Those of us here on the U.S.-Mexico border, especially those who have traveled deep into Mexico, should understand immediately the connections between the terms in the above title. The starting point is Mexico itself, its culture, people and art.
You may remember the impressive Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. More recently, you may have seen the avant guard collection in the Jumex Museum or, across the street, the more traditional Soumaya Museum. It is named in honor of deceased Señora Soumaya Domit de Slim, the spouse of Carlos Slim Helu.
Slim, proudly now on the list of people Donald Trump trashes, is the second richest man in the world (after Bill Gates). He is, like many prominent Lebanese Mexicans (about two million), a Catholic and very much a Mexican nationalist. More importantly (after some prodding) Slim became one of Mexico’s major philanthropists.
Slim is also a minority stockholder in the New York Times and has contributed to the Clinton Foundation. These connections led candidate for U.S. President, Donald Trump, to allege Slim is promoting the candidacy of Secretary Hillary Clinton. Slim denies the accusation of meddling in U.S. politics. He rejects Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric (against immigrants, in favor of a “wall,” accusing a Mexican American Judge of favoritism against Trump in suits against Trump University).
Slim was inspired by futurist Alvin Toffler in some of his multiple business ventures (mobile phones) and in the museum project. The Soumaya echoes in its architectural design the futuristic Guggenheim of Bilbao, Spain, and the “caracole” or circular New York City Guggenheim.
Slim spent at least $34 million on construction of the Soumaya. He will maintain it in perpetuity. Admission is free. His idea? “This museum is for Mexicans who cannot travel outside Mexico, so they have a place to see this type of art in their own country.” But I see it, too, as a beacon for U.S. tourists and aficionados of art; I marvel at the hordes of touring school children, dutifully taking copious notes.
The Soumaya houses many of Slim’s 64,000 art pieces, collected over the years with the guidance of his wife. You will see El Greco, Dali, Picasso, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, and José Clemente Orozco. Of course you will relive the joy of seeing art by Diego Rivera, but also the watermelons and colorful art of his modern rival, Rufino Tamayo.
Slim’s wealth was partly inherited from his parents’ holdings in dry goods, real estate, construction and media. Up to this point, there are some similarities with Trump. But they end quickly. He now shares much of his wealth. He is tri-lingual and oriented toward internationalism. His parents bequeathed to him and his siblings not only a strong sense of family, but respect for others and love of art and culture. In sharp contrast is Trump’s style of narcissistic, golden gaudiness.
In terms of business, Slim ventured further. He acquired General Tires and Reynolds Aluminum. He pulled a major coup by expanding his empire through purchase of Telmex, connected with Southwest Bell. Soon after, he acquired América Móvil and other electronic assets. He now owns 90 percent of telephone lines and 80 percent of cell phone connections in Mexico. Such wealth is impressive but also, in a developing country, it can be controversial, even alarming.
Slim certainly has his critics; Donald Trump is not the first. But the reasons for criticism differ. Professor Celso Garrido, economist at UNAM, the national university, laments the “domination of Mexican conglomerates, preventing growth of smaller companies.” The professor points out the elimination of competitiveness lowers wages and quality of services. This “onda” or wave of capitalism was aided through privatization and other neo-liberal policies starting with President Salinas de Gortari. Slim even purchased Sears Roebuck before he bought into the New York Times.
Slim’s charity work, such as devising a legal framework for organ donations in memory of his wife, came before the criticism. Now, more of that charity will hopefully continue. It was only natural that Carlos Slim Helu, richest man in Mexico, with his love of art, would heed the entreaties of family and friends—national and international—to begin his philanthropy. There is no way he and other astute observers cannot see the needs of the Mexican people.
The rich cannot survive without throwing lifelines out to the poor—necessarily, more than museums and art. Seventeen percent of Mexicans are in dire poverty. Eighty percent of the population shares only 44 percent of the wealth. The top 20 percent – includin Slim – claims over 56 percent of the wealth. These trends menace the U.S. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer—a risk if we allow a return to an earlier, greedier form of capitalism.
Charity alone cannot solve Mexico’s problems. Some say corruption and inefficiency plus distrust of authorities’ abilities to deal with problems make for a Middle Eastern case for revolution. I and most scholars of Mexican politics discount this scenario; Mexico is very stable. But it seems Slim and other civic leaders are aware of the serious challenges. In their own ways, they are working with government and international friends to confront the problems.
Slim, in his charitable efforts, helped to revitalize the pre-Hispanic and Hispanic historic Centro in Mexico City, the ancient heart of Aztec and Spanish domination, the current symbolic seat of Mexican power. Today, a typical Mexican or tourist cannot help but see Slim’s endeavors. Aside from the art, no one can avoid utilizing Slim’s cables for their electricity, driving on roads paved by his company, CILSA, or filling a tank with gasoline produced from his Swecomex drilling platforms. In the case of Trump, other than glittery hotels, it is hard to see the result of his alleged generosity to charity.
Perhaps the comparison is unfair? We know the wealth of Slim; Trump will not reveal his tax information. We do know the Slim Empire is anything but slim. It is equivalent to one-half of the entire Mexican Stock Exchange. Slim is also on the New York Stock Exchange Board. The world (at least of capitalism) is drawing tighter. We are inter-connected, externally and internally, for better or worse. That a so-called “business-man,” Donald Trump, does not understand those facts should worry his current followers and everyone else.
Will “whiney Trump,” as President Obama called him, continue to blame Carlos Slim, Mexico, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, other ethnic or religious minorities for U.S. problems? If he loses, will he concede, conducting himself honorably? Meanwhile, will his followers wake from their mesmerizing dreams (of hope? of vengeance?). Will they do so in time to help overcome the threat Trump poses to their own economic viability, to our nation’s security, to reason, indeed, to democracy itself?