A blast from the past.
Mexico’s Plutocracy Thrives on Robber-Baron Concessions
By EDUARDO PORTER AUG. 27, 2007
Growing up in Mexico City, I always knew Mexico was an unjust country — a place where small coteries of the privileged control all power and wealth while half the population lives in poverty. But it never occurred to me that Mexico would have billionaires.
… But here’s what takes the cake, especially if you’re Mexican like me. Earlier this month, Fortune reported that Carlos Slim Helú, a Mexican, had just surpassed Bill Gates to become the world’s richest man, with a fortune worth $59 billion.
To put it in perspective, Mr. Slim’s treasure is equivalent to slightly less than 7 percent of Mexico’s total production of goods and services — one out of every 14 dollars’ worth of stuff made by all the people in the country.
The income distribution in the United States may be fast approaching Mexican levels of inequality, but in relative terms, Mr. Gates isn’t even in Mr. Slim’s league. His $58 billion fortune is less than 0.5 percent of the nation’s G.D.P.
Indeed, by this measure, Mr. Slim is richer even than the robber barons of the gilded age. John D. Rockefeller, America’s richest man, was worth the equivalent of about 1.5 percent of the nation’s G.D.P.
It takes about nine of the captains of industry and finance of the 19th and early 20th centuries — Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John J. Astor, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Stewart, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, Jay Gould and Marshall Field — to replicate the footprint that Mr. Slim has left on Mexico.
But the momentous scale is not the most galling aspect of Mr. Slim’s riches. There’s the issue of theft.
Like many a robber baron — or Russian oligarch, or Enron executive — Mr. Slim calls to mind the words of Honoré de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Mr. Slim’s sin, if not technically criminal, is like that of Rockefeller, the sin of the monopolist.
In 1990, the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sold his friend Mr. Slim the Mexican national phone company, Telmex, along with a de facto commitment to maintain its monopoly for years. Then it awarded Telmex the only nationwide cellphone license.
When competitors were eventually allowed in, Telmex kept them at bay with some rather creative gambits, like getting a judge to issue an arrest warrant for the top lawyer of a competitor. Today, it still has a 90 percent share of Mexico’s landline phone service and controls almost three-quarters of the cellphone market. …
But Mexico has paid, dearly. In 2005, there were fewer than 20 fixed telephone lines for every 100 Mexicans, and less than half had cellphones. Just 9 percent of households had Internet access. Mexicans pay way above average for all these services.