The rusting skeleton of what was once Latin America’s flagship steel mill soars into the spotless sky. In another era, La Fundidora was the symbol of this powerhouse northern city, where mining and hot steel and the rail lines running north and south made it the nation’s industrial and financial titan. Shuttered by the Mexican government in 1985 over workers’ protests, the Fundidora’s production shifted to private steelmakers.
Today the 12,000 workers who once toiled in the Fundidora’s foundries and furnaces are ghosts of the city’s proletarian past. The site has been remade into an exclusive enclave featuring the shiny new Monterrey International Business Center (CINTERMEX) and a giant Holiday Inn. And it was at this icon of neo-liberal transformation that nearly 60 heads of state, their entourages and delegations, and an army of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) converged for a landmark United Nations-sponsored conclave that put Mexico and President Vicente Fox squarely in the global spotlight.
The Forum On Financing World Development was convened to ratify The Monterrey Consensus, an agreement rubber-stamped by 189 United Nations members, despite criticism that the consensus had been imposed from Washington. The document (reportedly crafted by ex-Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo and ex-Treasury Secretary-turned Citigroup honcho Robert Rubin) reaffirms the goal, set at the U.N. Millennium Summit, to halve the number of the world’s extreme poor who survive on a dollar or less a day (the price of a cup of coffee at CINTERMEX) by 2015. That’s about 1.2 billion destitute citizens of the planet, a fifth of the world’s population.
The gathering was only the second such event since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington; the World Economic Forum (WEF), held in New York in late January, kicked off the global conclave season. The Monterrey meeting took place nearly a year after tear gas-saturated protests at the Quebec Summit of the Americas, and six months after the deadly Genoa G-7 meet. Most recently, a massive anti-globalization mobilization greeted the European Union Spring summit in Barcelona. Instigated at Kofe Annan’s behest by Zedillo, a globalization booster who is credited with popularizing the term “globalphobe,” the Monterrey forum on financing development drew anti-globalists to town like moths to the proverbial flame.
“The Sultan of the North,” as Monterrey likes to call itself, is a city that prides itself on its sparkling skyscrapers, impressive monuments, and roast goat, the local delicacy that packs the tourists into culinary salons like “El Rey de La Cabra” (The Goat King). This may explain why the city fathers (there are no mothers) were so disturbed when a couple dozen farmers from the nearby town of Mina showed up on the first day of the forum with two dead goats. They claimed the critters had been poisoned by toxic outflow from a water treatment plant owned by a French transnational. “There is a plot by the globalphobes to stain the image of our city,” declared Mayor Jesus Cantú.
The campesinos and toxic goats were the first in a serial pageant of anti-globalization vaudeville that so terrorized some locals that they abandoned Monterrey for early Holy Week sojourns, even as 10,000 federal, state, and local military and police were moving into the city to counter the globalphobe threat. For weeks, Televisa, the senior partner in Mexico’s two-headed TV monopoly (which accorded World Cup-sized coverage to the Monterrey events) had flashed nightly file film filled with skinheads and ski-masks, burning cars, and spooky music, to properly panic the populace.
A march commemorating Mexico’s expropriation of its oil industry from foreign owners drew just 10,000, a pale shadow of the hundreds of thousands who had filled the streets of Barcelona just two days earlier. The lean showing was attributable to the big scare build-up and heavy security. During the first Mexican anti-globalization outing at a Cancun WEF roadshow last year, protesters were beaten bloody under orders from the federal police. But the fear factor was not the only root of the lax turn-out in Monterrey. “The United Nations is just not the World Bank–people still have illusions about the U.N.,” observed Louis Webber of France-Attac, one of the few European anti-globalization activists who managed to come to Monterrey. Moreover, there was virtually no organized labor opposition to globalization, while in Barcelona, union participation swelled mass protest to a half million anti-globalization marchers.
But what definitely depleted the anti-globalist ranks in Monterrey was the absence of allies in the NGO community who normally might have been pounding the pavement alongside them. Instead they were inside, trying to make their voices heard. Labeling themselves critics of globalization rather than outright phobes, NGO reps allowed themselves to be lured into the CINTERMEX with promises that they would at last have a say in the proceedings.
The Monterrey Consensus, a U.N. document hatched in Washington, D.C., is being marketed by its architects as the ultimate global bargain between rich nations and poor. But, as quickly became apparent at the forum, the planet’s most impoverished peoples are not convinced that this U.N.-sponsored initiative is such a great deal after all.
At the nub of the dispute was just how much rich nations are going to cough up to meet millennium goals to halve extreme poverty by 2015. With foreign aid to the poorest countries in steep decline since the 1997 Asian economic crisis, development aid has virtually dried up for those nations at the bottom of the barrel. Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is lowering human life expectancies, lost 40 percent of all development aid in the booming 1990s. In order to recoup, the World Bank advertises that between $60 and $80 billion will have to be raised each year to come close to cutting extreme poverty in half. Yet the rich northern donor nations fall far short of this goal. Although the developing world has long petitioned the world’s wealthiest nations to set aside 0.7 percent of their GDP to finance development, response has been negligible. Monterrey was no exception.
Taken together, the 15 European Union countries only reserve between 0.33 and 0.39 percent of their incomes for Third World aid. Nonetheless, EU donations are three times that of the planet’s largest economy, the United States, which kicks in a munificent 0.1 percent of its $10,000,000,000,000 GDP annually.
