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GP 31 May 2006: Lament for Mexico: Destiny Thwarted

Just Another Ground Zero.  We live on godforsaken land where over-farmed fields have been sapped of their nutrients, and the woods have been over-forested.  Left is scrub terrain and second growth forests with wood that is not worth the taking.  For over a decade, there’s been a romantic notion afoot to let spare land return untouched to its natural estate, but it’s a pie-in-the-sky idea.  The ‘naturelle’ partisans think the earth will take care of itself if just left alone.  Maybe so.  We figure that pasture and dell would be beautiful, serene, and loamy in a couple of thousand years, but we won’t live to see it.  Inconveniently, we are tenants of the here and now.  Only a total redo has brought our patch of land back to life today. 

After trial and massive error, we have learned to lay in vast quantities of rock, compost, sinuous irrigation, disparate natural minerals, kelp gathered from the sea, and all manner of life-giving substance that has caused our woods to burst with glory.   The ferns bespoke.  The latifolia is proud, while the English laurel finally has said that it can come to terms with this godforsaken piece of the planet.  Disease resistant elms will turn into proud, lofty trees for future generations.  The hellebores, over from England, are luxuriant.  Never do we give a moment’s thought to what is native and what is global—only to what will heal this wounded earth.  Today, only vestigial minds drench themselves in nativism. 

Tomatos, Tomatoes.  We’ve taken a look at the various immigration bills and permutations flying out of the White House and various caucuses around Congress.   None of them are worth a tinker’s damn.  For the moment, Donald Trump has it right: To do nothing is better than anything proposed.  The flood of illegals, the pretend controls at our borders, California’s slow descent into a quagmire—all these evils and more are better than the itty bitty, illusionary fixes Washington schemers are putting on the table. 

Beltway Bandits.   Why is our government attacking the wrong problem and devising band aids that only will make our problems worse?  Our representatives there have become hopelessly venal and vision impaired.  They are incapable of governing, even incapable of bringing civility to the tortured District of Columbia they inhabit. 

To comprehend the depth of the Washington malaise, we would point you for a change to the Washington Post, which still has its moments.  In “From Public Life to Private Business,” May 28, 2006, just piped to us, we learn that William Cohen has pretty much become a shill for special interests.  He was a decent Senator once from Maine: never outstanding, but felt to be upstanding.  In this, he came from a legacy—Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, and others—who radiated honor.  As Defense Secretary for President Clinton, he did nothing exceptional but still seemed to hew to the path of the straight shooter.  Now he is just a lobbyist.  This calcification that overcomes people who spend too long in Washington has made it hard as Hades to get anything worthwhile done there. 

We come up with immigration bills, instead of a Mexican policy.  Mexico ever remains a great work of art undone.  The bills are not about immigration: they are tortured, mistaken attempts to deal with Mexico by ignoring it.  It will take a housecleaning to make the various houses of Washington function again. 

What Is Mexico?   First of all, it is terribly fascinating and utterly strategic to the United States, more interesting than our very respectable, wonderful neighbor to the north.  Its formal designation is Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States).  It is the world’s largest nation of Spanish speakers.  It is the 12th-largest economy in the world, and it has often had a very high growth rate, but not high enough to support its burgeoning population.  Importantly, as one can discover in FSC Northrop’s Meeting of East and West, the Mexican Roman Catholic Church is a different kind of faith, very grounded in the Virgin Mary, hovering close to the earth, perhaps more like some of the pre-Christian religions in Crete.  North America and Europe are very disconnected from Mexican consciousness. 

Mexico is named after its capital city, a metropolis out of control, which exerts too controlling a hand over the affairs of the nation: 

Mexico is named after its capital city, whose name comes from the Aztec city Mexico-Tenochtitlan that preceded it.  The Mexi part of the name is from Mexitli, the war god, whose name was derived from metztli (the moon) and xictli (navel) and thus meant “navel (probably implying ‘child’) of the moon.”  So, Mexico is the home of the people of Mexitli (the Mexicas), co-meaning “place” and ca meaning “people” (Wikipedia).

