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Can Lopez Obrador save Mexico’s south?

The Mayan Train would boost an already thriving tourism industry, but the 3 southern-most states need direct aid from the first southern president since 1911

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For all the poverty in Yucatan, three states further south have seemingly intractable problems that pose a challenge to a president who calls himself a southerner.

Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero should no longer be dismissed as a burden on national development, writes Rodrigo Aguilera, a Mexican-born London-based economist.

Southern Mexico has long been emblematic of the country’s developmental divide, Aguilera writes in the London School of Economics and Political Science blog. The region has the highest poverty rates, the most severe infrastructure deficiencies, and the lowest educational outcomes in the country.

President Andres Manual Lopez Obrador describes himself as a southerner, the first since Oaxacan strongman Porfirio Díaz, whose reign ended in 1911.

By “the south,” analysts usually refer to the three states that usually find themselves at the bottom of any socio-economic ranking: the “South-3” of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca.

The inclusion of the Yucatan Peninsula — with the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan — is not universally accepted, however. Nor is it with neighboring states like Michoacan, Puebla and Tabasco.

The latter is the home state of the President Lopez Obrador.

According to CONEVAL, 71.5 percent of the South-3 region live in poverty, compared to the national rate of 43.6 percent. Over a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty, more than three times the national average.

The definition of the south can be expanded to include three contiguous states with low socio-economic indicators: Michoacán, Puebla and Veracruz.

Doing that ropes in a quarter of the country’s total population, and 40 percent of Mexico’s poor, and almost 60 percent of its extreme poor.

Why then is the Yucatan Peninsula’s three states not included in this expanded definition of the south? Because contrary to popular perception, the peninsula itself is not doing that badly, says Aguilera.

On the Yucatan Peninsula, both poverty and extreme poverty rates are lower than the national average, the latter being just 5.6 percent across the three states. According to the 2012 UN’s Human Development Index, Yucatan’s HDI was 0.747, in line with the national average, whereas the South-3 has a score of just 0.676. Excluding Campeche, whose GDP is grossly overstated because of Pemex oil revenues, the remaining two states of the Peninsula have levels of GDP per capita that are not much worse than the national average.

The south-3 region has a larger indigenous population with larger language barriers. Around a quarter of the population speaks an indigenous language, a rate similar to Yucatan’s. But the difference is how many people don’t speak Spanish. In South-3, 22.1 percent don’t, compared to just 4 percent in Yucatan.

But the main indigenous language in Yucatan is the Yucatec branch of Mayan. In contrast, there are five main indigenous language groups in Chiapas, of which the main two, Tzotzil and Tzeltal, are mutually unintelligible despite both stemming from Mayan.

Oaxaca has no less than 16 main language groups. That’s great for cultural diversity, but discouraging to anyone hoping to unite the region’s poor in the collective interest.

Topography is another factor. Three major mountain ranges further isolates small communities in a region that is largely rural.

And the South-6 region has had a disproportionate amount of bad leadership, writes the economist. Javier Duarte of Veracruz has been incarcerated after fleeing the country to escape corruption charges; Rafael Moreno Valle of Puebla was accused of repression against his political opponents and rigging the 2018 state election in favor of his wife (both died in a helicopter crash early this year); and Manuel Velasco of Chiapas ended his controversial term in 2018 as the most unpopular governor in the country.

“As Mexico’s first southern president in decades, and one that has placed his socio-economic agenda front and center, we might expect the south to have a lot to gain under López Obrador,” says Aguilera. “Unfortunately, his vision for the south does not appear to be fully grounded in the region’s economic reality.”


Rodrigo Aguilera has worked as an international economist for Chatham House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, where he was the lead analyst for Mexico from 2012 to 2017.

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