Observations about Mexican Politics and Cerveza

Most of my sweetie and I were in Mexico on vacation. I made some observations along the way that may be of interest to Picket Line readers.

  • The government of Mexico is blessedly weak and poorly-funded compared to its comrades in the governing business (its tax revenues are low even by the standards of Latin America in general). In consequence, challenges to government authority are stronger and less well suppressed there than they would be in the United States. These challenges come in many forms, for example:
    • Grassroots uprisings of various sorts. At one point we were on a small van-tour of sites around Oaxaca when we found the highway before us blockaded by a school bus and a cargo truck parked across it (nobody in our group seemed to know why, but this is apparently the way rural politics work hereabouts). We tried a sneaky side route along a lonely dirt road, but eventually found it blockaded too (by a pickup-truck full of smiling men with machetes), and we had to crawl back and find another dirt road jammed with traffic trying to go both directions, sometimes across bridges too narrow for two cars. I checked the papers over the following days to try to learn what the dispute was about, but this didn’t even make the news. Imagine if a “Tea Party” of men with machetes blockaded a major U.S. highway all day long: it’d be breathless coverage all day on all the networks! As it was, people took it in stride, some taking taxi cabs up to one side of the blockade, walking to the other side, and getting another cab there to continue their trip. The official authorities, such as they were, seemed in no hurry to get involved. I did see a couple of police lazing about in the shade of a tree some distance from the center of the action.
    • A number of government-like indigenous cliques, some allied with some of Mexico’s political parties, are battling over the right to control San Juan Copala, a tiny town in the mountains of Oaxaca. This was big news when we were in the area. I don’t begin to understand this conflict or the many parties involved in it, but I mention it as an example in which local paramilitaries and organizations seem to be operating in ways that a strong, capable central government with pretensions of a monopoly on violence would not tolerate.
    • Of course there are the drug cartels that seem to be a strong presence in parts of the country, particularly the regions that border the U.S. But I don’t know much about this and don’t have any first-hand experience to draw on, so I’ll leave it at that.
  • Organized protests seem more well-established and more present in Mexico, compared even to San Francisco where I live, which coasts on its reputation for being a hotbed of activism. There was the obscure rural uprising in Oaxaca that I mentioned above, but also two different ongoing protest vigils in the Oaxaca city plaza, some sort of labor protest / sleep-in in Mexico City’s plaza, and other things of that sort. People seem less jaded about protests and take them seriously as things that can actually show results.
  • Though we passed through U.S. immigration and customs much more smoothly this time than in some of my other travels, I still dread returning to the U.S., and I’m ashamed at how much hostility and contempt the U.S. shows its visitors (or its sadistic treatment of people who want to emigrate here) compared to the fairly hassle-free welcome I’m used to getting when I travel South.
  • Adam Smith called England “a nation of shopkeepers,” but Mexico seems better to fit that description today than any part of the “first world.” We’re more like “nations of employees” nowadays. In Mexico every building seems to be somebody’s vehicle of free enterprise, with odd combinations of goods and services, and advertising space on any exterior walls (though always colorfully hand-painted; never just printed billboards). I was frequently astounded at the relentless spirit of commercial enterprise (though some was more spirited than others — Mexicans often seem to have a tendency to get 90% through some undertaking and then to say “well, that’s good enough”), and also how independent most of it was; except in a very few retail industries, we rarely encountered chain stores but instead mom-and-pop stores ruled the roost (except in especially touristy areas or high-rent zones like those that fronted the main plaza in large cities).
  • The regulatory barriers to entry for people wanting to try their hands at free enterprise seem to be much, much less of an issue in Mexico. I asked around a bit and there doesn’t seem to be anything like the pervasive “zoning” practice in the U.S. in which various property uses (agricultural, commercial, residential) are ghettoized. And business licenses, I was told, might as well be optional except that they’re so cheap that there’s little reason not to get one. In short, if you want to start selling something out of your garage, just hang out a shingle and go to it: no need to hire a lawyer just to figure out which forms you have to fill out, which fees you have to pay, which politicians and bureaucrats have to approve, which laws you have to follow, and what new legal liabilities you’ll be taking on.
  • And many, many people do just that: selling goods and services of various sorts right out of their homes. So why doesn’t this deliriously fertile ground of free enterprise end up enriching Mexicans and pulling them out of (what most folks in the U.S. would consider) poverty?
    • Maybe it is doing just that. There seemed to me to be a lot more storefronts, advertising, and so forth selling things I associate with comfortable, middle-class desires than I remember from previous visits. That’s not very hard evidence, I realize, but it did stand out to me.
