Mexico: Between a rock and a hard place
The joys and malcontents of modernization and what it means for the local population
Mexico is running towards modernization with its eyes wide shut. In its efforts to bridge the gap between themselves and the developed world, the US’ neighbor to the south seems to be forgetting a few important details--like people, culture, and tradition. How much of each is Mexico willing to give up to become a competitive player in today’s bustling economy? What’s the risk? And is Mexico willing to take it?
The last question is perhaps the easiest to answer. Mexico took a great risk when a record number of 65 percent of the eligible voters came to the polls and voted Fox into power. Fox, the leader of the conservative, right-wing party PAN (National Action Party) is very much for privatization of the many companies which are currently under the auspices of the state. His vision is one of mega-malls and foreign companies that will invest in the future and well-being of the impoverished country. Yet, is it truly what Mexico needs?
Mexico has a slew of problems facing it, from mass unemployment to narco- trafficking and corruption, to name just a few. The general trend of capitalist-minded economists is that if the country opens itself up to foreign money, primarily dollars, it will have much more of a chance for an economic revival. But with the great chimneys and factories that blossom with the surge of industry, traditional, and especially indigenous culture, withers and is pushed to the very borders of society.
Already, the poorest and most needy of Mexico’s population are the Indian communities in regions like Oaxaca (pron. Wahaca), Chiapas, and Michoacan. Residents of these communities often lack basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, and sewage systems. It is not unusual for their children to drop out of school after the sixth grade in order to join the adults in the fields or engage in some other kind of economic activity that will add a few pesos to their family’s income. But most of all, people in these regions are losing their way of life. After all, not many multi-national companies are willing to move to Michoacan and even fewer to work with the local merchants to incorporate traditional products such as handicrafts into the economic sector.
But a few numbers show that more money in the country does not necessarily mean more assistance to the people who need it. According to a World Policy Institute report of governmental performance in Latin American countries, Mexico has 20 percent fewer adolescents in high schools than the neighboring Spanish-speaking countries, despite having one of the highest GNPs. Only 4.7 percent of this Gross National Product is spent on health in comparison with the Latin American average of 6.2 percent, which excludes countries such as Chile, Costa Rica, and Coloumbia who dedicate over 7 percent to healthcare issues. All of this--seven years after the passage of NAFTA, a piece of legislation that was supposed to bring wealth to the country. But still, there are the numbers and they tell a different story.
Fourteen percent of Mexico’s children under five years of age currently suffer from malnutrition. Only Brazil has a higher infant mortality rate. Why, we might ask, especially in a country that dutifully agreed to free trade as a way to solve its immense economic inequality? And although NAFTA has benefited certain sectors of the population, the majority are poorer today that they were a decade or two ago.
One does not need go far to see the wide disparities that many Mexicans seem to have grown accustomed to. Walk along any busy street in the Federal District of Mexico City and you see children clamoring for your attention, your pesos, even the drink in your hand. Others hawk gum, nuts, and candy to apathetic passers-by, who have become adept at avoiding the persistent marketing ploys of the kids. A little further away, on the steps of the Metro, sits an indigenous woman with a baby on her back and three or four more children at her sides. In front of her is a blanket full of home made goodies for sale, like maize and bean tortillas, glazed nuts, and candied apples. But no one cares and no one stops. Such is life in Mexico.
Yet the government insists that they are helping and each year spending “more and more on social development.” In a speech by Esteban Moctezuma Barragan, the Minister of Social Development, earlier this year, Moctezuma boasted of a ten percent increase in social expenditure for projects targeting health, education, and basic services such as drinking water and drainage systems over the past five years. “Our main objective is to offer the disadvantaged population the services, income and infrastructure necessary to enhance personal, family and community development,” Moctezuma said.
But that goal may be a little hard to achieve, especially when salaries are being slashed, prices raised, and unemployment figures skyrocketing. More and more people are finding themselves unable to afford basic needs and are forced to take on second and sometimes third jobs—jobs that are often in the informal sector. “I run a restaurant during the days and come home to do accounting,” said a middle-aged man living in the Mexico City suburb of Coyocan. “It’s the only way I can get by.”
The situation is worse, however, in the rural areas, where many indigenous people still live. The jobs here are mostly in the agricultural sector, but even then, few and far between. Locals are faced with a difficult choice: to move to the city and assimilate or stay behind and retain their traditions, but also suffer the consequences of under employment and little government assistance.
The Mexican government regularly pats itself on the back for a couple of programs that it has implemented, such as FIDELIST, the Fund for Tortilla Subsidy Liquidation and LICONSA, the Program for Social Supply of Milk. The first assists families making less than two minimum wages, roughly 100 pesos or 10 dollars a day, by daily providing them with a kilo of non-charged tortilla. The later, reduces the price of milk, especially for families with young children, from a whopping five pesos to two. There is no doubt that programs such as these alleviate the constant hunger of thousands of families across Mexico. Still—they are not enough. A mere drop of drinking water in a salty sea, this “assistance” is hardly felt. And because the majority of the programs are targeted at immediate assistance, the funds are literally consumed without producing any real results.
More long-term projects and government funded assistance programs are needed to give a hand to a large segment of the population which has all but fallen. Investment in the lives of the next generation is especially important, through massive education campaigns that will motivate youngsters to stay in school. The Zedillo government regularly boasts that its educational system covers 28.5 million students. But in a country whose population is bordering on one hundred million, this number is a joke.
Improvements need to be made in many sectors of Mexican economic and political life and some very pressing problems remain. One is Mexico’s preoccupation with race. It’s no surprise to anyone living in this country, that the lighter your skin is, the easier life becomes. The less indigena features you possess, such as a prominent nose and full cheeks, the more doors of opportunity become open to you. Just take a look at who is employed at the financial firms and banks and who is selling lottery tickets on the street and a clear connection between color and chance is seen. It’s that simple and that accepted, to the point of sickly resignation. Not much has changed in Mexico in terms of race relations since the time of the Conquest.
Another pressing problem that Mexico faces is the lack of investment in the rural sector. Many small-scale farmers lack basic machinery, such as tractors and have an increasingly hard time obtaining credit from banks. Life for artisans is even more difficult, many of whom reside away from cosmopolitan centers and are forced to go through middle-men to sell their products. In the end, they receive a tiny fraction of the total profit, continuing the cycle of poverty and destitution.
The price of modernization is, indeed a steep one, but Mexico is charging full-speed ahead, eager to catch up with the developed world. But what this almost invariably means is the total and complete decimation of minority groups and their way of life. We need only look at what happened to the American Indian to know what to expect in Mexico’s future. What little of the culture remains, is tucked away on reservations and threatened with extinction more and more each year.
Are ancient traditions completely incompatible with a modern way of life? Can we not enjoy the luxury of a TV or a washing machine while practicing rituals that worship the earth, make our own clothing, and use outdoor stoves to prepare our food? Is that what modernization means, anyway? Or can money from foreign investment, that will no doubt expand with Fox’s term in office, be channeled in a way that will sustain and protect the indigenous way of life, even if the majority of Mexicans live in cities and have little connection to their Mayan or Aztec roots?
The questions are many and so far, the responses few. The only thing that remains obvious is that blind acceptance of all foreign investment and influence is dangerous and should be carefully reviewed before implementation. Now if only Fox could read this, we might still have a chance at slowing down the race and proceeding with caution, eyes open wide and to the future, although always respectful of the past.