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Queretaro — A Report on Globalization

Has globalization improved Queretaro’s districts — or detracted from its culture?

July 21, 2003

Has globalization improved Queretaro's districts — or detracted from its culture?

Here, on the vast plateau that joins the U.S. Rockies to Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, ancient peoples of Middle America believed they had found the roof of the world. Their prophets spoke of five great periods in time, each destined to end in disaster.

According to the prophets, in the beginning the sky would fall on the earth. Then periods marked by storms, fire and floods would come. In the fifth and final era — the modern one — the world would disintegrate due to a spectacular earthquake.

This sense of doom that has long pervaded Mexican culture — and fueled stereotypes north of the border — is finally receding. It may be heralding a different outcome: the rumbling, slow change of globalization.

Seen from the northern suburbs of one of Mexico’s booming high-tech cities, Queretaro — which lies along the “NAFTA corridor” — offers a glimpse into one possible future south of the border. Here, nearly a million people live in a city where the streets are clean and quiet, and freeways work well.

You can watch a Los Angeles Lakers game on Direct TV, shop at Costco or Walmart, buy computer materials at Office Depot, rent videos at Blockbuster Video — and see first-run Hollywood films in modern stadium-style movie theaters.

The boom in the Queretaro region is driven by the influx of foreign high tech companies, mostly from the United States. The arrival of talented investors and professionals from Mexico City adds to the environment.

The dazzling landscape of a new “global” Mexico abounds, with elements of modernity and comfort. Consider these items:

Telephones: Mexico’s privatization of the telecommunications industry in the 1990s yielded one of the best public telephone systems in South America.

The country’s largest telecom company, formerly state-owned Telmex, has installed pay phones that can be accessible almost everywhere.

They are on neighborhood street corners, public squares, shopping avenues, malls and parks. These well-designed phone modules are reliable — cheap and easy to use.

Customers purchase 30, 50, 100 or 200 peso cards at the corner store or from ubiquitous street vendors in mobile carts.

Bus travel: The high-quality inter-city buses, designed by either Volvo or Mercedes Benz, are spanking new — and loaded with the latest in technology.

They boast ultra-comfortable seats, sound-proofed interiors, video systems and TV monitors that show movies. The coaches are not only affordable — they are clean and safe. And contrary to Mexican tradition, they are also very punctual.

Internet cafes: Mexico has embraced the computer revolution in a very public way. Yes, millions of Mexicans own their own computers now, and Internet service providers like MSN make whopping profits in online hookups.

But there are scores of Internet cafes in every large Mexican city. At the Mexico City airport, there are also individual stations where, with a Telmex phone card, users can go online right at the gate as they await their flight.

Malls: Mexico has hundreds of shopping malls, many of which rival their U.S. counterparts — in terms of the quality of interior gardens, fountains and food courts. Most malls have top-notch multi-cinemas attached to them, as well as popular restaurants.

Gas stations: Mexico’s still-nationalized petroleum company, Pemex, has built a national system of high-quality filling stations. Immaculately dressed attendants in green overalls wave a friendly hello as you enter.

In addition to filling your gas tank, they routinely carry out a complete inspection of tire air pressure, engine fluids under the hood, fan belts, battery and anything else you ask for. The service economy is alive and well here.

And yet, for all its virtues, the primary challenge for the new post-NAFTA, globalizing Mexico, is that it must continue to modernize its political system to avoid incidents like the following:

As the plush “Aero Plus” bus from Queretaro eased into traffic toward Mexico City’s international airport, it lightly scraped an unmarked federal police car on its side. The police vehicle immediately turned on its siren and pulled the bus over in the middle of a traffic jam.

In full view of passengers anxiously needing to get to the airport, two plain-clothed federales — dressed in faded blue jeans and work shirts looking as if they has just stepped out of the movie “Traffic” — jumped out of their car and began to harass the driver.

The cop on the passenger side had a revolver in his hand, which he jammed, macho-style, down his pants as he approached the bus.

In front of hundreds of freeway commuters, these men performed the rituals of old Mexico — a street theater of extortion and machismo. Even though they had probably caused the minor collision, they were federal police — and this poor, scared driver was going to pay.

As citizens came off the bus to protest this illegal stoppage, they suggested that the cops work this out with the bus company, instead of intimidating the driver. But these tough street cops refused to back down.

As the bus remained precariously in the middle of heavy traffic on a major Mexico City highway, two more federal police officers arrived.

They looked like Mexican ninjas in black tee shirts and matching black jeans, seemingly there to reinforce the power position of the original cops.

Then, a Mexico City highway patrolman pulled up on a shiny, new oversized motorcycle. This officer, sporting a pressed brown and tan uniform — complete with helmet, gloves and large black boots — strode purposefully into the fray

The situation becomes even more complicated.

For more than one hour, these various characters acted out the time-worn cycle of — head shaking, finger pointing, declaration of authority, threat, humor and appeal to reason. In the end, the federal police officers avoided losing face by insisting that someone from the bus accompany them to the airport — where the situation would be “worked out.”

This decision should have been made within the first five minutes. Yet, this, too, is an integral part of Mexico — part of the rumbling that can still be heard high up on the plateau, which is the umbilical cord that continues to join our two cultures.