On March 2, 2015, the Financial Times published an interview with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. In it, President Peña observed that Mexico's progress was limited by "incredulity and distrust." His comment brought to mind a recent experience.
It was the usual Thursday night crowd down that the 111 Bar and Restaurant in Valle de Bravo, a mix of Americans and Mexicans, a Canadian, a Frenchman and one or two whose sinuous family origins prove too difficult to name in just a word. The evening’s conversation stuck close to the adventures of a new arrival to town, a vivacious Spanish-Mexican woman who was taking some time away from her job as a make-up artist with Cirque du Soleil.
Later in the evening a well groomed, wolf-faced, seventy-something man joined our table together with his girlfriend whose tinted hair glinted in the low light, striking the intended balance between expensive casual and easy elegance. Some at the table knew this man, others did not. He listened to the organic burble of conversation for a time, participating occasionally. We learned that he lived part of his time in France. His girlfriend had been born in Barcelona.
During a lull, he raised a topic of his own. “Did any of you read the article in The New York Times about José Murat Casab?” he asked. Most hadn’t. I had. We quickly described the contents of the article, which revealed the (highly probable) deep corruption of a former governor of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
But “Wolf”, as I shall call him, was prepared with a surprising follow-up question. “What,” he asked, “is Carlos Slim’s interest in publishing this article?” We all looked at him. “We all know,” he continued, “that Slim is the majority owner of The New York Times.” Indeed, just a month before the article came out on February 12th — an article that the reporters had spent a year or more researching — Mexico’s richest man had exercised options that gave him a 16.8% stake in the world’s most prestigious newspaper. Wolf drew a short, straight line between Slim’s ownership stake and the Molotov cocktail of a story.
We beat around a few ideas about Slim’s interests in the paper(ego?, a desire to influence Mexican politics from abroad?), and the degree to which he could influence editorial policy (not much? quite a bit?).
“What about you?” we asked Wolf. “What do you think?”
“I am a PRI-ista (referring to his membership in the political organization that ruled Mexico for 70 years before losing consecutive elections and in 2000 and 2006. In 2012, they retook the Mexico’s presidential office.) He is trying to hurt the PRI,” he said, his voice rising. “He is going against us.”
“Why?” we asked.
“That is what I want to know,” he complained. “Why is Slim singling us out?”
The New York Times article had shaken him and, he suggested, his whole set of Mexican, power-broker friends. He acknowledged that he and his cronies were adept at silencing any embarrassing story the Mexican press dared to publish. The American media, however, was beyond their reach, especially when backed by someone as powerful as their former ally, Carlos Slim. The Mexican people, he suggested, would take a Times story far more seriously than anything published in El Universal or Reforma.
If I had to describe the expression on his face during this conversation I would say that it contained three elements: entitlement, rage, and fear. His entitlement came through in the expectation that we would share his thinking and, if we didn't, well, we could go to hell. Clearly, this betrayal by Slim of the power that had helped to make him one of the world’s richest men made Wolf seethe. And you could see that the uncertainty of Slim’s intentions and of the implications of the NYT story frightened him.
Describing the fear felt by many in the PRI at the publication of the article he made a joke. “Do you know the difference between miedo and pavor?” he asked. Many of us shook our heads, no. “Miedo (fear) is when your wife tells you she is pregnant. Pavor (dread) is when your secretary tells you she is pregnant.” We laughed. “There are a lot of people in Mexico right now who, because of that article, are feeling pavor.”
Then he said something that seemed to me extraordinary. “This country is headed for civil war,” he said. “There is no way to avoid it.”
A long-time, Canadian resident of Mexico resisted. “I don’t agree. Too many people remember the pain of the revolution one-hundred years ago. They don’t want to go through that again.” The Canadian was thinking of Mexico’s poor and their already too-precarious lives. What would more suffering achieve?
“No,” said Wolf. “There will be another revolution.” He paused as he gathered his thoughts to explain why he was right. I anticipated that he would talk about class hatred, perhaps saying that for too long Mexico’s rich had failed to help Mexico’s poor rise a few inches above their destitution, or describe the failures of the education system. Instead he said, “When the teachers took over Reforma (Mexico City’s primary boulevard became a tent camp recently, not an unusual occurrence) I wanted to go with one hundred of my friends, block off their escape routes, and kill them all.”
Those around the table looked at him a bit stunned, perhaps as rabbits might consider a four-legged wolf in the wild. In his telling, it wasn't the poor who would instigate a hot revolution, but the rich, sick and tired of having their entitlements inconvenienced.
After a moment, I asked a last question of the man, whose candor seemed to offer a fascinating glimpse into the ruthless rationale of power, completely detached from the people whose lives, sweat, and suffering built his wealth and privilege. “People of all parties seemed to think that when the PRI won back the Presidency in 2012, that they would establish order. That it might be corrupt, but that business would flourish, money would flow, and the drug cartels would stay in line. It seems that none of this has happened. The cartels are rampant, business is floundering, the peso is at 15 to the dollar. How does this make you feel?”
I wasn't sure if he would answer my question. But he did. “It makes me very worried. And very sad. Imagine,” he said, “there are still four years left of this presidency. These are not going to be good years.”