By RICARDO CASTILLO
Just when everyone in Mexico thought President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and tycoon entrepreneur Carlos Slim had frozen their relationship, last Friday, June 28, they reappeared together in the state of Oaxaca to relaunch the completion of the 150-kilometer-long, two-expanded-lane Milta-Tehuantepec super highway, with an 8-billion-peso investment. Was this event the beginning of the thawing of an icy relation? It looks that way.
Definitely, Slim was one of the big losers with the suspension of the construction of the New International Mexico Airport (NAIM), one of the most controversial decisions made by AMLO in his seven months at the helm of the nation.
Everyone was surprised last year after AMLO reassured everyone in October that the NAIM project was defunct. Former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto continued the construction until his last day in office, but it was to no avail. The NAIM was dead even after Slim held a nearly two-hour press conference asking for continuity.
Killing the NAIM project was not an act against Slim, even if he got trampled in the process. It was a very loud and clear message to the people of Mexico that the end of neoliberalism was at hand. The message had recipients: They were former presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari (still politicking, 25-years after he left the presidency), Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and, most definitely, Peña Nieto.
Of course, if we look back in history, Slim was deeply involved with all these presidents. His main beneficiary was no doubt Salinas de Gortari, who, in the process of divesting the government-owned industries, awarded him in 1991, for an alleged $150 million, Teléfonos de México (Telmex), the nationwide phone monopoly, worth back then way over a billion dollars or maybe two.
Slim showed management capability and improved “the gift” Salinas had made him with excellence and began amassing his now-billions of dollars that make him one of the wealthiest men on the planet.
Back then, AMLO was a rising star within the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), until he hit the jackpot in 2000, winning the Mexico City mayor’s slot. By 2001, after taking office, AMLO recognized Slim’s entrepreneurial competence and invited him to lead a social project, the salvaging of then-already-decrepit downtown Mexico City Centro Histórico.
Gossip has it that Slim turned down the offer. It was then that AMLO warned that Slim that if he refused to lead the city’s revamping efforts, the city would tax him retroactively for the over one million no-tax-paying public phones then in operation. Slim reconsidered and, after the warning, got back to AMLO and asked: “When do we sign the downtown reconstruction trust fund?”
It must be said that the reconstruction was highly successful, but also profitable for Slim, who took advantage of prime real estate he owned across the Alameda Park and built the high-rise building now housing the Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE). But he also left the foul-smelling downtown area spic-and-span.
But let’s get back to AMLO’s NAIM project assassination and Slim’s reaction, which was to allow private investors finish the work. For a moment a year ago, AMLO reconsidered his decision and said that he would not be against the completion of the airport, but after an apparent review of contracts, which would have cost the nation forever – Slim is no brother of charity, even if he now funds artsy crafty endeavors like highbrow museums – it became clear that at the NAIM would eventually be the government albatros of who’d foot the bill. “If Slim is so interested, he can carry the project out with his money,” AMLO said. After that, on October, AMLO made his final statement on the NAIM.
Without government sponsorship, Slim and his partners in the NAIM project — namely other Mexican big consortia such as Associated Civil Engineers (ICA) and tycoons Olegario Vázquez Aldir, Carlos Hank Rohn and Hipólito Gerard — declined to continue and just echoed the old Beatles song, “Let It Be.”
Apparently, Slim also saw the NAIM project as a family matter because, in reality, it was the brainchild of his son-in-law, architect Fernando Romero, who got himself associated with Heathrow designer Norman Foster. Apparently Slim also lost interest in the project when Romero divorced his daughter.
Needless to say, the NAIM cancellation has been AMLO’s major fault in power, mostly because Mexico City does need a “pharaonic-sized” airport since it is a humongous city. But as the old Mexican saying goes, “if you can count, don’t count on this type of airport.”
But, seemingly, the hurricane ocean waters have calmed down in Mexico’s political sea. Last Friday, AMLO, who has never offended Slim in public, accepted the offer of the eight-billion-peso investment investment to finish the Mitla-Tehuantepec highway, which will connect Oaxaca City to the Salina Cruz refinery.
In his contract-signing speech, AMLO said “I take advantage of this occasion to make a special recognition of engineer Carlos Slim, who is a businessman with a social dimension, with a civic dimension, an entrepreneur who invests in our country, who creates jobs, a businessman who helps to develop Mexico.”
This definitely sounds like the ice AMLO put between him and Slim has thawed.