Back Slaps and Business; U.S.-Style Lobbying Is Catching on in Mexico's Congress
Contreras, Joseph, Cordova, Alan, Newsweek International
Byline: Joseph Contreras and Alan Cordova
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. …