Chiapas Ten Years Later

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Economist on PPP

Title: Plan qué?
Source: Economist; 4/10/2004, Vol. 371 Issue 8370, p29, 2p, 1 map
Document Type: Article
Subject Terms: COMMERCIAL policy

Developing southern Mexico


Plan qué?

Mexico's flagship development project has stalled

Dateline: SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS

IT WAS a bold bid for regional leadership. Soon after he took office
four years ago, Vicente Fox, Mexico's president, outlined a development
plan for nine of his country's poor southern and south-eastern states,
and for its Central American neighbours. One of the objectives of the
Puebla-to-Panama Plan (PPP) was to narrow the gap between Mexico's south
and the richer north, which had opened under the North American
Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the 1990s. Road-building (to promote
commerce), power and other infrastructure schemes were the main
elements, though social projects, environmental protection and improved
disaster-prevention were also mentioned. Yet, three years on, little
trace of the PPP can be seen in southern Mexico.

In a village near San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas,
one of the areas supposed to benefit most, villagers look blank at the
mention of the plan--named after the Mexican state and Central American
country at the northern and southern ends of its scope (see map). They
have encountered other development schemes, though, and they show little
enthusiasm for them. Cayetano Hernández, for instance, says a new road
through his village was built without local consent, and took up a lot
of land formerly used to grow maize. Only those with cars benefit--a
group, says Mr Hernández, which includes his family "only in my dreams".
They probably will not even be able to afford much electricity.

These concerns help explain why the PPP has flopped in Mexico. Manuel
Parra, of the local University of the Southern Frontier, argues that, as
an "urban-industrial" project, the PPP was irrelevant to the poor, rural
south, and did not "work with the advantages and resources of the region
as they actually exist." And however noble its intentions, the
government has failed to explain it to the region. Apart from a basic
website, information about it is hard to come by. Neither of the two
main cities of Chiapas yet has a dedicated PPP office. The impression
has been given that this is a scheme imposed from Mexico City. Thus,
though launched by Mr Fox, the PPP seems to remind many people of the
previous, authoritarian regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Plan B

These mistakes have proved fatal in a region naturally suspicious of the
federal government. Decades of strife between the locals, especially the
indigenous population, culminated in the Zapatist uprising of 1994,
which was centred on San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Since then, the city
has become a mecca for the anti-globalisation, environmental and
anarchist movements. These fell on the feeble presentation of the PPP
with glee, portraying it as a damaging conspiracy. The result has been a
public-relations disaster for the government, and stagnation on the
ground for the PPP.

Can Mr Fox save his grand vision? He certainly hopes to, and the PPP
office in Mexico City is soon to relaunch the plan, apparently in a
fresh spirit of co-operation. Herbert Taylor, who took over as its boss
at the lowest ebb, now admits that his team have been "very bad
communicators" and made "bad, stupid errors". With a new air of
humility, he says the PPP will now be more a co-ordinator of ideas from
the states than a top-down planner. It will include some of the elements
that people in Chiapas have been asking for all along. Besides the
roads, which are still "indispensable", he points to new provisions in
the budget for health projects, such as campaigns to fight AIDS and the
newly arrived dengue fever. He has, he says, been trying to think like
"an average citizen: what would I want out of the project?"

Down in Central America, the plan has been more successful, partly
because other countries have been better at securing money for PPP
projects from the Inter-American Development Bank. The sort of attitude
Mr Taylor claims to have adopted would represent a remarkable turnaround
for Mexico's bureaucracy, and might revitalise the PPP in Mexico. But
the relaunch may have come too late, particularly for Mr Fox, who will
leave office in 2006 and still seeks his place in the history books.

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