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As PRI Political Culture Fades, So Will the White Elephants

August 27, 2000|Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones, a journalist, is the author of "True Tales from Another Mexico," to be published this winter

MEXICO CITY — A strange thing happened last month when people in the tourist town of San Cristobal de las Casas saw the renovations to their cathedral plaza taking shape. They protested publicly. The chamber of commerce wrote a letter to the mayor. Local architects went on the local radio station to complain. The lights and benches were too modern, they asserted, the scale of the project too large for San Cristobal's quaint colonial downtown. There weren't enough trees.

Then, an even stranger thing happened. City officials halted the project. The lights and benches have been torn out and the entire project is "under review."

The controversy over the plaza in San Cristobal de las Casas marks a small but important change of political culture in Mexico--and Chiapas in particular. It is believed to be the first public-works project in the state's history stopped by citizen protests--one more sign that Mexico is breaking with decades, even centuries, of authoritarian political tradition.

"Chiapas has always been a passive society where no one complains about authorities' abuses or the decisions they make," said Pablo Cansino, an accountant who heads Vision Chiapas 2020, a group trying for the first time to develop long-term planning goals for the state. "People are saying, 'We've had enough.' "

Atop the list of things Chiapanecos seem to have had enough of are white-elephant public-works projects like the plaza in San Cristobal.

Mexico's white-elephant projects, the elefantes blancos, mark the country like acne--useless, unwanted or unnecessary projects that serve only as significant wastes of money and fountains of corruption. Every state and most cities have some white-elephant project that residents can point to and shake their heads over. These white elephants are also of interest because they will be one of the lasting contributions of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to the country it ruled for 71 years. The projects are artifacts of a political culture and regime now fading away. Perhaps, at some point, they will be studied by political scientists and sociologists--like the Egyptian pyramids--for clues to a political system. Certainly, nothing illustrates quite as well the PRI's arrogance and wastefulness.

These white elephants usually represent grotesque misappropriations of money in a poor land. Like the plaza in San Cristobal, they are planned without regard for the needs or opinions of citizens who pay for them. In addition, white elephants embody a hallmark of the PRI regime: the executive branch's lack of accountability. Governors and mayors, who usually promoted these projects, had virtually unquestioned power in their fiefdoms. Since, by law, they couldn't be reelected, they had little fear of constituents' wrath.

Added to that is a general attitude that mayors and governors have not done their jobs unless they produce obras, or works. Something inconspicuous but necessary--say, computerizing government bureaucracy--was less politically appealing than building some highway or convention center that could be inaugurated and pointed to for years to come.

A project can be a white elephant because it is poorly planned, like the CIVI industrial park in Iguala, Guerrero, built without adequate water or electricity, so only 40% of it is occupied.

"Often, the project that one mayor does is stopped or destroyed by the next one," says Carlos David Alfonzo, a state legislator from San Cristobal. The town's current mayor, Mariano Diaz Ochoa, was public-works director in the last administration and was ordered to build speed bumps around town. "Once he became mayor, he took out all the speed bumps," Alfonzo says.

Another important cause of white elephantism is that local planning decisions are often made in Mexico City. A planner from Leon, Guanajuato, tells the story of a highway extension that Mexico City bureaucrats planned for his city. After much work and expense designing, they came to Leon. There, they discovered they'd been using outdated maps and the highway was going to run through an entire neighborhood. The project was quietly canceled.

No place is richer in white elephants than Mexico's poorest state, Chiapas. At the same time, it leads the country in malnutrition and illiteracy. Eight of 10 residents live in what the census bureau calls "extreme poverty." Yet Chiapas is rich in natural resources and should be wealthier. One reason it is not is the way its public money has been used.

Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, possesses what residents claim is the largest kitchen in Latin America. It is part of the enormous Poliforo, one of Mexico's most lavish convention centers. Whether the kitchen claim is true, the Poliforo is a shocking contrast to the city's poverty. Above the center, climbing up the hillside, are row upon row of shantytown developments on unpaved streets.

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