Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Is the tide finally turning in Mexico? No.

Georgie Anne Geyer, writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune, asks, Is the tide finally turning in Mexico? I can answer that question.

I have written 2 or 3 posts about the current Mexican presidential race, immigration - or rather, illegal immigration - Mexcian politics and the reasons for Mexico's stance on an open border between itself and the USA. I was less than pleased with my efforts, didn't publish them, and ultimately deleted them. So, here goes a 2 or 3 parter on how we got to where we are and what the prospects are of changing the status quo. At least, from the perspective of an American who has lived in Mexico since 1994.

Ms. Geyer says,
In short, Mexico is so corrupt, so oligopolistic, so rotting inside with the privilege of the rich that it has to send its poor and its potential political activists to another country. And on top of that, it tries to blame the United States for its own failures.
All too true, Ms. Geyer. Later, she says,
There is virtually no industrialization, no small business, no real chance at individual entrepreneurship.
I'll give her two of three there. One of Mexico's biggest problems (that's almost an oxymoron because all of Mexico's problems could be classified as "its biggest") is the fact that only small businesses can be started and survive. By "small business" I mean the tens, or, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of mom and pop workshops and stores that crop up throughout the country.

For instance, within 2 blocks of my office are 3 grocery stores (10 x 20 feet each, each built into the former living rooms of apartments which here are called "houses"), a lady who cooks tamales in her kitchen Sat-Sun-Mon which her husband sells on the streets on Tuesday and she cooks tamales on Tue-Wed-Thur which her husband sells on Fridays (her operation is directly in front of my office and I have the roach infestation to prove it), a lady who turned her living room into a chicken rotisserie, a family that turned their living room into a lunchroom, a family whose mother and daughter cook and sell hotdogs every evening from a street vending cart which during the days is parked on their front porch, a lady who makes and freezes yoghurt popsicles and sells them through the front window of her "house", two different graphic arts advertising companies, and another family which sets up tables and chairs, partially blocking the street every Saturday and Sunday afternoon and sells lunches and dinners to the neighbors. All this within one block to the west and less than one block to the east of my office.

The neighborhood where my office is located is the norm, not the anomaly. As one moves around this city, or the city of Puebla, or Mexico City, or any city in Mexico, this is what you will see. Thousands upon thousands of small, independent businesses providing a meager return to their owner-operators. And I'm not even talking about the ambulantes (street vendors) who set up shop illegaly in every high traffic area in every city. Of those, there are tens of thousands more.

So, Ms. Geyer is wrong when she says that there are no small businesses. That's the problem. There are only small businesses. The oligarchs and the rich make sure that there are only small businesses. To further illustrate my point, Ms. Geyer underscores it herself with this:
Meanwhile, Mexico collects taxes equivalent to 9.7 percent of GDP, a figure on a par with Haiti; there is painfully little to spend on education and health care, which means there is no social mobility and little job opportunity.
Guess why. Of all the independent businesses that I just mentioned, only the two graphic arts companies pay taxes, if even they pay any taxes at all. None of them collects IVA, the omnipresent 15% VAT which is supposed to be paid on all goods and services rendered in the country and, therefore, none is paid to the government.

If and when a health inspector or tax collector comes around, the owners plead for mercy, pay the inspector/collector a few hundred pesos in bribes, receive the requested mercy, and the inspector/collector goes away until the next time when the scenario is replayed. Let me ask you this; What else is the inspector/collector going to do? He's not going to try to shut down a neighborhood mom and pop business. So long as they wet his beak just a bit, he's not even going to threaten them too much or give their illegal businesses too hard a time. Why not? Because, A: How else are these people going to survive? and, B: the neighbors would quickly gather a force and lynch the inspector causing great embarrassment to the city's mayor and the state's governor as well as to the local police forces whose asses they would also kick. Trust me, it's happened many times.

Ms. Geyer says,
When I was in Mexico last fall, after dozens of visits over the years, people on every political and social level confirmed these accusations, complaining to me of Fox's failures. Forty families still own 60 percent of Mexico. There are no voluntary organizations, no civic involvement, no family foundations – and thus, no accountability, allowing corruption to flourish.
Ms. Geyer, I was in Mexico last fall also. I was in Mexico last winter, last summer and last spring as well as the previous 43 seasons. And I don't know who you were talking to but they must have been from a very sheltered clan. Fox didn't do the things he promised to do because he couldn't.

