After years of remaining quiet, Mexican businessmen take a vocal role in politics |

After years of remaining quiet, Mexican businessmen take a vocal role in politics

MEXICO CITY – After years of staying quiet on politics, Mexico’s business magnates are taking an active role by signing manifestos, running for office and even openly attacking the leftist candidate who is the front-runner before the 2006 presidential race.On Thursday, corporate leaders signed a declaration asking for government reforms, better public services and more investment opportunities, marking a departure in a country where businessmen have long been expected to act quietly behind the scenes.The change is fueled in part by the nation’s growing democracy. Before President Vicente Fox’s historic election in July 2000, leaders from the Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico for 71 years, and few industry leaders dared publicly challenge them.Now, as the July 2006 campaign begins to heat up, Mexico’s private sector is scrambling to influence the competitive race.”They’ve really been thrown for a loop by the current situation. They have a front-running candidate they don’t really know and don’t really trust,” said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at Mexico City’s ITAM university, referring to former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.Lopez Obrador’s pledges to investigate the banking scandals of the 1990s “scares some of them a lot,” while other business leaders seem eager to set down some sort of baseline demands for possible future negotiations with the former mayor if he proves unstoppable, Estevez said.Thursday’s declaration is meant to be a starting point for talks with the old ruling party or with Fox’s conservative National Action Party, both of which have yet to choose candidates for the 2006 race.The declaration – organized by Carlos Slim, Latin America’s richest man – seemed fairly mild. It appealed for tax, energy and legal reforms and called for development and infrastructure programs to strengthen Mexico’s still-weak domestic economy.It said the country should take advantage of high oil prices, a favorable exchange rate and the large amounts of money being sent home by migrants workers. “This situation is temporary and it would be irresponsible not to take advantage of it,” the document said.Fox’s spokesman Ruben Aguilar earlier said the administration “shares the vision of agreement” on long-term reforms the country needs.But pharmaceuticals magnate Victor Gonzalez Torres has taken a more radical tack, mounting a quixotic run for the presidency.”I feel this is a moment when honest and patriotic businessmen can do a lot for their country,” said Gonzalez Torres, who goes by the nickname “Dr. Simi.”While some such as Slim have decided to live with Lopez Obrador – Slim worked with the mayor on a downtown Mexico City renovation project – Gonzalez Torres has all but declared war on the leftist, whom he accuses of fomenting class hatred.”I’m going after him,” said Gonzalez Torres of Lopez Obrador. “I’m going to go hand-to-hand with him.”Gonzalez Torres, who built an empire based on selling generic drugs at his chain of cut-rate pharmacies, says he plans to follow Lopez Obrador city to city, organizing rallies in the same towns to draw attention away from the leftist candidate.While Gonzalez Torres has largely given up his dream of the presidency – he says he’d settle for a post as a presidential adviser – his rallies could prove a distraction for the former mayor, given that they often feature pretty models, dancers and live music.”It’s all right if he has his rallies in the same cities, as long as he doesn’t schedule them for the same place. That could be a provocation,” said Lopez Obrador’s press coordinator, Cesar Yanez.Fox helped open the door for all this business activism when he won the presidency in 2000 after a career as a former Coca-Cola executive and ranch owner.”Businessmen have always participated in politics, but they’ve done it behind the scenes,” said political analyst Oscar Aguilar. “The thing is now that they’re nervous … and they have reason to be.”Thursday’s declaration was entitled “The National Accord for Unity,” and divisions – along class or other lines – were clearly among the concerns of the signers, who included intellectuals, labor and church figures.”If we can avoid the divisions that in the past have led us to civil wars and revolutions, that will be a good start,” said historian Enrique Krauze.Slim, the main promoter of the accord, said that what is good for Mexico’s poor majority is good for business.”We need highly trained people for a new, more sophisticated society, where the welfare of others is in one’s own best interest,” Slim said, “because when everybody else is better off, they can buy more, they strengthen demand, strengthen the market, strengthen the country.”Vail, Colorado

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