By RICARDO CASTILLO
Oh, no, not again!
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his wife, Ho Ching, met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the National Palace. Also present was AMLO’s second wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez, who still claims she’s a lady, but refuses to be called the nation’s first. (“All women are equal,” she’s often been quoted as saying. “There is no such thing in Mexico as a first lady.”)
Beyond socializing, the nitty gritty focus of the meeting was business, and specifically, Singapore’s potential involvement in the Tehuantepec Isthmus logistics project.
AMLO later tweeted: “Hsien Long is the first head of state visiting us. We made a compromise to strengthen economic relations and develop a plan for the management of ports Salina Cruz (on the Pacific) and Coatzacoalcos (Gulf of Mexico) and push forward the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”
So far, so good, but here comes the reason for my beginning this column with a woeful “oh, no, not again!”
Since time immemorial, or at least since 1859, to be specific, developing the Tehuantepec Isthmus has been the dream of all Mexican presidents starting with Benito Juárez. The first known project was included in the U.S.-Mexico binational McLane-Ocampo Trade and Transit Treaty to allow the transport of U.S. goods and troops in “perpetuity.” This was the first official mention of trying to do something with the Isthmus.
The first national railroad system was built in 1896, and since then, the idea of “uniting” Salina Cruz to Coatzacoalcos has been in the making, literally, to little avail other than an original rickety one-way track that is still there, and, by some miracle, still functioning.
The last Mexicans heard of developing the Isthmus was back in 2017, when former President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed his very own magnanimous futuristic development program called Special Economic Zones, which – obviously – never got off the ground.
By the way, on Wednesday, Nov. 20, AMLO issued a decree (executive order) cancelling out once and forever the Special Economic Zones, given the fact that “neither states nor municipalities have reported productive public investment or urban equipment for the integral development of the Special Economic Zones and their areas of influence.”
What’s good news for southeastern Mexico (the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo) is that AMLO is dead serious about developing the region, definitely the most culturally backwards region of the country (other than its wealth of Maya ruins). Two of AMLO’s most touted programs, the Maya Train and the Dos Bocas refinery, are at the top of his list among programs to boost regional development. Unlike Peña Nieto, or other presidents in the past, AMLO got started doing something about the region from his first day in office.
But there are tangible problems in the development of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, and more so if AMLO goes by his book that claims that “with the people everything, without the people nothing.”
For starters, the Isthmus is inhabited by 29 different ethnic groups, which means 29 different Maya-Zapotec dialects are spoken in the region. As such, all the indigenous communities claim to be the owners of the federal project, given their natural land and dwelling rights. But as you can imaging, they all also think and act differently. Moreover, the different dialects is a problem. Most ethnic groups in the area live separate from one another.
Secondly, they are for the most part farmers, with little or no industrial influences. AMLO, like previous Mexican presidents, has in mind a master plan to build a series of industrial parks along the railway route. In fact, industrializing the region is a great idea, but only if the people shed their old habits and change their mentality from farmers to industrialists. Easier said than done.
However, there’s definite interest by Asian Pacific nations in developing the Isthmus region since, for the most part, the 206-kilometer-long region between the Pacific and the Atlantic is composed of flat lands, which eases the installation of railroad facilities.
Singapore’s interest in the program is not surprising. In fact, the Singapore infrastructure consulting enterprise Surbana Jurong has participated in the master plan to develop the Tehuantepec Isthmus. Singapore being an island nation, interconnection among ports is one of its specialties. Plus, the project would be politically correct for Mexico.
“We don’t want to get in trouble by taking sides for a hegemonic nation (namely the United States and China),” AMLO said. #If there is a third nation that has good relations with all parties, that makes things easier for us.”
Singapore is just that kind of nation.
And maybe this time the Tehuantepec Isthmus will receive the attention that all Mexican presidents in the past since Benito Juárez have promised the ethnic groups that live in the region.