On a recent flight over Mexico City, we struck a grey-brown haze that stretched as far as the eye could survey.  Below were an endless string of hapless structures, and beside us a noxiousness that would kill us in our seats if it could penetrate through the skin of our airplane.  Surely this place is just west of Dante’s Inferno. The whole country, in fact, has become a pressure cooker, the United States having become a safety valve where it lets off steam and smoke.  Either we will help it safely decompress, or it will explode in our face, Mexitli striking out at us in ways unimagined. 

The Web of Government.  With some confidence, we can say that Mexico City government, not unlike our own, is so tainted that it is not capitalizing on the strengths of its diverse people.  Their potential is not realized as they duel with a system that needs a heart transplant.  In “Slow Growth, Trade Liberalization, and the Mexican Disease,” we learn that the Mexicans themselves understand that they labor under an oligarchic burden that keeps them in the slow lane.  “Corruption and crime continue to be serious and chronic problems, according to the World Bank; together they may make up as much as 9% of Mexico’s GDP.  To protect their interests, and to encourage people to move into legal taxpaying economic sectors, the resourceful business sector has begun to form self-help associations like the Alliance for a Legal Mexico” (Wikipedia). Someday we will have to calculate the drag effects of our own government on the American economy. 

Lost Gold.  We learn that in this kind of regime the mediocre rises, and the best never succeeds.  The coffee industry is one example.  Oaxaca’s coffee gets a hearing in the United States, and people actually buy the stuff.  But the high quality bean from Vera Cruz has not found its market.  Amidst Mexico’s web of government, the very best never rises to the surface, and so we often just know about the very mediocre. 

A recent article on our sister site SpiceLines tells you about Coatepec’s Altura and how its purveyors are merely scraping by.  See “Veracruz:  Great Coffee If You Can Find It; A Grower’s Lament.”  This Veracruz region incidentally also produces the world’s best vanilla, but this, too, is little known amongst the fashionistas, even though America’s premier cooks have cottoned on to it.  For the best of Mexico is unknown amid a system that cannot be amended, but must be totally redone.  As we remarked in “Upmarket Coffee,” Mexico has the valued ‘arabica’ in spades, but its convoluted economic machine acts as if it were producing ‘robusta,’ run-of-the-mill coffee. 

Here, then, is what Don Ruperto Opoch has to tell us about the coffee growing business on Spicelines:

“We are starving.” 

Ruperto Opoch has a natural grace born of equal parts humility and excellence at his chosen metier.  He is the third generation of his family to run Predio Guayabal, a small organic finca outside Coatepec, the coffee-growing capital of Veracruz.  At 70-odd years, his thick, carefully combed hair is white and his face bronzed by a lifetime of working in the fields—yet he is as dignified in his denim work shirt, fleece-lined jacket and jeans as a banker in a proper Savile Row suit.  It is the deep sadness in his eyes that is arresting as he explains what it is like to grow wonderful organic coffee that no one will buy.  “We are starving,” he says. 

Twenty percent of Mexico’s coffee comes from the state of Veracruz.  The finest—designated Altura—is grown in the rich volcanic soil of the mountains around the pretty colonial city of Coatepec.  The conditions are just right for the production of high quality Arabica beans: moderate temperatures, an elevation of 4,000 feet, and plenty of rain and shade.  Yet Coatepec coffee—prized by connoisseurs for its medium acidity, good balance and smoothness of taste—is virtually unknown in the United States.  

Right now I am sipping some of that coffee with Don Ruperto and my head is starting to spin.  It is delicious, light in color, brightly flavored, tasting of toasted nuts.  (One reviewer has likened it to “a good light white wine delicate in body, with a pleasantly dry, acidy snap.”)  The four of us—including Liliana and Deborah—are sitting at a round table with an inlaid surface, scalloped edges and gnarled roots for a base.  It is a made of blond wood from aged coffee trees, as are a chess set, coffee cups and sculpture on display in Don Ruperto’s Museum of Coffee.  Outside, under the high arched portal of this beautiful white stucco hacienda are vintage roasters and grinders, relics of a bygone era. 

