First posted Feb 15 2006, Mexico City
Am writing this at 4am. Foolishly stayed up late on first night here as got hooked on Silence of the Lambs on hotel room TV – wanted to see favourite scene (“It places the lotion in the basket”) and thus sacrificed an extra day to jet lag. Have since watched the end of The Fugitive, the whole of The Long Kiss Goodnight (terrible, theme much better dealt with in the excellent A History of Violence) and most of The Anchorman (superb). Must surely soon get over novelty of having a TV in my bedroom.
Mexico City is big. Arriving in Mexico City from London feels like arriving in London from Newton Abbot. I thought I would take a quiet wander through Chapultepec park on Sunday, the biggest green (technical rather than descriptive term – park is brown) urban space in Latin America. It was like taking a stroll on the Japanese subway – I half expected to see uniformed crammers with huge wooden planks cramming us into the park so we’d all fit in. I have not seen so many people since the anti-war demo. Most of Mexico City’s 20 million inhabitants appeared to be there – a genuine sea of people, with market stalls as far as the eye could see selling food, sunglasses, balloons and wrestling masks (obviously).
I took a desperate lunge to my right, thrusting whole picnicking families aside, until I found myself in Polanca, posh barrio, big iron gates, interior design shops. Suddenly it was very different, not least the people. I had come to Mexico with the vague idea that I would more or less fit in with my dark hair, moustache, sombrero and mini-guitar. Well, dark hair. In the park I was disavowed of this notion – I was about a foot taller than everyone else, much lighter skinned and about as inconspicuous as a Swede in Papua New Guinea. But turn into Polanca and I do actually fit in (only my lousy Spanish and tourist-green combats give me away) – everyone is taller and whiter and sipping coffee in the roadside cafés. The shorter, darker people in this part of town are cleaning things, building things, or selling me talcum powder in the supermarket.
This is, of course, what I had been told to expect. Inequality is the fundamental economic and social issue in Mexico, as it is in Britain, and perhaps everywhere. Predictably, and this is a massive generalisation, it shadows the race divide – income differences between people with indigenous roots and taller whiter people are vast. If it turns out to be anything like Guatemala, which I know better, Mexico will be two countries in one. So what is to be done?
Well, actually addressing the problem would be a start. A blinkered prioritisation of economic growth has, in many countries, led to policy choices that have not only failed to address inequality, but have actually exacerbated it. Growth is certainly part of the answer, but focusing much more on reducing inequality would be a better way of tackling extreme poverty and reducing social division than just trying to ‘grow’ faster.
The good news is that more and more people are realising this. Even the World Bank (reach for a glass of water) launched a flagship report on inequality last year, with some old NGO arguments masquerading as the latest in economic modelling. Touchingly, and presumably to emphasise their revolutionary intent, they put a Diego Rivera masterpiece on the cover (who is far superior as an artist, by the way, to Frida Kahlo; I struggle to understand why she receives so much more attention).
The bad news is that many policy makers appear reluctant to detach themselves from a belief in trickle-down economics (country/world ‘grows’, everyone benefits) which is as harmful as it is self-serving. But their narrow obsession with growth is looking increasingly like an embarrassing fetish, especially as environmental constraints become ever more apparent. I hope other optimistic egalitarians are sensing a new breeze beginning to blow as they take their Sunday strolls through the park…