Mexicans Air Gripes of US With Style

Move over Mickey. Mexico satirizes latest US cultural imperialism in 'Burton Helms' ads.

Over the past few months, Mexican television viewers have gotten to know Burton Helms, an archetypal ugly American. He talks loud, slaughters the Spanish language, and assumes Mexicans will accept that this slippery neighbor from the north knows what's best for them.

Lately, Mr. Helms has taken to wearing a black mariachi hat with puffball fringe and sourly serenading viewers with professions of his love for Mexico.

Burton Helms is the advertising creation of Telefonos de Mexico, Mexico's longtime telephone monopoly. For the first time, Telmex is facing the opening of the telecommunications market and competition from foreign companies, among them American giants AT&T and MCI.

To help fend off that competition, the none-too-popular Telmex came up with Burton Helms to convince Mexicans, who must choose their long-distance carrier by next month, that the scoundrel they already know is better than one with a gringo accent.

Given Mexico's current hypersensitivity over US interference in internal Mexican affairs, the Burton Helms advertising campaign looks to be a stroke of genius.

With his name - a play on Helms-Burton, the US law designed to tighten the Cuba embargo by punishing foreign companies that dare trade with Castro's regime - his arrogant swagger, and his obliviousness to cultural sensitivities, Burton Helms conjures up everything Mexicans detest about Americans.

Helms's Telmex creators know Mexico's sensitivity to America's weight and influence is always just under the surface. But the ongoing battle in Washington over whether Congress should sign on to President Clinton's "certification" of Mexico as a worthy partner in the international drug war has raised their hackles.

What Burton Helms isn't accomplishing on his own, real-life members of the US government are giving him a hand with. A House committee voted Thursday to override Mr. Clinton's certification of Mexico's scandal-ridden drug program.

And an uproar followed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's remark to Congress last week that the US government was putting Mexico "under a microscope" to see how it cooperates in the antinarcotics battle this year.

More outrage followed the retort of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina to Ms. Albright that the only way to fix Mexico is to "cause a crisis" that would bring down the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico for 70 years.

Never mind that some of Mexico's most respected political observers say much the same thing about the need to throw sand in the PRI machine.

It cannot be tolerated coming from el Norte.

"So [we've gone] "from good neighbor to bad microbe," said noted Mexican writer Carlos Monsivis in the daily La Jornada, referring to Albright's microscope, "from the interest of political analysts to that of pathologists." The imperialist neighbor, he added, has become the "germ police."

While all this anti-US reaction proliferates, the long-distance ballots float around Mexico City. Anecdotal evidence suggests the fictitious Helms is earning his keep.

One Mexico City resident reports suggesting to a neighbor last week that she might want to sign up with Avantel, the Mexican company formed in partnership with MCI. "I have no intention of bringing gringos into my house!" the woman responded, "I'll stick with Mexicans!"

No doubt US telecommunications companies are hoping the nationalist uproar will simmer down before April, when Mexico City's long-distance ballots must be turned in. Clinton, who is coming here for the first time in April, must be doing the same.

As for Telmex, it would probably like this spring's binational bad blood to clear out sometime later in the year, when it plans to enter the US telecommunications market, targeting the millions of Hispanic households in the Southwest.

Whenever it does cross the border, it's a good bet Telmex will leave Burton Helms back home in Mexico.

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