Fox seeks business investment in poor regions

Sunday, January 20, 2002

GUANAJUATO, Mexico -- With the economy sluggish and the budget tight, President Vicente Fox wants entrepreneurs on both sides of the border to invest in poor communities with high migration rates to the United States.

Dining on chicken and strawberry tarts, representatives of companies including Tyson Foods, and even NBA basketball player Eduardo Najera of the Dallas Mavericks were asked late Friday to become "godfathers" to poor communities across Mexico.

Fox promised to create jobs and reduce poverty when he took office more than a year ago, ending 71 years of one-party rule in Mexico. But recessions in both Mexico and the United States -- the destination for roughly 90 percent of Mexican exports -- have cost thousands of Mexican jobs and forced Fox to scale back once-grand plans.

His government proposed the "padrino," or godfather, program in July, targeting wealthy, influential Mexican-Americans who were willing to invest in their homeland.

But the program has expanded to include Mexican business leaders and non-Hispanic U.S.-based companies -- anyone willing to help a Mexican community that cannot meet basic needs.

Officials have identified 90 "micro-regions" where poverty is rampant and many residents end up working illegally in the United States. The goal is to increase wages and keep Mexicans at home.

Residents of these regions -- some of which include several towns -- were asked what their greatest needs were. Most responded by asking for things like more jobs or better roads.

Juan Hernandez, who heads Fox's office of migrant affairs, said the program hopes to raise $200 million in the next five years, starting with this weekend's events to raise interest among more than 100 big-business representatives.

"I want commitments from these people," Hernandez said, walking into a large dining hall full of current and potential godfathers.

After Friday's dinner, participants strolled through the narrow, cobblestone streets of Guanajuato, a former mining town 170 miles northwest of Mexico City.

On Saturday, Fox planned to take business leaders on a tour of the poor community of Uriangato, where a small sweater factory will send its first shipment of goods to New York with help from the godfather program.

One so-called godfather taking part, Juan Francisco Ochoa, brought his two sons from Laredo, Texas, to learn more about the program. Known as the "Chicken King," Ochoa owns 45 fast food restaurants in the United States and Mexico.

He has promised $200,000 to "adopt" the town of Santiago Juxclahuaca in the southern state of Oaxaca. The money will be used to build a school, improve the town's electrical and water systems, and construct several basketball courts.

"We believe in this program, and we don't want to be left behind," Ochoa said.

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