Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Mexico Lindo y Querido?

"And this government? It has learned the lesson that Thatcher never grasped. If you want to turn this country into another Mexico, where the ruling elite wallows in unimaginable, state-facilitated wealth while the rest can go to hell, you don't declare war on society, you don't lambast single mothers or refuse to apologise for Bloody Sunday. You assuage, reassure, conciliate, emote. Then you shaft us."

This comparison, which concluded an article in today's Guardian by George Monbiot would have been more (though not completely) true of Guatemala, but this was the week when figures from across UK's media and entertainment sphere decided to offload years of pent-up, ill-informed impressions of our northern neighbour.

When Clarkson and co kicked things off on the 30th of January, Richard Hammond had a particularly hairy border crossing from the territory of acceptable British national stereotyping into the bandit country of xenophobic unpleasantness.

Cherished British comic and would-be Hollywood export Steve Coogan was as unimpressed by the BBC's subsequent qualified apology as most Mexicans, finding the smug Top Gear trio guilty of a form of international bullying: "With Top Gear, it is three middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. rabe, groundbreaking stuff, eh?"

Hold on Steve. Hammond called them lazy, feckless and flatulent. Poor is surely one of your own.

Now, as George Monbiot sagely notes, national lucre isn't always divided up in a uniformly equable manner (viz. the USA), but if one uses the CIA's data for GDP per capita in 2010, one finds that overall Mexicans are better off than the citizens of several EU member nations including Bulgaria and Romania and one would-be EU-member, Turkey. More topically, Mexico's per capita GDP of $13,800 comes in at more than double that of 'poor' Egypt, $6,200.

In spite of the global downturn, so called 'Mexican flu' and all those decapitated bodies in Acapulco, Mexico's economy still grew at a rate of 5% last year, compared to zero or even negative growth in parts of 'new Europe'.

Mexican tourists are reportedly amongst the biggest spenders in London.
And let us not forget that the world's biggest pistudo, Carlos Slim, is a Mexican. Flatulent he might be, but lazy, feckless and most definitely poor, he is not. Could Señor Slim be one of these state-facilitated fat-cats to which Monbiot refers?

Mexico's political and economic arrangements should actually be quite hard to stereotype, given that they are at least partly the result of the first and most unusual of the twentieth century's great revolutions. But perhaps Monbiot was referring to the pre-revolutionary Mexico, as run by the authoritarian and elitist Porfirista regime?

Long before Hugo Chávez began refashioning autocracy for a democratic age, Mexico's upheaval was finally settled by the creation of a corporatist state, governed by a hegemonic political party — the PRI — which, needing to at least resemble something liberal and accountable — limited its leaders, who otherwise had the powers of absolute monarchs, to six year terms. "There isn't a unique model for democracy," as one of the last of the PRI presidentes, Carlos Salinas was to observe.

There was a long period of somewhat illusory consensus, brought to an abrupt end by the student massacres of 1968 and 1971. President Luis Echevarría ('70-'76) borrowed like crazy and would have ruined the country sooner than the eventual debt default of '82, had not a chingo of oil been discovered off the coast of Campeche. Then came the '85 quake and Zedillo's disastrous currency flotation of '94 after which the PRI's political monopoly finally crumbled. The advent of Vicente Fox appeared to signal an end to authoritarianism, but in fact presidential power devolved back, not to the people, but to local governors and alcaldes, more diffuse for sure, but still within the aegis of the state.

Nevertheless, Michael Reid at the Economist notes that "Mexico has changed radically. It is a much more democratic, pluralist and open society than it was under Salinas."

Yet in spite of this and in spite of the sustained economic growth of recent years, half a million Mexicans attempt to migrate into the US each year. Part of the problem is that manufacturing growth at the centre has come at the cost of rural impoverishment in the peripheries, and both have been accelerated by Mexico's membership of NAFTA. (Though without NAFTA, total exports would have been 50% lower and foreign direct investment 40% less, according to one study. Reid thinks the real problem has been a lack of EU-style regional development funds and proper sponsorship from el Norte.)

Today Mexico is no Scandinavian political paradise, but then if the late Stieg Larsson is to be believed, nor is Sweden. It's really no fairer to refer to it as an oligarchic kleptocracy than it would be to say the same of the USA.

It remains a 'low intensity' democracy, plagued by the impact of hot money and stop-start reform. Recently we've had a chuckle or two every time the Federal government's latest announcement touting its unprecedented motorway-building programme appears on ForoTV. "Now my avocados can travel further and further," says the farmer in the ad, leading us to such naughty thoughts as "not just avocados..."

The point is that anyone who has actually visited Mexico cannot help but be impressed by the infrastructure and will inevitably come away with the impression that this is far from being a monolithic two-tier society.

After the revolution Mexico, like many Latin American nations adopted expensive European-style social security systems without really endowing the state with the means to pay for them. They also tend to cover the middle classes and organised working classes better than they do the masses of rural poor.

Yet crucially, the rich of Mexico do seem to have a better understanding than their counterparts north of the border that they actually need their nation's poor people — and that they need them to be less poor, because poverty has been acting as a brake on Mexico's economic growth. Poverty-reduction remains one of the fundamental cross-party aims of the modern state, with education one of the key pillars of this policy.

Mexico currently trains more engineers each year than the USA, China or India.


norm said...

I think the same kind of progress is afoot in Guate. The blog "The Innkeeper's Tail" has a current posting on Guate's look into the civil war that killed so many people a few decades ago. In the past, that pile of paper would have gone up in smoke-progress.

Anonymous said...

When you wrote that the "rich" of Mexico had a better understanding of the poor than gringos, did you mean to write the "educated" of Mexico? I've known a few rich Mexicans, their scorn for the poor/indigenas, untempered by (hypocritical) Christianity, would make a Republican cringe.

scott said...

We were extremely impressed with many aspects of Mexico City a few years back--among them, the art and music scene, the museums, the universities, and the excellent subway system. Truly one of the great cities of the world.

And much of it is on Google Street View now! Take a tour around the Zocalo...