If 40 families own 60% of the country, what is a non-member like Fox going to do about it? He has to get legislation through the federal congress which he does not control. The rich and the oligarchs control the congress. Fox is a member of the PAN political party. The PRI, which had controlled the presidency and the country for the previous 70 odd years prior to Fox's victory in 2000, and the PRD, which is the leftist party currently sponsoring presidential candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), were bitter enemies. So bitter that murder and assassination, mostly but not exclusively by the PRI, was a favored and common political tool. However, once a Panista was elected president, the PRI and the PRD suddenly became best of buddies, at least in the congress, and successfully blocked almost all of Fox's initiatives. He was stuck and he has remained stuck. There was absolutely nothing that he could do.

Ms. Geyer describes Fox as "laconic". That's true and therein lies his failure as a reform leader. A successful reformer needs a big mouth. He's got to give no quarter, knowing that not all his reform goals will be met. It is Fox's nature to try to win by negotiation, sound argument, presenting facts, etc. That doesn't work here. When a legislator who works only a few months out of the year, is being paid $148,000 a year, plus a $28,000 “leaving-office bonus” at the end of the term (deputies cannot stand for re-election), all at the behest of the oligarchs and the wealthy 40 families, who cares what a laconic reformer wants. Screw'im.

Do you think that President Bush lies awake at night worrying about what August A. Busch, Jr. is up to? Fox lies awake at night worrying about what María Asunción Aramburuzabala, owner of Grupo Modelo and wife of US Ambassador Tony Garza, is up to. She's worth $2 billion and owns a chunk of Televisa to boot. She's a member of both the groups: the richest 40 families as well as an oligarch. Plus, she's married to the US ambassador. Sweet, but not so sweet for Fox. And why is Tony Garza still the US ambassador to Mexico? After his marriage last year to one of the people most responsible for the disaster that is Mexico, he should have been reassigned to Latvia.

Was the US Department of Justice afraid to take on Microsoft and the richest man in the world? Nah. The DOJ not only took on Bill Gates and his company, but also slapped him around pretty well. Could Fox's government take on Carlos Slim and his company, Telmex, which controls 96% of fixed land lines and 80% of the cellular phone market in Mexico? Don't make me laugh.

Do the Republican party movers and shakers worry too much about Rupert Murdoch's fixation with Hillary Clinton? I doubt that they like it, but I also doubt that they lose any sleep over it. But I am sure that Fox loses sleep over Ricardo Salinas Pliego, owner of TV Azteca as well as Emilio Azcarraga Jean, owner of Televisa. If they go against him, he couldn't leave his residence at Los Pinos. American Black Hawks would have to fly in and rescue him and his family.

If Fox's government was ever to take on any of these or several other oligarchs or rich Mexican families, some or all of the following would happen:
1. Judges would be bribed.
2. Judges would be threatened.
3. Judges would be shot dead.
4. Government lawyers would be bribed.
5. Government lawyers would be threatened.
6. Government lawyers would be shot dead
7. Fox would be threatened (he's not going to accept a bribe).
8. Fox would be shot dead.
And Vicente Fox is well aware of this.

If Vicente Fox and the Mexican government cannot gain control of the streets in a mid-sized city (pop. 400,000) like Nuevo Laredo after almost a year of effort, what chance does his government have to gain control of the legislature or the courts or public opinion or the oligarchs or the richest 40 families that own 60% of the country or a 1951 mile international border with the United States? Answer: None whatsoever.

When I first arrived in Mexico in 1994, on my very first day there, I had lunch with a Mexican customer in downtown Matamoros. He told me the following:
Mark, I'm going to tell you a story that will explain who we Mexicans are and you must remember it well. Out there in the Gulf there is a demarcation line separating the United States and Mexico. On the north side of that line, in US waters, lies a crab trap set there by US fishermen. It is filled with US crabs. They are all desperately trying to escape from the trap. They are fighting and biting and pinching and climbing on top of one another, all in their efforts to escape. If one should be so lucky as to discover a way out, all the rest will follow.

Now, south of that line, in Mexican waters, there is another crab trap, this one placed there by Mexican fishermen. It, too, is filled with crabs, only they are Mexican crabs. They are all backed up against the inside walls of the trap eyeing each other suspiciously. If one of them appears to be making a successful effort to escape, the others rush in to drag him back.

Remember this about Mexico and you'll do OK here.
He was buttering a dinner roll slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully as he spoke and he never looked me in the eyes throughout his little lesson. After he finished, he bent his head and continued to eat. He was ashamed, I guess. He also didn't want any questions. But he was a good guy and wanted me to start my stay in Mexico armed with the best possible knowledge of his people that he knew how to give me. I'll never forget that lesson and, in the months and years that followed, his words rang true and the now ring more true than ever.

Next up: A man who should be remembered as one of Mexico's greatest presidents and Vicente Fox (they aren't the same guy).

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Note: Not spell-checked because Blogger goes nuts with Spanish accent marks.

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