Mexicans and NAFTA

IT seems as if just about every other article written by a Mexican columnist these days touches upon the future of Mexico as it will be affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They all appear to be written by thirty-something economic types who cite an enormous number of facts and figures (all ending in millions, billions or trillions of whatever currency). Economists have proven to be very rarely right - or even close - in their predictions, but this fact fails to daunt these think- tank types from expounding on the consequences of trade deficits, under-capitalization, private debt, and the like.

Nowhere, however, have I read about the human element involved. It seems to me that the personal traits of Mexican workers and management will have a great deal to do with the degree of success each sector will have in coping with the coming openness of this continent's economies.

Just as in the United States and Canada, Mexico will have its winners and losers. Amazingly, in this case it seems as if those who have been deprived for so long will now gain the most, while those who have traditionally preyed on Mexican society will finally get their comeuppance. John Wayne would like that.

We have all heard the expression, "You can't generalize." Not true. Anyone who has had more than a little exposure to other countries and nationalities knows that people as a whole have distinct personalities. There are exceptions within each country, of course: I'm sure a lazy Japanese worker could be found. But there are distinct national norms which are formed by educational systems, religious beliefs, family, and other social structures, and the individualistic histories which have formed the charact eristics of each nation's population. Just like the French, Germans, Russians, Chinese, or Argentinians, Mexicans, too, have traits which set them apart.

As with most former Spanish colonies, the Mexican class system divided the population into rich and poor. Only in the past 60 years has a middle class grown to where at present it is of substantial size - perhaps 30 percent to 35 percent of the population.

Still, the majority are poor and, until now, have had little chance of upward economic or social mobility. This plus-or-minus 60 percent of the Mexican population forms the basic work force which will gain most from NAFTA. Collectively, they are hard-working, ingenious, willing, adaptable, and, when given the chance, ambitious. Their only defects are a certain servility (vestiges of colonialism that persist) and inflexibility when faced with exceptions to standard procedures (following orders without exc eption - especially at low bureaucratic levels - has been ingrained).

The very cream of the Mexican work force has been lost. They are the ones with the ambition and drive to get ahead: the bravest of the brave. They are the ones who, against all odds, crossed the border into the US to make a better living for themselves and their families. Without knowing either the language or customs, millions have plunged into the unknown and, through sheer desire to succeed, have formed the enormous Mexican-American community in the US. The fact that this community has been so success ful - with a far lower percentage on welfare than most minorities - is testimony to the adaptability of the Mexican worker to a competitive capitalistic system.

And those who have not immigrated are not much different. They share the same basic characteristics. Usually circumstance, more than lack of ambition, has kept them in Mexico. With the extreme youth of the Mexican population, there will be a steady stream of such able workers for the future. When opportunities come to Mexico, it will retain the best of its work force. Then, through competition for their services, the earning power of the workers will rise, just as President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has promised, and the middle class will inexorably grow.

The future is not nearly so bright for the Mexican managerial class. With notable exceptions, they simply lack the tools, the temperament, or the will to be competitive with managers of the first-world firms. The former protectionist system allowed them liberties of mediocrity which will not be available in the near future.

Most Mexican businesses are family-owned, and it is traditional for succeeding generations to move right into managerial positions when they come of age. In the US sons and daughters go into their parents' businesses, too. The difference is that there the children have been working each summer vacation since they were 16 and they don't start at the top. They learn the business from the bottom up.

Mexican owners and managers tend to act imperiously, and they will quickly begin to pay for being out of touch with their employees and customers. Unless they change their ways, the arrogant will shortly be out of business and those more in touch with humanity will be in their places.

On balance, Mexico will gain from NAFTA. And when its market potential expands, the US and Canada will reap substantial benefits.

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