Real Cancun: Behind Globalization's Glitz
06 September, 2003
a day has gone by in the past month without the local press running
a front-page panic story--sometimes two or three--warning of an impending
invasion of what are routinely called globalifobicos, or globaphobes.
A favorite international convention site, Cancún will host the
Fifth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference on September 10-14,
and something like 20,000 people are expected to stage a series of protests
and marches--demonstrations the local tabloids giddily predict will
turn into a south-of-the-border version of the 1999 Battle of Seattle.
The protest agenda
is long and complex, but the demonstrators can all agree on one point:
Cancún itself is one of the world's most dramatic showcases of
the gross inequities of the global economic system. The WTO--the controversial
agency that sets the rules of international trade--certainly didn't
intend it to be this way. But when the demonstrators are asked by reporters
why they're rallying and marching, they'll be able simply to point to
the city around them. "Cancún is a prime example of a type
of foreign investment and a type of development without any rules to
protect the work force, the environment, or to guarantee public services,"
says Fernanda Castejon of the Mexico office of the antihunger group
Oxfam. "Cancún is everything that should not be done when
it comes to economic models. If the goals of an expanded WTO are ever
achieved, the world will be full of Cancúns."
It's not only the
widening gulf between rich and poor that's on vivid display in Cancún.
In an ironic twist, some of the wealthier "haves"--the same
entrepreneurs who have long profited from Cancún's rich natural
resources and cheap and abundant labor--now also find themselves threatened
by the hurricane forces of globalization.
This beach resort
of 100 luxury hotels crowded onto a narrow thirteen-mile sandbar sits
strategically perched on the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula,
making it the Caribbean tourist destination most accessible to the greatest
number of US cities. That's no doubt the primary reason Mexican government
planners conducting computerized surveys chose this site for tourist
development thirty-five years ago--a time when Cancún was uninhabited
swamp, everglade and jungle.
Now drawing almost
3 million visitors a year to its white sands, 85-degree turquoise seas
and no-rules cantinas, this city that was built from scratch is the
most popular vacation spot in Mexico. While still a distinct minority
among the visitors, the number of domestic--Mexican--tourists continues
to grow. One reason is rapidly falling hotel prices. But other cultural
observers say, wryly, that the reason for Cancún's increasing
popularity among Mexicans is that coming here is sometimes the easiest,
no-hassle way for Mexicans to "leave Mexico" for a weekend
a small, family-run Mexican taqueria or panaderia--a taco stand or a
traditional bakery--is much easier in downtown Los Angeles or Chicago
than it is in Cancún. This city, or at least its heavily trafficked
hotel zone--"a mirage," as Castejon calls it--is neither Mexico
nor even an extension of the United States. It is a place that floats
suspended in its own unique physical, psychological and commercial space--a
sort of globologoland. Even the hordes of American college sophomores
who invade by the thousands during spring break and carouse from one
all-you-can-drink bar to another are sometimes surprised to find that
Cancún is more like home than home itself. Pizza Hut, McDonald's,
Subway, KFC, TGI Friday's, Outback and many other US franchise outlets
occupy most of the hotel zone's commercial space. Cancún's street
life, especially at night, seems to center on the Forum by the Sea mall,
anchored by the Hard Rock and Rainforest Cafes. A double scoop of ice
cream in a waffle cone at the mall's Häagen-Dazs store costs $7.50--more
than in Miami or Manhattan.
Tourists might be
surprised to hear that's twice the daily minimum wage--which is what
is paid to many workers who toil in the glittering hotels--in this Mexican
state of Quintana Roo. Not that there's much contact between the tourists
and the 700,000 Mexicans who live in and around Cancún. A de
facto economic and social apartheid keeps the two worlds of Cancún--the
served and the server--quite distant except when conducting necessary
business. "I've worked here twenty-two years, and never once have
I been able to bring my kids to this beach," complains Sonia, a
middle-aged single mother of two who serves drinks and snacks to sunbathers
at a four-star oceanfront hotel. She earns 50 pesos a day (about $4.50),
sometimes tripled by tips. "Employees and their families are simply
not allowed to use the facilities," she says. "We're prohibited."
QUOT-Go just about
anywhere in the world and the city, its streets, its markets, its people,
are all part of the tourist attraction. Yet, here in Cancún,
they hide it," says Araceli Dominguez, a leader of the local environmental-action
group known as GEMA. Hiding it might be somewhat of an exaggeration.
But certainly the bulk of foreign tourists hardly know of the existence
of the actual city of Cancún, legally known as the municipality
of Benito Juarez.
