MONTERREY, Mexico—Ricardo Gonzalez earns about $14,000, twice Mexico's per capita income, though he's hardly a wealthy man. His economic fate, however, is tied to the well-off who buy Jaguars from him at a two-car showroom on the third floor of a tony mall in this northern Mexican city.
On Sunday, he'll vote for the pro-business candidate for president, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, or PAN in its Spanish initials.
Hundreds of miles away in the dusty town of Francisco I. Madero, an hour east of Mexico City, Lucina Rodriguez Zuniga lives on the $5 a day she makes from her two-acre corn and dairy farm. A tank of propane that used to cost a little less than $3 now goes for about $15. The price of tortillas, a peasant staple, also has risen fivefold.
She'll vote, she said, for leftist firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Lopez Obrador's slogan: "First, the poor."
"Our money isn't what it used to be," she complained.
The most recent polls show Calderon and Lopez Obrador in a statistical dead heat as Mexicans go to the polls in one of the most contentious presidential races in modern Mexican history. No matter who wins, pollsters are certain of one thing: Calderon will carry Mexico's wealthy north, while Lopez Obrador will dominate the impoverished south.
So stark is the geographic difference that a recent map of likely voting patterns in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma had just two colors, blue for states Calderon was likely to carry and orange for those likely to go to Lopez Obrador. Mexico's northern half was all blue, its southern half unbroken orange.
Sunday's election is a tale of two Mexicos: a wealthy north and a poor south that are on a collision course.
Mexico long has been known as a land of contrasts: fabulously wealthy neighborhoods and humble huts, modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers in sprawling cities and rural towns populated by women and children whose able-bodied husbands and fathers have gone to work in the United States.
But no contrast seems so great as the economic—and now political—one that splits this country in two.
In the south, annual per-capita income has remained stagnant. In the three poorest southern states—Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca—the average per-capita income in 2002 was $3,845, United Nations figures show.
In the three richest northern states—Chihuahua, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon—that number was $12,340.
For Americans, the difference has become most apparent at the border. In past decades, emigration was largely from central farm states and was temporary, with undocumented workers seeking to earn dollars to start businesses or build homes back in Mexico.
Now U.S. Border Patrol processing centers in California, Arizona and Texas are jammed with people from Mexico's south—dark-skinned Indian or mixed-raced peasant farmers. Many barely speak Spanish, let alone English.
There's no one explanation for why Mexico's north has prospered while its south has floundered. It's a phenomenon that dates back to the Spanish conquest.
Part of it may be a matter of geography. Mexico's north abuts the United States and many of its residents travel easily there for school and pleasure.
Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo Leon, is Mexico's wealthiest city and home to a variety of world-class businesses—Cementos Mexicanos, the world's largest cement company, is based there. Top corporate managers in the north almost universally boast graduate degrees from the Harvard Business School or the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School.
Nuevo Leon accounts for just 4 percent of Mexico's population, but 8 percent of its economy.
Another part may be politics. Mexico's south is still run largely by old-guard members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, a party whose candidates had won the presidency for seven decades until Vicente Fox of the PAN won in 2000. Mexican newspapers are rife with accounts of fraud and political malfeasance in old-guard PRI states such as Puebla and Oaxaca.
And part may be tied to education. The southern states have some of the lowest education rates in Mexico, where the adult literacy rate is officially 91 percent. In southernmost Chiapas, that rate is 78 percent, meaning 1 of every 5 adults there cannot read. That low rate also may be an indication of southern Mexico's heavily indigenous population, many of whom speak only an Indian language.
Residents of the wealthy north think they know what the difference is.
"Because we work. People in the south are used to having the government give them everything," said David Mata Salazar, a graphic designer in Monterrey's wealthy San Pedro Garza Garcia suburb who'll vote for Calderon. "We have a strong influence from the United States."
Northerners are attracted to Calderon's promise to maintain a decade of economic policies that have kept inflation to below U.S. levels and the peso's value steady. Low inflation and currency stability have preserved their purchasing power.
Southerners are drawn to Lopez Obrador's pledge to spend more on social programs while pushing for lower fuel prices and no taxes on medicine.
"They say they're going to lower the price of propane and gasoline and build refineries. I think that would improve Mexico," said Rodriguez, of the town of Francisco I. Madero.
In Monterrey, Lopez Obrador's promises raise fears that expanded social welfare will mean fewer government resources for wealthier states and more taxes on business or both.
"The businessmen I talk with have enormous concern about what he might do," said Mauricio Fernandez Garza, a former PAN mayor of San Pedro Garza and former federal senator. "That's the big question: how he'll do what he's said."
While the ideological split between north and south is important, the decisive factor Sunday may prove to be the densely populated center of Mexico—Mexico City and the sprawling state of Mexico, which abuts it. Central Mexico is home to the vast majority of middle-class Mexicans and 22 percent of the country's population.
In March, after numerous campaign visits by Lopez Obrador, the PRD gained a plurality in the state of Mexico's legislature and won the coveted municipality of Ecatepec, home to more than a million voters. That's likely to boost Lopez Obrador, who was mayor of Mexico City, the hemisphere's most populous metropolis.
But many central Mexicans have seen their lives made easier by a stable economy and low inflation rate that have characterized the presidency of Fox, a PAN member who must leave office in December. The fear of falling behind economically brings many voters into Calderon's camp.
Pamela Starr, a Mexico expert with the Eurasia Group, which analyzes investment risk for businesses, said that may ease the deep division between north and south and rich and poor.
"At the core, Mexico is a middle-class country, and not just in economic terms, but cultural terms. The vast majority see themselves as middle class," she said.
(Hall reported from Monterrey, Root from Francisco I. Madero.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map