Sunday, October 14, 2012

Several Views of the Current State of Mexico

I am spent a week as a visiting scholar in a university in the State of Veracruz.  It is in a relatively quiet region in the country and I have been coming to this region for most of the last decade.   Mexico is a country that I have come to appreciate.  This is a long post, which includes thoughts on several areas.  So here are some impressions of what I saw on this trip.

The University at night
THE UNIVERSITY - When I first came to this university it was small and undistinguished.  It is still pretty small but the markers of growth and development abound.   In the first instance it has added a new building which increases the facilities by a half.   At the same time infrastructure like better internet connections are installed and functioning.  But more than facilities the students and faculty have also improved.  All of the lectures I gave were in English (which is one of the ways the University improves their students' English capabilities.   While I occasionally translated answers into Spanish it mostly was not necessary.  Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was a question I got at one discussion.   A student asked "Four years ago when you were here, you said you might not vote for President, what do you think about this election?"

The place would benefit from a dormitory - that is not the norm in Mexican universities - but in this case the city has a number of universities and I believe that the university could attract students to it from around the country by continuing to invite foreign scholars to campus and by encouraging their students to study abroad.

Looking out from the Church
THE PROMISE & THE PEOPLE -  On Friday afternoon I had the pleasure of going to a friend's house that is in an area where titles to property are not entirely worked out.   It is a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city I was in.   My friend grew up as a campesino but is wise in the ways of the world.  We were there to celebrate his second son's first confirmation.   This part of the city is a recognition of both the promise and the shortcomings of Mexico.   I've been working in Mexico for about 20 years and have seen a lot of changes.  But this part of the city reminded me that there are still things to be done.   The picture to the left is from the church where the boy took his first communion, a significant event in children's lives here.  If you notice the street in front of the church is dirt.   My friend told me that the money to pave the roads in his part of town, and to furnish a park has been appropriated more than once but as you can see from the picture, it has not been done.

Contrast that with the six children I got to see at lunch.  My friend has four children and there were a couple of cousins there to celebrate.   After lunch I did some slight of hand and showed them my iPhone and we had a great time playing with both.   The kids are smart and genuine.   I expect that were one of my grandchildren to visit they would fit right in.  In this case government has failed them and their parents.

When I first came to Mexico I was advised to carry a small leather purse filled with 5 peso coins to get through things - these morditas have mostly disappeared.   But that does not mean that government here could benefit from more transparency.  One of my colleagues at the university is in the process of doing a very good dissertation on the issues of transparency.

SECURITY - This is a delicate issue.  But in at least two places during my visit I encountered officers who were dressed like the guy in the picture to the right.  What I found out was that there are three types of people who wear these masks.   The Marines and the Army who are doing drug interdiction wear them in essence for self-preservation.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 people have died in the drug wars in Mexico in the last several years and perhaps 7% of those have been military or police. Imagine 50,000 casualties in a country that is about a third the size of the US.   The masks are probably necessary so that the drug gangs cannot retaliate against law enforcement.  But they are a bit disconcerting none-the-less.   But then there are the state police - who seem to lack the subtlety of the military.   One conversation I had suggested that even some of the cartels have begun to operate these kinds of operations.  Who knows?

As I have traveled in Mexico over the last several years I have never been concerned about safety.  But the discussion of the issues raised by the drug war has been increasing in all parts of Mexico that I visit.   Recently, the leader of one of the major drug cartels was killed (Zetas) and so I was also told that the military and the police are on a bit higher alert.  Ultimately, the drug problem has to be solved - the US is a part of that problem and with nonsense like Fast and Furious they have not contributed much to the solution.

The Square in Perote
CLIMATE & FOOD - I am not a fan of the tropics.  But this time of year was about the most bearable.  As you can see from the two pictures I took we had a fair amount of cloud and rain.  It was temperate.   At other times of the year it is simply hot and humid.  I can probably bear the hot, not the humid.  Like what often happens in the tropics the rain in the afternoon was sudden, intense and brief.  

On the first full day I was visiting we traveled up to the city of Perote - which is one of the roads to Mexico City from the state.  It is a town in the mountains above Veracruz and Xalapa. There is a superb fish restaurant in the town - who knows how they get such fresh fish.   One of my favorite meals in Veracruz is fresh fish, especially a variety known as Robalo, cooked in the style of mojo de ajo - which is a simple combination of chipotle, olive oil, lime juice and garlic (lots of garlic).   A lot of Veracruzana dishes are made in a red sauce with a tomato base.

One afternoon, at lunch, I had a long discussion on the merits of different kinds of Tequila.   But anyone who believes that Mexican cuisine is limited to tacos and tequila has some serious misconceptions.

Chilies and Dried Fish in the Perote Market
In the visit to Perote, we went into the traditional market.  The picture to the left is of four kinds of chilies on sale.   Dried chilies are used in a lot of different dishes and their variation is huge, from mild to intense.   On the back table in the picture is dried fish, which is cured in salt.   The best way to eat that fish is to soak it in water until the salt is washed out.  On Friday night we went to a restaurant back in the city I was in and the cook had not washed the fish adequately, so what should have been a pleasant fish chowder with garbonzos was an inedible salt bath.   One of the changes that has happened in the last ten years has been the introduction of supermarkets.   But in most towns you can still find the traditional market - which either operates continuously or on market day.

THE ELECTION - In July Mexico elected a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.  He is a member of the party which was thrown out in 2000 (PRI).   The election centered around two other candidates - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (PRD - Left of Center) and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN - the party of Felipe Calderon the current president).  Peña Nieto won with a plurality although there was a lot of discussion about whether he won the vote fairly.  Lopez Obrador has, like he did in 2006, protested the vote (he is an aging left wing windbag).   And there was a lot of wonder why the PAN nominated Josefina.   In January I gave a speech to a bunch of politicians in Xalapa and one female asked me if I knew the word "machisma" (the female equivalent of machismo) - and then told me it would become an important word in 2012.  It did not turn out that way.  And a lot of people I have spoken with over the last couple of months assert a conspiracy.  I am not so sure.

One of the most interesting things was what happened in Veracruz.  The prior governor was named Fidel Herrara Beltran - who was obsessed with the color red and who seemed to be an old style PRI politician.  Veracruz, until this election, had been a reliable PRI stronghold.  But while the country was going with the PRI by the narrowest of margins, Veracruz was electing Javier Duarte de Ochoa, a PANista.   There has been talk that the new PRI people in the federal government might mess with the new governor.   But yesterday Ochoa held a unity rally with all the PAN elected mayors in the region.

The new president gets inaugurated in December.   My friends who are pessimists in Mexico believe the return of the PRI is bad news.  What I see as a foreigner is that Mexico has matured as a functioning democracy.  I believe a lot of voters were concerned about the costs of Calderon's war on drugs (although support for the effort remains high) and voters may have said it is about time for a change.  It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next year or two.  If the President Elect believes he will be able to return to the politics of the PRI, I think he will be sadly mistaken.

Since 2000 I have had the opportunity to work with Fox Administration as well as several governors.  Like the American politicians I have met, they have been a varied lot.   But since 2000 the country has gone through some changes that I believe set the country on a firm and positive path.

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