Last year the first freely elected President of Mexico promised his voters substantial economic growth through his free market plans, a rapid settlement of the Chiapas mess and a campaign to wipe out human rights abuse and corruption. Despite my skepticism, I felt optimistic.
After all, by choosing Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party, Mexicans unseated the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, which for 70 years had held a monopoly of state power and abused it to the max.
After one year, I conclude, Fox deserves an award — the flat tire prize for failing to complete promises.
Instead of the 7% economic growth rate he pledged, he has delivered 0%. Yes, the US recession caused a reduction in orders for the maquiladoras, the factories built in Mexico because it offers capitalists low-wage labor, and no unions or costly environmental regulations.
But even with all its attractions, investors respond to recession by reducing their investment, including the ones going to Mexico — on which Fox’s plan for Mexican prosperity depends. And, as the saying goes, when the United States sneezes, Mexico develops pneumonia.
Over the last six months, to continue the metaphor, the United States has had a long term running nose and hacking cough; Mexico has had a veritable epidemic of emphysema.
Take Ciudad Juarez, the birthplace of Mexico’s maquilas. Less than a year ago, Juarez more than 250 export factories claimed full employment. Indeed, “help wanted” signs hung from their doors and walls. Now, Juarez has over 17% unemployed.
Calculate the meaning of this “official” figure in population terms. Thanks to the maquilas, Juarez grew from a sleepy border town on the other side of the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas, into an industrial behemoth whose population may well have tipped the 2 million mark.
Likewise, Tijuana, has suffered a dramatic rise in unemployment. Needless to say, the post September 11 security measures increased the amount of delivery time for products that cross the Mexico-US border.
By basing Mexico’s prosperity exclusively on foreign investment, Fox had tied Mexico’s destiny to the capricious play of the speculators’ mindset. When recession hits and US consumers cut back on their shopping habits, any former corporate executive ought to know, there is an immediate reduction of orders.
Now Mexico, which over the last decades has stopped all efforts to achieve self sufficiency in food staples, must buy US corn and beans to feed its people while it suffers a serious reduction in income.
Fox also boasted, in a moment of bravado, that he could make peace in Chiapas in 15 minutes. Some say he really meant 24 hours. A year after this piece of bragging, 50,000 Mexican troops still occupy the Mayans’ land, stopping travelers on the jungle roads, occasionally arresting, raping and killing suspected Zapatista rebels.
Similarly, in Guerrero, troops stop travelers on the highway between the tourist meccas of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, supposedly checking for arms and drugs. Military patrols in the Guerrero mountains hunt for guerrillas and members of the Peasant Ecologists Organization, who in the late 1990s had successfully stopped Boise Cascade from accomplishing the clear cutting all of their woodlands.
The army, representing the political bosses who were making super profits from the US-based multi-national, arrested peasants — although the Constitution does not give them that power — tortured them, according to human rights monitors and assassinated others. Indeed, army personnel are suspected of having assassinated earlier this year Digna Ochoa, a human rights lawyer who represented the peasant ecologists.
Does Fox not control his army, as some Mexicans suspect? Was he just naÃ¯ve? Or is he downright duplicitous?
In foreign policy, Fox appointed the clever, former leftist intellectual Jorge Castaneda, who ended all leftist pretense by announcing that principles would play no part in his foreign policy.
Castaneda did however retain his personal dislike, for Fidel Castro and started a fight with the Cubans over human rights — behaving as if Mexico stood as a shining light on the subject. Perhaps Castaneda had forgotten the very recent and long list of human rights abuses committed by Mexican police and army units — torture, disappearances, assassinations.
His behavior with the United States, however, has been downright subservient. A cab driver told me with a straight face, “Fox and Castaneda together have set a Mexican record for kissing US ass. Not even when he was trying to get into NAFTA did former President Carlos Salinas behave as submissively with the gringos.”
“But,” he continued, “Fox has accomplished several important things. He’s made it difficult for raped women to have abortions, for teenagers to wear mini skirts or for homosexuals to marry. Even more important,” he continued, “our government has banned sexy brassiere ads and removed statues of Benito Juarez and erected new ones of the conquistadors, the guys who killed the Indians.”
“Oh,” he said, still without cracking a smile, “Fox also allowed prices of medicine to rise beyond the reach of the poor, while he appropriated more money than any previous president for foreign travel — and he got married. So, donâ€™t say he hasnâ€™t done anything.”
But, I said, he was freely elected.
“Yes,” the driver admitted. “Long live democracy. May it some day relate to human life in Mexico.”