Despite crises, Mexico has hope
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 11, 1995
MEXICO CITY — This is my first visit to Mexico since last December’s economic crisis, marked by the collapse of the peso. At first glance, everything seems the same: Traffic jams, smog, parks and plazas jammed with young people, and families celebrating the start of Easter week; young boys crowding public baseball fields and basketball courts and people everywhere hustling, working hard and hunkering down.
After church on Palm Sunday, I spent the day with an old friend, a 74-year-old taxi driver named Roberto. Roberto is a fascinating, self-educated guy, and a keen observer of Mexico and its place in the world.
On “the crisis”: Mexico’s sky-rocketing unemployment, inflation, taxes and interest rates are merged in Roberto’s mind. He called them “the crisis.” Roberto said, “We are suffering very much. More and more people are desperate. Crime is getting very bad.”
Local news reports seemed to confirm Roberto’s view. Sunday’s headlines screamed “Chaos!” and “Bankrupt!” — referring to the federal government’s decision to shut down Ruta 100 — Mexico City’s public transportation authority — removing its 1,500 vehicles from use, eliminating thousands of jobs, and stranding tens of thousands of commuters in this city of 20 million.
Crime is also skyrocketing, especially carjacking. In just the past two months, there have been 3,440 carjackings — three times the rate in 1993. No one is safe: On March 17, President Ernesto Zedillo’s son was the victim of a carjacking attempt. When I asked Roberto about all this, he shrugged and said, “When times are bad, people will do anything for a taco. Well, times are bad. People don’t buy shoes so they can save to buy food. But the prices and the taxes — they keep going up.”
On the U.S. bailout: “I cannot imagine where we would be without the U.S.” Roberto felt the U.S. had given Mexico a second chance by propping up the peso. But, agreeing with the point made by Zedillo in his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Dallas last week, Roberto added, “It’s not a gift. We have to pay for it.”
On the government: “President Zedillo is trying to fix things. But his party, the PRI, is corrupt. They are thugs. They steal elections. But there is one good thing about the crisis: The PRI can no longer pretend it knows what it is doing. I think we will have real political reforms. The PRI, its days are numbered.”
Roberto may be on to something. Last week, leaders of the four major parties met for the first time to work out the details of an agreement to limit campaign spending, change the way ballots are counted and craft other electoral reforms.
On NAFTA: “NAFTA is good. It is good for Mexico to be connected to the U.S. and Canada. We produce things for you. We buy things from you. You invest here.
On the future: “Things are bad — and they may get worse. But, pretty soon things will get better. Everybody is working for it.” So the unbridled optimism of the past several years has given way to apprehension. But despite the problems, Roberto still has hope. The future will work and so will the idea of North America.
During the rest of this week, as I talk to people in business and government, I am sure I will hear different views that may be more sophisticated, but none more sensible or hopeful than those I heard from Roberto who lives the crisis every day.