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Mexico sets ‘crusade’ to ease rural poverty, but will it work?

Maria Suarez Bonilla dwells in a thatched-roof hut with a dirt floor and no running water. She hopes one day to have a few pesos to build an outhouse.

“We just use a hole in the ground now,” Suarez Bonilla told social workers quizzing her about the impoverished conditions of her family.

She answered questions from her perch on a rock, too listless to swat away the teeming flies, resting an infected leg stretched in front of her.

President Enrique Pena Nieto is trying to end such conditions of destitution with the launch of the National Crusade against Hunger. His government is channeling funds to 80 of the most impoverished of the nation’s 2,445 municipalities (akin to American counties) as the first stage of the crusade gets off the ground.

In a speech last month, Pena Nieto acknowledged that a government agency that measures poverty said 7.5 million Mexicans endure hunger.

“We neither like this nor take pride in this. But we must acknowledge this condition in order to form a common front and really revert (it),” Pena Nieto said.

Tlaxcala, in Mexico’s central region, is the smallest of its 31 states and does not have as dire problems with poverty as heavily indigenous Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero on the Pacific coast or even neighboring Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Yet at least three of its municipalities are among those targeted in the crusade.

In a smattering of its villages, signs of hunger are evident.

“I’ve seen minors who are 10 or 12 years old and who have the height and weight of children 6 to 8 (years old),” said Anabell Avalos Zempoalteca, the top official in Tlaxcala of the Secretariat of Social Development, the Cabinet department coordinating efforts from nearly two dozen agencies into the crusade.

Avalos said case workers have nearly finished going door to door in the three municipalities in her state that are the first to get help under the program “to see which families require flooring, roofing, bathrooms, kitchens (and) hearths.”

Already, they’ve opened five new dispensaries for subsidized fortified milk for families of young children and pregnant women, she said.

Battles to ease poverty have taken place in different forms around the hemisphere, including former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign of social programs beginning in 1964 dubbed the “war on poverty.”

Mexico started in the late 1980s providing the poor with low-cost foodstuffs – or more recently, cash. The programs have reaped applause and scorn over the years, easing poverty but also at times getting hijacked for political ends or plundered by corruption.

During the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), his brother Raul occupied several top posts in the state food distribution company, Conasupo. He later went to jail amid charges he siphoned off millions of dollars.

While Mexico has seen its middle class swell in recent years, poverty remains entrenched. The government agency tasked with measuring poverty last month said that 45.5 percent of Mexico’s 117.3 million people live in poverty, or 53.3 million people.

Pena Nieto’s National Crusade against Hunger has come under criticism. Some say it does too little to promote small-scale agriculture, allowing soaring food imports to satisfy some 60 percent of the nation’s needs and strangling subsistence farmers. Others decry it as an imitation of a Brazilian program called Zero Hunger.

“Honestly, it’s very sad that they just copied something from Brazil,” said Oliver Azuara, a University of Chicago-trained economist who has evaluated the Mexican program and works in Washington for the Inter-American Development Bank.

“The main failure of this general approach is that you don’t provide the money to those most in need,” he said. “The money goes to the local bosses.”

Azuara said the program should not funnel aid to Mexicans living on poor agricultural land, where they suffer from periodic poor harvests because of frosts and erratic rainfall. Rather, he said, the state should encourage them to move to cities where there are jobs.

In the poorest rural areas, where farmers usually only coax enough crops out of the soil for subsistence, poor families find no alternative to tilling fields.

“The biggest unfulfilled need we have around here is for jobs,” said Eduarda Espinoza Hernandez, an illiterate mother of six in the village of Temalacayuca. “We need a factory or something so that members of my family can work.”

She takes a visitor from a tin-roofed shed that contains her hearth to the two-room home, and points to holes in the corrugated roof that allow water to leak in.

Her extended family’s conditions are slowly improving. Her daughter-in-law, Alicia Gallegos, ushers a visitor into a new makeshift greenhouse built with state assistance. It contains neatly tended rows of tomatoes and jalapeno peppers.

Gallegos pulls a chili pepper from a shrub and smiles broadly.

“These are very essential to us,” she said.

Not far away in the village of La Soledad, population 700, Maria Valencia Hernandez admits that she and her family occasionally go to bed hungry.

When conditions improve a bit, they add a fresh egg to their beans or soup, she said, “but there’s nothing else.”

At least limited health care is available at a local clinic. Under Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, Mexico expanded access to health care through Seguro Popular, a state health insurance plan that covers Mexicans without formal jobs and unaffiliated with any other plan.

In El Carmen Tequexquitla, a bustling municipal seat, indigenous women line up at a store of neatly filled shelves. It is run by a branch of the Social Development Secretariat and is among 300 such stores set up across Tlaxcala state.

The women all clutch debit cards, which the state agency fills with credit for 2,152 pesos (about $165) every four months. The allotments fall under a pilot program to allow them to buy the nutritional beans, cooking oil, canned tuna, oatmeal and other products on sale at the stores.

Experts debate whether debit cards or cash are better for the poor.

Daniel Constantino Chavez, head of all subsidized food outlets in Tlaxcala, said that by giving mothers debit cards good only for nutritional food, it ensures that poor households spend assistance on sustenance.

Under previous programs when the government dispensed cash, husbands would sometimes take the money and go on alcoholic binges, he said.

Azuara said food might not always be the most pressing need for the poor, though, and that they might need cash for shoes for children or bus fare for work.

“If you provide cash,” Azuara said, “a mother knows better than a bureaucrat in Mexico City what the family needs.”

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