The prospect of an untamed president petrifies Mexico’s business establishment.
With just one month to go before do-or-die national elections in Mexico, the once unthinkable is now thinkable. The left-wing nationalist firebrand Andres Manual Lopez Obrador (or AMLO), who has waged a PR war against Mexico’s business establishment, could soon be president. In the latest Bloomberg poll he extended his lead over his closest rival to a whopping 26 points.
The prospect of an AMLO presidency petrifies Mexico’s business elite. In a closed-door meeting last week Alberto Baillères, a mining magnate and owner of luxury retail chain Palacio del Hierro, urged employees to vote for the candidate most likely to defeat AMLO. “It’s the best chance we have of preserving the economic system that allows us to employ you,” Baillères, Mexico’s third richest man with an estimated $11 billion fortune, warned.
It’s a message that is being echoed by many of Mexico’s business leaders. German Larrea, Mexico’s second richest man, wrote the following words in a note to his staff and shareholders, which was duly leaked to the press:
“We have recently heard worrying proposals of nationalising companies, scrapping the energy and education reforms among other ideas that would turn the clock back decades to an economic model that has been more than proven not to work . . . Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, among others, are witness to that.”
Larrea’s pleas are unlikely to elicit much sympathy from the general public. Four years ago his mining conglomerate, Grupo Mexico, was responsible for contaminating the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers with 10 million gallons (40,000 cubic meters) of copper sulfate acid in one of the worst industrial disasters in Mexican history. Larrea is yet to publicly apologise or pay full compensation for the accident.
Larrea’s intervention in the campaign race was the latest in a flurry of warnings from top business leaders — including the heads of Femsa, the Coca-Cola bottling company; Grupo Herdez, the food company; Grupo Vasconia, the manufacturer of aluminium sheets and Grupo Chihuahua, the construction company — that evoked the galloping inflation, devaluations and economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s under the presidencies of arch-populists Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo.
What they conveniently fail to mention are the bank collapses, currency crisis and devaluation that rocked Mexico’s economy during the mid-’90s Tequila Crisis, the financial fallout from which Mexican taxpayers are still paying for to this day. The Tequila Crisis occurred on the watch of the decidedly business-friendly Carlos Salinas de Gortari, to whom many of Mexico’s richest plutocrats owe much of their fantastical wealth.
During his six-year presidency Salinas not only signed up to NAFTA, but he also embarked on a privatization spree, selling off mines (to the likes of Larrea and Baillères), banks, railways, electricity networks and Telmex, the national telephone company. Salinas relied on a relatively small group of businessmen to supply him with campaign (and perhaps personal) funds, in return for the sale of state assets at favorable rates and terms.
Just as happened in Yeltsin’s Russia, the “liberalization” and privatization of Mexican markets gave rise to a new über-caste of oligarchs. At the top of the heap is Carlos Slim, a close friend of Salinas who was essentially able to pay for Mexico’s national phone monopoly, Telmex, out of the future profits of the company.
Those profits helped turn him into one of the world’s richest billionaires, but at an exorbitant price for Mexican consumers. The total loss to the Mexican economy of Slim’s dominance in telecommunications is estimated at $129 billion, or 1.8% GDP per year, due to excess charges and poor investment in infrastructure. That was just for a five-year period.
In 2013 Slim was finally forced by changes in Mexico’s telecommunications legislation to divest a large part of his holdings (worth some $10 billion) in América Movíl, Telmex’s parent group. But his dominance over the Mexican economy remains broadly unchallenged. George W. Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, coined the term “Slimlandia” to describe how entrenched the Slim family’s companies are in the daily life of Mexicans.
Testament to that was the government’s decision four years ago to award numerous tenders to design and build the country’s most expensive public infrastructure project, Mexico City’s new international airport, to firms owned by Slim and his family. Much to Slim’s dismay, Lopez Obrador has threatened that if he is elected president he may put an end to the project, which has been plagued by corruption, scandals, and cost overruns since its inception. Slim urged AMLO to reconsider his opposition, warning that suspending the project “would mean suspending the country’s growth.’’
In recent weeks AMLO has somewhat softened his position. He has also vowed not to expropriate businesses and pledged to respect investors. But AMLO is, if nothing else, a consummate politician. As such, his word should be taken with a generous pinch of salt.
One thing that is clear is that if AMLO wins on July 1, he will not be as easily tamed or controlled as his predecessors. And that terrifies Mexico’s business and financial elite, who depend on government policy or contracts for much of their wealth. Larrea’s vast business empire, for instance, has received no fewer than 333 government concessions since Salinas’ election in 1988.
But the louder Mexico’s oligarchs complain about AMLO, the more likely they are to convince poorer voters, whose interests could not be more divorced from their own and who represent a majority of the voting population, that an AMLO presidency might actually represent a genuine shift away from a status quo that even the New York Times admits is failing. But there’s still a great deal that can happen in the next four weeks.
The last time a politician captured as much popular support as AMLO was in 1988 when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran for president at the head of a broad left coalition. On election day, July 6, he was leading in the vote count when suddenly there was a glitch with the computer software. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) told the public that the system had crashed. The counting continued in some other way and in the end the government announced that Cárdenas had lost and the elite’s golden boy, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had won.
The lesson? Don’t rule out the rulers of Slimlandia just yet.