"You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with Slim." - Jim Croce.
1902. A young man flees persecution in his home country and travels half way around the world to find a new home and a new way of life. How many times have we heard that one? But what if the young man was born in Lebanon? And what if the country he emigrated to wasn't the U.S., but Mexico?
Here begins the story of Carlos Slim.
Carlos Slim is the son of Julian Slim (Yusef Salim) Haddad, a Lebanese Christian (non-Muslim) who left his own country for a better (read: longer) life at the southern end of North America. Through hard work and shrewd investments - yes, Mexican investments - buying land in downtown Mexico City following the revolution of 1910, the elder Slim became a successful businessman.
And the son picked up right where his late father left off.
By the age of 26, Carlos Slim had an accumulated wealth of $400,000. He had married the future mother of his six children. Armed only with a degree in civil engineering and a big pile of money (Mexico in 1936 money), he began buying things. Lots of things. Businesses.
Skip ahead forty years.
Carlos Slim is rich.
Sorry, I may have understated that a bit. Carlos Slim is RICH!. Ridiculously, excessively, non-stop, stinking, light your cigars with million dollar bills RICH! So rich, that his cumulative wealth is estimated somewhere between thirty billion (Forbes) to FIFTY BILLION DOLLARS (Reuters; Fortune). So rich, that in 2006, he saw his wealth increase $2.2 million per hour (Belfast Telegraph).
Although the majority of his money has come from the telecommunications industry, Slim's holdings also include five insurance companies (valued at $1.5 billion), a Mexican retail chain (pretax annual profit, $500 million), a mining company, an auto parts manufacturing company, a bank, a tobacco company, oh, and another mining company. All told, Slim's companies account for almost one-half of the value of the Mexican stock exchange.
And before you think Carlos Slim's empire stops at the Mexican border, south-of-which 4 out of every 5 cell lines and 9 out of every 10 land lines are owned and operated by him, think again. Have you ever bought anything at Comp USA? The computer you're reading this article on, maybe? You just added to the man's not-so-slim portfolio. Designer purses? How about Saks Fifth Avenue where the slim pickins aren't so slim? Cha-ching! He owns them both. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, Carlos Slim just made $18,000.
Now before you jump from your Comp USA computer chair and shout, "Bastardo Codicioso!" (that's "Greedy Bastard!" en Español), hear what else this man, who one day soon will be the richest in the world, has done. In 2006, from endowments to and through his foundations, Carlos Slim donated $1.8 billion to charitable cause including giving away 95,000 bicycles to children of poor families to ride to their schools, 70,000 pairs of eyeglasses, and scholarships to 150,000 university students.
Similar donations over the last ten years start to read like a box score. They include 66 million bikes and 10 million pairs of contact lenses.
He even donated thousands of laptop computers to students, thus providing them access to the Internet. As early as next week, Carlos Slim plans to announce a new plan to donate upwards of 10 billion more dollars over the next four years to help fund Mexican health and education programs.
Add to it the fact that Slim's companies also employ 250,000 Mexicans.
So how come a large segment of his own people don't trust him?
Remember the laptops? When the students accessed the Internet, whose ISP did they use?
Do you own a PC or a Mac? If you own a Mac, do you trust Bill Gates? The very fact that you can own a Mac allows you to rest a little easier even while knowing that Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. Do you like Coke? No? Well then, at least there's Pepsi.
If you're a Mexican citizen, Carlos Slim is Microsoft, Apple, Coke, Pepsi and GM all rolled into one. In spite of all of Slim's charitable contributions, Mexico's working class just doesn't trust him.
In the last year, this distrust took the form of satire. A cartoon of Slim, depicted as a boxer lying flat on his back in the ring as he crushes a tiny opponent appeared in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma. In the drawing, telephone lines make up the ropes around the ring. Beneath the cartoon a caption reads, "Billion Dollar Baby".
Around the same time, in a segment on the Mexican TV show, "La Verdad Sea Dicha" ("The Truth Be Told"), a mocking news anchor shoves a pie into the mouth of a papier maché effigy of Slim.
But this attitude is also found in the academic community, where many find the practice of making giant public donations a questionable cover for something else. One professor, Denise Dresser of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, points out, "In Mexico, the perception is that public deeds are done for personal gain." In another interview Dresser adds that "a growing public consensus that Slim's attempts to block competition are hurting the Mexican economy." She goes on to say, "He wants to ward off those criticisms."
Dresser is not alone.
George Grayson is an expert on the subject of Latin American politics. For the last 38 years he's been a faculty member of The College of William and Mary. When interviewed by the L.A. Times on the subject of Mexico's lack of economic competition, Grayson said, "It is still full of public and private monopolies and bottlenecks."
In a country where the power of wealth is controlled by a relatively few tight-nit grupos, all of which together are known as "The 100 Families", the largest monopoly by far is controlled by Carlos Slim.
Once more from Dresser. "Mexico has a dense, intricate web of connections between the government and the business class. This ends up creating a government that doesn't defend the public interest... It is rather willing to help its friends, its allies and, in some cases, its business partners thrive at the expense of the Mexican people."
So, what of the monopoly created by Carlos Slim? If Slim has done this much for his own people, whether some trust him or not, shouldn't we rise from our Comp USA computer chairs and applaud?
Economists say that Mexico actually loses money due to the monopolies controlled by Slim and The 100 Families, causing Mexico's per capita income to fall to less than $7,000, leaving the country in poverty. Ask the 10 percent of the Mexican population that currently lives in the United States why they left home. And why, by working for the decidedly low wages generally available to "illegals" in this country, remittances sent back to Mexico by these workers totaled a record $20 billion in 2005.
So what will it take to, once and for all, bring Mexico to a place where its own citizens will want to return? Slim himself defines his own role in the process.
"My new job," says Carlos Slim, "is to focus on the development and employment of Latin America."
If he means employ at a working wage commensurate with the rest of Norte America, he doesn't say.
So what more will it take for Slim and, for that matter, the rest of the wealthiest of Mexico's power brokers to satisfy the skepticism of the Mexican working class that distrusts him so much?
Denise Dresser calls it a wish list. One that, "every Mexican committed to his country would ask from Santa Claus." And that is?
"The day that you (Slim) give 80 percent of your personal fortune to an unselfish cause is the day that I will become your champion."
Oh. Is that all.
Early next week, Carlos Slim plans to unveil another expansion of his vast charitable, educational and business infrastructural plan to the world.
Will it satisfy his biggest critics?
I guess we'll see it in the funny pages.
Copyright © 2007 Bill Friday