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The Ultimate Mexican Hype Machine

The Myth of the Aztec Tiger

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City.

According to rumors spread by everyone from The Economist to The New York Times, Mexico has gone from being the bloody epicenter of the “drug war” to a roaring “Aztec tiger” in the space of three short months. Following last summer’s fraud-drenched election (aren’t they all?) in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regained the presidency after a twelve-year absence, President Enrique Peña Nieto is going all out to change Mexico’s image from bloodbath to boom.

The world’s media is in love – and who wouldn’t be? Besides being a lady-killer, Peña Nieto, with soap opera wife “The Seagull” in tow, is the ultimate hype machine. The Financial Times suggests that Peña has the magic to replace Hugo Chávez as the region’s symbolic figurehead. According to the FT, in the absence of the late, great Bolivarian heavyweight, Peña Nieto’s neoliberal administration will deliver a knockout punch to the “Latin Left”. Chávez is the past, they say. Peña Nieto is the future of Latin America.

This perspective, shared by the US business community, is becoming a trend. Thomas Friedman in The New York Times asked “Is Mexico the Comeback Kid?” while Foreign Affairs jumped the gun completely with “Mexico Makes It”. Only Time magazine’s veteran correspondent Tim Padgett stayed off the sauce and offered reasons as to “why the world should tone down the hype” while The Miami Herald usefully pointed out that “everybody is upbeat about Mexico – except Mexicans”. The respected Latinobarómetro reports that only 22% of Mexicans believe that the country is governed for the good of its population.  66% continue to view their country’s economic performance as anywhere between “average” and “poor”.

So why the hype? It’s an orchestrated attempt by the returning PRI to change Mexico’s image from “drug war zone” (the US State Dept still advises against all but essential travel to fifteen Mexican states) to free trade poster child. At the heart of it is the Pacto por México – a nine-point national agreement signed by all three major parties (including the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party) and an ambitious reform agenda that takes in labor laws, tax reform, the public education system, the telecommunications industry and the energy sector. Four of these bills have already been passed at lightning speed and with a notable lack of political debate.

The winners are overwhelmingly foreign investors. Peña Nieto is receiving plaudits for finally taking on entrenched monopolies in both the private (telecommunications) and public (oil and education) sector – a political no-no in the past. This has meant clashing with the country’s equally-entrenched and woefully corrupt state-affiliated unions. The “dinosaurs” (the old PRI) are being usurped by the neoliberals (new PRI) with Peña taking no prisoners.

During the death throes of his blood-splattered presidency, Peña Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderón (now a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School) insisted that the world accept Mexico as a middle-class country. Calderón became increasingly delusional as his term went on but how anybody could view a nation with at least twenty million living in extreme poverty, 50% of the population toiling in the informal sector and 11,000 deaths per year from malnutrition as “middle-class” is anyone’s guess.

Reform Me Senseless     

Let’s not forget how we got here. Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in the July 2012 election was the third “democratic” election in Mexico to be marred by controversy, including the usual tactics of campaign overspending, media bias and bought votes. By now, it’s de rigueur for Mexican parties to trample roughshod over the country’s stringent but barely enforced electoral laws. This is US-style democracy; the 1% invest heavily and pick their winner. Peña Nieto, representing the party that governed Mexico for 71 years in the twentieth century, was the chosen one.

The new mob came in with a bang. Peña Nieto’s inauguration on December 1st saw peaceful demonstrations by the student-led pro-democracy movement #YoSoy132 brutally repressed. Evidence soon emerged of so-called “infiltrators” who rioted through Mexico City’s downtown in an attempt to discredit the movement – a tried-and-trusted party tactic in the face of dissent.

The much-touted “structural reforms” designed to turn Mexico into an economic powerhouse are now coming thick and fast. Some, such as reform of the country’s shambolic public education system and the loosening of private monopolies, are absolutely necessary, but all are being crafted to please domestic oligarchs while opening the Mexican economy to further foreign penetration.

Labor reform, which was passed at the eleventh hour of the Felipe Calderón administration thanks to a pact with the PRI, is designed to give foreign corporations greater freedom to hire and fire, all at low, low wages. It effectively tears up Mexico’s 1970 labor laws in order to “compete” with China in the exploitation stakes. Mexico’s recent growth has mainly been attributed to the return of the maquiladoras – or sweatshops – as Chinese wages increase and Mexico’s remain stagnant.

Fiscal reform is all about increasing VAT on medicines, food and other essential goods in a bid to fill the gulf that will undoubtedly occur when the national oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), which provides over a third of the federal budget, is privatized. Mexico has one of the lowest tax collection rates in Latin America. 50% of the workforce toils in the informal sector while the rich cough up nothing, leaving the middle-class to begrudgingly shoulder the burden.

