Mexican tycoon tries to rally his country

June 30, 2006|By MARLA DICKERSON | MARLA DICKERSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MEXICO CITY -- In this election season, he drew crowds throughout the nation with his plan to strengthen Mexico's economy. He speaks at conferences on reducing poverty. Some journalists hang on his every utterance.

Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim Helu isn't on the ballot for Sunday's presidential contest. But his presence is being felt in a nation that many say is at a crossroads.

Polls indicate that leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon are in a dead heat in a race that has become a referendum on free- market economics.

The bitter campaign has pitted those who blame privatization and free trade for failing the nearly 50 percent of Mexicans who live in poverty against those who say that the country must shed more of its state-controlled past.

Casting himself as a healer is Slim. The world's third-richest man has amassed a fortune estimated at $30 billion in enterprises as diverse as air travel, tobacco and home loans. His best-known companies are Telmex and America Movil, which dominate telephone service in Mexico.

With his children tending to the day-to-day operations of his business empire, Slim, 66, has turned his attention to Mexico's future. He recently headed a series of meetings across the country that were intended to forge a national consensus on policies to bolster Mexico's economy.

Known as the Chapultepec Accord, the lengthy document calls for Mexicans to unite behind common objectives. Those include a crackdown on crime and corruption, revamping the justice system, and policies to spur economic growth and employment.

The proposed accord demands better management of state-owned businesses such as oil giant Pemex. And it calls on more public-private partnerships to help Mexico invest in infrastructure such as schools, highways, power plants and ports.

"It's important for Mexico to break the barrier of underdevelopment," Slim said at a signing ceremony. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Some observers have praised Slim for trying to rally his country, which is deeply divided and fast losing ground to competitors such as China.

A talented businessman, Slim possesses a keen eye for spotting undervalued companies and a Midas touch for making them profitable.

Mexico, with its natural resources, large work force and prime location next to the nation with the world's biggest economy, is a perennial underachiever.

Slim knows it, and people here respect his opinions on how to right the ship. Many Mexican luminaries have signed the accord, as have two of the top three presidential candidates, Calderon of the National Action Party and Roberto Madrazo of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Critics say the manifesto is deficient. Lopez Obrador refused to add his name, saying that the document doesn't include enough about fighting Mexico's staggering poverty.

Marla Dickerson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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