The gritty downtown
sits immediately adjacent to the hotel zone. Even here small local business
has been pushed out by big-box franchises, including two Wal-Marts,
a Sam's Club and an Office Max. The inner rings of the city consist
of graffiti-covered tenements--incubators of a robust coca-driven youth-gang
culture. This is Cancún's Soweto, the ghetto dormitories that
house many of the tourist industry's impoverished workers. Behind most
of the grim cinder-block houses stand cramped, low-ceiling, add-on structures
with tin roofs, wood-slat walls and earthen or concrete floors. Little
more than human stalls, these cuarterias--little rooms--are illegally
rented out by the day or month to the 40,000 or so mostly Mayan construction
and hotel workers who commute into Cancún from their rural villages
and go back home on weekends or once a month. "Cancún's
development has caused the disintegration of the whole Mayan region
instead of its development," says Araceli Dominguez. She and other
critics complain that while billions have been invested by international
capital in the resort hotels, almost nothing is spent on those who work
The water system
was privatized a decade ago, but with deference to the tourist hotels;
many in Benito Juarez have running water only three or four hours a
day. The 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement
has also contributed to the collapse of local services. Job-seeking
subsistence farmers, bankrupted by the import of cheap American corn,
have flooded Cancún, accelerating what was already explosive
and chaotic growth. Today, about half the residents are not connected
to the sewer system, and local groundwater has turned toxic.
workers live a bumpy, hourlong bus ride from the hotels in places like
Colonia Avante, a crude settlement in front of a modern Coca-Cola bottling
plant and nestled around the towering pylons of a crackling high-tension
electric line. As wages have fallen over the past five years and with
most workers hired month to month and facing layoffs in the slow season,
for many, places like this are their only choice.
The unpaved roads
into Avante are so rough, the local police use sure-footed horses on
their patrols. The residents live mostly in palapas, rough-hewn shacks
made of strapped-together poles. Water is gathered from open wells.
Hijacked electric power snakes through the village on a jumble of wires
and cables held up by forked sticks no more than five feet off the ground.
A half-mile into Avante, the pirated lines disappear, replaced by candles
and oil lanterns. In the early morning hours, residents--some in their
colorful corporate uniforms--stream toward the highway to catch a bus
to work. Directly overhead an American Airlines 757--like a giant creature
from another world--makes its approach into Cancún International
There are some tourist-industry
workers climbing the economic ladder. New housing developments dot the
city's periphery. Along dusty, unpaved but leveled roads, the more fortunate
of the working-class families can buy a new, brightly painted "mini-casa"
for about $16,000. Each mini-casa in a row of attached homes consists
of one main room with a window, a separate shower stall and a tiny patio
with a barbed-wire front fence--a total living space of 11 by 15 feet.
"You live so close to one another," darkly jokes a local journalist,
"that you have to cut the tails off your dogs, ask Jesus on the
cross to hang his hands out the windows, and prepare for having your
neighbors hear even your secrets."
Back in the air-conditioned,
aptly named Restaurante California in downtown Cancún, Pepe Zuniga
feels a sense of bitter personal betrayal when it comes to Cancún.
As a young urban planner, he helped draft the original plans for Cancún
in the early 1970s; he even named some of its streets. Now a full-time
activist, he leads a network of environmental groups critical of his
own creation. "The original Cancún project was sensational,"
he says. "A pedestrian-based town with ample green spaces, gardens
But the demand for
immediate profit by investors and rampant political corruption guaranteed
that Cancún would be a Frankenstein's monster from the outset.
In a precursor of the free-trade policies that would be codified two
decades later in agreements like NAFTA, the Mexican government made
sweeping regulatory and tax concessions to investors in the nascent
Cancún project. Later, investment-for-debt swaps--which gave
juicy tax breaks to investors--further heated up the Cancún investment
market. "In Cancún it never mattered, and it still doesn't
matter, who you were or where your money came from," says local
historian José Antonio Callejas. Bundles of narcodollars washed
through the resort building projects. Mario Villanueva, the state governor
until the late 1990s, now doing a prison term after a stint as a fugitive,
built a massive political/criminal empire buoyed by the cocaine cartels
while in office. That legacy still haunts Cancún. The current
mayor's brother, a prominent hotel operator, has also done prison time
on money-laundering charges, and experts say Cancún is still
a major transit point for the drug trade.
But the biggest
problem with Cancún's development is that it was left solely
to the whim of the market. "No one ever figured out where or how
the workers would live. Better said, no one cared," Zuniga says.
When the city sprouted in 1975, it had 5,000 residents, compared with
its nearly 700,000 today. As impoverished job hunters poured in and
found no infrastructure, they simply set up squatter villages. The dominant
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)--which monopolized the government
until three years ago--hungry for votes, capitalized on the shantytowns
by legalizing them where they stood. As billions of dollars were plowed
into the beach resorts, nothing went to build infrastructure for the
locals. "Everyone comes here desperate to find a job," says
Zuniga. Mix that with the greed of local political bosses and the result
is "total urban disaster."
says, is the "mirror that reflects the social crisis" not
only of Mexico but of the entire global South. While an average city
has nine square meters of green space per inhabitant, Cancún
has one and one-fifth square meters. In Jamaica, he notes, the ratio
of tourist hotel rooms to industry workers is about 1 to 15. In Cancún
it's 1 to 40. Local forest reserves have been sold off to private interests.
