by Neal Weinstock
Neal Weinstock is author of The Millimeter Guide to Animation. He is a frequent visitor to Mexico.
Once, not long ago, the petrodollar was prescribed as the Third World panacea by sympathetic First Worlders like Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Alvin Toffler. But today Mexico is depleting its large oil reserves as fast as it can, in return for foreign currency that will help pay back the monstrous debt incurred in exploration expenses.
Now Mexicans, who share a sad pessimism regarding panaceas, are being sold on the microcomputer as the latest "cure." Is this yet another example of the wishful thinking that does so little to relieve the starving half of the world?
The incongruous congruity of mafanaland and computerland is a good test case. Consider, for example, the following points:
• The computer is the ultimate labor-saving device, but Mexico has an uncalculably high unemployment rate and a minimum wage of $3 a day.
• Although Mexico's government is desperate for a computer industry of its own, assembly permits can take as long as a year to obtain.
• According to Alejandro Gil Recasens, a top government adviser and Mexico's leading political pollster, "There are too many computers in Mexico. Many people in government have them and don't even know what they are."
PCs and the Peso
The government, which owns perhaps half the micros in Mexico, has now set "national content" requirements for computer production. But can plans for new technology succeed where old-tech planning has failed? Says Tim Barry of Creative Strategies International, "The American automobile companies ... have survived (in Mexico) for decades in the wake of impossible national content rules. Programs are published and plans are registered; goals are not met, and the industry goes on."
New cars may look the same from the outside on both sides of the Rio Grande, but inside that 1958 body the Mexican version might well have a 1948 engine. Will micros end up with a similar disparity?
Before the crash of the peso in 1982, Mexico City had as many Radio Shack Computer Centers as comparably sized New York City. One street in particular, famed as an electronics shopping district, might have been likened to New York's Forty-Fifth Street except that most of the stores were Radio Shacks in competition with each other.
Today, though Tandy Corporation has withdrawn from distribution, Radio Shack TRS-80s and Apples together account for two-thirds of the documented micros in Mexico. Most of the rest are Hewlett-Packards, with a sprinkling of IBMs, Cromemcos, Altos, Ataris and Commodore PETs. Taking into account that duties and transportation double the cost of these machines, however, and that peripherals go up even more, it's likely that thousands more micros are contraband. (The brand breakdown of illigitimate machines is probably similar: Mexicans tend to be very brand-conscious, as would anyone who faced the difficulty of getting even an Apple serviced in Mexico City.)
Micros are simply smuggled in as luggage by individuals who visit the United States for business or pleasure. Illegal border activity along the American side of the Rio Grande and in California has almost disappeared, but there was a time when customers swarmed to the cut-rate dealers in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo and El Paso, Texas. The volume was such that the Old West streets were clogged with storefront-high piles of packing boxes, discarded in favor of the brown wrapping paper used to disguise the computers as buyers passed through customs. The boxes were common as well at the local private airports, where, at the height of illegal traffic, half a dozen computer-laden World War II cargo planes took off daily for points south. The notoriously porous border was also routinely crossed by truckloads of contraband headed in both directions.
Before the economic crash, which only begins to explain the problems for micros in Mexico, most computer distributors had done little more than import hardware. Servicing remains, in many cases, nonexistent. Software is difficult to come by and often impossible to find with documentation in Spanish.
The firm of Computadoras Comerciales has prospered by writing its own software and attending to the ancient computer virtues of service and hand-holding. Considering the relative expense, their micros are sold much the same way as minis and mainframes in the United States.
Qué Viva México!
During the 1980 election, according to Alejandro Gil Recasens, the ruling political party placed computer terminals in every election district in the country and hooked them up to a mainframe in Mexico City. The information system, which has yet to be used, was "sabotaged on the local level," Gil said, because it would bring to light many examples of local vote fraud. "There are some very stupid feelings here," he added. "Some people think all computers are American. They identify the computer as an agent of the United States. We have articles in newspapers against us because we use American computers."
What can micros do to solve Mexico's problems? Consider its exasperatingly inefficient telephone system, its low-quality, dated television sets, refrigerators and cars, its beautiful modern architecture crumbling along built-in faults. If this historic inefficiency is instilled in the new techology by content laws (and the graft-laden sidestepping of same), micros will end up creating more problems than they solve. Imagine too much data transmission clogging up already antiquated phone lines. Too many people without technical knowledge, employed to make too much of an inferior but protected product, making the industry ripe for the ever increasing government subsidies. Micro smuggling again running rampant on the Texas and California borders.
Service would continue to be unobtainable, of course, and it takes a very mild stretch of imagination to vizualize subsidized industry planners forgetting entirely about software. The current trend of using micro systems for very large tasks because these are the only computers affordable to the large taskmasters, combined with predictably shoddy local products and no service, might just increase downtime to most of the time. Why not? This is the way most other technologies work in Mexico.
If Mexico opened its borders to microcomputer imports, the resultant cutting of industrial red tape would ease the hiring of factory labor, put to work computer grads who now migrate to the United States for employment and somewhat lessen demand for clerical personnel. Mexican conservatives suggest that the United States misunderstands Latin American needs and could more effectively quell insurgencies by sending micros (and food) rather than arms. In this they echo Alvin Toffler, who envisions a Latin America with micros in every town square to educate the masses. But according to Alejandro Gil, Mexico already has terminals in every town, going unused to keep government fraud a secret.
In the end, the possibilities of the micro are great, but the capabilities of regressive systems to ignore them is perhaps just as great. And as much as commonly available computers have been of some help to a few individuals, the far more commonly available micros of the advanced countries are pushing Mexico, relatively speaking, further behind than ever.
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