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Rich Mexicans, poor Mexicans

How is Mexico’s middle class faring? That is far from an easy question. And it is one that might have addled many readers in recent times given conflicting reports.

To start with, Mexico’s wealth is distributed unevenly. Scroll to page 2 of this website to see the income disparity between Mexico’s 31 states and the capital of Mexico City. Mexico has the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, a fair number of really upscale areas that tourists might see, and an awful lot of poor people living in shantytowns, especially in southern states.

Of Mexico’s 113 million people, 52 million live in poverty, says the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, the state agency that measures such things.

The balance between the better off among the poor and those who might fall in a category considered middle class is murky. That’s why you get headlines with far different slants like the following:

“Mexico’s new president faces long grind on poverty,” Reuters said in a story this week.

“Mexico’s middle class is fast becoming its majority,” the Washington Post said in a March 17 story. The paper followed up this week with a story headlined, “Returning migrants boost Mexico’s middle class.”

The New York Times last year wrote a story on the dropping numbers of Mexicans migrating to the U.S. It was headlined, “Better lives for Mexicans cut allure of going north.”

I’ve played into this debate as well. In a series on Mexico’s future that ran in June, an article on factory workers carried the headline, “Mexico’s ‘maquiladora’ labor system keeps workers in poverty.”

Very smart people disagree in this debate, including highly skilled economists, academics with decades of experience studying Mexico, and journalists taking a crack at the topic from different angles. It underscores the complexity of the issue.

Those who argue that the middle class is expanding point to improving education levels, shrinking family size, greater availability of cheaper consumer goods, remittances of $22.7 billion last year, and rising per capita income.

All of these factors are backed up with empirical data.

Just as in the United States, though, many people who’ve climbed into what might be considered middle class (definition, anyone?) are “one health emergency away from poverty.” How do you measure those people? Shannon K. O’Neill of the Council on Foreign Relations has a blog post here about the issue.

This issue has given some heated debates in the last couple days on a private bulletin board among Mexico watchers, with valid points by those who say a middle class is growing and those who say the data is skewed or doesn’t match reality.

Chalk me up among the skeptics. Sure, there are pockets of prosperity. See this story I recently did on the aerospace sector, whose workers are solidly middle class, more so than the booming automotive sector.

And returning migrants are also a source of relative prosperity.

But will there efforts be transformative? El Salvador offers an illustrative example. Fully 25 percent of the country migrated to the U.S., beginning with the civil war in 1979. In places like Intipuca, in La Union province, some signs are in English and returned migrants own most businesses. Remittances are huge but a lot of it has gone into commerce, not into production.

Now for some fluffy, non-empirical observations. I’ve lived in Chile in the mid-1980s, and in China last decade. Both are places with powerful forces toward expanding a middle class. Opportunity there is tangible. You smell it. People have dreams, and many are turning into reality. Another place where I lived, Peru, has also gone through a transformation, with poverty levels dropping from the mid-50 percentile to the low 30s today.

Does anyone sense this level of hope in Mexico today? Very few of the people I interact with. And one factor is the state. No broad policy exists at a grassroots level to truly open doors to the poor and the middle class, at least with the intensity I've witnessed in Peru. What’s more, Mexico suffers from what I’d call a predatory bureaucracy. Who can imagine a better live than being a division or bureau boss at a secretariat, having funds to entertain, featherbedding the staff with friends and mistresses, and having iron-clad social ties to godfathers who put you in the post? When that changes, Mexico will transform.

I’d be glad to hear what anyone else thinks about this issue.

In the meantime, I’ll be out of the country till Aug. 12 on holiday.


Cross-border views of Mexicans

Mexicans living in their patria and Mexican-Americans living in theirs have different names for each other, often used with a pejorative connotation. This 12-minute video includes clips of famous Mexicans and Mexican-Americans talking about how they are seen on the other side of the border, and also discusses views of social class. It is quite interesting. Among those interviewed are Gustavo Arrellano, who writes the "Ask a Mexican!" syndicated column published in alternative weeklies, and the actor Edward James Olmos.

The key terms in the piece are "naco" which roughly translates to "low class," and "pocho," which is a derogatory way of saying someone is Americanized.