Stung by criticism of its Guinness Book of Records chintziness, on the eve of the Monterrey Summit, Washington announced a $5 billion increase in aid over the three years beginning in 2004, a boodle that breaks down to a little over a dollar a year per capita for 1.2 billion souls who earn a dollar or less a day. By way of comparison, recent statistics released by the U.S. pet industry calculate that North American pet owners spent $34 per pet for gifts this past Christmas. Stung by criticism of the paltry $5 billion, the President promised to ask Congress to cough up additional foreign aid.
But Bush’s less-than-largesse has so many strings attached that recipient nations will be tied in knots for years to come. U.S. contributions are conditioned on compliance with War on Terrorism strictures, International Monetary Fund-ordered structural adjustments, and free market reforms. Nations receiving Washington’s aid must support free trade and purge themselves of corruption. (Although it’s currently in the throes of the tawdry Enron scandal, Washington continues to advertise itself as a paragon of clean government.) NGOs argue that denying bread to the starving because the rulers of their countries are corrupt is cruel and unusual punishment.
Missing from the Monterrey agenda was discussion of how to deal with all that Third World debt that neo-liberal economists argue is no longer a problem, despite the fact that during the 1990s poor nations paid out far more in debt service alone to rich nations than they received back in aid. Although canceling the debt of the 25 most impoverished countries could be a vital step in meeting millennium goals, debt relief was dismissed as a source of funding sustainable development at the Monterrey summit.
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington provided a dark subtext for the entire event. U.N. secretary-general Kofe Annan reminded summit-goers that the world cannot be really safe so long as a fifth of humanity lives on a dollar or less a day, and World Trade Organization chieftain Michael Moore (also known as the other Michael Moore) availed himself of the imagery by characterizing world poverty as “a time bomb.” Billionaire currency trader George Soros considered that the summit might never have been called without rich nations’ sudden concern with mollifying the discontent of the world’s poor, in the wake of September 11. Soros has criticized President Bush for diverting funds to combat poverty into the War on Terrorism. By way of response, the U.S. president justified a $50,000,000,000-increase in defense spending this year as anti-poverty aid because it “provides security for the poor.”
Over and over again, critics at the summit expressed fears that U.S. aid, much as during the Cold War when Communism was Washington’s chief bogeyman, would be directed at geo-political allies in the War On Terrorism rather than those who need it most.
September 11 was clearly on Bush’s screen when he checked into town on the first leg of a three-stop Latin junket that Washington pundits figured was designed to boost the Latino vote for Republican candidates in this year’s mid-term elections. His first order of business was a huddle with Fox and Canada’s Jean Chretien to discuss strengthening North American security defenses and the tightening of both the Mexican and Canadian borders. Bush also met twice with President Fox in an effort to revive immigration reforms that were torpedoed by 9/11, but as expected, no breakthroughs were announced. All in all, the president did less damage on his second visit to Mexico, than he did in February 2001, when he announced the resumption of the bombing of Iraq from Vicente Fox’s Guanajuato hacienda.
This time around he participated in a rare four-hour “retreat” with Fox and a half a hundred heads of state, purportedly to brainstorm a way out of world poverty. Conspicuous by his absence at the high-level tete-a-tete was Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. The sudden arrival and departure of Comandante Castro, who denounced current aid levels as “genocide” even before he touched down in Monterrey, all but stole the show from the U.S. president. In perhaps the shortest speech (seven minutes) of his long career, Fidel dissed the world economy as “a big casino” and denounced the Monterrey consensus as “humiliating… crumbs tossed by the masters of the world.”
Although the U.S. delegation, led by U.N. ambassador John Negroponte, whose stints in Honduras and Vietnam were steeped in CIA chicanery, walked out on the Comandante, delegates from many poor nations in Africa and Latin America rose to give the Cuban Prime Minister a standing ovation. The olive-drab-clad Castro then stormed out of the plenary session and flew back to Cuba, with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez right on his heels. Peru’s Alejandro Toledo also left the summit abruptly following a deadly terrorist attack outside the U.S. embassy in Lima. Although both Argentina’s Duhalde and Colombia’s Pastrana stuck it out, Brazil’s Fernando Enrique Cardoso, who was otherwise occupied, never managed to show up.
Comandante Castro’s angry departure startled Fox and Castañeda, who both denied complicity in precipitating his quick leave-taking. Cuban officials later suggested that White House national security adviser Condoleeza Rice had threatened to cancel her boss’s visit if Fidel Castro lingered in Monterrey. “This is like Cinderella–Fidel was invited to the ball but he had to be home by a certain hour,” mused Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban parliament who led his country’s delegation.
According to Fox and Castañeda, the Monterrey Summit allowed Mexico to finally take its rightful place at the global table. “Monterrey in the Eyes of the World!” garish television commercials blared for days after the summit had run its course. But not all of Monterrey was included. Mayor Jesus Cantú, a member of President Fox’s right-wing National Action or PAN party, reportedly sent city workers into threadbare colonies clinging to the sides of towering Saddle Mountain, to paint them the color of the earth in a futile exercise to camouflage the poor. Street kids were rounded up and taken to shelters and beggars removed from downtown sidewalks; in some Monterrey neighborhoods, begging is a punishable crime. A flimsy wooden wall was thrown up, apparently to keep poor neighbors skirting the center of the city from offending the sensibilities of the distinguished visitors, a barrier rebaptized by colony dwellers as “The Berlin Wall.”
Of course with a million and more poor on its doorstep, it is just about impossible for the Sultan of the North to tuck them all away from public view. One day during the summit, United Nations Habitat director Anna Kajamolo was taken out to meet a group of garbage pickers on the periphery of the city. Surveying the strewn, waterless landscape, the U.N. official muttered to a local reporter, “You know, this looks a lot like Africa.”
John Ross would rather have tamalitos in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico than cabrito in Monterrey.