Riding in that Stutz Bearcat, Slim

“… and the ladies, they rolled their eyes …”

Adding to my personal Carlos Slim dossier this Newsweek Latin America hagiography from the archived ephemera files on the man with the plan to own all the channels from Oiapoque to Chuí, written, we are told, by a Newsweek correspondent in El Salvador.

On the secular usage of the term “hagiography”:

Critics of historian (and John F. Kennedy associate) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. often call him a “Kennedy hagiographer.”

Yes, and he [John Foster Dulles] wrote a rather hagiographical bio of the tragic, but with no one but himself to blame, IMHO — “our fault lies not in our stars, dear Brutus, but in ourselves, that we are underlings “– Carlos Lacerda as well, as I recall.

[Correction: Wrong. The Lacerda hagiographer was mafia-consorting spymaster John Foster Dulles.]

It is astonishing to me how closely the salvadorenha — not to be confused with a soteropolitana, by the way, just as Sp. ‘flaco’ and PT-Br ‘fraco’ are false cognates — adheres to the time-honored, hidebound 60th and Av. of the Americas formula for a fawning, access-journalism puff piece of the most banal garden variety.

Brazilians will recognize it as a hardy variant of journalistic Maria-sem-vergonha.

Da em qualquer lugar.

How many clichés can we pack into a handful of laudas or glossy column inches, with plenty of room left over for the fashion photography?

The winner gets free tickets to the Letterman show, down the block, or the Rocky Horror revival starring Dick Cavett.

Clichés ranging from “vast business empire” to “having conquered the world, the man could be forgiven for harboring thoughts of retirement, but …”

You’ve read a million of these things, and they all follow the same formula, don’t they?

They are the Harlequin Romances of political and business journalism.

Institutional Investor, as Gary Weiss points out, is an international grandmaster at this sort of thing. About which I, too, have personal anecdotes.

I translate and will track down the exact run date in a sec, but note the classic Harlequin Romance “narrative lede” exordium:

… we fade in, and in the end circle back to, the great man in his humanist trophy room, “comparing his own vocation for [monopoly-creation and -maintenance in partnership with like-minded benefactors of the poor and unwashed] and humane, sustainable economic development to that of the great masters he collects.” …

Please. I have read Museum, Inc. — and Minima Moralia, for that matter — you know.

Sniping side-comments from the peanut gallery in boldface; translation in italics.

In his private gallery, adorned with masterpieces by Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, Carlos Slim tells the assembled company that existing models of economic development have broken Latin America “and the moment has come to begin thinking of a new development paradigm for nations in the regions, which are inefficient and weighed down with debt.”. “Since we began to imply the model imposed by the IMF, we in Mexico have under gone two decades of zero per capita crowth “, the richest man in Latin America told Newsweek in an exclusive interview this month. “This has not been good for our nations, and shows that something is deeply wrong.”

Slim, 63, is thinking big at the moment. In July he caused a outcry by publicly exhorting Vicente Fox to invest in more infrastructure projects and worry less about inflation and budget surpluses.

Which, judging from the meatheaded public discussion of the “GDP growth” meme in the late Brazilian general election debates, is presumably what he is doing in Brazil at the moment as well — where the central bank, run by former Bank Boston global CEO Henrique Meirelles, is getting it in the neck from both sides.

A sign, bossman Lula says, that he must be doing something right.

Which, regardless of who is right — I have not the foggiest idea — is still a more coherent talking point than the Alckministas could muster on the subject, with their “you got that great idea from FHC!” vying with their equally vehement “maybe it was not such a great idea after all …”

But you be the judge of that. I was consistently hung over in that 8:00 a.m. macroecon lecture way back in the day.

And besides, those were allegedly different times, Jim.

Slim has also become a very good friend of the leftist candidate from Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, currently favored to succeed Fox in the 2006 presidential elections. The industrialist is anxious to analyze new ideas with the potential for generating the prosperity and jobs needed to create a stable Latin America. “One cannot wait to die before leaving one’s legacy”, Slim told “Newsweek”. “One must do all one can while one is alive.”

Lopez Obrador had a lot of funky friends when it looked like he might win. Like Ricardo Rocha of TV Azteca. As soon as it became evident that he would not be permitted to win, whither the funky friends? That is a story that has yet to find the James Michener it deserves.

This new role as an activist and a more public figure is a bit strange for this man they call simply “The Engineer”. When he was amassing a fortune of $7.4 billion in the 1980s and 1990s, Slim kept a low profile, quietly cultivating relationships with the Mexican political establishment. “Slim was kind of an enigmatic figure and showed himself only rarely”, says a magazine editor from Mexico City [whom Newseek does not identify by name why? Did they need a quote and call up a colleague at a DF affiliated publication? What part of “the fullest possible attribution, with the fullest possible explanation to the reader of why a rare exception to that rule was granteddid we have trouble understanding when first looking into AP’s Manual?]