Shantytowns have been built atop groundwater reserves. And now there
are plans to fill in the everglades and replace them with golf courses.
"The original idea was to produce a diamond, an expensive diamond
that would attract development," Zuniga says. "Instead, we've
seen them degrade and degrade this place, cheapening the tourism and
squeezing for profits. Cancún used to sell sun, beach and relaxation.
Now it sells sex, discos, alcohol and--yes--the beach. My beauty queen
that I loved has been turned into a streetwalker."
Zuniga refers to is very much on the minds of many local Cancún
businessmen. They, too, are feeling the effects of globalization--and
they don't like it. Three-fourths of Cancún's hotel capacity
is owned by foreign interests--Americans, Canadians, Italians and, most
notable, Spanish hotel chains. And in this industry, it's the Spanish
who are making a move to dominate the local market, wringing it dry
for profit, driving down prices, cutting costs and squeezing the competition.
The Spanish chains have been flooding the market with "all inclusive"
deals that offer tourists airfare, a luxury hotel room and all meals
and tips, often for $50-$65 a day--half or less what the room alone
might fetch on a market peak. This all-inclusive policy has wiped out
the income of workers dependent on tips and has led to the closing of
a number of restaurants and clubs.
Local leftists had
a good laugh recently when newspapers ran a story quoting the usually
conservative and antistatist leaders of the Cancún Hotel Association
calling on the Mexican government, no less, to intervene in the market
and impose price controls on resort hotel rooms--controls that would
guarantee a price floor, not a ceiling. "It's the only way we are
going to overcome this problem," says association executive Tomás
Aunon--the problem being that in spite of 98 percent hotel-occupancy
rates this summer, many of the Mexican-owned hotels are teetering on
the brink of bankruptcy, and local suppliers say their invoices are
regularly going unpaid. Already this year, ten luxury hotels have been
sold off or are currently on the auction block. There's a palpable fear
that Cancún may now be embarked on a downward spiral with no
bottom in sight, that it might become a globalization-whipped Caribbean
version of Flint, Michigan.
about Cancún's problems can't expect any help from the government.
President Vicente Fox is a big promoter of globalization, while the
left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, in opposition, which
has criticized Cancún-style development, has been losing strength.
Its vote was down to about 17 percent nationally in July's congressional
elections, and it did particularly poorly in the state of Quintana Roo,
dropping into single digits.
At least one Cancún
businessman, 49-year-old Armando Rangel Diaz, is convinced that Cancún
faces "catastrophic problems in the near future" if nothing
is done. Rangel Diaz, the great-grandson of a former president of Mexico,
a former industry adviser to the Mexican Congress and a longtime businessman
who today owns fish-packing warehouses, is an unlikely critic of the
economic system. But he's quick to call himself a "victim of globalization."
His small fleet of shrimp boats was driven out of business by trade
concessions to Asian corporate fleets, and he says he has painfully
watched his adopted city of Cancún succumb to a lethal brew of
international capital and local corruption--a formula he says is embodied
in the policies of agencies like the WTO.
The crisis, he says,
runs much deeper than a few greedy Spanish hotel chains. "Globalization
is a process that radically undermines national projects," he says.
"International capital, as you can see here in Cancún, wants
to offer only enough wages, healthcare and education to guarantee a
minimum of stability. It then becomes complicit with corrupt local governments.
And neither side asks very much of each other. Instead they fuse into
a single mafia that robs the population of its human dignity."
Two years ago, Diaz
helped lead a study of the Cancún economy that detailed the radical
shortcomings in its model of free-market development. "We have
a $10 billion industry here, and all it does is consistently degrade
the work force," he says. "Labor was brought in but never
trained or upgraded. We have two miserable libraries, only two athletic
fields, only four youth coaches, only six baseball diamonds, no public
university, but we have public schools where the principals pocket 'registration
fees.' We have half the population without sewers, but we have 7,000
liquor stores, half of them clandestine, 4,000 prostitutes who each
pay the police $10 a month and 400 crackhouses that also produce about
$2 million a month in police protection money. Do you think this is
just? Do you think this is fair treatment by a $10 billion industry?"
The study made hundreds
of concrete suggestions for reform and improvement, but he says, "We
have been totally, but totally ignored. Not one of our suggestions has
been implemented. The globalizers couldn't care less about sustainability
or even social order. What's most important to them is competitiveness.
And, damn it, if being competitive means they have to pay you $4 a day--then
$4 a day is all you're going to be paid."
2003 The Nation