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The “Real Mexico” is high-tech Mexico

2 April 2007

Sorry to disappoint those who think “the real Mexico” is some colorful, backwards peasant society, but…

The Federal District has signed a contract with the main Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE, with the goal of making wireless internet communication available free of charge from anywhere in the District by 2008.

District Governor, Marcelo Ebrard, said the system will also operate 4,000 videocameras within Mexico City.

The Chinese firm will have a Mexico City partner, generating additional employment.

At the signing, Ebrard and the Chinese exchanged gifts: a replica of the Angel of Independence from the Federal District, and a traditional Chinese fan from ZTE.

Alejandra Martínez, El Universal, 02-April-2007 (my translation)

This really shouldn’t be that huge a surprise, except maybe to those U.S. companies that just overlooked the Mexican market. For some reason, this article made me think of Al Gore… not “inventor of the internet” Gore, or “global warming Gore” but the Gore-Shrub debates of 2000. I don’t know if anyone else caught it, but Gore said something about growing the U.S. manufacturing economy by meeting the growing middle class demand in other countries for energy-efficient, or at least, reasonably priced, goods and services. Nobody seems to have listened, except maybe the Chinese.

Santa Fe is not just corporate headquarters and funky office buildings (with the canyons, you have highrises that are pretty much upside down… I worked in one building where the “ground floor” was the 10th floor on the street side). It’s also a very old “commune.” Vasco de Quiroga, who started the tradition of activist retirees in Mexico, founded the community back in 1535.

Quiroga was about to retire as a judge when he arrived in Mexico in January 1531. He was 60, elderly for the time, and planned to hear the cases, then retire to a monastery (which functioned as the retirement communities and assisted living centers of their time). Hearing minor criminal cases, he was probably one of the first people anywhere to recognize alcoholism as a disease. He blew his retirement nest egg on a hospital… San Hipplito (which still stands today)… the first alcoholism rehab in the world.

A true renaissance man (to be expected of a guy living during the Renaissance), he was one of those geezers who gets excited about new ways of doing things, and new things to do. Having read the recent best-seller, Thomas More’s Utopia (which envisioned self-governing republics without lawyers), Qurioga had himself ordained and later became a Bishop, so he could put More’s theories into practice, setting up communes (especially among the Tarascans in Michoacan) that preserved indigenous culture under a new form of self-governance.

One of the first communes was Santa Fe, now home to Mexico City corporate headquarters and neo-post-post modern architecture (along the barancas and canyons, you’ll find upside-down high-rises, a giant Tequila bottle — naturally, it’s Jose Cuervo’s headquarters — and some of the hippest housing on the planet). The traditional community is still there, living cheek by jowl with los yupis. No surprise then, that one morning, taking a bus out that way, my seat mate was an older indigenous woman, complete with braids and bangles… and her laptop. We had a nice conversation about DSL connectivity.

Bishop Quiroga probably would have said “COOL!” (or whatever the 16th century Spanish equivalent of that would be) and — as Judge Quiroga, started writing contracts to provide computers for the communes. Think of it… this means José Lopez will be able to check not just his email and send e-priapos to girlfriends and wish-they-were girlfriends, small time merchants will be able to shop on-line… or send out delivery orders, or do banking or…

Just think of the energy savings: Mexico does a lot of business face to face, and always will, but if you’re not running all over town looking for a part or a specific item, that’s one less body on the Metro, or one less car, or one less wasted trip (if my students had emailed me that they were blowing off their lessons, it would have saved me at least four or five hours a week on the Metro).

As it is now, Mexico is a lot better “wired” than people realize. Any small village has an internet cafe. Sometimes it’s a little funky (one in my Mexico City neighborhood was in a neighbor’s living room… the 11-year old was a pretty good tech support guy, and the four year old chasing after his pet pigeon was good for comic relief), but you can usually find a computer SOMEWHERE. With wireless, this means you’ll be able to find them ANYWHERE.

Oscar Lewis wrote about families that rented out their living room to watch TV in the late 1950s, when TV was still new and exciting (and one family added a snack bar), so I’d fully expect you’ll have some family every neighborhood to start renting out their hardware to make ends meet. Besides the entreprenuers who’ll set up on every urban corner with a laptop and a table, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find ambulantes with laptops

The thing that gets me about Mexico City going wireless isn’t that it’s a radical idea. Sure, it’ll be one of the biggest wireless communities in the world, but what’s unusual is who is sponsoring this. Not us capitalists — who missed it when Al Gore talked in 2000 about the need for U.S. businesses to focus on goods and technology in less-wealthy countries if they wanted to expand — but the Chinese and the Mexican socialists.

When Latin Americans talk about the U.S. losing influence in the region, it’s not just the big ticket items like oil and minerals they’re talking about. Mexico is not a poor country, poorer than the U.S., of course, but as a whole, it has money to spend and invest. On a per capita income basis, think Poland or the Czech Republic. For Mexico City, think Italy. But, we’re trying to buy, not sell… and Pemex isn’t for sale.

So, the Mexican military has been buying Polish tanks and Russian jets... a week or two ago, Calderón inaguarated a new wind-generating plant in Oaxaca (which will provide 20% of the City’s power), deals between Pemex and the Norwegan and Brazilian state oil companies are in the works… and Mexico City is buying Chinese wireless services. While we’re still trying to force them to buy rice they don’t want.  That’s nuts.   And Vasco de Quiroga would agree.

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