February 13, 2003

Open Source in Mexico - Part Two

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
While attending CONSOL 2003, I quickly realized that the Open Source movement in Mexico is just barely starting to discover business -- or perhaps it's the other way around. In many ways, the idea of Open Source is much more political in Mexico than in the U.S., and there is a uniquely Mexican holdback to Open Source adoption that is, sadly, a reflection of some of the worst aspects of Mexican corporate and political culture.

Mexico has a far greater rich/poor divide than the U.S. or Canada. Most of the country's largest companies are built on multi-generation inherited wealth. Tales of ordinary people -- especially of poor people from the countryside or small towns -- clawing their way into the middle and upper classes through innovation or business acumen are comparatively rare.

For many high-initiative but impoverished (and often, as a result of poverty, poorly educated) Mexicans, the most attractive route to a better life is to cross the border into the U.S. and take a job that pays poorly by U.S. standards but well by Mexican standards. This loss of valuable human capital is a tragedy for the country in the long run, even if the money sent back by emigrant workers is a valuable -- even necessary -- short-term contribution to the economy.

Many of the educators I met in Mexico told me they see Linux and Open Source as a way to bring 21st Century technical employment opportunities to all Mexicans, not just to the upper classes. But at the same time there is a lingering suspicion among many Mexican business and government leaders that home-grown IT solutions -- whether based on Open Source or proprietary software -- are not as good as those imported from the U.S. or Europe, and this suspicion must be overcome before Mexico can develop a healthy IT economic sector.

The Malinchismo Problem

No, that's not "machismo" misspelled. According to CONSOL attendee Javier Arturo Rodriguez, "malinchismo" is derived...

"...from "Malinche" or Malintzin, the enslaved daughter of a noble Aztec family that was given to Cortes as a gift, served the conquistadores as a translator and ended up as Cortes' mistress. She's considered by some as the ultimate traitor, the Indian girl that fell in love with the conquistador and willfully helped him take over her people, hence the term. The story has been either demonized or romanticized for 500 years; just google for "La Malinche" to see some accounts. Anyway, the most accurate translation I've ran across is Xenophilia, even though it sounds a tad cynical in my ears."

In a practical sense, this means Mexican companies often prefer to buy foreigners' products and services instead of patronizing their countrymen, especially in the IT business, and this is a major problem for Mexican hardware and software entrepreneurs.

I am not giving you my opinion here, just relaying what dozens of people told me at CONSOL.

The funny thing is, when I was in Jordan last December, all the government and industry IT people I met thought supporting local businesses was inherently better than buying from foreigners. Since I prefer to see my local tax dollars spent locally, and whenever possible I patronize local merchants, a "Buy Jordanian IT" movement seems perfectly logical in Jordan as far as I'm concerned, and a "Buy Mexican IT" movement in Mexico would also be appropriate.

The Malinchismo problem is a greater holdback for the Mexican IT industry than any discussion about how much of it should be built on proprietary software and how much of it should be built on Open Source. At least, with Open Source, there are clear financial advantages to buying the homegrown product or service, and since it is a lot less expensive to start a software business from an Open Source base than from a proprietary one -- especially if the proprietary software depends on licenses purchased from U.S. companies at U.S. prices -- it is likely that Open Source will spread strongly through Mexico over the next few years in spite of Malinchismo.

It's Time to Start Pushing Open Source Business in Mexico

Two years ago -- even one year ago -- would have been too soon. Now the time is right. In fact, the topic of my talk at CONSOL was Making money with Free Software, and the next day John Gilmore, who co-founded Cygnus Solutions (now part of Red Hat) -- one of the world's first (and most successful) free software businesses -- also talked about this (to some) strange idea at CONSOL.

This doesn't mean CONSOL and other existing Mexican Linux and Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) conferences should give up their technical emphasis and become marketing-dominated events like the U.S.-based LinuxWorld, but that it's time for Mexican Open Source-based businesses to sponsor a separate conference where they can directly promote Linux and Open Source to potential clients in both the private and public sectors.

Here's what our friend Javier Arturo Rodriguez has to say about CONSOL and business:

I believe that there were too many geeks in the mix. Not that I have
anything against geeks (being one myself) but I would have loved to see
a lot more "business" people in there. Being as it is, over here Free
Software is still perceived as a harmless, half-serious, self-contained
movement among leftist students, academics and outright reactionaries; I
don't think that a Free-Software-virgin business person attending the
conference would have left with a different perspective. I believe that
in Mexico -- as anywhere else -- we need to stress the real-world benefits
of Free Software and Open Source in business, government and education
for the movement to be taken seriously. We need to get beyond mere
ideology and politics to hit business people where it hurts them: in the
bottom line.

Funny thing, it has been a long time since I was in a conference where
nobody started a casual conversation and then tried to sell something to
me. I liked that.

Yes, this was one of the great features of CONSOL. So why mess it up? I enjoyed CONSOL more than I enjoy most trade shows and conferences because of -- not in spite of -- its non-commercial nature. Why shouldn't Mexican Linux and Open Source advocates learn from the mistakes we have made in the U.S. and be different? Why not have separate FOSS community and marketing conferences?

There may not be millions (or even thousands) of Open Source entrepreneurs in Mexico (yet), but there are more than enough to make a credible showing if they pool their efforts. CONSOL is a great place for them to meet each other, but now that they are starting to meet, they need to put their own event together.

We'll have more on this idea (and some others) in Part Three of this Open Source in Mexico series, where we'll meet both "hippie hackers" and hard-headed entrepreneurs who are more interested in growing Open Source-based businesses than in using Free Software to revolutionize Mexican society -- even though most of the Open Source entrepreneurs I met in Mexico seemed almost as interested in societal improvement as in lining their own pockets, which is certainly a refreshing change from some of the U.S. executives I meet in the course of my reporting.

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