Letter 10 From Mexico 


        One way of looking at it, Mexico is the US's new Vietnam, and
ironically our cultural and commercial napalming of it may improve Miriam's
life. According to my landlord (an astute fellow), the message is not only
consuming, but also individualism. Alienation will come with it, the
positive side of which is the weakening of limiting belief systems ("A good
Mexican wife should always be pregnant -- and maybe beaten"), the
dissolution of the web of family ties and obligations, and with that the
diminution of the Mafia structure which allows the old PRI to maintain its
non-modernizing control, co-opting control.
        And then, if the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) scions (Mexican and non-Mexican) could ride in the Zihuatanejo
colectivo once in a while and think about Miriam and how their
organizations affect her; and if the US suddenly de-criminalized narcotics
-- we are the market for the narcotics that Mexico grows and transships,
generating, according to the Texas Attorney General's Office, $150 billion
in annual sales; and if the US began a massive health and educational
approach toward drug use and its causes in the US, I think you would see
radical positive change begin to take place in Mexico. Because, as it is
right now, people like Miriam are being held hostage by the northern
banking institutions (WB and the IMF), by the Mexican drug lords (who spend
billions corrupting officials on both sides of the border), and by the PRI
whose policies have done little to develop a vibrant national industry that
would provide jobs paying enough to keep Mexicans from leaving their
country for the US and a chance of survival in the north.
        While I waited for my friend to arrive at the hotel I had booked
for him, I sat on a bench in a passage way between the town beach and the
first street inland. There was a man sweeping the sidewalk with  broom made
out of long pieces of cut brush. His upper legs seemed frozen down to the
knees, and he walked by twisting his body first one way, then the other. He
had a handsome almost Roman face, but stared at me too long and somewhat
too blankly. He handed me a plastic-wrapped crudely written message in
English, something like: "I have a sickness in my head. You can help me."
        He sat down beside me. I put my La Jornada down. Conversation did
not exactly flow. I asked questions to keep it going. I eventually gave him
twenty pesos. He made 450 pesos every two weeks. I had given him 63% of his
daily earnings of 32 pesos or $3.74. I eventually asked him what political
party he belonged to. He said, "PRI" (Partido Revolucionario
Institucional), and I said, "Why do you belong to their party?" with a tone
and look that must have said something like: You vote for the party that
has ruled Mexico non-democratically for 70 years? His look in return seemed
to say, "I know what you're thinking. It's crazy isn't it?" But he had no
words for it, and I didn't press the point.
        The PRI may be a dinosaur, but it's a very ingenious one. In
conditions of extreme poverty and under-employment there are any number of
people who would like this man's job. And so, he will do what it takes to
keep it, and he likely belongs to a PRI-run association of street cleaners,
people I have seen working even on Sundays in various cities -- the lowest
kind of a job.
        Still, if you're PRI and vote for the PRI and show up in crowds
welcoming visiting PRI dignitaries (where you are likely issued a piece of
paper that indicates you appeared, which you then have to show later to PRI
checkers), you are permitted your work, given access to health care,
sometimes a free elementary education, and possibly a small pension when
you retire -- no small thing in Mexico.    The PRI controls unbelievable
financial resources. For the '94 election the PRI collected about $700
million in campaign funds, twenty times the legal limit, writes Oppenheimer
In "Bordering On Chaos," while the National Action Party or PAN spent $5
million, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD spent $3
million.
        The PRI-istas -- who celebrated 69 years in power on March 4, 1998
-- can hire a lot of votes at 47 cents an hour. Two months before the
election, through government agencies like the Solidarity and Procampo
programs (whose patriotic commitment are constantly touted in television
commercials showing a happy, prosperous campesino life) the PRI disbursed,
in the leading opposition party's estimate (PAN), something like $4
billion.
        Oppenheimer lists shoes shiners, street car washers and keepers,
photographers of church, social, and official ceremonies, five-minute
photographers, lottery ticket vendors, newspaper hawkers, street marketers,
mariachi musicians, taxi and bus drivers as part of the Mexico City army of
"supporters" who are under the political control of the PRI.
        These people can be coerced to swell crowds that turn out to
support PRI candidates, making a show of it for the television cameras
(also largely controlled by the PRI) The penalty for not showing up at a
rally is first suspension from work and, ultimately, the loss of your
permit to operate as street sweeper etc. How the newly elected left-center
PRD mayor of Mexico City, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, is going to deal with this
underground army of PRI clients remains to be seen.
        My acquaintance, the disabled street sweeper, was benefiting from
this system. And there are moments when I think, "Is this such a bad system
-- this benevolent Mafia family structure which takes care of you?" All you
have to do is accept the various premises, like those in the chapter called
the The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamozov" -- that
the people really only want authority (the PRI concept of regal presidency,
re-enforced at every level), entertainment (no country, per capita, I'm
convinced, can match Mexico's offering of television entertainment,
symbolized by Selena-type dance bands), and miracle -- the rooted belief
even in the most jaded intellectuals, I would say, that God or one or the
other of many saints (the Virgin Guadalupe, for example) is watching over
you and that this life of low pay and the eternally falling peso is only a
dress rehearsal for a far more glorious life after death.
        Quite the reverse would have to be said about my friend from
California, who had brought his surf board with him. Any life after
surfing, I think, would be pale in comparison, and the way I used to march
miles through the Californian Sierras looking for the perfect trout, he led
us in the search for the perfect wave.
        We took a taxi to Ixtapa, five miles up the road to Playa Linda.
The best place for surfing was at the far end, maybe two miles north along
the beach -- except that, we were told by various locals, it was dangerous,
not because of what seemed to me to be murderous looking waves but because
of muggers who crossed through the swamp behind the beach, robbed and, I
suppose, occasionally assaulted tourists who had wandered away from the
safety zone surrounding their upper-end hotels.
        As a counter-measure someone had built in the middle of paradise a
maybe eight-foot chain link fence (climbable, of course), separating the
swamp from the beach. The taxi driver -- infinitely wise, I thought --
asked about safety first (for himself as well), then drove us down the dirt
road behind the fence, so that my friend could get closer to the perfect
wave.
        The road stopped in front of a wall of jungle. We turned around and
started down a track toward some men doing something near the chain link
fence. An athletic young man -- better dressed than he should have been as
a workman -- hurried toward us with a dark look in his eyes, like an
enraged parent rushing to spank a child.
        It reminded me of a time in 1987 when I was in a van in El Salvador
with ten other professors from a group called FACHRES -- Faculty for Human
Rights in El Salvador, bumping over a dirt road on the side of the famous
volcano fifteen miles from the capital (whose name escapes me). A platoon
of (I suppose) School of The Americas (Fort Benning) trained El Salvadoran
rangers (the famous ear-taking Atacatl Brigade) blocked the road, and their
non-commissioned officer rushed toward us with the same dark, semi-manic
look, and our driver at that time said in a low voice in Spanish, "This is
a bad one. Keep your cameras out of sight, and let me do the talking."
        In Ixtapa, our driver remained calm and tried to reason with the
man. There had been no signs telling us not to use this road, he said
evenly, but abuse continued with menacing intensity. I could not believe my
ears. Since when did anyone obey any road signs anyway? In fact, since when
were there road signs? At the most, there are rocks, sometimes painted
white, which indicate a road is blocked for some reason. And why was this
man so threatening? The road was not being repaired. It was a clear all the
way to where the rest of the men were standing. With cool dignity the
driver ate crow, and we backed away.
        We were all affected by what had happened. "That kind of behavior
isn't necessary," our driver said. I think I might have muttered something
like, "Narcotraficante." I remember the driver nodding, looking serious. We
backed onto the main dirt beach road. A flashy rented VW bug (still
manufactured here) came to a stop beside us. It was a gringo couple,
relaxed with holiday spirit and out for a spin. There was another little
track leading through the swamp toward the main paved road, Route 200, the
coastal road. The gringo pointed to it. "Is it okay to take this road?"
        We consulted and translated. The taxi driver hesitated, hedged,
looked troubled. I turned and said, "This is not a good place to be right
here." The man looked at me, trying to take in what I was saying. Again I
said something like, "This is not a safe place to be right here. You should
leave." He hesitated, the nickel dropped, and he finally said, "I think
we'll go back the way we came," and they sped off.
        We got in the taxi and drove back to the wharf, the safe zone,
where boats ferried tourists over to Ixtapa Island. There was a breakwater
roughly parallel to the wharf. Someone had built a solid rock causeway
connecting the two, leaving and dead-end channel.
        Each time a wave hit the breakwater, some of it curved around,
swept past the loading steps, and swooshed into the dead-end, depositing, I
would estimate, one or two hundred pounds of sand. A young man was standing
at the end of the channel, and when a wave came in, it came up to the
middle of his stomach. He held the sucking end of a four-inch flexible pipe
which ran up over the causeway, through a gas-driven pump, and down the
other side into the Ixtapa Beach side.
        The point was to suck up the sand that was being swept into the
dead-end with each wave and then pump it over onto the beach side of the
causeway. I called down something to the effect that I recognized he had
been assigned the task of Sisyphus. He smiled and shook his head clearly in
agreement, and labored on.
        Clearly, Mexicans, with adequate education and training can build
anything any one else in the world can build. But when political bosses get
involved, it is hard to compensate for what they order done. First, the
breakwater was not constructed correctly. It was not long enough. Its nose
should have run out far beyond the end of the loading wharf. That, or
something similar, would have stopped the sand-carrying power of the waves.
Second, the causeway should have been on pilings, so the water (and sand)
could sweep one way, then the other, in effect flushing itself free of
sand.
        More than likely, the engineers had designed it that way, but
political bosses (likely the PRI, but not necessarily only the PRI) had
ordered a cheaper route, billed the government for the more expensive way,
and had pocketed the difference. Just like anywhere else in the world, if
you can get away with it.
        Mexico is still a country where the powerful enjoy impunidad
(impunity) and where there is no independent authority (the police, courts,
attorneys general) which can bring the politicians to account. If the
engineers had complained, they would have been cut off from further
contracts. And so, like the civil engineer I met on my first trip to
Zihuatanejo, they submit plans which will be ignored and hope that the
powers-that-be will protect them from the legal consequences.


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