Mexico's dynamic north drives change

The techies fuel-injecting the economy helped vote Vicente Fox into office Sunday.

At the sprawling Delphi Automotive Systems campus in this US-Mexico border city, the older managers and administrators refer to the complex's technical center as "our Generation X building."

More than half of the center's 1,000 engineers and designers are under 35, drawn from all over Mexico to work in automotive design and development.

"We're actually developing products here, which is unusual for Mexico," says systems manager Jerry Haller. "Our people are dealing with Detroit, Japan, China, and Europe every day."

Delphi's Jurez operations - 25,000 employees and growing, with tasks as close to the industry's cutting edge as anywhere - are a shining example of the advancement of northern Mexico. They are also a reflection of the young, urban, better-educated Mexico that is eager to compete in the global economy.

It is this Mexico that brought down the country's aging regime in Sunday's elections. In its place president-elect Vicente Fox promises a greater focus on education and global competition.

A broad swatch of Mexico, stretching from Mexico City northward along corridors linking urban centers, leads the way in this modernization. Every day, the country's northern tier is adding new industrial facilities, world-class manufacturing plants, and technological schools that are putting northern Mexico on the global economic map.

And every week, hundreds of Mexicans migrate north, attracted by jobs, a sense of opportunity, and an openness to the entrepreneurial spirit.

Yet, Mexico's northern half starkly contrasts with its south - where states like Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Campeche are falling farther behind in income and education levels, in technological and social development. While what is increasingly called Mexico's "dynamic triangle" - beginning at Mexico City and extending to the western and eastern edges of the US-Mexico border - continues its advance into the global economy, the south remains focused on traditional industries: lumber, agriculture, minerals.

Delphi continues to expand in Jurez on what used to be cotton fields, for example. In Guerrero and Chiapas, social turmoil holds back development as subsistence farmers continue age-old fights over small plots of land.

This north-south, two-tier development is causing alarm bells among social analysts. In a recent report on Mexico's prospects for development in 2020, Mexico City's College of Architects warns that the divide will worsen without remedial attention.

The north's ability to take advantage of the north American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in particular "represents an opportunity for the country within the broader context of economic globalization," the 2020 report concludes. "However this also risks widening the [north's] economic and, particularly, social divide from the rest of the country."

Experts say the next decade will be crucial to finding ways to integrate the south into the country's development. Otherwise, a split could occur.

And while Mr. Fox says the challenge of redressing regional backwardness is complex, he also demonstrates an awareness of Mexico's divide and a desire to address it. At his first post-election meeting with foreign journalists this week, Fox offered two ideas to get the south moving - tax abatements on investments in lagging southeastern states, and promoting genuine decentralization by putting more resources in states' hands.

Politically, the divide is of particular concern to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which after 71 years in power was given the boot by the very segments of Mexico that are fueling the north's advance. The PRI learned Sunday that it has become fatally dependent on rural, older, and less-educated populations to retain political power.

While much of the "dynamic triangle" has experienced political alternation and is learning to live with an equilibrium among political forces, much of the south remains solidly in the PRI's hands. The list of the nine states where the PRI prevailed Sunday is virtually a duplicate of the list of the poorest and most rural states.

Yet a Mexico whose population is about two-thirds urban today will be 90 percent urban by 2020, demographers project. The country's future is more like what the north already is: more pluralistic and entrepreneurial.

"[Jurez] is a very democratic city, but it is not a city of people who feel dependent on the government," says Miguel Caldern Rodrguez, Jurez general director for Canacintra, the national manufacturing consortium. "In the south you still have the old class structure, with people dependent on the local cacique [community boss], but here despite our [population of 1.5 million] we don't even have a bankers' club."

The north's "wider spaces for the individual" mean that people trust more in what they make of themselves rather than who they know or are subject to, Mr. Caldern says. "It's an evolved Mexican mentality," he adds. "People are non-politicized, open to change, develop a strong work mentality, have smaller families."

With resources for social and economic development limited, some experts say Mexico needs to give priority to development in the "dynamic triangle" rather than wasting money on regions that are not competitive and able to take advantage of assistance.

"The government's limited resources for infrastructure, the environment, and other development needs should be focused on those areas that have shown they are competent at putting them to use," says Boris Graizbord, an urban development specialist in Mexico City. "That means the [areas] that have the greatest capacity to create good jobs, take advantage of the export economy, and to attract investment.

"Those are generally located along the corridors of development associated with NAFTA and that run from [Mexico City] north," adds Mr. Graizbord, who participated in the Mexico 2020 study.

Fox says he recognizes that more efficient states will employ scarce resources more profitably. But as president-elect of all Mexico he also recognizes that a lagging south can only be left behind at the country's peril.

Others say the advantages that Mexico's north is building on will eventually spread to much of the rest of country, similar to the way a backward south in the US evolved with the development of new industries.

The assembly plants that have mushroomed on the northern border - creating 225,000 jobs in Jurez alone - are spreading to other parts of the country as costs on the border rise.

But, failing to invest in the high-growth north, says Graizbord, will only increase the problems associated with the south, like extreme poverty. "That could mean lower living standards," he adds, "and eventually increased migration from the north to the US."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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