What to Do About the South?


The poverty of the southern part of the country is an open sore and intolerable and even more so when the widening gap characterizing the Two Mexicos is appreciated: the one growing swiftly, and the one falling behind, ever more impoverished. The recent earthquakes have done nothing more than evidence, once again, the dimensions of the problem and the urgency of attending to it. There is no way that the country can attain development if it does not “jump-start” the South. However, it is not obvious what can or should be done to achieve this fundamental imperative.

The first thing that should be done is to define the problem because, in the absence of a clear and realistic definition, the imagination tends to take over every new brood of government officials that, with the greatest of frequencies, leads them to actions that are as impulsive as they are counterproductive. The image of the South as poverty-ridden and a region left behind is real, but incomplete. On being confronted by the first photograph emerging from any observation, the immediate response is to send wagonloads full of money. Some versions of that mechanism take the form of subsidies, others of poverty-fighting programs, and yet others, recently, that of “special economic zones.” Each of these schemes has its virtues, but the common denominator, as in so many other national matters, is that of side-stepping the causes and tackling the symptoms.

The crucial question is whether the South has not developed for lack of monies or whether there are other factors that perpetuate that world of poverty and impede its progress. There has been, without doubt, less investment in infrastructure in states such as Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas than in some of the country’s other regions, and it is also true that the lack of access to energy for productive purposes (such as gas pipelines) has inhibited the establishment of a modern industrial plant. However, there are many areas of the country (such as the West) that have been the victims of similar privations; notwithstanding this, their hardship indices are radically distinct. Jalisco, for example, only now will become privy to its first gas pipeline, a factor explaining its low incidence in heavy industry, but that has not hindered it from having developed into the nation’s heart of the electronics and computer industry.

Another of the perennial proposals is the concretion of a “Marshall Plan” for the country’s South, an idea evoking the project that the U.S. Government erected to aid in the recovery of the European nations after the Second World War. The idea is not a poor one in itself, but a review of that plan probably throws light on its unviable result. While Germany converted the Marshall Plan (and the Truman Doctrine) into a stepping-stone for its transformation and was able to accomplish becoming an industrial power in a few years, the impact on Greece was perceptibly inferior. The difference has everything to do with the technical and administrative capacities of each of those nations.

Without presuming to be an expert on the political and social structures of states like Guerrero, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, it appears evident that these factors delineate their underdevelopment to a greater degree than the absence of funds. The stagnation of that zone has endured for centuries and is to a large extent due to the power structures and those of state and local control. A Governor of Zacatecas once enlightened me concerning that the difference between his entity and the state of Aguascalientes is that all of the old power-ingrained structures, adverse to any change, remained in control of Zacatecas, while Aguascalientes benefited from the opportunity to construct a modern state. The explication is similarly valid for the South. It is not by chance that, in Oaxaca, its eponymous signature string cheese is a faithful reflection of its manner of deciding and taking action…

The negative emitted by diverse communities in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in terms of accepting the installation of wind-power fields serves as an illustration: projects that would have supplied incomes and some jobs and that would not have affected the daily lives of the inhabitants were rejected because of factors probably ranging from ideological conceptions to firmly rooted political and economic interests, most partial to the status quo of advantage to them, rather than to the development that could beget a population released from its yoke. The manner in which the Education Secretariat defeated (more or less) Section 22 of the Teachers Union shows that it is possible to break down these strongholds of control and privilege; it also exemplifies the nature of the problem:  it is plain that the greatest emphasis must be placed on human capital, above all education for development.

It is obvious that money is required, but it has to be oriented toward the type of infrastructure that permits the unfettering of opportunities for productive development, as well as for education that allows the development of a vision and the skills to make it possible. To achieve this, the emphasis will have to be political: dealing with power structures that reject the creation of conditions for progress. An integral development project would require a political strategy dedicated to drive change in the relations of local powers. The case in point is much more one of power than of money, although money would be necessary. The order of the factors does indeed change the result.


The views expressed here are solely those of the author.