Telecommunications reform is all about loosening the grip of the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, and the Azcárraga family on the telecom and television/radio industries respectively.  Slim controls 70% of cell phone coverage and 80% of the fixed-line market; the PRI-centric Televisa, along with little brother TV Azteca, enjoy 97% of the country’s television audience. These heavyweights were immune to the opening of Mexico’s economy following the NAFTA agreement; the so-called “opening” of the industry means that now they will simply compete with each other for the spoils.

La Maestra Falls 

A roadblock for the PRI or any other party that wants to pass reforms in Mexico has always been the immensely powerful state-linked unions that the early PRI built their political empire upon. At the top of the pile was Elba Esther Gordillo aka La Maestra (The Teacher), whose 1.5 million-strong Education Workers’ Union (SNTE) is the largest in Latin America and ludicrously defends such practices as the inheritance and buying of teaching jobs.

As a result, Mexico’s public education system has a dire reputation even by Latin American standards but the new reform is a double-edged sword. Intended to introduce standardized testing and performance-based pay as well as open the system to private investment, the bill is little more than an echo of US education reform, as a corporate propaganda-style film De Panzazo! – the Mexican equivalent of Waiting for Superman – ably demonstrates.

Elba Gordillo, a veritable caricature of Mexican corruption, led the SNTE for 23 years while spending untold millions on shopping trips, luxury properties, and plastic surgery. Over the past two decades, she became arguably the most powerful woman in the country, selling her political support to the highest bidder every six years and enjoying absolute impunity.

Well, not anymore. A mere twenty-four hours after the new education bill was passed, Gordillo was arrested at Toluca City Airport for – what else – illicit enrichment totalling US$202.3 million. Everyone had always known that Gordillo was a crook, but more importantly she became a thorn in Peña Nieto’s side, shifting her support to the National Action Party (PAN) in 2006 and using the might of the SNTE to try to block the new reform.

La Maestra’s (long overdue) fall from grace would obviously be applauded were it not for the rank hypocrisy surrounding the affair. The $202 million-dollar question is that if the government can prove embezzlement by Elba Esther Gordillo, why can’t they prove it by anybody else? Naturally, it’s all about how you play the game. Romero Deschamps, the equally-corrupt head of the Oil Workers’ Union, will survive now that he backs the forthcoming energy reform.

The de facto privatization of PEMEX, the state oil monopoly and Latin America’s second largest company, will be the most controversial of the new reforms. The company, which pays huge taxes, symbolizes President Lázaro Cárdenas’ legendary declaration of economic independence in 1938 and has become a monument to Mexican nationalism. Yet it’s also an unwieldy beast beset by corruption, lack of investment and rapidly decreasing reserves.

An explosion at PEMEX’s Mexico City headquarters – a 33-storey office tower – on January 31st was viewed by some as a stunt by the government to fast-forward privatization. There’s little evidence it was anything more than a gas leak but at the very least it was a spectacular metaphor for the company’s imminent demise.

* * *

This flurry of reforms has seen the likes of Thomas Friedman describe Mexico as a rising power to rival India and China, but no US cheerleader of the Peña Nieto administration can tell us how this relates to social development and a better quality of life for the country’s impoverished legions, many of whom still suffer from unprecedented amounts of crime and violence.

We’re supposed to ignore the fact that foreign investors in Mexico simply prop up a political mafiocracy whose rampant corruption and links to organized crime are legendary and still go unpunished. Or that in many cases, these investors take advantage of such impunity by illegally buying concessions, as shown in the recent Wal-Mart scandal.

Few who know anything about Mexican history are fooled. Take the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) who publicly re-emerged in December after a long spell of media silence to send a series of barbed and witty comunicados to the new administration. It was, after all, Peña Nieto’s political godfather and fellow disciple of the Washington Consensus, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who suppressed the original Zapatista uprising in 1994.

In the corridors of power, however, opposition is hard to find. The right-wing PAN, which offered Mexicans no kind of alternative to the Carlos Salinas/Peña Nieto brigade during its twelve years in power, was annihilated in last year’s elections. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), long the only hope for the left at the polls, has been drifting towards the right for years, hijacked by opportunists who have no stomach for taking on the oligarchy. Long-time dissident voice and twice PRD presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO), has finally ditched the party and is looking to form his own.

As for the grassroots left, it’s as active as ever, but there are so many diverse strands that don’t always coalesce, nor show an appetite for electoral politics. Mexico is still looking for its Chávez or Lula or indeed anyone willing to put forward an alternative to the neoliberal project. In the meantime, stand with the majority of Mexicans and don’t believe the hype.

Paul Imison is a journalist based in Mexico City. His book, Blood and Betrayal: Inside the Mexican Drug Wars, will be published by CounterPunch / AK Press next fall. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com.