The blurb for the video piece adds this:

Popularized in the late 1970s by the comedian Luis de Alba, the term “naco” is commonly used to mean “low class” but to a younger generation, it can also mean “tacky cool” in a fashion similar to the U.S. hipster appropriation of trucker hats and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Similarly, the term “pocho”, which was traditionally used in Mexico as a put-down against Americans of Mexican descent, has become a point of pride to a growing number of Mexican-Americans.

Keeping the media at arm's distance

Media critics might find a lot in common with leaders of two Central American nations.

Both Panama and Nicaragua are ruled by what I might call “imperial presidents.” After winning office, they decided to communicate with the electorate strictly on their own terms. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and his counterpart in Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, do not field routine queries from the media.

Gotta a question? Good luck getting an answer. I couldn’t.

I’ve just come back from a 9-day trip to Panama and can attest to changes in the country, many for the better. I used to visit Panama frequently when access to Cabinet ministers, politicians and even presidents was fairly easy. But this time, despite emails to President Martinelli and his spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, and multiple phone calls to Camacho’s office, I got no return call or email.

Nicaragua is a more extreme case. All media queries funnel through Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo. On two trips there since mid-2010, I emailed her _ no response _ and hunted for the government communications office. Guess what? No listed phone number. I called the state-owned Radio Nicaragua. They said they didn’t have Murillo’s number. I called the president’s office and the FSLN party office and got no help. Murillo is the spokeswoman but there’s no way to contact her. Yes, we have no bananas.

Martinelli (rich businessman to the political right) and Ortega (now a rich businessman in the camp of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez) are far apart on the political spectrum. But both share reasons for not wanting to pesky questions.

Martinelli is seeking to remake his nation with huge projects, such as a $1.8 billion metro system and a coastal causeway. Yet he’s faced questions about nepotism, corruption and his ties to an Italian fixer for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He’s also been hostile to reporters. In April at a news conference, he suggested one reporter was on drugs. The remark triggered a street march and a subsequent apology from the president. Libel and slander suits are on the rise in Panama. Three TV journalists were acquitted this week of showing a video of a police officer allegedly seeking a bribe. A mystery video also appeared earlier this month YouTube 10 days ago launching unsubstantiated attacks on Santiago Cumbrera, an investigative reporter for La Prensa, who has been delving into corruption issues.

In Nicaragua, Ortega and his supporters are buying up control of private television stations. Ortega receives upwards of $500 million a year in subsidies from Venezuela. The money is largely off the books. Will taxpayers be required to repay any of this money? Is it a loan or gift or what? Until Ortega decides that it’s in the interest of the public to know, these kinds of questions go unanswered. And Murillo won’t be listing her phone number.


A new iconic landmark in Panama

Think Panama, and certainly the canal comes to mind. But soaring modern architecture should, too. There’s the new Trump Tower that seems vaguely similar to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, a building that takes inspiration from a sail. 

Then there is the “screw,” the Revolution Tower that some have dubbed the “twist-scraper” because it is a 52-story structure coiling upward like a corkscrew. 

Panama now has 11 buildings that are 70 stories or taller, and dozens just slightly smaller. Comparisons to Dubai and Singapore are not out of line. 

But in my mind, after five days in the city, the most transformative piece of work is far more diminutive in scale. And its construction marks the arrival of Frank Gehry to Latin America. Gehry, of course, is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect of such iconic buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and the Rasin building in Prague. He’s been called the most influential architect of our times.

His buildings lean, twist, contort and crumple. They are full of extraordinary color.

And what he has built in Panama is unforgettable. It is called the Biodiversity Museum and it is on the Amador Causeway that greets every ship and cruise line that passes through the canal. The building is an explosion of crimson, tangerine, deep yellow, avocado, navy blue and aluminum. The roof trusses hold up a creased aluminum panels that look like folded sheets.

Like it or hate it, and Panamanians fall on both sides, I believe it will come to represent the city. The museum will house seven major exhibits that will tell visitors how the Panama isthmus was formed and why it has made Panama such a biodiversity hotspot as a bridge between two continents.

The museum is not huge. It should open later this year although the inauguration already has been postponed more than a year. But already the talk is that it will become a major tourist destination in itself. The KPMG consulting firm says the museum may draw 500,000 a year, nearly as many as come to see the Miraflores Locks along the canal. 

The museum won’t be just a class act on the outside. Helping design the exhibits is the Smithsonian Institute, the largest scientific museum network in the world and one that has a long presence in Panama.

