Its membership is, after all, a few dozen at most. But it tends to attract notable Hispanics to its ranks, a number of whom were gathered in the Ripley House Neighborhood Center classroom that night: Nelly Fraga, the wife of City Councilman Felix Fraga; restaurateur Francisco Valle; Ripley House director Rebecca Castillo. But if the Comite's name isn't common currency, the activities it sponsors are. This is the group that's been behind the popular Miller Outdoor Theatre programs on Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre; it's also the group that donated the statue of the late Mexican president Benito Juarez that stands in Hermann Park.

As it turns out, though, that public largess hid a roiling internal turmoil, which erupted this fall when the Comite's president Ventura Rios announced his bid for re-election. Some members of the organization complained he couldn't do that; Comite bylaws, they said, limited a president to three consecutive two-year terms, and Rios had already had his six years in office. But Rios, according to his opponents, disagreed, insisting he'd served only two terms. That surprised Comite founder Jorge Banuelos, who says he remembers voting for Rios in 1989.

Since Rios declined to step down, charges and countercharges have flown back and forth. A "provisional government" has been established. Historical records have been put off-limits. Differing factions have met, some apparently secretly, trying to assert their legitimacy.

That it all sounds a bit excessive for an organization whose active membership recently numbered fewer than ten hasn't escaped the notice of many of those involved. The Comite faction meeting in the East End schoolroom sounded a bit embarrassed as they described the Sturm und Drang that's characterized their group's nine-week presidential power struggle. They recognize that the stakes aren't that high. Still, the fight for power has inspired dramatics that even the participants sheepishly admit are better suited to a coup d'etat.

At the epicenter of the conflict looms former, and possibly current, president Ventura Rios, a congenial and respected businessman who even opponents admit has led the Comite benignly, if perhaps neglectfully, since his last uncontested election. That, opponents say, was six years ago, and so when election day rolled around this October 24, the now-rebels say they thought Rios would gracefully step down. Instead, he signed on again as a candidate.

How could he do this if he were first elected in 1989? "He forgot," says Francisco Valle with a gentle smile. Questions of memory aside, the documents that might have cleared up the issue -- the Comite's minutes -- proved useless. According to Valle, the Comite secretary, loyal to her chief, would not produce the records.

There were also certain details to consider concerning Rios' tenure. "That 1989 election was the last one he held," explains Ripley House's Castillo. "We rarely had meetings, and there were no elections after that first one." But Rios supporter Rosalio Pena, who would offer no other comment on the subject, says it was the now-dissidents themselves who didn't want elections.

One fact, however, is not in dispute: in the most recent election, Rios again prevailed, holding his office in the midst of the debate and vowing to resign if anyone could prove he had actually been an ineligible candidate.

His rivals say Rios' victory -- he handily beat newcomer Carlos Cepeda 15 votes to eight -- was no surprise. But they add that the election was marred by improprieties, even though Mexican consul Manuel Perez Cardenas observed the elections as a diplomatic guest. For instance, says the anti-Rios group, more than a dozen prospective new members weren't permitted to vote. Rios, claim his opponents, wouldn't swear them in because he feared they'd vote against him. Rios also reportedly tried to bar long-term members, among them Fraga, Castillo and Banuelos, from casting votes.

Immediately after the election, Rios' new board took charge of the Comite's minutes and checking account -- though technically, insist opponents, they were supposed to wait until they were sworn in before doing so. Tensions escalated at a meeting on November 7, supposedly Comite inauguration day. Valle says Rios' people first changed the location of the meeting, then announced that the confab was "by invitation only." Outraged, Nelly Fraga was heard to proclaim that if everyone wasn't allowed in, she herself would not enter. Then the dissidents -- including Valle, Fraga and Banuelos -- had an ad hoc meeting in a corridor, where they planned another meeting to elect a provisional government.

Meanwhile, Valle says, his group learned that Rios' treasurer, after first transferring the group's bank account into her name, later switched it to an unknown bank -- or at least a bank unknown to Rios' opponents. Mexican consul Cardenas, clearly dismayed that his role had escalated into that of a peacekeeper, sent Comite members a letter noting that records showed that Rios had indeed served for six years and thus had been ineligible for re-election this year. Armed with that letter, the rebel contingent met on November 17 and elected a new Comite government. Rios and his backers didn't attend.

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