Part one of the adventures of Carlos Slim Helu here.
Sadly, there is nowhere for Slim [as he prefers to be known] to escape to. Like his predecessor, Bill Gates of Microsoft, he will learn that the title is all trouble.
From now on he will be a symbol of the wretchedness of excess, a measure of all the heart-rending inequalities of the world, and a sitting duck for Thoreau’s observation that philanthropy is the only virtue mankind knows how to appreciate.
Gates founded a software company. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that Slim owns an entire country.
Let’s take your average Jose, a working stiff with a house and a family to support, and see how his pesos pour like the water from a Plaza Zocalo fountain into Slim’s appreciative paws.
Our man wakes up in the morning swaddled in bedding from one of Slim’s department stores, breakfasts on pastries from his bakery chain, drives to work on roads built by his construction company in a car covered by his insurance company; spends the day using phones and internet services provided by Slim’s near-monopolistic telecoms division, and after supper in one of the tycoon’s innumerable chain cantinas goes home to watch the news on a TV channel owned by… guess who?
Poor Jose, like most of his fellow citizens he isn’t sure what to make of the big enchilada.
On the one hand, it can be considered a a matter of national pride that Mexico, a country with a per-capita GDP only slightly above that of Equatorial Guinea, has produced the world’s most successful businessman.
On the other, there has long been a suspicion of something shady about Slim; a sense that such wealth, power and ubiquity can only have been built through the skilled manipulation of a notoriously corrupt establishment.
Yeah, see? I can’t see Bill Gates in that role.
And there is something else. A problematic issue that, to some extent, draws both lines of thought together.
Slim isn’t – at least in the eyes of many Mexicans – a proper Mexican at all. He was born to Lebanese immigrant parents who arrived in the early 20th century with a wave of Levantine Christians fleeing the Ottoman Empire.
Now, who woulda thunk that?
The Mexican-Lebanese community now numbers around 400,000 but punches way above its weight in commerce, and its success in a country where millions struggle to make it through the day has not gone unresented.
Seems to me they do the same here. Remarkable how unresented they are.
Slim argues that running good businesses and helping economies to grow does more to help the poor than charitable donations. “I think you accomplish more by fixing things that aren’t working than by giving,” he says.
While this plays well to his carefully crafted I’m-no-softie image, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
In recent years he has been quietly but dramatically increasing his charitable activities, funding, among other things, the supply of bicycles to help rural children get to school, and a programme to provide medical care for poor families.
One of his recent ideas was to site scores of hospitals close to the US border, to which Mexican migrant workers could travel for cheap operations. Slim, naturally, would award himself the building contract.
Hmmmm. Quietly charitable? Definitely not an American role.