So who convinced Gehry to design such a project for Panama? Panama-born Berta Aguilera had something to do with it. She’s Gehry’s second wife.





Pena Nieto's weird interview with CNN

President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto gave a brief interview to CNN's Fareed Zakaria, and his stuttering performance has set tongues wagging in Mexico. Whether it was audio feedback problems or coaching by someone near him, Pena Nieto did not perform as well as he could. Mexicans who don't support Pena Nieto have set social media abuzz with claims that either Pena Nieto was reading his answers from a Teleprompter or being coached on what to say. Even if you don't understand Spanish, you can see how Pena Nieto pauses, blinks and does not appear comfortable. I'm inclined to believe he remains uncomfortable in front of international audiences, and that is the sum of it. CNN issued a statement about it. I couldn't find it in English but here's a partial Google translated version:

"There was no Teleprompter, and Mr. Pena Nieto heard the questions asked in English by Dr. Zakaria in New York through an intercom or IFB (Interrupted Feedback). We did not use any other audio source."

The responses of Mr. Pena Nieto were in Spanish and rendered into English for Dr. Zakaria and our international audience by a translator. Mr. Pena Nieto provided the answers without the help of anyone. Also, there were no preconditions for the interview, and the questions were not provided in advance to Mr. Pena Nieto." 


Did the PRI buy votes with gift cards?

Just a few moments ago, I got an anonymous email from someone with a photo of a receipt from the Soriana grocery store. The receipt is dated July 4th and was printed at about 10 p.m. from a Soriana store in Monterrey.

The sender artfully placed a red arrow on a line of the receipt that reads: “PRI benefits.”

So is the PRI behind a vote-buying scheme that tilted the outcome of the July 1 presidential election? I can’t answer that. But certainly the evidence indicates that in some parts of the country – Mexico City, the state of Mexico, San Luis Potosi and now Monterrey – people went to the Soriana grocery chain with gift cards and bought foodstuffs thinking that the cards were a gift from the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Was this a “donation” from Soriana to buy goodwill for the PRI? I don’t know that either. Click here, here and here to read more about this case.

Moments ago, the PRI sent out an indignant communiqué saying it wants prosecutors to investigate whether its opponents committed a crime by alleging that the PRI had bought votes in what is quickly being dubbed “Soriana-gate.”

A PRI spokesman, Eduardo Sanchez, said videos that have been circulating on YouTube about the alleged vote buying contain only one interview with a person who said a PRI official offered them the gift card.

“It’s part of the lies and the farce. They brought people to the stores and told them they were from the PRI, which is false,” Sanchez said in the statement.


Mexico's student-led protests

This is a four-minute video from a website called Storyhunter.tv about the student-led protests in Mexico prior to Sunday's presidential election. I found it interesting. The students use the Twitter hashtag #yosoy132 to communicate with each other. In my story from five weeks ago, I explain the origin of that hashtag. And the video below also explains it. These videos are clearly with a point of view negative to Enrique Pena Nieto, the presumptive winner of Sunday's election. Phone calls from world leaders have been pouring in to congratulate Pena Nieto on his victory, and he published this op-ed piece in the New York Times this morning to assuage U.S. fears that his party will go soft on crime gangs.


State by state election results

This map conveys data about state-by-state elections results. I've been conferring with it repeatedly since results began coming in Sunday night. You can see how the poorer states of the south (with the notable exception of Quintana Roo, which is rich) have all gone with the leftist candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The northern states have gone completely for Enrique Pena Nieto, except for the troubled northeastern states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.


A sign of tensions to come with PRI

A few hours ago, the head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, appeared at a voting station in Mexico City. He cut in line, leaving some ordinary voters who'd been waiting in line a long time rather incensed. As you can hear in this video, shouts ring out. Some voters shouted "Corrupto! Corrupto!" at Coldwell. Some of his aides shouted a vulgarity back.

We are within hours of knowing the election result. If the PRI recaptures power in Mexico, this video may be an omen of things to come. The PRI may govern the nation, but the lengthy history of its politicians' involvement in corruption cases may prevent them from wanting to appear in public. 

I'm not aware of corruption allegations against Coldwell. But he succeeded Humberto Moreira as head of the PRI, and Moreira is accused of assuming hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for the state of Coahuila while governor there for phantom public works projects. Moreira's brother, Ruben, is now governor of the state.

Coldwell, by the way, did not get visibly riled by the boos of the crowd.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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