By Gideon Rachman
In 1996 a friend of mine called Jim Rohwer published a book called Asia Rising. A few months later, Asia crashed. The financial crisis of 1997 made my colleague’s book look foolish. I thought of Jim Rohwer (who died prematurely in 2001) last week as a I listened to another Jim – Jim O’Neill, formerly of Goldman Sachs – defending his bullish views on emerging markets in a radio interview.
Xi Jinping visiting a coffee farm in Costa Rica (AFP/Getty)
Where the US leads, China follows close behind. Or is that vice versa? The question is especially pertinent in Latin America, where China’s president, Xi Jinping, is midway through a regional tour that culminates in Mexico before he meets Barack Obama in California. What makes Mr Xi’s trip noteworthy is that it follows a similar regional tour by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.
For fans of a multi-polar world, Mr Xi’s trip illustrates how fast the world is changing – and how China is prepared to pay to expand its sphere of influence too: in Trinidad & Tobago, Mr Xi stumped up $3bn in loans.
Peña Nieto: taking on the old guard (Getty)
Elba Esther Gordillo encapsulates everything that is wrong with the “old Mexico”. The optimistic view of her arrest on Tuesday night, after the 68-year old union leader decamped from a private flight from San Diego, is that it shows what the “new Mexico” might become – a country where nobody is untouchable and the rule of law reigns. The cynical view is that it shows the government of Enrique Peña Nieto pursuing Mexican politics-as-usual: anyone who gets in the president’s way will be metaphorically decapitated and their head stuck on a pike as a warning to others.
Either way, Gordillo, a.k.a. “La Maestra”, is one of the most loathsome figures in Mexican politics. The head of the 1.5m teachers union, the largest in Latin America, has long been a byword for corruption, influence peddling and old-school clientelist politics. Yet although accusations have been brought against her before, no charges have ever been pressed. Now, they have.
Last Sunday morning, “El Niño Verde” – as Jorge Emilio González, a young Mexican senator, is known – was driving down a central thoroughfare in Mexico City in his Mercedes Benz. When the police stopped him for a breathalyzer test, the gallant young rake protested, and gave a false name. But the police insisted, whereupon the bodyguards of the 40-year old senator for the state of Quintana Roo jumped out of their car, and threatened the hapless cops. Normally, this story would be of no transcendence whatsoever – just another run-of-the-mill tale of corruption and the impunity of power. But the local press have leapt on the story with glee – perhaps because it is a telling, and may be even hopeful, vignette of the state of modern Mexico.
To describe “El Niño Verde” as a politician probably stretches the definition of the word, although politics runs in the family. His grandfather was a senator and one-time presidential candidate. His father then founded Mexico’s “Green Party” – another misnomer, although it does explains González’s nickname, which literally means “the green boy”. In one infamous incident in 2004, González was filmed in conversation with a property developer who wanted his help, for a price, to facilitate planning permission to build a hotel in an ecologically protected area near the tourist resort of Cancun. There are other far more tawdry tales that have since attached to this clearly unpleasant young man. And, each time, he has managed to wriggle free, exercising the impunity that he long enjoyed as a member of an old political clan.
Police outside the premises of Pemex on January 31 (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
Accidents happen, and Latin America has suffered two major accidents this past week: the first, a night club fire in Brazil on Sunday morning, the second, an explosion at Pemex’s headquarters in Mexico City on Thursday afternoon.
Many innocent people died at both; those are the awful human consequences. But both accidents will have political consequences too. Although it may sound callous, these may help speed the reform programs of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and Enrique Peña Nieto, her Mexican counterpart.
Ms Rousseff, midway through her term, is seeking to root out corruption in Brazil and improve infrastructure before the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. To political opponents or vested interests, she can now say: just look at the 230 people who died in the Kiss Night Club in Santa Maria. Do you want a repeat? It’s time to call time on shoddy building regulations and civil service corruption that allows such infringements to go unheeded.