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Mexico: a window on technology and the poor

Gary Chapman

Over the Columbus Day weekend, I was in Mexico City, attending and speaking at a conference marking the founding of the Mexican chapter of the Internet Society.

That was a potentially historic event in itself. But that Saturday was also Día de la Raza -- "Day of the People'' -- celebrated in Washington, D.C. by the largest Latino demonstration in U.S. history, and in Mexico City by the first capital city demonstration of the famous Zapatista peasants from the mountains of southern Chiapas province.

Mexico City is always a jolting brace of contrasts. But the juxtaposition of the Internet conference with the appearance of a Zapatista leader in the capital -- the terminally ill Comandante Ramona, who gave a speech at a rally in the Zócalo, the city's immense central plaza -- provided an especially striking symbol of the tensions that will dominate world politics in the coming century.

The co-existence of the rich and the poor in Mexico City, the largest city in the world, characterizes the "mega-cities'' of the globe, including several in the U.S. But a new element in Mexico is the introduction of armed resistance by the poorest of the poor, first in the Chiapas revolt of early 1994, and earlier in 1997 by surprise attacks in Guerrero and other regions.

A showdown over democratic reform is looming, and that could be a harbinger of trends in other parts of the developing world.

The growth of the Internet has until recently been very slow, in large part because of the abysmal performance of the national telephone system run by Telmex -- Teléfonos de Mexico -- which, until 1990, was a state-owned monopoly. Under the Salinas de Gortari government, Telmex was privatized and sold to a consortium of companies including the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Carso, France Telecom, and Southwestern Bell of the U.S.

When Telmex was sold, it had only about 5 million access lines to serve a population of over 80 million people, and service was slow, unreliable, and expensive. Nevertheless, Telmex has been, and continues to be, one of the world's most profitable companies.

A new Internet backbone for universities called Red Tecnológica Nacional, or RTN, was initiated in 1994. About 90% of the Internet traffic in Mexico is handled through the universities connected to RTN. But commercial providers can now be found in nearly 50 Mexican cities. In January of next year, the Mexican government will open the country's long-distance market to competition, and a Mexican subsidiary of MCI called Avantel has announced that it will offer Internet access.

Because of these developments, university researchers and some Mexican entrepreneurs decided to launch the Mexican Internet Society. The new president is Jeffrey Fernández, who runs the computer systems for the University of Guadalajara. The goals of the Mexican Internet Society are to promote the international vision of the Internet as a means of democratic communication, and to help intensify Internet use in the country.

Over the weekend of the founding conference, however, the newspapers in Mexico City were filled with breathless reports of the visit to the capital of Comandante Ramona. Over protests by the government, Zapatista leaders were invited to attend a week-long Congress of Indigenous People and, in a masterful stroke of imagery, they sent the tiny, dying Tzotzil Indian leader, who wore the symbolic black ski mask during her entire stay.

Fittingly, the Zapatistas themselves are a forceful presence on the Internet. José Angel Gurría, Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, said, "The shootings [in Chiapas] lasted ten days only; since then, the war in Chiapas has been a war of inks, of writings, and a war on the Internet.''

At the Internet conference, Jaime Morfin, a Mexican graduate student at the University of Texas here in Austin, presented a paper that described the Zapatista party's use of the Internet. Communiques are distributed by a coalition of support organizations in the U.S. called the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico (NCDM). This coalition maintains websites, listservs (such as Chiapas95) and e-mail networks of activists.

At a leisurely lunch in a breathtaking hacienda restaurant in Tlalpan, south of the city, my Mexican friends and I chatted about the Zapatistas and the Internet. "[Subcomandante] Marcos has a laptop in the jungle, with a wireless or a satellite connection to the Internet,'' said one. "That's nonsense!'' another retorted. ""There are many myths about Marcos,'' someone else observed, smiling. "Myths that we enjoy. But he doesn't have an Internet connection.''

Eventually the conversation turned serious. "We fear for the middle class in this country,'' said Erick Huesca, one of the founding leaders of the Internet Society. The middle class of Mexico, never very strong, is the class most attached to the promise of the Internet, just as in other countries.

But the fragile middle class is squeezed between two powerful forces: the ultra-rich and corrupt oligarchy who rule the country and the economy, and the tens of millions of poor who are increasingly fed up with deferral of equality by the global, "neo-liberal'' economic order, symbolized by NAFTA.

As I contemplated the weathered and earnest faces of the peasants from Chiapas trudging through the Zócalo, it was clear that the Internet and cyberspace are not a solution to their problems.

But if the middle class cannot generate wealth and the means to distribute it, they may be trampled by a conflict between the rich and the poor.

The challenge of how the middle class can use education and technology to improve the prospects of the world's majority, the desperately poor, is the biggest issue of our times, and whether or not we face up to this will determine our fate for generations. Mexico is the country to watch carefully -- what happens there will influence the future almost more than anything else.

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

This article appeared in the LA Times, October 28, 1996. © The Los Angeles Times, 1996

Reproduced with Permission from the Los Angeles Times. No further reproduction permitted.

Published or Updated on: October 28, 1996 by Gary Chapman © 1996, 1997
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