Profiles of Mexicans: Life After NAFTA

MEXICAN Lives'' is a pleasant surprise. I expected a collection of cliches. What I found was an important book composed of 15 finely focused snapshots of fascinating individuals who, collectively, tell a story about a nation in a historic transition.

This timely collage is a portrait of Mexico today: a poor nation jumping into a free market economy via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while wrapped in a politically authoritarian straitjacket. The author, a professor of political and social science at York University, Toronto, is no fan of the policies of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. But she doesn't fill the book with a bunch of shrill left-wing critics or maudlin hard-luck stories. Rather, these are thoughtful hard-working, people. And one finds rich and poor Mexicans, whose real names are changed by Hellman, expressing both support for, and dislike of, current policies.

Businessman Bernardo Navarro, for example, has survived and prospered through the opening of the consumer electronics market to foreign competition. However, most of his industry peers have been devastated. Among his friends and school chums are some of President Salinas's closest advisers. But he is critical about the lack of planning and government consultation when the markets were opened.

``[W]e had no warning,'' Bernardo recalls. ``[I]t is not an exaggeration to say that there were grown men who cried.'' He recounts how little he knew: ``One Sunday I am waterskiing near Cuernavaca on Lake Tequesquitengo with my friend, who is a minister in the government.... Of course, he knows that I am serving as the head of the chamber and I'm responsible to a large membership of electronics manufacturers. He doesn't say one word to me about the changes that are in store. The next morning I have to read in the newspaper that tariffs on finished electronic goods from Asia have been dropped to 20 percent.''

When Hellman concludes that the current electoral reforms offer faint hope for the ``democratization'' of Mexico given the ``system of political control based on corruption'' and patronage, she backs it up with poignant testimonies.

She walks us through a day with Miguel Ramirez, an illegal Mexico City street vendor of electronic games, radios, and wristwatches. Ramirez explains that he pays two pesos a day and 50 pesos every three months to a political boss, Don Gerardo, who guarantees his spot on the Calzada de Guadalupe. Don Gerardo keeps the city officials and police off his back (via bribes) and compensates him if his merchandise is seized by the police.

By paying his ``quota,'' Ramirez becomes a member of the Union of Market Merchants, whose affiliation with the ruling party requires that he be a ``supporter'' when they need a crowd.

``Miguel would be assigned a number that corresponded to a square lettered in chalk in the immense plaza,'' writes Hellman. ``He was then expected to appear in that specific space in the plaza to shout `viva!' at the appropriate moment, and have his name duly checked off on the list his union boss carried around on a clipboard.''

This book takes readers briefly into the lives of a variety of characters, including a domestic worker who puts in 16-hour days, six days a week for $12 a day. One gets to visit with a rare ejido tario, or communal farmer, who doesn't grow corn and beans but successfully sells cauliflower and broccoli to a large United States agroindustrial company.

Hellman enables us to sympathize with a neighborhood organizer and understand the ethics of a Tijuana smuggler who makes up to $1,000 a week escorting illegal immigrants into the US.

Hellman provides background chapters on previous agricultural reforms and the Mexican constitution so the reader can see why current reforms are so revolutionary. But she also manages unobtrusively to weave much of the political and economic context of the Salinas ``modernization'' into the individual stories.

Hellman finds that in the ``face of poverty and overwhelming uncertainty,'' paternalism, not democracy, is thriving. ``Deprived of the information they would need to participate in a national debate, unable to weigh in with opinions on government policy, denied even the chance to cast votes that get properly counted, many Mexicans turn to other means to exert influence or, in the most defensive terms, to guard themselves from misfortune. They seek personal connections and protection. As a result, the orientation of the political system is clientelistic rather than participatory.''

This is a noteworthy book, particularly for readers who want a glimpse of the people who make up the least-developed but fastest-growing piece of the NAFTA puzzle.

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