MEXICO CITY -- President Clinton arrived last night for a two-day visit kicking off his first Latin American tour -- and giving this capital a more festive air than usual for Cinco de Mayo.
But Clinton's appearance also starkly underscored the huge gap that exists in this country between the upper classes able to ride the bandwagon of the new global economy and those left behind by the North American Free Trade Agreement and other efforts at modernization.
Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived earlier in the day, are staying in the swank Presidente Inter-Continental, a luxury hotel in the middle of a toney neighborhood called Polanco, known for its fancy restaurants and expensive boutiques.
Here, upscale Mexicans can dine at the local Hard Rock Cafe or purchase tiny bronze reproductions of American artwork for 200 pesos -- approximately $27 -- at a shop that owes its existence to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Five minutes away by taxi, however, 200 pesos is the weekly salary of 22-year-old Enrique Gomez. He lives in a tough working-class neighborhood called Tacubaya where his extended family of eight dwells in a three-room, concrete-walled house.
Gomez works in a pet store. He has no car and rides his bike 30 minutes to work each way. He says his wages allow for a diet of rice and beans and "carne -- poquito." Meat, a little.
Prices are high he complains, wages low. To say that Clinton's visit seems remote to him is an understatement. Three hours before Air Force One was to touch down here, Gomez said he'd not heard Clinton was coming. Does he think it will help Mexico? He shrugs and asks, "How?"
Up the street salsa music wafts from another house as some boys kick a soccer ball back and forth. In some ways it's an idyllic scene -- except for the poverty that shows up on the faces of the residents.
Mariana Louisa Martinez sits outside her small open-air shop. She's 56, but looks much older. "Business is very bad now," she says. She knows nothing of Clinton's role in lending Mexico $13.5 billion to stabilize the peso two years ago. She only knows that when the Mexican currency was devalued following NAFTA, it left the neighborhood broke.
"Look, no customers," she says.
Asked about Clinton's visit, she replies, "It's good, but the situation won't change."
Clinton's two-day visit began last night with a tour of Mexico City's famed anthropological museum. The subjects of talks between the president and Mexican leaders include immigration, trade, and drugs, but Clinton also wants to smooth over tensions those issues between the two governments.
Today, the president is to meet with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, call on opposition leaders as well, and lay a wreath at the monument to a group of Mexican patriots who died defending the capital 150 years ago against American soldiers in the Mexican-American war. Tonight he will hold a press conference and attend a state dinner.
Tomorrow he is to deliver a nationally televised address to the Mexican people and tour ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan. Tomorrow night, Clinton flies on to Costa Rica to attend a summit of Central American leaders. From there, he is to travel to Barbados to a similar summit of Caribbean leaders and a day of relaxation.
In welcoming ceremonies last night, Clinton was greeted by Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria. Gurria praises Clinton for his leadership in passing NAFTA, for bailing out the peso and bTC especially for resisting calls from some quarters in the United States to brand Mexico officially uncooperative in the fight against drugs.
For his part, Clinton emphasizes the huge and growing trade between Mexico and the United States. This trade has gone from $80.5 billion in 1993 -- before NAFTA and the peso devaluation -- to $128.6 billion. It has resulted in a trade surplus for Mexico of about $16 billion.
Yet these encouraging figures have yet to improve life for most ordinary Mexicans -- and some doubt that they ever will.
In hard-pressed southern Mexico, opposition to NAFTA was a rallying cry for Zapatista rebels on New Year's eve in 1994. They said the treaty's provisions encouraging modern, large-scale agriculture were squeezing campesinos off their land. To these peasants, who live thousands of miles from the new "maquiladora" plants -- assembly plants -- along the Mexico-U.S. border, NAFTA is a "death sentence," rebel leaders claim.
Some Americans agree. "The whole middle class of Mexico has been thrown into economic crisis -- and NAFTA isn't helping," said Thea Lee, a Washington economist with the AFL-CIO. "We are selling large machinery and factory production equipment to U.S.-owned Mexican companies and they are selling back finished products."
Even in northern Mexico, where the economy is bustling, some share these worries.
"Mexico doesn't have any heavy industry of its own yet," said Edgardo Sandoval, general manager of a Tijuana maquiladora. "We buy things like tractors and sell taco pots. Not much of a future in that. We've got to advance technologically."
That will be part of Clinton's message, too, but such concepts can seem ephemeral to working people here.
"In Mexico City, there are many places of misery," says Jaime Pinera, a driver.
This city of 20 million is ringed by poor neighborhoods, each one seemingly more impoverished the farther out you go from the city center. The air quality here is so menacing that two days last week schoolchildren weren't allowed to play outside. Hundreds of medium-sized family businesses have collapsed under the pressure of foreign competition and the devalued peso. Crime is so bad the U.S. Embassy directs Americans only to use one taxi company because independent drivers were mugging their foreign passengers.
And yet, in one of the worst slums, standing before shanties made of discarded boards and corrugated metal, a retired Mexican bus driver indicated he could see through the smog, poverty and crime to a better future.
"I heard about Clinton coming on the radio," said Gabriel Garcia, 57. "They said he was a friend to Zedillo and a friend to Mexico. "It's good. We need all the friends we can get."
Asked about NAFTA, he nodded his head. "It will create jobs for Mexicans, maybe not right now, but for the next generation."
Pub Date: 5/06/97