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Mexico changes, Mexico remains the same

Despite delusions of assorted miracles, it is still largely a country where the past remains vividly present.

Marvin West

The more Mexico changes, the more it remains the same. Despite delusions of assorted miracles, it is still largely a country where the past remains vividly present.

We have been hearing about reforms since Enrique Peña Nieto launched his presidential campaign in November 2011. Together we will build a new and better Mexico, he said.


As so eloquently added by a TV comedian, exaggerated promises come with “buckets of saliva.” Eleven structural reforms were passed by congress. Foreign investors took the bait. Auto plants, for example, are growing like mushrooms. Mexico is a potential manufacturing powerhouse.

Alas, the proverbial man on the street has been looking everywhere, trying to identify improvements in ordinary living. What he sees is fuzzy.


Energy reform was the crown jewel. It was going to lead to cheaper electricity and that would improve the quality of life and increase productivity. Importing inexpensive natural gas and opening the oil industry weregoing to make a world of difference.

You know what happened. The drop in oil prices, continuing pipeline bandits and the on-going threat of cartel violence dampened the bid process. The economy sagged. The Mexican government trimmed $8.3 billion from the national budget.The dream of that fast train went away. A few million free television sets to aid the switch to digital programming are no longer available. Sorry about that.

Intriguing legislative nimbleness hit energy reform. At the last minute, five amendments protected the very group that makes Pemex a white elephant. The oil workers union, not the company, gets to hire new workers. The company must negotiate with the union on such subjects as increased output and competitiveness.

The 125,244 workers represented by the union continue to receive bonuses,incentives and commissions on top of salaries. They get free gasoline and lifetime pensions.

I personally applauded education reform. Mexico certainly needs to get better in school.It took guts to arrest Elba Esther Gordillo, leader of the 1.5 million-member teachers union, and charge her with embezzling 2 billion pesos. She and we are still awaiting the trial.

Mexico was going to stop the sale (or inheritance) of teaching positions and demand competency standards for hiring and promotion. Not yet, certainly not completely. Teachers protested. They say they will never give up.

Corruption in government was going away. Sounded great. I recall the arrest of 25 people accused of looting the treasury ofTabasco. Evidence included 88,560,134 pesos recovered from five cardboard boxes – big bundles of 500-peso notes. I don’t know who, if anybody, went to jail.

Interesting little stories abound. In Oaxaca, prosecutors arrested a man who faked his death to beat a rape charge. A little later, the same Leninguer Carballido was elected mayor of the village of San AgustinAmatengo.
Three federal judges were suspended pending an investigation into court rulings that benefited casino owners. Imagine that!

Pesos
Pesos

Corruption in Mexico is not exactly new. Modern Mexico has never functioned without it. Many old habits, including bribes, conflict of interest, nepotism and influence-peddling, were not even considered wrong.Since power and money rather than rule of law have long dominated society,honesty itself seemed negotiable.

But change was coming. There was going to be transparency in government. Well, maybe later. The idea originated before the question arose of who really owned those expensive homes acquired by Mr. and Mrs. President and key aide.

After reports emerged that Peña Nieto and his wife had houses built by a contractor who has done millions of dollars in deals with the government, the President established an internal review board to assess potential conflicts of interest. The presidential couple and his finance minister were the first to be investigated – by one of his pals. The findings? Innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Famous-brand companies – WalMart and some really big banks – have been hit with corruption issues. HSBC agreed to pay $1.9 billion to settle charges.

All that fits in with Mexico’s rank of 79th among 99 countries in the corruption perception index created by the World Justice Project. Peña Nieto acknowledged the problem.


“There is, without doubt, a sensation of incredulity and distrust . . .there has been a loss of confidence and this has sown suspicion and doubt.”

I recall the Mexico promise to reduce poverty. It came under the umbrella of economic reform.There is some difference of definition of poor and middle class. Most Americans would probably call my Jocotepec neighbors poor.  But they think of themselves as middle class. Their houses have roofs and floors and indoor plumbing. They do not beg for food. They have electricity and some have meters that determine usage. They have enough income to afford stoves, refrigerators, televisions, cell phones, old pickup trucks and family festivals.

I suppose there may be serious poverty nearby. I’ve been told that Mexico’s 16 richest people are worth an average of nearly $9 billion. The bottom 20 per cent of Mexicans — nearly 25 million people — are supposedly worth an average of $80.

Economic hardship is widespread. Some say more than half the people live in poverty. It seems a stretch but do-gooders insist that one fourth of Mexican municipalities have living conditions similar to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of illiteracy, access to healthcare and homes without toilets or solid floors.

My Mexico is not too much like Angola but I do know wages have less purchasing power. It is not good for Mexicans when the peso is 17-to-1 against the U.S. dollar.

It seems to me there was a safe-and-secure reform. I won’t go there, other than to say that extortion, kidnapping and the occasional murder here and there remain with us.

Mexico-watcher George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary, says what we have here is “reform lite.”   Gerardo Esquivel of El Colegio de México uses a home-improvement analogy to describe government reforms.
“It’s like putting a bright coat of paint on the exterior while the inside is still rotting away.”

Ouch.

I am pleased to announce that as much as Mexico changes, it remains much the same in beauty – the mountains, beaches, flowers and ripe mangoes. Our neighbors are special. They ask little and give graciously of what they have,including happiness.

OK, they also share their music. At all hours of the day and night.
 

 

Published or Updated on: October 8, 2015 by Marvin West © 2015
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is westwest6@netzero.com.
 

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