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Inside Mexico: Little big country's 'Cup'

By IAN CAMPBELL, UPI Chief Economics Correspondent 6/13/2002

QUERETARO, Mexico, June 13 (UPI) -- Car horns sound. Flags wave. Green, red and white wigs cover up jet-black hair. National pride swells.

Early Thursday morning the Mexican national team outplayed Italy, one of the gods of world football, secured a draw and not only qualified for the second round of the World Cup but topped the four-team group. Mexico is celebrating, with good reason, for success on the football field has not come often.

In World Cup football, as in other things, Mexico is the little big country. It is the big football-playing country of North America and the Caribbean and, since nations qualify for the World Cup finals by geographical region, has participated in no less than 11 of the 16 previous World Cup finals. It played in the very first World Cup finals game, in Uruguay in 1930, losing to France by four goals to one. Yet in 70 years and all these appearances, this country of 100 million people and millions of football players has never made it beyond the quarterfinals.

Mexico's underachievement on the football field is mirrored in other sports. Like the rest of Latin America, with the exception of Cuba, few Mexican athletes have shone internationally. The exceptions are marathon runners and boxers and, at present, a very good Mexican 400-meter runner, Ana Gabriela Guevara. These are promising signs. But no Mexican has yet become a big star in tennis, nor in golf or cycling or swimming. Why? The reason is underdevelopment.

It takes leisure time and opportunity and education and training to turn potential talent into world-beating talent. Most Mexicans have barely the opportunity to learn to read and write well, let alone develop their potential and excel at sports or anything else. Mexico's talent goes unfostered. That reflects poverty and perpetuates it.

So Mexico's success so far in the World Cup, in the most democratic of sports, one where opportunity is easier than in most disciplines, where the first training ground is the school playground or a park, and the only equipment a ball, is something to rejoice at. National pride can be boosted; Mexico's self-esteem can be enhanced. That is a good thing.

In the next round, the opponent will be the United States. Victory then would be priceless. The United States is the big big country: the one that has become the world's richest and most powerful, the neighbor that took half of Mexico's land and has gone on to turn the stolen land of California, just California, into the sixth largest economy in the world if it were stripped off from the rest of the United States. Meanwhile, south of the Rio Grande, poverty persists.

Most Mexicans do not still blame the acquisitiveness a century and a half ago of the United States for their country's problems. They realize that all that land offered opportunity. North of the border it became something; south of it, it would have languished. But nonetheless victory over the wealthy ones to the north would be priceless, a sort of revenge. If Mexico wins, the celebration will be huge.

Come back to that historical defeat. It is perhaps the loss of land to the United States and the deep shadow that the United States casts over Mexico's under-achievement that explains why national pride in Mexico has become something problematic.

Mexico, this vast country, was for many years insular and suspicious of capitalism and, to a large extent, despite the seven-year-old free trade agreement with the United States and Canada, still is, even by comparison with other Latin American countries.

The need to defend the country against the capitalist gringos helps to explain why, in the 1930s, President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the assets of foreign oil companies -- largely American and British. In the 1950s, insular development received academic backing from two academics, Raúl Prebisch and Hans Singer, who recommended that Latin America develop behind tariff barriers that made imports expensive and therefore, in theory, encouraged local industries.

But the strategy did not work well, failing to produce competitive companies or strong economies. Since the debt crisis of the 1980s, Latin America's mentality has shifted and become more open.

Brazil, once intensely nationalistic and still today wary of the United States and its proposals for a free trade area of the Americas, has welcomed foreign investment in the past decade. Areas that were once shielded from foreigners, such as telephones and mining, have been opened up. As a result, foreign direct investment in Brazil has been running in recent years at around $30 billion per year, around 5 percent of Brazil's gross domestic product, and a major infusion of fresh money and ideas.

Venezuela, that less than forward-thinking Latin American country, gave concessions to foreign oil companies in 1997, allowing them to explore and produce, and even sold its telephone company, CANTV, to foreign buyers. Argentina privatized, selling, for example, its phone companies to foreigners and its oil company to Spain's Repsol.

Some might say after Argentina's economic collapse, that these sales have done little good. But foreign investment is not the reason why Argentina went under. For that, look to things that did not change: the Peronist-style jobs for the boys in the provinces, the racking up of debt, the unwise adoption in 1991 of a fixed exchange rate and currency board. And, in struggling Venezuela, the opening to foreign investment was temporary, a promising development on which President Hugo Chávez turned his back.

Mexico, too, has shared in Latin America's new openness, selling, for example, its banks to foreigners, and joining the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. Yet it has remained more nationalistic than most of its Latin neighbors.

For 31 miles along its coasts and 62 miles from its northern and southern borders Mexico does not allow foreign ownership of land. The oil industry is monopolized by Pemex, the state-run oil company. The electricity sector is monopolized by the Corporación Federal de Electricidad. Half of Mexico's agricultural land is communally owned in "ejidos," a legacy of the Mexican revolution of the first part of the 20th century. This system of land ownership is unproductive. Many ejidos are abandoned. The land goes to waste.

Mexico is still a country dominated by the state and nervous about private ownership, even if it is Mexican. Foreign private investment is all the more frightening. That is why vital industries such as oil and electricity have been kept under state control and largely free of private investment. And that in turn helps to explain why Mexico's economy is moving forward slowly and its people lack jobs and opportunities to develop themselves, in sport or anything else.

So let us hope that Mexico goes further in the World Cup. National pride and confidence needs to be fomented. Then perhaps Mexico might have more confidence to say "yes" to the world and "no" to the nationalism and fear that have helped to keep the country poor.

A Web site paying tribute to the Mexican athlete, Ana Gabriela Guevara, complete with music, can be found at: jerez.com.mx/deportes.html.


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