But in the last few months the magnate has held press conferences and given a number of speeches to promote his plans for revitalizing the historic downtown of Mexico City, where he himself grew up. He even invited Bill Clinton to be the keynote speaker at a scholarship awards ceremony sponsored by the Telmex Foundation.

Perhaps he can afford the luxury of spending more time on his hobbies now that his three children, along with a pair of grand children, have taken over most of the work of maintaining his vast empire.

Now now for the hoariest cliché of all: the Horatio Alger+family-values meme redux:

Slim started his business career at 8, when his father, Julián, asked him to help out in the Orient Star, the family store named in honor of the family’s Middle Eastern roots [It more specifically has Maronite overtones, does it not? Or am I thinking of stella maris?]

After taking a degree in civil engineering, at UNAM, he inherited some significant capital assets from his parents and made a series of daring investments at the beginning of the 1980s. Slim defied conventional wisdom by embarking on a frenzy of acquisitions; he had soon acquired Mexico’s largest tobacco company, a profitable auto parts factory, and Sanborns, the popular restaurant and gift shop chain. “They were cheap”, is all he says on the subject.

An Uzi-like rajada of business-journalism clichés there.

He made his killing in 1990, when Carlos Salinas de Gortari put the state telephone monopoly up for sale.

A consortium led by Slim paid $1.760 billion for Telmex, an extraordinarily low price that brought shouts of protest from the leftist opposition of the time. [It is absolutely indispensable to point out that the people who got all hot under the collar about the egregious under-valuation of capital assets, with alleged associated skullduggeries pursuant to same, regarding which for some reason no public accounting exists that could lay those charges to rest, were “leftists.” See also l’Affaire Eletropaulo, et al. up the wazoo, here in Sampa.]

Slim and his partners weathered the storm, however, and the company now has a market cap of some $20 billion. Telmex, far and away Mexico’s largest private company, is the jewel in the crown of a business empire that employees more than 250,000 workers and represents more than 40% of the total capitalization of the BVM. América Móvil, the wireless phone operator that Slim spun out of Telmex, used acquisitions to become the largest cellular operator in all of Latin America.

Foreign competitors that have tried to break Slim’s hold on the Mexican market have gone home with their tails between their legs [literally “exited in defeat,” but I think it should count to the rising cliché-count].

[NBC-Telemundo know exactly how that feels, by the way.]

Telmex still controls 90% of fixed telephone lines in Mexico. Two of its competitors, in one of which AT&T has a 49% stake, the other 45% controlled by Worldcom, have serious financial problems.

And in the area of wireless telephony, Verizon and Vodafone have sold their shares in cellular provider Iusacell, which exited the Mexican market. Each firm lost more than $1 billion on its Mexican investment.

The rates paid by consumers in Mexico continue to be double those in the States, and according to a report from Merrill Lynch, Telmex’s so-called “connection fees,” which it charges other providers (both wireless and fixed) to access its network, are some of the highest in the world. (In 2002, they made up 14% of Telmex revenues.)

NB, gringo net neutrality fence-sitters — the next poor clueless bastard who finds himself living in a banana republic could well be you.

Okay, so, that was a good, solid informative graf, to be sure, even if buried on an obscure jump page somewhere in the middle of all the dazzling Citizen Chic-Kanery.

For some time now, Slim and his children have been paying more attention to investment opportunities in the United States. In the last several years, the family bought stock in Philip Morris (now called Altria) — [Billionaire Latin-American crooks peddling deadly addictive substances to our children! We ought to declare a, a, hell, let’s call it, metaphorically speaking, a war on that sort of thing!] OfficeMax and Saks Incorporated. In 1999, Telmex took a majority stake in a prepaid wireless communications company in Miami, called TOPPTelecom (TT), for $57.5 million.

Carso Grupo Telecom (CGT), Slim’s telecom group, targets low-income consumers, mostly U.S. Hispanics, who have very little access to credit [or cash money, for that matter]. The family also partnered with Bill Gates to create a successful Internet portal for Hispanics called T1MSN.

“Successful Internet portal:” No traffic breakout available on Alexa for the subdomain mx.msnusers.com, it seems. Not that I understand Alexa very well. But still …

But not all of Slim’s U.S. ventures were successful. His acquistion of tech retailer CompUSA for $800 million came just as the Internet bubble was starting to burst. Carso is trying to revive the business at the moment.

Slim also wants to buy Circuit City, the U.S. home electronics chain, but some analysts think he would do well to limit himself to Latin American markets. “There are tons of sellers and very few buyers in Latin America. This should enable Slim to do what he does best — buy cheap shares”, says Whitney Johnson, of Merrill Lynch. “Any investor looking for exposure to telcom can find better opportunities elsewhere — in Slim’s case, in his own back yard.”

