By RICARDO CASTILLO
Here in Mexico, we have witnessed a lot more than a tempest in a teapot as President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is claiming over the new airport debate. The cancellation of the construction of the New International Mexico Airport (NAIM) has unleashed the virulent “fifi” press against the future president of Mexico. It was, however, a tempest outside of a teapot, and will continue to be until all pending issues branching out of the abrupt cancellation are clarified.
And there’s a lot more than broken dishes strewn around the NAIM than can be seen with the naked eye. This is an attempt at outlining the some of the most salient ones.
The first obvious broken dish is the rupture of the “terse transition” from the President Enrique Peña Nieto administration to that of AMLO, effective as of midnight Dec. 1 – less than a month away. Here are some background facts behind the smashing not just of a few dishes, but of the whole $13 billion NAIM chinaware.
AMLO may claim he’s cancelling the project, but Peña Nieto has decided to continue construction up until midnight Nov. 30. So be it. But at the construction site, there are the approximately 18,000 wage-earning workers who have no idea as to what is going to happen. Many had verbal promises of landing a permanent job at the NAIM. To put it mildly, their situation now is hopeless. AMLO will have to come up with a response to them pronto.
But how in the world was such a pharaonic work conceived? The story is short. Back in 2015, Peña Nieto admitted the plans drafted by a British airport engineer who carried out the design on the Texcoco dry lake basin on a 10,000-acre flat terrain east of Mexico City. The project was financed by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
Once Peña Nieto accepted the budget, the government-sponsored construction contracts were awarded to a select group of contractors. It was Carlos Slim’s Carso Infrastructure and Construction (CICSA) which of course got the lion’s share of the contracts. Slim was joined by Olegario Vázquez of Prodemex (who also owns TV company Imagen and the daily newspaper Excelsior), Bernardo Quintana Jr. of Associated Civil Engineers (ICA), a traditional bonafide government contractor, Hipólito Gerard of GIA, brother-in-law to former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Hector Ovalle of Coconal and banker Carlos Hank Rhon of Hermes building company. There are more, but these are very visible “Big Five Amigos” of President Peña Nieto.
At the time the contracts were awarded, AMLO was but a political shadow of the past and “owner” of a dinky little party called the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena. These moguls did not foresee his rising to power, and at the time, Peña Nieto – high on the glory hog – assured them that his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) would continue to rule up until 2024, when the NAIM construction was slated to fly.
There were some cancellation clauses in the contracts, but they were written in such vague legalese terms that they would never hold water. The contracts might come to “termination causes” given “general interest” terms. The Mexican Bar Association lawyers interpreted that the reason that the “Big 5” have not thrown the book at AMLO’s decision is because they have no viable legal grounds to sue, at least for breach of contract. No wonder Carlos Slim has stayed mum even though, it is said, he is churning in ire over the lost contract.
In fact, when AMLO declared several times that if they wanted to continue with the financing of NAIM, he’d gladly award it to them. Again, the “Big 5” remained silent because they were counting on the government to finance the project backing it with the Airport Use Tax (TUA), which amounts to about $500 million a year. Many of the contracts, said the Mexican Bar Association, “are shady.”
But last Wednesday, Oct. 31, AMLO met with the managers and representatives of two of the five – Hermes and ICA – Alberto Pérez Jácome and Guadalupe Philips, respectively – and both came out of their encounter with AMLO claiming that all dealings will be under the law regarding the Texcoco NAIM project. Philips of ICA pointed out that Texcoco will be done first and then they will start talks to participate in the construction of the Santa Lucía civil airport. When Hermes’ Pérez Jácome was asked by reporters stationed outside AMLO’s headquarters in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma if his company would participate in the Santa Lucía construction, he answered: “Of course we will.”
In short, none of the companies are claiming money losses because, in the end, it is the federal government footing the NAIM losses bill. There’s really nothing to whine about except seeing the fish flee away into open waters when it was already on the hook.
Still, the brutal press onslaught (you should read the Excelsior payola columnists screech against AMLO’s decision) is there and bound to continue. In fact, the first anti-AMLO march is being summoned to meet in Mexico City at the Independence Monument on Reforma Boulevard on Sunday Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., and called “11-11-11” where all conservative forces overshadowed in the past July 1 election are being asked to “dress in mourning black” to protest not the NAIM cancellation, mind you, but the poll carried out by AMLO seeking people’s consensus to make his NAIM move.
But the real issue, as AMLO put it in the press conference in which he announced the NAIM cancellation, was to show that there will be a change in the way things will be done in government and that his act was to mark a clear separation between politicians and entrepreneurs, who were awarded humongous powers under the Peña Nieto administration, as well as under past administrations.
AMLO’s slamming his hand on the table has been heard loud and clear, applauded by those 30-plus million who voted for him and booed by a now-splintered and helpless minority that is trying to stay afloat under the political tidal wave that’s burying them.