It was one of those comments that, as a reporter, you routinely file away in the back of your mind. I was sitting in the office of a molding plant in Monterrey, Mexico, interviewing a manager about the state of the plastics industry, when he mentioned in an offhand way that city traf-fic was much Ã¾lighter. ``You can get everywhere faster in Ã¾Monterrey these days,'' he said.
A lot of peo ple, he explained, are so hard-pressed by the Ã¾current economic crisis that they've stopped Ã¾using their cars for all but the most essential Ã¾purposes.
It was an ex tremely telling observation.
In much of Ã¾Mexico right now, providing for the basic Ã¾needs of family and business-never an Ã¾easy proposition-has become a real struggle.
In late April, in Ã¾Monterrey and the nearby city of Saltillo, I Ã¾spent a week visiting plastic processors to Ã¾find out how they were coping with the eco nomic crisis that followed the government's Ã¾Dec. 20 devaluation of the peso. Some of the Ã¾stories that resulted appear in this week's Ã¾special report on Mexico beginning on Page Ã¾12.
The compa nies in the best shape are U.S.-owned pro cessors that can take advantage of a stron ger dollar to buy labor and materials priced Ã¾in pesos. Mexican companies that have de veloped an export business also are well-po sitioned. It is a very different story for Mexi can processors who were, until December at Ã¾least, wholly tied to domestic markets.
The Mexican Ã¾economy is a disaster, consumers have Ã¾stopped buying, inflation is soaring, and credit Ã¾either is unavailable or laughably overpriced. Ã¾Many processors will shut down if they cannot Ã¾find, somehow and somewhere, a partner with Ã¾money to invest in their business. Some pro cessors - and most are small compared with Ã¾U.S. companies - are having trouble financing Ã¾resin purchases.
Yet, not once Ã¾did I hear anyone during my visit to Mexico Ã¾talk about quitting. The talk was about shifting Ã¾to export markets, making new products and Ã¾finding partners.
I remember Ã¾standing in the center of a small molding shop Ã¾in Saltillo, in a building equipped with one in jection press, when the owner turned to me Ã¾and said: ``We will not close. Never.''
You hear a lot Ã¾of talk right now in Mexico about holding on Ã¾for the long term, that the demographic funda mentals have not changed. And it's true. Mexi co has a young population, predicted to reach Ã¾99 million by the turn of the century. And the Ã¾appetite for American products and services is Ã¾growing.
At its root, Ã¾Mexico's current financial and economic situa tion is part of the painful process that was in evitable if the country was to shed its protec tionist past and begin to compete in a global Ã¾economy. You don't hear businesspeople, in Ã¾Monterrey's plastic industry at least, wistfully Ã¾discussing a return to past policies. It is not an Ã¾option.
In ``Limits to Ã¾Friendship: The United States and Mexico,'' Ã¾political analysts Robert A. Pastor, an Ameri can, and Jorge G. Casta¤eda, a Mexican, as sembled a series of essays that attempt to Ã¾crystallize the sometimes-tense nature of eco nomic and political relations between the Unit ed States and Mexico. The 1989 book offers a Ã¾sometimes prophetic glimpse of how this lat est crisis has played out.
Pastor notes Ã¾that each effort to bring the two countries Ã¾closer also results in some form of insecurity.
``The econo mies of the United States and Mexico are Ã¾stumbling toward a more complex interdepen dence. Each benefit includes a cost; each op portunity, an accident; and each advantage, a Ã¾new vulnerability.''
And, adds Ã¾Casta¤eda, Mexicans are ``torn'' between a de sire for closer U.S. ties and fears of losing their Ã¾identity.
``Opposition to Ã¾formal economic integration with the United Ã¾States is widespread in Mexico. Yet it rings increas-ingly hollow. Many Mexicans favor the chang es the economy is undergoing, but fear their Ã¾consequences; many support the premises of Ã¾economic integration but oppose the political Ã¾and cultural changes they may lead to.''
Undoubtedly, Ã¾Mexico will emerge from its current economic Ã¾travail. It will, by necessity, find a way to ex pand and develop and raise the standard of Ã¾living for its people.
But one won ders: What price must Mexico pay, and how Ã¾will it affect its North American Free Trade Agreement partners?