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The Messy Business of Democracy in Mexico

Aerial view of Mexico City
Credit: Peterz | Fotolia

One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was: “Be careful what you wish for.” It is probably most pertinent in the political arena, and especially in examining the messy business of democracy in Mexico.

Very recently the citizens of Mexico were invited to cast votes in a national referendum on the new airport in Mexico City. Anyone who has used the Benito Juarez International airport, which handles almost 42 million passengers annually and is the busiest in Latin America, knows that it is crowded, sprawling, inefficient and plagued by delays. Transferring flights is rarely a fun experience.

In 2014, President Peña Nieto, at the peak of his popularity, announced that a new airport would be built in the single remaining open patch of territory northeast of the city, financed through government and private investment and government insured bonds. It would be the largest infrastructure project in Mexico in the past century. The architects would be Pritzker prize winner Norman Foster and Bauhaus award-winning Mexican architect Fernando Romero. Romero designed the stunning Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, the world’s most visited private museum. He is also the son-in-law of billionaire Carlos Slim, one of the primary forces behind the project, a fact that raised a few eyebrows.

By 2018, it was no surprise that the venture was plagued with delays, cost over-runs, and charges of corruption. With the resounding victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) last July, however, things took a new turn. AMLO pledged during his campaign that he would stop construction on the project. Following the election, he made the surprise announcement that he would not do so by fiat, but by plebiscite. Rejecting calls to privatize the entire Texcoco project – the new president would leave it to the people of Mexico to determine the fate of the new airport.

On one side of the equation was a large, state-of-the-art facility claiming to be environmentally sustainable, architecturally impressive and with a capacity almost three times that of the current airport. But there were downsides. It was very expensive, and cost over-runs did not improve that outlook. More concerning was its location on the former bed of the enormous Lake Texcoco that once filled the Valley of Mexico, in the midst of which the Aztecs built their capital.

This location had geological problems with subsidence of 8-16 inches per year and earthquake risk. Texcoco is also where the bulk of the city’s water drains during the wet season. So, it is no mystery why Texcoco was previously shunned by urban designers! Texcoco had also been a wildlife sanctuary for decades, and the proximity of remaining wildlife posed a threat to airplane engines (not to mention to the birds themselves). But the bulk of environmental damage has already been done in the construction of foundations.

The alternative was to make improvements at the current airport and repurpose an already shuttered airbase in Santa Lucia, across the line in Mexico State, to handle overflow traffic. Two new runways would be built, and a modern terminal. This alternative would purportedly cost less in the short run, but was not without downsides.

Critics point to the need for people to transfer between these two facilities, which are 35 miles apart, and the risk of overlapping flight paths. Troubling reports also emerged about environmental impact. Expanding the Santa Lucia airbase could over-exploit the Valley’s aquifers, already being depleted at an alarming rate, possibly leaving thousands of people without potable water.

The referendum was a daring proposition. A loss could undermine the sense of mandate given AMLO in the July election. But if passed, the fallout could bring economic instability. Over 100 million pesos were already spent, and there was a potential default on bonds – though the new president assured that the latter would be covered by the airport tax. He also guaranteed that the 307 companies working at Texcoco (90 percent of them Mexican) could transfer their contracts to Santa Lucia, averting job losses.

After four days of voting, the Mexican people spoke unequivocally. Seventy percent felt the new airport project should be stopped! The pro-new-airport side pointed out that more than seventy percent of all Mexicans have never been in a plane. They argued that non-fliers should not have the same voice as those who will use the airport. But their anti-airport opponents countered that their tax dollars were also being spent. Should they not have a voice? And this is how democracy works, the people weighing two sides of a difficult issue.

The project will stop on December 1, 2018 when AMLO takes office. The new president has proposed adjusting the existing project at Texcoco to increase wildlife habitat and build sporting facilities for the public. It would be a boost for the community, as well as for the president’s popularity, if that succeeds.

There are those who contest that the Santa Lucia project is not well thought out, and that it will not provide a long-term solution, but that is now for the new administration to navigate. At that point the Mexican people will have to decide if they are indeed “happy with what they wished for.”