Sunday, June 21, 2009

When "privatize or perish" becomes privatize and perish

John Ross:
Words are powerless to describe the unspeakable horror that engulfed the working class "Y" colony in the northern Mexican desert city of Hermosillo June 5th when a grubby industrial warehouse that had been rented out as a day care center burst into flames trapping over 100 toddlers inside.

With the emergency exits blocked, no fire extinguishers on the premises, and defective smoke and fire alarms, neighbors frantically fought to rescue their children. One brave young man repeatedly slammed his pick-up into the front wall to open an escape hatch - he was later cited for inflicting property damage. 57 youngsters were carried out of the ABC Day Care Center alive. 41 were not, most of them burned beyond recognition in their cribs and cots. 26 of the children rescued remain hospitalized in grave condition - five more have since died. In one heartbreaking incident, a surviving child's face was so badly disfigured that her parents did not recognize her and she was given to another family whose own child had burned up in the conflagration.

Preliminary investigation into the tragedy point to gross negligence by the authorities, the collusion of federal and Sonora state government officials, and influence trafficking on the part of the three listed owners, one of whom is a cousin of Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexican president Felipe Calderon.

The privatization of government day care centers under Calderon and his right-wing predecessor Vicente Fox graphically underscores how neo-liberalism dilutes safety standards and sacrifices children's lives to boost profit margins.


The ABC Day Care Center is one of more than 1500 such facilities covering 223,000 children that have been privatized by the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS) since 2000 - the IMSS continues to run 142 day care centers on its own. Under the privatization schema, the yearly cost per child was reduced from 3800 pesos to 2100 with a subsequent deterioration in services - food quality, medical attention, and educational programs as well as safety standards all declined, according to Dr. Gustavo Leal, an investigator at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) in Mexico City and columnist for the national daily La Jornada who specializes in the IMSS.

In Sonora, 79 out of 87 government day care centers have been sold off, many to for-profit business interests with ample political clout - at least 13 owners have family ties with Governor Bours revealed an independent probe by the investigative unit of the national daily El Universal. State and federal authorities have yet to disclose a full list of those who hold the concessions.

Bottom line investment in infrastructure may well explain the inappropriateness of the site selected for the ABC Day Care Center - a factory warehouse (the space had previously been occupied by a clothing maquiladora) on the corner of Railroad and Mechanics Avenue in an industrial section of the Sonoran capital. The nursery fronted a gasoline station and was flanked by a tire factory yet inspectors repeatedly certified the building for use as a day care center.


Despite the vehement rejection of neo-liberalism by Latin American voters in at least a dozen countries and the installation of social democrat presidents who defend the responsibility of the state in providing social services for their citizens, Mexico continues down the primrose path to neoliberal disaster. The next social institution up for privatization here is the beleaguered prison system, an inferno of violence and corruption that has been hopelessly overcrowded by the incarceration of poor people caught up in Calderon's never-ending War on Drugs.

The construction of 12 new private prisons will be financed by Interacciones Bank, the property of Carlos Hank Rhon, scion of the late Carlos Hank Gonzalez, the boss of all bosses during much of the PRI's seven-decade chokehold on power - as Secretary of Agriculture under Salinas, Hank Gonzalez was the go-to guy for the privatization of the agrarian sector during the run-up to NAFTA.

Once the prisons are built, they reportedly will be operated by the Florida-based GEO Corporation (formerly Wackenhut), the big player in the U.S. private prison industry in which Bush vice-president Dick Cheney's Vanguard Group is said to be heavily invested - arrest orders for Cheney were issued in 2008 by a south Texas Grand Jury because of his alleged involvement in a GEO-run detention facility where Mexicans being held for deportation were brutalized.

Just as the privatization of prisons has earned GEO and Cheney a tidy fortune, the privatization of Mexican day care centers has meant big-time profits for the owners of the now defunct ABC who took in 400,000 pesos a month before their business burnt down, about a half million Yanqui dollars annually.

But the "benefits" of neo-liberalism are not limited to the private sector. Even the parents who gave their children to Gomez del Campo and her partners to be warehoused under such life-threatening conditions at the ABC "day care" have "benefited" by the neo-liberal machinations. Last week, the Calderon government offered them free funerals for their dead children.

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