How NAFTA Helped The Mexican Billionaires' Club When the North American Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated, supporters promised it would increase the income of Mexicans. And the middle class did grow over the past two decades. But it's clear that the country's ultrarich are its big winners.
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How NAFTA Helped The Mexican Billionaires' Club

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How NAFTA Helped The Mexican Billionaires' Club

How NAFTA Helped The Mexican Billionaires' Club

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Supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement made many promises 20 years ago as they argued in favor of the trade pact. One of the biggest was that increasing trade with Mexico would increase the incomes of Mexican people. Well, the middle class did grow in Mexico over the past two decades and so did Mexico's ultra rich.

In 1992, when NAFTA was negotiated, there were only seven Mexican billionaires. Two years later, when the pact went into effect, there were 24. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Mexico now claims the richest man in the world and one of the highest income gaps in the world.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: He's richer than Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and has six times the wealth than Mark Zuckerberg, but nowhere near the fame. He's Carlos Slim Helu, 73 years old, Mexican, and the richest man in the world. Much of his wealth comes from his cellphone company, America Movil, the largest in Latin America. His reach also touches the U.S., where his investments include a piece of The New York Times.

The rest of Mexico's uber-rich are even less-known. They made their riches in mining, TV, Coca-Cola and beer. Dolia Estevez, a contributor to Forbes magazine, says many of Mexico's 15 billionaires are old, in their 70s and 80s, and like to keep a low profile.

DOLIA ESTEVEZ: A lot of people avoid publicity, especially in a country like Mexico, where there are so much security problems.

KAHN: But Estevez says there are a lot of newcomers to the club, too, five in the last year, most of those attribute their wealth to the company FEMSA, the largest Coca-Cola distributor in the world and Latin America's largest convenience store chain. Economist Luis de la Calle, who helped negotiate NAFTA for Mexico, says these billionaires have gotten wealthier in the past 20 years by what was not in NAFTA.

The trade pact specifically excluded opening the telephone, television and transportation sectors. He says in hindsight, that was a mistake; NAFTA should have been more ambitious.

LUIS DE LA CALLE: The sectors we did not open benefit the few.

KAHN: Many of today's billionaires benefitted from those closed markets and built some of Mexico's most lucrative monopolies. Carlos Slim owns 70 percent of all cell service in Mexico and 80 percent of landlines. In TV, Ricardo Salinas Pliego and his family own TV Azteca, one of Mexico's two television networks; billionaire Emilio Azcarraga owns the other, Televisa.

Economist Rogelio Ramirez de la O says it wasn't the intention of NAFTA or the government to create these billionaires.

ROGELIO RAMIREZ DE LA O: If it had been planned, it wouldn't have come so perfect.

KAHN: But he does say during the NAFTA negotiations, the government focused more on opening up the manufacturing sector, where jobs would be created. And de la O says the legacy of this wealth creation, inadvertent or not, continues to hold Mexico back.

O: So at the end of the day, Mexico cannot grow, cannot compete because, among other reasons, it is being strangled by all these monopolies and oligopolies.

KAHN: The top 10 percent in Mexico now own 40 percent of the country's wealth. But economist de la Calle counters that NAFTA did help narrow the gap between rich and poor. He says Mexicans are much better off now than they were 20 years ago.

CALLE: Mexicans are now taller, they weigh more, they dress better, they're healthier.

KAHN: And de la Calle says Mexicans now consume more. With NAFTA, prices went down and quality shot up for most goods, like washing machines, TVs and cars. But clearly not all Mexicans have enjoyed the consumer binge. Nearly half the country lives in poverty, earning less than $4 a day.

And when it comes to banking, cellphones and television, Mexicans have limited access to credit at high rates. They pay some of the world's highest cellphone prices and have few broadcast TV choices. But when you ask most Mexicans on the street about billionaire Carlos Slim, many don't deny him his riches.

At a downtown sports bar, fans cheer on Slim's soccer team during a recent game. Fan Manuel Jimenez says he's proud of Slim.

MANUEL JIMENEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: He says it gives us a lot of pride that the richest man in the world is Mexican. It's true, says Eduardo Garcia, who runs the financial news website Sentido Comun, or Common Sense; most Mexicans admire Slim, who has given a lot of money to local causes and does not flaunt his wealth like many of Mexico's elite.

Garcia says, however, the government has failed to regulate these industries dominated by billionaires. It should have done more to enforce the laws so these titans couldn't run roughshod over their competitors.

EDUARDO GARCIA: If you look at the industries in which they have become these very wealthy and powerful people, they are industries controlled by either one or two companies.

KAHN: According to Garcia's calculations, which differ from Forbes', there are at least 28 billionaires now in Mexico, and he says that's not counting those in private industry who do not have to publicly account for their wealth. Despite its flaws, Garcia credits NAFTA with putting Mexico on the world stage and opening up its rich and its economy to more scrutiny than ever before.

Economist and NAFTA negotiator Luis de la Calle agrees. In fact, he argues that NAFTA and the stability it's given to Mexico will ultimately bring about a more egalitarian economy.

CALLE: The NAFTA process is an economic policy that, in the end, has at its heart the interest of Mexicans, not the guys that have access to the government.

KAHN: But de La Calle warns that 20 years is a short time to achieve the full benefits of NAFTA. He says it may take another two decades. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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