“Everything we do is organic and natural,” explains Don Ruperto, as he stirs his coffee.  “We plant in the traditional Mexican way, 1,600 plants for each hectare.  In Central America, they plant 5,000 per hectare.”  He pauses while Liliana translates for us, anxious that we understand the implications of what he is saying.  “Coffee is very demanding.  It must be grown in the shade, but not of just any tree.  It must be grown under the chalahuite and other arboles de vaina.  When they drop their leaves, it enriches the earth and makes the coffee plants stronger.  I have coffee trees that are 100 years old.” 

It is poor taste to ask a landowner how many hectares he owns, but I do.  Don Ruperto reluctantly admits that the finca has dwindled to 20 hectares.  In 2002, international coffee prices hit an all time low of about 50 cents per pound, the nadir of a decade long downward spiral resulting from increased world production and dramatically lower prices paid by the major coffee companies.  All over Veracruz coffee trees have been ripped out and land replanted for forestry.  Desperate workers have surged across the U.S. border looking for work.  Some who stayed, like Don Ruperto, have had to sell their land, bit by bit. 

Technically, things are looking up.  For 2006, coffee prices are expected to stabilize at $1.10 to $1.20 cents a pound, but as Nestor Osorio, the Executive Director of the International Coffee Organization told a meeting of specialty coffee buyers, “…time is still needed to enable producing countries to recover from structural problems created by many years of low coffee prices, which cannot be easily solved after just one year of improved prices.”  For many small farmers, the message is more urgent: Their way of life is over. 

“We want the big coffee companies to give us a good price,” says Don Ruperto.  “But they say our beans are too expensive and they won’t buy them.”  He gazes at the spindly young coffee trees in the patio.  “A few years ago I had the idea of selling a coffee drink in bottles and I took it to someone at the university.  They said it was impossible and then they stole the idea.  Now bottled coffee is being sold as a soft drink in France.  And we are starving.” 

Later that day, we drive to the waterfalls outside the nearby town of Xico.  The two-lane road takes us through flourishing coffee plantations, where tall coffee trees with thick trunks grow six to seven feet tall.  Some are covered with sweet-scented white blossoms, others are laden with clusters of berries in various stages of ripeness—green, yellow and red.  Towering over them is a dappled canopy of shade trees, punctuated by monstrous banana plants with bunches of upward-growing green fruit, Lichen-encrusted walls lead to elaborate iron gates and mossy cobblestoned roads.  Somewhere, around the bend, is a hidden hacienda.  It all looks like paradise, until you know the back story: 

A May 29, 2001 article on Dow Jones Newswire (“Coffee crisis sends Mexico producers to death in Arizona” by Maja Wallengren) reported that most of the 16 Mexican immigrants who died in the Arizona desert that month were small coffee farmers from the state of Veracruz.  Their smugglers, who left them without water, were paid up to $2,000 per person to arrange illegal entry into the United States.  “Most of the Veracruz group turned to local money lenders.  In return they handed over land titles for their small 1/2 hectare coffee plots as guarantee for the loans, and the relatives may now lose their land to the lenders.” 

Editor’s note: You can help Veracruz coffee growers by asking your local specialty coffee store to order Mexican Altura Coatepec Coffee.  On the web, Altura Coatepec Coffee is available at www.amazon.com (click Gourmet Foods and enter "Mexico Coffee" in the search box) and from Coffee Wholesale USA

If you go to Veracruz, be sure to visit the lovely colonial city of Coatepec.  Café Opoch, where you can sip a cup of coffee or buy Don Ruperto’s beans, and his coffee museum are located at 5 de Mayo No 66 at the corner of Allende.  Telephone: (228) 816-07-07. 

P.S. In future weeks, we will point out on Global Province that the federal government is caught in gridlock and the states are running just to stay in place.  Oddly enough, city governments are showing some get up and go, giving birth to innnovations and often improving their basic services.  It is surprising how many cities are trying to install wireless networks, squaring off with the feds who have given a blank check to spotty services from telcos and the like.  Good communications—such as cheap, reliable broadband—underlie economic growth.

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