My first job out of college, in 1983, was working for Coca-Cola. The training, which lasted a month, was the same for everyone: all day in a truck, making deliveries, mostly to rural areas. We would leave before dawn and return as the sun was setting. We delivered soft drinks to churches and whorehouses. We went to places that didn’t appear on any map, where there were no roads beyond the tracks left by trucks like ours. We went where the government didn’t go, where there were no hospitals, no schools and sometimes even no running water.
The other vehicles we passed on the road were trucks belonging to Pepsi or manufacturers of potato chips, salted peanuts, cookies or some other form of junk food.
Nowadays, one of the most dangerous jobs in Mexico is driving a delivery truck down what Graham Greene called “lawless roads,” where delivery men are robbed, extorted and even killed.
Starting with the presidency of Felipe Calderón, from 2006 to 2012, the government lost control over the war on drug cartels and failed to fulfill its part of the social contract. It has been unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens and to implement educational reforms, but it has given politicians carte blanche to earn money through illegal means and to benefit swimmingly from their tolerance of private monopolies. The government has been truly valiant, however, when it comes to assaulting its citizens with more taxes.
One of the most talked-about is a tax of one peso (about 8 cents) on every liter of sugary beverages, which our Congress approved on Thursday. The tax — part of a fiscal reform package that also includes an 8 percent tax on junk food — is aimed at obesity.
By various measures, Mexico is either the world’s fattest country, or the second fattest, after the United States.
We Mexicans are among the most avid consumers of soft drinks. We swig a half-liter per person every day — thanks in part to the multinational beverage companies’ distribution, advertising and pricing strategies, but also because soft drinks, while not exactly nutritious, are at least (usually) free of germs.
In Mexico it is never easy to find water that is safe for drinking, and this is true in both the city and the countryside. Summers are long and hot. And a plate of spicy food usually requires copious amounts of liquid.
That’s why soft drinks are a part of the Mexican way of life (and also why Mexicans are among the world’s top consumers of bottled water). To attack soda without offering healthy alternatives — like a safe, reliable supply of drinking water — amounts to saying, à la Marie Antoinette, “Let them drink wine.”
So, sugar isn’t so good for you. But it is part of that universe in which inertia dominates reason. We all know that we should read more, but we watch TV; we should do more exercise, but we end up on the couch; we should contaminate the environment less, but we use the car to go everywhere.
Yes, we know we should disinfect water, filter and boil it, but it is easier to buy it in a bottle — maybe with some carbonation and sugar.
I’m reminded of the thirst I felt during a coast-to-coast bike trip across the desert of northern Mexico in 2006. “You’re going to die,” my fellow cyclists warned me.
Almost. There were moments when the water ran out that, at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), made one start to think about the great hereafter, but the here and now usually produced an oasis in the form of a little convenience store in the middle of nowhere.
The culinary offerings were never optimal — at most, a variety of soft drinks, potato chips and cookies — but they helped keep me hydrated and nourished enough to stay on the road.
In Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” the hero comes across an innkeeper “who, being a very fat man, was a very peaceful one.” If this were a universal truth, Mexicans would be a very peaceful lot. When it comes to economic matters, at least, we mostly are.
For most Mexicans, money is something you need, not something you cherish for its own sake. That’s why the new taxes on sodas and junk food were mostly contested by the business community. The average Mexican just shrugged.
But while we may be peaceful people, we are also suspicious.
The government stands to collect $1 billion every year from the soft-drink tax. It isn’t a huge fortune, but as we hear the hiss of a bottle being opened and we gaze down at our still broadening waistlines, we will wonder whether another politician is using our tax money to buy real estate in Florida, Texas or California.
So here’s an idea: now that we’ve taxed soda, let’s tax corruption. According to the Mexican employers’ association, the cost of corruption is 9 percent of our economic output ($1.2 trillion). If you apply the standard value-added tax of 16 percent, you’ll collect $17 billion. If you think a tax on soft drinks will make us healthier, just imagine what a tax on corruption could do.
David Toscana is a Mexican novelist and the author of The Last Reader.