Finally, an on-the-record source worth hearing from — with the usual caveats about sector analysts, but at least I feel that I have an adequately clear idea of what those caveats are — or how to find out about them, at least, given a name and an institutional affiliation that has appeared on published research that I can go back and read — and how to apply them. Not a complete waste of time, that comment. Thank you. But what does Goldman Sachs guy think, by the way?

Approaching his golden years [yes, literally translated from the Spanish, that cliché of clichés, which seems to have been literally translated into the Spanish from the English in the first place], Carlos Slim seems less obsessed now with profits and losses than he once was. The death in 1999 of Soumaya Domit, his wife of 32 years, left him a widower, and now Slim spends every Monday night at a family dinner with his six sons and their families.

Just like Little House on the Prairie. Heartwarming. 

The weight of his years and an intense, but stoically endured, bereavement have left the old warrior sadder but wiser, taking solace in the bosom of his family but also starting to view the world more sub specie aeternitatis. I have read Autumn of the Patriarch, you know …

Stay tuned for the next gripping episode of Páginas da Vida, here on the Globo Network

At the same time, he is more engaged in the big picture as well. “We need to get together to fight poverty”, Slim argues. “It is high to time to discard the stabilization model for a model that promotes development and job creation.”

Bearing that in mind, perhaps Slim and the Mexican content, López Obrador, are not such strange bedfellows after all. [Is Lopez Obrador still getting it from his newfound asshole buddy Slim? Last I heard, and I could be wrong, the “parallel government” was not accepting corporate donations. Which is an interesting story in itself, the way they are financing themselves.]

The businessman accepted an invitation from the center-left [the left you can do business with without getting your name dragged through the mud is “the center-left” … but see also our documentation of the “López Obrador has gay sex and mind-control orgies with Hugo Chávez” meme] candidate to lead a commision in charge of overseeing the renovation of downtown Mexico City.

What’s the guy’s real estate portfolio look like these days, by the way?

Officially, Slim denies having political ambitions or secret party loyalties. “I don’t belong to a political party. I give money to any candidate who asks me for it, because I unconditionally support the democratic process”, he says.

Please explain why you qualified that statement with the adverb “officially.” Thank you. –Ed.

As a man nearly died six years ago during a heart surgery, and who does not need to work another day in his life, Slim might be forgven for thinking about retirement now and then.

But he inists that he feels the same calling that inspired the 19th-century masters whose works he avidly collects [and outbids insanely extravagant Japanese zaibatsu godfathers for, evidently] . “You cannot ask a painter to retire once he has painted a given number of painting”, says “The Engineer.”. “It’s his calling, and for me, working is not just a social and business responsibility, but also an emotional need.”

Nice rounding out of the period, taking us back to the theatrical set-piece and overarching metaphor we began with.

If he continues to the feel that way, Carlos Slim will doubtless play a crucial role in regional affairs for years to come.

If you ever get a chance to see Beyond Citizen Kane, BBC4’s documentary on Roberto Marinho of the Organizações Globo here in Brazil — and still a semi-clandestine viewing experience here, thanks to a judicial gag order obtained by the media group’s “lawyers with gel in their hair” — you will hear a very interesting alternative theory on guys like this.

Not, this theory goes, and as the lunkheaded official WSJ Editorial Board/Fox NEWS Manichaean allegory will insist, that people like this have fixed ideological agendas and commitments of their own, as is often said of Soros, but that they have a highly pragmatic, Kissingerian “vocation for power.”

They will bet the farm on the political flavor of the month if they really think that flavor has a chance of achieving critical mindshare, in a calculated bid not to be cut out of their lion’s share of the political spoils.

It’s called “political risk management,” and it is a fascinating subject.

See also Civita is Civil with the Casa Civil.

The most vidid example, I think, being that scene in Andres Oppenheimer’s superb memoir of the arrival of the Zedillo era — “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born” — Bordering on Chaos, in which the head of the Televisa monopoly in Mexico describes his “vast business empire” as an enterprise “entirely at the service of the President of the Federal Republic of Mexico.”

Whoever that may be — a greasy, bordello- and TV station-owning old-school PRIista or yet another Opus Dei- and Harvard-educated technocratic choir-boy, with gel in his hair, from the party of PANe et Circensis — albeit one who just announced a cabinet jam-packed with prime examples of the first category.

Let he who is without sin yada yada yada …

A general editorial note here to the fine folks at Newsweek, from a pointed former reader turned non-reader:

I really think an “exclusive interview” ought to be published in Q&A format, like this excellent interview from Wharton em Portuguex with a very Slimlike media monopolist dba a champion of democracy down here in Brazil

For one thing, that format helps convince the reader that the interviewer actually formulated and posed questions — which the subject either answered or avoided, let the reader be the judge — rather than simply adding some “narrative journalistic” touches to the man’s rote recitation of his own official PR hagiography.

Carlos Slim, Memphis Slim, Slim Whitman and the legendary for damned good reason Hank Williams and Luiz “O Baião” Gonzaga of Mexicali, Flaco Jiménez (above): no relation


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