Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, inaugurated to a new sexenio last month, is doing everything in his administration’s power to abate a problem that affects close to 52 million poverty-stricken Mexicans: hunger.
Well before becoming president, Peña Nieto promised mothers, children and the poorest of communities that he would work to end poverty, inequality and hunger. During his inaugural speech on December 2, he issued an executive order directing his new social development secretary to implement a program to eradicate hunger across the country. Some 50 days later, he traveled to Las Margaritas, Chiapas, to unveil an ambitious national plan known as La Cruzada Nacional contra el Hambre (National Crusade against Hunger).
The program coordinates the ministries for social development, education and defense to work in 400 of the poorest municipalities across Mexico to provide wholesome nutrition, eradicate childhood malnutrition, educate farmers, minimize post-harvest losses, and implement community hunger eradication programs.
Peña Nieto’s order also creates the Sistema Nacional contra el Hambre (National System against Hunger), which serves as the legal, administrative and bureaucratic manual for dialogue, agreements and action between government agencies, states and municipalities. The program and executive order, however, are not the first to appear in a country which has historically tolerated hunger amongst the ranks. Progressive programs from different presidents and land reforms have given Indigenous and disadvantaged groups crops and food, but a large portion of the population remains unimpacted by such efforts.
The Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social (National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy—Coneval) estimates 47 percent of Mexico's 112 million citizens live in poverty, an increase of four million as consequence of higher food prices resulting from the global Great Recession. An additional 11 million, or 10 percent of the population, live in extreme poverty and some 8,500 die every year as a result of malnutrition.
The president’s new program is not embraced by all, however. Jesús Zambrano, an opposition politician of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) says the entire proposal is another photo-op for Peña Nieto. Southern guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos calls it a “handout” and another program for “thieves” designed to line the pockets of mayors, governors, the president and their middlemen. And other notable experts claim Peña Nieto is using the program to ensure governability, much like his predecessor Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) instituted the Programa Nacional de Solidaridad (National Solidarity Program) to address the needs of angry segments of society who lived in extreme poverty and threatened to destabilize his government.
The critics are correct to an extent. The launch of the program certainly had all the trimmings of a photo-op with 10,000 guests under a huge, white tent for the unveiling. The first lady, entire cabinet and handful of governors stood before national media to announce the program, and Peña Nieto pledged that the program will have a direct impact on 7.2 million of Mexico’s most underprivileged.
One certainly hopes the president’s efforts have success tantamount to those exerted by former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), with Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) as cases in point that brought millions out of poverty. In one year’s time, we will be able to determine whether the president’s new program is indeed an innovative social program that reengineers government policy to aid in the elimination of hunger—or whether the president reacted to keen political reflexes to score points with the poor and the international community. For the sake of the many poor and depressed in Mexico, we all wish the former to be true.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.