Mexico City—A watchword of Mexican politics is “Show me a politician who is poor and I will show you a poor politician.” In accord with this adage, many Mexican officials enjoy generous salaries and lavish fringe benefits. Even as they live princely lifestyles, they and their fellow elites pay little in taxes and refuse to spend sufficient money on education and health care to create opportunities in Mexico—a country that abounds in oil, natural gas, gold, beaches, fish, water, historic treasures, museums, industrial centers, and hard-working people. Rather than mobilizing these bountiful resources to uplift the poor, Mexico’s privileged class noisily demands that Uncle Sam open his border wider for the nation’s “have nots.”
Consequently, the power brokers have excoriated President George W. Bush’s October 2005 proposal to admit temporary workers for up to six years. Deputy Antonio Guajardo Anzaldúa, a member of the left-wing Workers Party and chairman of Chamber of Deputies’ Committee on Population, Borders, and Migration Affairs, savaged the initiative as “linking workers with employers without offering them a route toward legalization.” He also criticized “the heavy fine” that would be levied on participants who would be ineligible for American citizenship.
Guajardo’s colleague Eliana García Laguna, a stalwart of the leftist-nationalist Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), shrilled that the threat posed by Bush “hurts and injures the interests of Mexicans who for various reasons must leave our country.” And Heliodoro Díaz Escárraga, leader of the Chamber of Deputies and a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), stated that it “is totally anachronistic to impose penalties on our migrants or erect walls as if we were in the Cold War.” Meanwhile, the legislature’s bicameral Permanent Commission lambasted U.S. immigration policy as “racist, xenophobic and a profound violation of human rights.”
Members of President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) have joined the chorus of self-righteous criticism. They applauded an early January 2006 joint declaration by Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and six Central American countries pledging their opposition to treating migrants who illegally cross into the United States as law-breakers.
This statement neglected to recognize the mounting support of American citizens for curbs on unlawful entries. A Fox News poll conducted in April 2005 found that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that undocumented immigration is a “very serious” (63 percent) or “somewhat serious” (28 percent) problem for the United States. Sixty percent of respondents to an ABC News/Washington Post survey favored erecting a barrier at the border; only 26 percent disapproved. In addition, Mexico’s nomenklatura never mentions the 1 million legal immigrants whom the United States admits each year.
Mexico’s establishment also keeps quiet about the salaries and benefits that its members receive. Private-sector executives are especially secretive. Thanks to Forbes magazine, however, we know that Mexico leads Latin America with ten billionaires, including telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helú, the world’s third richest person with $30 billion. And an increasing amount of data is available on the earnings of public officials. The numbers show that Mexico’s governing class is enriching itself at the country’s expense, with exorbitant salaries and bountiful perks. Remember, these are “official” figures. Most politicians have ingenious ways of fattening their bank accounts.
The salaries of top Mexican government officials match or exceed those of comparable figures in Europe and much of the rest of the world. President Vicente Fox ($236,693), for example, makes more than the leaders of the U.K. ($211,434), France ($95,658), Canada ($75,582), and most other industrialized countries (POTUS earns $400,000).
The 500 members of Mexico’s notoriously irresponsible Chamber of Deputies, which is in session only a few months a year, each made $148,000 last year in salary and bonuses—roughly on a par with Italian and Canadian legislators and substantially more than their counterparts in Germany ($105,000), France ($78,000), and Spain ($32,311), where living costs are markedly higher. Other legislators in Latin America receive substantially less; for example, those in Bolivia earn $28,000 for a four-month session. Legislators in the Dominican Republic take home $68,500 for six months of service.
The salaries are only the beginning. Party leaders in the Chamber of Deputies have a trove of discretionary funds to assist themselves and their colleagues. In 2004, the amount distributed to the three major parties was $15,892,668 to PRI, which had 223 deputies; $10,297,611 to PAN and its 153 deputies; and $7,359,122 to the 97 deputies of the PRD.
Mexican deputies enjoy their junkets, frequently taking to the air or the road and asking the country’s taxpayers to foot the bill. During 2005, the Chamber of Deputies spent $1,018,518.50 on domestic and foreign travel. These outlays amounted to $2,095.24 for each of the 500 deputies or $2,927.78 for the 348 deputies who, on average, actually showed up for legislative sessions. This spending on travel is dubious for two reasons: deputies, who cannot run for immediate re-election, do not have to return to their districts every weekend like so many U.S. congressmen; and the Mexican Senate—not the Chamber of Deputies—plays the primary legislative role in international affairs.
But Mexico’s lower chamber believes in rewarding itself for its spendthrift ways. At the end of its three-year term (2000-2003), the last Chamber of Deputies voted itself a $28,000 “leaving-office bonus.”
