Privatization Is Theft

Leftist president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office today in Mexico. Here, he explains how privatization has pillaged the public — and calls for a break with the neoliberal order.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivers a speech during the final event of the 2018 presidential campaign at Azteca Stadium on June 27, 2018 in Mexico City. Manuel Velasquez / Getty

In terms of our collective wellbeing, the politics of pillage has been an unmitigated disaster. In economic and social affairs, we’ve been regressing instead of moving forward. But this is hardly surprising: the model itself is designed to favor a small minority of corrupt politicians and white-collar criminals. The model does not seek to meet the needs of the people, or to avoid violence and conflict; it seeks neither to govern openly nor honestly. It seeks to monopolize the bureaucratic apparatus and transfer public goods to private hands, making claims that this will somehow bring about prosperity.

The result: monstrous economic and social inequality. Mexico is one of the countries with the greatest disparities between wealth and poverty in the world. According to a 2015 article written by Gerardo Esquivel, a professor at the College of Mexico and a Harvard graduate, 10 percent of Mexicans control 64.4 percent of the national income, and 1 percent own 21 percent of the country’s wealth. But most significantly, inequality in Mexico deepened precisely during the neoliberal period. Privatization allowed it to thrive.

It’s also important to make note of the following statistic: in July 1988, when Carlos Salinas was imposed as president on the Mexican people through electoral fraud, only one Mexican family sat on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people — the Garza Sada family, with $2 billion to their name. By the end of Salinas’s term in office, twenty-four Mexicans had joined the list, owning a combined total of $44.1 billion. Nearly all had made off with companies, mines, and banks belonging to the people of Mexico. In 1988, Mexico sat at twenty-sixth place on a list of countries with the most billionaires; by 1994, Mexico was in fourth place, just beneath the United States, Japan, and Germany.

As is readily observed, economic inequality today is greater than it was in the 1980s, and perhaps greater than the periods before, though a lack of accurate records makes such comparisons difficult. Although Esquivel doesn’t highlight it, inequality skyrocketed during Salinas’s term, when the transfer of public goods to private hands was at its most intense. Under Salinas, the divide between rich and poor deepened like never before. Salinas is the godfather of modern inequality in Mexico.

It’s clear, then, that privatization is not the panacea that its proponents would have us believe. If it were, beneficial effects would by now be visible. At this juncture it’s fair to ask neoliberalism’s supporters: how have Mexicans benefited from the privatization of the telecommunications system? Is it a mere coincidence that, in terms of price and quality, both phone and internet service in Mexico rank seventieth worldwide, far below other members of the OECD?

What social benefits has the media monopoly conferred — other than to its direct beneficiaries, who have amassed tremendous wealth in exchange for protecting the corrupt regime, through brazenly slanted coverage of opposition candidates? What have we gained through the privatization of [Mexican state railroad company] Ferrocarriles Nacionales in 1995, if twenty-plus years later these outside investors haven’t built new train lines, and can charge whatever they want for transport?

How have we benefited from the leasing out of 240 million acres, 40 percent of the country (Mexico has 482 million acres total) for the extraction of gold, silver, and copper? Mexican miners earn, on average, sixteen times less than those in the United States and Canada. Companies in this field have extracted in five short years as much gold and silver as the Spanish Empire took in three centuries. Most outrageously, up until recently they were extracting these minerals untaxed. In short, we are living through the greatest pillage of natural resources in Mexico’s history.

This destructive policy has done nothing for the country. Statistics show that in the past thirty years we’ve failed to advance. To the contrary, in terms of economic growth we’ve fallen behind even an impoverished country like Haiti. The only constant has been economic stagnation and unemployment, which has forced millions of Mexicans to migrate or to make a living through the informal economy, if not resorting to crime. Half of the population is precariously employed with no safety net.

The widespread abandonment of agriculture, lack of job or educational prospects for our youth, and spiraling unemployment has resulted in insecurity and violence that have taken millions of lives. In the magazine Mundo Ejecutivo, Alejandro Desfassiaux reports that “the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) and the National Registry of Disappeared or Lost Persons (RNPED) reported over 175,000 homicides and 26,798 instances of missing people between 2006–2015.” As Desfassiaux puts it, “this violence affected countless others when family members are included.”

For these reasons, it’s illogical to think we can end corruption through the same neoliberal political and economic approach that has so patently failed in the past. To the contrary, until there’s a deep and sustained change, Mexico will continue its decline. Our present course is unsustainable, and we are nearing the point of complete collapse.

Our political economy today echoes the failures of the Porfiriato period at the end of the nineteenth century, when the prosperity of a few was placed above the needs of the many. That failed experiment culminated in armed revolution. The need to topple the PRIAN oligarchy and their ilk has never been greater, just as happened with Porfirio Díaz. But this time around we will not descend into violence, acting rather through a revolution of conscience, through an awakening and an organization of the pueblo to rid Mexico of the corruption that consumes it.

In short: instead of the neoliberal agenda, which consists of the appropriation for the few, we must create a new consensus that prioritizes honesty as a way of living and governing, and regains the great material, social, and moral wealth that was once Mexico’s. We should never forget the words of José María Morelos two hundred years ago: “Alleviate both indigency and extravagance.”

We must ensure that the democratic state, through legal means, distributes Mexico’s wealth equitably, subject to the premise that equal treatment cannot exist without equal access, and that justice consists of giving more to he or she who has less.