What’s the matter with Mexico?

Up until two weeks ago, my contacts with Mexico had been very limited.  When I was four, my parents spent a day in Tijuana, at which time I allegedly stood in the middle of the mercado and cried out “I want to go back to my own civilization.”

Fast forward 20 years, and I went to Matamoros, Mexico, for a short visit.  I could not believe how seamy it was — or, at least, how seamy the quarter we visited was.  I was not surprised to learn that it later became notorious for murder.

Four years later, a friend and I went to a “luxury” resort south of Puerto Vallarta.  I use the scare quotes around the word luxury because, despite the price, there was nothing luxurious about it.  It was barely clean; the rooms were minimalist, not by trendy design, but by poverty; and the water (both drinking and swimming) was scary.  The towns we drove through from the airport were distinguished by dust and decay.

You can imagine then, that when my husband proposed a cruise to Mexico I was not enthusiastic.  I finally convinced myself to go, however, because the price was good, and the cruise ship would insulate me from the risks of contaminated food (to which I am unusually vulnerable), as well as ensuring a clean bed and bath every night.  I’m glad I made that decision.

The cruise we took was a far-reaching trip down Mexico’s west western coast.  We visit Cabo San Lucas, Manzanillo, Acapulco, Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, spending a day in each port.

Thumbnail sketches of each place don’t do them justice, but they are a start:  Cabo is nothing but a beach; Manzanillo is a bustling port city that is trying to generate buzz as a nature habitat (and that has, in the middle of the city, the most amazing tree filled with giant iguanas); Acapulco is a huge city of 2 million, that provides a graphic visualization of the rise, decline and rise again of the tourist trade over the past 40 years; Huatulco is an excellent example of the early stages of a planned eco city, interesting and sweet, both in terms of nature and archaeology; Puerto Vallarta is an almost generic arts and tourist destination; and Mazatlan is an old, interesting, quite decayed city.

As I said, those thumbnails are completely inadequate.  They reflect my impressions of those cities and towns based, not on intimate knowledge, but on a few hours in the areas most readily available to tourists.  Still, those few hours did leave me with some very strong overarching impressions about coastal Mexico generally, and I think these impressions are at least somewhat valid.

To begin with, Mexico has no middle.  This wasn’t just my impression; this was something I heard from several people, in many of the places we visited.  Mexico has a small number of very wealthy people at the top, a huge number of very poor people struggling along at the bottom, and almost no discernible middle class.

In other words, although ostensibly capitalist, Mexico doesn’t have a balanced capitalist economic structure.  Instead, its structure more closely reflects either a socialist structure (peons and party apparatchiks) or a rural aristocratic structure (nobles and laborers). Both models make sense, given Mexico’s overwhelming government (high taxes; massive, although often ignored, regulation; and a massive military presence) and its development under the Spanish aristocratic model (as opposed to the 18th Century British enlightenment model that gave America its initial social and economic structure).

Speaking of the military, Mexico doesn’t have anything equivalent to America’s posse comitatus.  The military is everywhere, a fact I remembered from my other visits to Mexico.  The constant military presence has an oppressive feel to it, at least to this American, who is used to the military being aimed at enemies foreign, not domestic.  Having said that, the people to whom I spoke felt that the military now serves a useful function because President Calderon is using it to combat the drug lords.  That is, rather than flexing its muscle against all citizens, the military is actively pursuing the bad actors.

President Calderon, by the way, appears to be popular with those paying attention.  In several of the towns we visited, people I spoke with said that they liked Calderon, and this was true even if their allegiance was to the opposition party.  The reason given, always, was the sense that he was sincere in his efforts to combat drugs.  Other presidents have postured, but Calderon actually seems to be doing something.  Even the recent increase in violent crimes is seen as something of a good thing, because it shows that the drug lords are feeling and reacting to Calderon’s pressure.  The killings are the broken eggs on the way to a drug-free Mexican omelet.  (How’s that for a strained metaphor?)

I keep mentioning “the people to whom I spoke,” so let me say something about the people we met in coastal Mexico.  Whether taxi drivers, or van drivers, or merchants, or waitresses, or anyone else, they were amazingly pleasant people.  Most spoke at least a little English, and all were anxious to be helpful.  They were kind to the children, honest in their business dealings, and incredibly hard working.  This last, incidentally, was almost sad — and it’s what leads me to repeat the question I asked in my post title:  What’s the matter with Mexico?

I saw a population of kind, honest, extremely hard-working people, and they’re going nowhere.  Although Mexico is swiftly Americanizing in many ways (Costco, American auto dealerships, Staples, Starbucks, Home Depot, and other like stores, are omnipresent in the big cities), the vast majority of people seem to live one step away from abysmal economic failure.  They’re hustling like crazy, but going nowhere fast.  They’re like people trying to swim through Jello:  no matter how fast they move their arms and legs, they’re still sinking.  Small wonder, then, that so many of them look to America, a land in which effort makes an actual difference to outcome.

The people to whom I spoke about this stagnant situation vaguely blamed government corruption.  They explained that taxes are enormously high, but little of the money seems to return to the citizens.  Government officials get paid enormously high wages, many supplement their incomes with drug money, no project can take place without bribery, and government funds are siphoned off into private pockets.

A perfect example of corrupt or inept government was a high rise in Acapulco.  It was about 16 stories tall, fairly new, and completely empty.  After the developer had built the entire framework, our driver told us, the government shut it down for failing to comply with building laws.  In America, that probably wouldn’t happen, because inspectors monitor every step of the project.  (I’ve seen this on both private and institutional projects.)  Under the corruption hypothesis, the fact that a building climbed 16 stories only to be abandoned suggests that someone in the government didn’t get paid and got his revenge.  The ineptitude possibility is that no one was paying attention to the building’s structural integrity until millions had already been sunk into a building too dangerous ever to be occupied.  Either way, it’s an expensive dead spot in Acapulco.

One can’t avoid the cultural problem, either.  The small number of coastal cities in Mexico that I saw were prone to what I would call an ad hoc or jury rig approach to things.  Nothing was done well if it could be done badly.  People hustled like crazy, but there was little evidence of Western style efficiency or organization.  This is self-imposed Jello swimming.  If you’re locked in a mentality that steers you to the lowest common denominator, you’re never going to get ahead.  I know that part of this is because of poverty, but a lot of the jury rigging I saw (in the way things were cleaned or constructed, for example) had nothing to do with poverty, and everything to do with attitude.

I would like Mexico to do well.  Selfishly, I want a safe country on my southern border, one that doesn’t import drugs, terrorists and the poor onto my own land.  More altruistically, I want the Mexican people to prosper.  They’re good people and deserve better than they’re getting right now.  I cam away from my trip, however, convinced that it will take an enormous effort to bring Mexico up in the world.  Change will happen only under two circumstances, both uniquely difficult to achieve:  (1) Government must clean up and shrink down; and (2) the citizens have to become more organized and efficient.  As long as they’re spending at least as much time spinning their wheels as they are moving forward, they’re going to go nowhere fast.