Back Slaps And Business

When the Mexican congress is in session, Gustavo Almaraz Montano and his colleagues spend many hours roaming the corridors of the imposing Legislative Palace in downtown Mexico City. Almaraz spent three years in Congress as a senator representing the state of Baja California Norte in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but he's got a different reason these days for slapping backs in his former stomping ground. Almaraz is one of Mexico's top lobbyists, and his roster of clients includes several leading Mexican business chambers and associations, as well as foreign companies like Sanyo, Panasonic and Kraft Foods de Mexico. One of his top priorities this fall is securing passage of a major piece of legislation that would legalize Mexico's largely unregulated gambling industry, a project he began working on eight years ago. He represents two private business confederations on the issue, which is opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Washington-style lobbying is a relatively new phenomenon in Mexico. Its birth can be traced back to the 1997 midterm elections, when the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party lost its majority in the lower chamber of Congress for the first time in decades. Prior to that, Congress had been a rubber-stamp body that approved any bill submitted by the country's all-powerful president. Companies and business associations largely ignored the legislative branch. When he first ran for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1988, Mexico's current president, Vicente Fox, famously asked a campaign aide, "What exactly does a congressman do?"

Few people would pose that question these days. With political power now more evenly divided between the opposition-controlled Congress and the executive branch, major foreign and Mexican companies regularly court committee chairmen and employ a relative handful of lobbying firms to influence legislation. "[We] are a very healthy symptom of Mexican democracy," says Almaraz, who jump-started the local lobbying industry when he founded the firm Grupo Estrategia Politica with two partners in 1996. "Without lobbyists, communication between business groups and the legislative branch would be more difficult."

Business groups would readily agree, given the crucial role that lobbyists now play in fending off potentially adverse bills. A case in point emerged at the end of 2002, when a small political party dominated by the owner of the country's largest generic pharmacy chain sponsored legislation that would have cut in half the 20-year patent on some medicines. The giants of Mexico's pharmaceutical industry asked two well-connected lobbying firms to approach key congressmen, and three months later a committee in the Chamber of Deputies voted to delete the offending provision. "That was very good for us as an industry," says Rafael Gual, executive director of the Mexican Association of Pharmaceutical Research Industries. "[The lobbyists] did a very good job."

Not everyone is comfortable with the growing links between big business and the Mexican Congress, however. Some left-wing congressmen have likened these new players to the prostitutes who sell their services on the streets of the Mexican capital. Senators from the country's three main political parties unveiled a proposal last month that would proscribe lobbying activities on the part of senators and congressmen and prohibit their acceptance of any income or other benefits from lobbyists.

Mexican lobbyists have one thing going for them--expertise. They tend to know a lot more about specific issues than the lawmakers they solicit. Unlike their counterparts in the United States, Mexican legislators don't have knowledgeable aides who can advise them on a variety of pending bills. And a ban on re-election inhibits them from acquiring an expert knowledge of complicated issues like the textile trade or intellectual-property rights.

Might lobbyists become an endangered species if a single Mexican political party manages to win both the presidency and control of Congress in the 2006 general elections? Not likely, says Maria Emilia Farias, a former congresswoman turned lobbyist. "The power and influence of political parties have noticeably diminished, and this shift gives us a chance to continue our work," she says. "We will have a market." Whatever their pros and cons, lobbyists have become a fact of life in Mexican politics.