The other day I was talking with my friend Paula in her Mexico City living room. She sat across from me on a couch, laptop open, glancing now and again at the latest updates on the student occupation of UNAM’s executive office building (the National Autonomous University of Mexico).
“Alex,” she said, sighing a strange blend of laughter and despair, “you arrived in Mexico just as it’s going to hell in a handbasket.”
Paula and I often talk about Mexico’s problems. She shows me footage of the rally-turned-riot on December 1, 2012, when president Enrique Peña Nieto took office. We talk about the introduction of GMO corn to Mexico (the birthplace of corn) and about farcical government conferences on “the right to food.” Corruption. Violence. Etcetera.
“Hell in a handbasket.”
Of course, people often see the worst in modern society, and they often portray the state of the world in apocalyptic terms. Someone was surely saying the same thing 10, 20, and 30 years ago, and will do so again in another decade.
Nevertheless, the contrast between how Paula portrays Mexico’s immediate future and how the international mass media portrays it is striking.
At the end of February, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a couple of articles about his recent trip to Mexico. In “How Mexico Got Back in the Game” and “Is Mexico the New Comeback Kid?”, Friedman assures readers in the USA and beyond that “everything you’ve read about Mexico is true,” from the violence to the corruption. “But that’s only half the story.” He then proceeds to paint a rosy picture of the country he proclaims will be “the dominant economic power of the 21st century.”
Friedman cites Mexico’s large number of free trade agreements, improved higher education, fiscal discipline, and his conversations with young social entrepreneurs in Monterrey, Mexico as proof of the country’s imminent blossoming. There are plenty of apropos critiques of Friedman’s articles in their comments sections, pointing out that free trade agreements, for example, have “decimated their historical farming base” and provided little evidence of improvements for employment or income. More economic integration under the current system would bring more of the same.
As for the entrepreneurs that Friedman spoke with, they are centered around Monterrey Tech, an educational institution run by Mexico’s business elite. Friedman tells us that “We need a more nuanced view of Mexico. While touring the Center for Agrobiotechnology at Monterrey Tech, Mexico’s M.I.T., its director, Guy Cardineau, an American scientist from Arizona, remarked to me…” The point that Cardineau makes is that Mexico isn’t as dangerous as people think it is. Fair enough. But the idea that a more nuanced view of Mexico is best derived from the American who runs the agrobiotechnology institution for Mexico’s wealthy, or from Monterrey’s technocrats in general, is somewhat absurd.
We do, indeed, need a more nuanced view of Mexico. A friend of mine, Rodolfo, is perhaps a good example of Friedman’s social entrepreneurs from Monterrey Tech. He received a scholarship to study there and now runs a solar energy installation company in Tláhuac, in southern Mexico City, focusing on small businesses like tortilla shops and taco stands.
He certainly appreciates his education. “Thanks to the Tech, I dedicate myself to alternative sources of energy.” But his perspective on the expensive institution itself differs greatly from Friedman’s: “The majority of the student body really isn’t aware of the social context of the country. […] They’re distanced from the context of reality. They’re distanced from the environment.”
“And it’s systemic. That lack of awareness has the intent to control.” The school is a neoliberal bubble with technocratic faculty. The few degrees offered in the humanities, Rodolfo says, are designed to influence Mexico to be more favorable to large business. “Many of Monterrey Tech’s alumni work in very good positions, in the communication media, for example, where they dictate the editorial lines of the media.” They now offer a degree in labor law, “labor law that is none too friendly to workers.”
Friedman also cites Mexico’s three-party collaboration in the “Pact for Mexico” as an example of democratic progress. In an article entitled “Peña Nieto, Salinas, and the international press,” Mexican journalist Alejandro Navarrete describes how the current president has focused his early efforts to earn legitimacy on winning the favor of the international press. The Mexican administration, writes Navarrete, achieves this through an “immense strategic effort of public relations.”
Unfortunately, I think tht Friedman’s enthusiasm for the Pact for Mexico is due, in part, to the Peña Nieto government’s public relations department. Here in Mexico (outside the walls of the Monterrey Tech) the Pact for Mexico’s reforms are a laughing stock and a rallying point for protests. One of its main points, educational reform, has had teachers throughout the country organizing protests and walk-outs for months.
According to Proceso, 70,000 teachers took to the streets in the city of Oaxaca alone on May 15, Teacher’s Day. A teacher’s organization in Puebla, the Pueblan Democratic Teacher’s Council, states that “the education reform has little to do with reform and nothing to do with education. It was a labor reform that was openly regressive, punitive, privitizing, with a neoliberal orientation.”
To be fair, lots of progressive Mexicans say that yes, of course, the new government will bring “improvements.” But when you look at the reason why, this isn’t so encouraging.
In a heated conversation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a friend repeated to me what many others have said about the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, back in power after a 12-year recess from its 72-year reign). The PRI has agreements with the narcotics traffickers, she explained. Things run more smoothly with the PRI because instead of fighting corruption, they coordinate it.
The previous president, Felipe Calderón, launched a War on Drugs that left over 70,000 people dead, including one of her friends. In an atmosphere of violence that intense, impunity becomes the norm. If someone disappeared, the authorities shrugged and the media blamed the narcos, dismissing the victim for being involved with drug trafficking.
That’s what happened when the government turned on the cartels. The PRI never made that mistake, so yes, they will probably bring the benefits of increased stability. Mexicans are tired of the shootings, so a government that doesn’t provoke violence by fighting organized crime is somewhat of a relief.
But at what cost does this stability come? Thomas Friedman seems to think that the inequality and economic struggles of Mexico are of little importance when there is a successful class of businessmen on the rise. “Monterrey has tens of thousands of poor living in shantytowns. They’ve been there for decades,” Friedman acknowledges. “What is new, though, is that [Monterrey], Mexico’s Silicon Valley, now also has a critical mass of young, confident innovators trying to solve Mexico’s problems, by leveraging technology and globalization.”
What is not new, though, is the fact that increased economic integration between the U.S. and Mexico will not slowly improve the condition of the shantytowns. The free trade agreements that Friedman praises have been there for the same decades as the shantytowns. There is no trickle-down effect here. If they’ve done anything to “improve” the lot of impoverished Mexican families, they’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back and sent a family member to the US, where with luck they’ve avoided the US immigration officers and been able to send home some extra money.
The current Mexican government’s reforms are not solving Mexico’s inequality, even if they end up increasing GDP, entrepreneurialism or the number of billionaires in Mexico. They are perpetuating it.
I don’t want to give the impression that Mexico doesn’t have many reasons to be hopeful – it does. Just not for the reasons that Friedman mentions. The NYTimes columnist learned from one of the Monterrey start-up companies that “Mexicans have started to wonder about America lately.” This statement is wrong on two accounts. The bad news is that many Mexicans don’t wonder, they happily eat at McDonald’s and shop at Walmart. The good news, though, is that many Mexicans have been wondering for a long time. Even before the 1840s, when the USA took half of their territory away.
More recent movements like The Other Campaign, the attitudes that emerged in last years’ Yo Soy 132 protests, and dozens of smaller local movements show us that there are many Mexicans working for real change. They are working from the ground up, precisely so that Mexico does NOT become the neoliberal poster-child for the 21st century.