    • It may be that the kinds of goods and services that make for good home-based small businesses suffer from the ease with which they attract competitors. A free market with lots of competition doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for profit margin. And it may be difficult to move from an unprofitable business to another opportunity, as it probably takes a lot of time and effort to establish a local reputation in a certain specialty. If you decide to stop selling shoes in the face of a shoe seller price-war and to start competing with the local liqueur bottlers instead, you’ve got your work cut out for you convincing people to switch to your brand, and that will probably in part mean trying to offer lower prices, which will make it no easier to make a living than before.
  • Although much of Mexico seems superficially at least like some sort of libertarian low-tax/free-market paradise, there are certainly exceptions:
    • One town I remember from a previous trip (Patzcuaro, I think) was clearly very regulated so as to maintain its “charm” — with every building and storefront exhibiting the same white-washing, the same paint scheme, and even having their business names in the same font.
    • Frighteningly-armed (and -young) police are frequently to be seen, which can make the country seem even more military-occupied than the SWAT-happy U.S. Roadblocks at which armed soldiers pull people over at random (or pull everyone over) to search their cars are not uncommon.
    • The “mordida” is an ongoing institution, and traffic cops do indeed pull people over to extort bribes as a matter of course. (This can be such a problem that some towns have abolished traffic cops as being more of a menace than unregulated traffic.) Myself, I’ve always remained carless in-country and have taken advantage of the very good Mexican inter-city bus lines (they beat Greyhound hands-down), so this has never been an issue for me.
    • I’m sure I don’t know the half of what it takes to make a business work: who you need to pay off, what laws and established traditions need to be respected, and so forth. Most of this would not be apparent to a tourist like me with so little understanding of the country.
    • In general my impressions of the freedom available in Mexico are probably very much colored by the fact that when I’m in Mexico, I’m on vacation and having adventures and feeling very free indeed.
  • I wouldn’t have to look far for evidence that goes against the grain of my anarchist sensibilities, though. The evidence is all around in the form of litter. I remember seeing a middle-aged woman who was well-dressed and clearly image conscious, walking toward me on the sidewalk, wad up some trash in her hand and throw it down at her feet without any self-consciousness. It just didn’t occur to her that such a thing would look tacky and reflect badly on her, the way it would where I live. A couple of expats we talked to related to us that in a place where they used to live, people would dump their trash off of a bridge into an otherwise beautiful creek in order to save a few pesos on trash hauling. (Polluting by businesses is also a problem. For example, the beautiful rivers and waterfalls in the lush valleys around Xico are periodically loaded with the runoff of the local coffee industry, and nobody has figured out a way to prevent this without at the same time making uncompetitive that crucial local economic pillar.) To fix things like this requires a cultural change in which littering (and polluting in general) comes to be seen as a repulsive and anti-social act. In the U.S., I remember this cultural change really seemed to gain traction around the time I was a schoolkid. But in our case, the government was very much of an important mover behind it (though it itself had to be moved, of course, by the “ecology” movement): The Keep America Beautiful campaign with Iron Eyes Cody weeping guilt into us over a pile of trash, Woodsy Owl telling us to “give a hoot,” pull-tabs banned on cans, deposits applied to bottles, and other such things. (Mexico has a mandatory bottle-deposit program as well, to this end.) Could such a cultural revolution happen without government behind it? Certainly, but I can see why people who are impatient for it would want to enlist the government on its side and to strengthen the government’s powers if they come to see it as an ally. (Mind you, I don’t think this would be wise, and expect that it would also be ecologically short-sighted.)
  • Here’s another example: regulating antibiotics so that people don’t just pop them like candy every time they get a runny nose. Antibiotics are awfully wonderful things, and it would be a shame if they became goddamned useless because people abused them like idiots. But my anti-statist, non-coercive heart has a hard time imagining a mechanism for this that doesn’t involve some sort of centralized, at least somewhat coercive structure, and so even I sometimes wonder: is it worth having a State (with all of its evils) if that is the cost of keeping us free of antibiotic-resistant superbugs (with all of their evils)? (I know, I know, antibiotics are horribly overprescribed even in the heavily-regulated U.S.; and I know also that there is no such thing as a State that is modest enough to stick to doing beneficial things, and once you give it the power to do good, it will use that power for evil as well. But it still gives me pause.)
  • While you weren’t paying attention, Mexico legalized gay marriage, thus leapfrogging the United States in that regard. Mexico City led the way, and the Mexican supreme court ruled that in Mexico’s federal system, Mexico City not only had every right to do this, but every other state was then obligated to honor those marriages performed there. Gay rights seem to have gone mainstream in Mexico; we stumbled into a well-attended “sexuality diversity” rally in the Oaxaca plaza one day, for instance, that didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows.
  • Mexico has a bad reputation in America for being a dangerous place full of outlaw desperados waiting to prey on tourists, and we got a lot of warnings along these lines before heading down, but I’ve never gotten this vibe when I’ve actually been in-country. That said, I don’t spend much time in the area near the U.S. border, where most of the drug-cartel-related violence seems to be going on, and I did take the advice of a local who advised us to avoid the Abastos market in Oaxaca as being a dangerous place for tourists.

