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In the mid 1990s, before the responsibilities of The New York Times foreign affairs columnist were largely reduced to complaining about the deficiencies of the Arab/Muslim world, Thomas Friedman used to write with more frequency about things like Mexico.
In fact, one of the landmarks of Friedman’s journalism career occurs in a 1995 article that begins with “Ricarda Martinez, a 60-year-old Mexican peasant living in a tumbledown shack on the edge of Mexico City,” whom he describes as “peeling cactus from her garden” while denying awareness of “dollar-linked peso bonds, George Soros or Merrill Lynch’s emerging markets fund.” This is one of the rare historical instances in which Friedman identifies and interacts with someone who is not a CEO, politician, “or accredited expert.” The prompt evolution of Friedman’s investigatory techniques is evident, however, in subsequent dispatches from other Latin American locations in which cactus peels do not figure into the lead:
“Flipping through the room-service menu at my Havana hotel the other morning, I noticed it listed four types of breakfast: American, Continental, Creole and Russian. Now, there aren’t too many places in the world where you find ‘Russian breakfast’ on the menu, especially this one, which consisted of caviar, smoked salmon and champagne for $125! Only a Russian businessman with an account at the Bank of New York could afford that breakfast.”
As for who can afford to be flipping through the room service menu at the five-star Meliá Cohiba in Cuba’s capital city, it is presumably the same character who continues to be shuttled all over the world while newspapers are downsizing and competent journalists are being laid off.
Friedman’s employers have thus far failed to take advantage of his exuberance over such phenomena as the Internet and to suggest that he use it rather than plane trips to devise his political and economic theories. Had they done so, the following revelation of April 1, 2004—the product of a visit to Mexico that took place during a lull in pontification about the parallels between Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq and the Munich Pact with Hitler—might have been averted:
“I hadn’t been to Mexico since 1996, so it definitely caught my ear when I started to hear two non-Spanish words on this trip that I’d never heard here before: ‘China’ and ‘India.’”
The point of the new vocabulary, we learn, is that “these two countries are running off with jobs and markets that Mexicans once thought they owned.” Friedman’s immunity to editing is meanwhile demonstrated by the absence of a correction at the end of his next article reading:
“In my last article, published on April Fool’s Day, I reported that ‘China’ and ‘India’ were not Spanish words. They are.”
Friedman’s latest Mexican jaunt has unearthed more non-Spanish words, and his May 1, 2010 communiqué from Mexico City warns that, while “Wal-Mart de Mexico is expected to open 300 new stores… this year, thanks to growing Mexican demand for consumer goods… Mexico’s drug cartels will probably open just as many new smuggling routes into America thanks to our growing demand for marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth.”
Friedman goes on to pinpoint the “three groups… now wrestling to shape Mexico’s future”: “the Narcos,” “the No’s,” and “the Naftas.” He advises rooting for the final group, which he notes has been described by Mexican economist Luis de la Calle as the “meritocratic middle class” and is comprised of “people who came from the countryside to work in new industries spawned by Nafta.”
Stressing that this is only one of two Mexican middle classes, Friedman explains why he has labeled the other middle class “the No’s”:
“…because they are the primary force opposing any reform that would involve privatizing state-owned companies, like Pemex, opening the oil or electricity sectors to foreign investors or domestic competition, or bringing best-practices and accountability to Mexican schools, where union control has kept Mexico’s public education among the worst in the world.”
It is thus not clear why an institution by the name of Carlos Marx appears alongside John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Instituto Wisdom in a sample list of private schools in poor, Nafta-inhabited areas of Mexico City compiled by economist de la Calle in his research of the meritocratic middle class. Oblivious to potential discrepancies, Friedman explains the choice of school names as “appealing to the aspirations of Mexicans, about 40 per cent of whom live below the poverty line but 75 per cent of whom identify themselves as ‘middle class’ in polls.” This clarification is not accompanied by the detection of a third Mexican middle class dubbed the “Not really middle class” to compete with the Naftas and the No’s, nor is it accompanied by speculation as to whether Ricarda Martínez has moved beyond cactus-peeling.
Additionally cited in Friedman’s analysis are the results of de la Calle’s study of the top 50 Mexican baby names of 2008:
“The most popular for girls, he said, included ‘Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.’ Not only Juans.”
In case we did not fully comprehend the difficulties faced by the Spanish language in adapting to modern civilization from his 2004 observations on China and India, Friedman goes on to predict that “the Naftas from the Instituto Wisdom” will be to thank for real political and economic reform in Mexico.” As for the Narcos, Friedman maintains that Mexican President Felipe Calderón “is bravely trying to take them on, but the Narcos have bigger guns than the Mexican Army.”
A May 11 article in Friedman’s own newspaper, however, reports that Mexico’s most-wanted drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (“Shorty” in the non-Spanish version) “is a master at buying off top police officers and soldiers,” which suggests that the current Mexican panorama might be slightly more complex than a competition between 3 groups starting with the letter N.
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is a feature writer at pulsemedia.org. Her book “Coffee with Hezbollah” is available through Amazon, Amazon UK, and Barnes and Noble.