Even better work, if you can get it, is to be found in the judicial branch of the Mexican federal government. In 2005, the 11 justices on the National Supreme Court of Justice—equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court—received $311,759, compared to $194,200 for their American counterparts. (The U.S. Chief Justice earns $202,900.)
State-level Mexican officials are amply rewarded as well. Salaries and bonuses place the average compensation of Mexican governors at $125,759, which exceeds by almost $10,000 the mean paychecks of U.S. state executives ($115,778). Narciso Agúndez Montaño runs Baja California Sur. Although his state has only 424,041 residents, he earns $277,777. This is $100,000 more than the salary of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who governs 36,132,147 Californians.
On top of that, the wives of Mexican governors frequently serve as heads of the quasi-charitable Integral Family Development program in their states, enabling them to earn the equivalent of six-figure incomes in dollars. Some First Ladies take their responsibilities seriously; others treat the post as a sinecure.
As for state-level lawmakers, members of the 32 state legislatures earn on average $60,632, more than twice the amount taken home by U.S. state legislators ($28,261). The salaries and bonuses of the part-time lawmakers in Baja California ($158,149), Guerrero ($129,630), and Guanajuato ($111,358) eclipse the salaries of the highest paid U.S. legislators, who meet virtually year-around: those in California ($110,880), the District of Columbia ($92,500), Michigan ($79,650), and New York ($79,500).
Few would begrudge the pay and benefits of Mexican lawmakers at the federal level, at least, if they had more to show for the several months they spend in the capital each year. But regrettably, they prize vapid speechmaking over the passage of major bills. Since Fox took office on Dec. 1, 2000, the legislature has failed to enact fiscal, labor, energy, and judicial reforms vital for achieving sustained development in a country where per capita income grew only 2 percent last year and joblessness abounds.
Instead, the political class comes up with cynical measures like the one that supposedly would allow 4 million Mexicans living abroad to cast ballots in the July 2 presidential contest. Although the Chamber of Deputies passed a reasonably liberal bill—it included the installation of voting places in foreign countries—the version that emerged from the Senate was largely cosmetic. The PRI eviscerated the measure because the party, which ruled from 1929 to 2000, feared that expatriates would support the PAN or the PRD. By passing something, deputies and senators could claim that they had backed the vote for Mexicans abroad who send back $18 billion per year in remittances. At the same time, they encrusted the initiative with cumbersome procedures to ensure minimal participation. On Jan. 15, the cut-off date for requesting ballots, only 56,749 men and women had submitted paperwork, and several thousand of these applications did not satisfy bureaucratic requirements. Yet Congress approved almost $100 million (1.062 billion pesos) for this venture, which is the equivalent of $1,762 per application.
Even as they bank the big pesos, Mexican politicos are allergic to taxes. Excluding oil earnings, Mexico collects taxes equivalent to 9 percent of GDP—a figure on par with Haiti, a socioeconomic basket case. In fact, the Port-au-Prince regime earmarks a larger portion of its gross domestic product to health care—7.6 percent—than does Mexico (6.10 percent), according to the most recent World Bank figures. While there are no comparable figures for education, Mexico devoted a substantially smaller portion of its national income (5.30 percent) to education than did neighboring—and poorer—Guatemala (9.01 percent).
Meanwhile, it takes 58 days to open a business in Mexico in large measure because of the number of palms that must be greased. For this reason, Transparency International has ranked Mexico —along with Ghana, Panama, Peru, and Turkey—among the 65th to 70th most corrupt nations in the world. This same study placed Mexico 73rd out of 155 countries in terms of the “ease of doing business.” It ranked 84th for “starting a business,” came in at 49 for “dealing with licenses,” 125 with respect to “hiring and firing,” 74 for “registering property,” and 68 in terms of “getting credit.”
The self-serving behavior and corruption of Mexican politicians would make a Tammany Hall precinct captain blush. While the nation’s leaders take home pay and perquisites that compare very favorably to the salaries of their North American and European counterparts, Mexico’s economy stagnates as unemployment and under-employment (the latter estimated at 25 percent of the workforce) hold steady. Yet politicians south of the border insist that the U.S. has an obligation to solve their problems by allowing the mutual border to be used as a safety valve for those who cannot make a living at home in Mexico.
Geography, self-interests, and humanitarian concerns require that neighboring countries co-operate on myriad issues, not the least of which is immigration. But Mexico’s elite has failed through omission and commission to take the difficult decisions necessary to use its country’s enormous wealth to benefit the 50 percent of people who live in poverty. U.S. leaders and taxpayers have every right to insist that these officials act responsibly instead of demanding that Americans shoulder burdens that they shirk.
George W. Grayson, who teaches Government at the College of William & Mary, has just published Mesías Mexicano, a book about presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador.