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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