And now about the beer: Beer drinkers in the United States are living in an amazing time, with the microbrew renaissance and all of the creativity and connoisseurship that comes along with it.

In Mexico… not so much. I never saw a store that didn’t just pack the usual suspects along the lines of Sol, Tecate, Corona, XX, Indio, Bohemia, Modelo. Restaurants, even fancy ones, were usually the same story. Bohemia oscura will do me fine on such occasions. Modelo now has an “especial” which as far as I can tell is just yet another light-colored Mexican beer, unoffensive, fine on a hot day, marred only by its bottle which looks like something you might see in a storefront display in a Castro Street sex toy shop.

That said, I hunted diligently, and was able to find some exceptions to the rule (my most successful hunting was in Oaxaca city). The “Minerva” I first tried (their lager or their amber, I don’t remember which) and “Tempus” seem to be two legitimate Mexican microbrews, though neither of them were really “A” grade (it turns out that Minerva has more than one brew, but at first I only tried the one I knew about and I’m not sure which one it was — I later tried their “Colonial,” a Kölsch-style beer that was the boldest, most interesting, and, I think, most successful of the Mexican micros I sampled).

I tried Cucapá’s “Chupacabra” pale ale and Rio Bravo’s pilsener. Based on the labels these struck me more as made-in-Mexico but intended-for-the-States brews. (There’s another of that sort, “Red Pig,” that I never got around to.) Cucapá wasn’t bad, with a slight piloncillo flavor. The Rio Bravo pilsener was an early favorite; I’m not really a pilsener guy, so I might be missing something, but it seemed to have all of the pluses and none of the minuses I associate with the breed.

Bohemia has a weisen that is hard to find. Not my sort of beer, but some folks will probably like it. It had a slight odor of rose of all things. I also managed to find a bottle of last year’s holiday beer, “Noche Buena,” but I was underwhelmed by it.

I went to a beer-centered pub in Xalapa that had a variety of bottles lining the wall and a menu with no fewer than 9 Mexican micros… at first I thought I was in heaven, but it turned out I was in a variation on Monty Python’s cheese sketch. After trying to order two of the nine, only to be told that each was out of stock, I asked which ones they actually had on-hand and only one of the nine was in fact available, and a not particularly exciting-looking one at that. I asked if there were any other Mexican microbrews for sale and the waitress hopefully pointed me towards a Tsingtao and a Heineken! We left for less-absurd pastures.

I also had a chance to try a Cuban beer. Even the sweet flavor of drinking in a way that probably violates some State Department dictate was not enough to counteract the fact that “Palma Cristal” is bottled ass.

It surprises me a bit that there isn’t more of a beer culture in Mexico (they’ve already got the oom-pah music, why not beer gardens?). Perhaps the climate is poor for fermentation or for growing ingredients, or perhaps the warm weather has made people satisfied with sticking to a small set of watery beers. I like to think the Mexican beer renaissance just hasn’t taken off yet, and it’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile, there’s always toritos de cacahuate, mora, verde, pulque, tequila, and mezcal (I got some mezcal straight from the still at one small manufacturer — yum).

See ♇ 18 May 2017 for an update: the Mexican microbrew renaissance has finally arrived!