After a group of protesters denounced Carlos Slim and marched out of the room playing Darth Vader’s theme song on kazoos, a companion of the Mexican billionaire smiled at him and said, “Welcome to New York.”
“It’s not just New York,” replied Slim, who was giving a talk in Manhattan when the protest erupted.
The 73-year-old, whose telecommunications empire spans Latin America, the U.S. and Europe, has been increasingly targeted by demonstrators over the past two years. In addition to the event this week at the New York Public Library, marchers hoisted signs during his commencement speech last year at George Washington University. Picketers have also shown up at a New York store owned by Saks Inc. -- his biggest U.S. investment -- and called for California lawmakers to investigate him.
The protests are loosely organized by a group of Latino political organizations that say they’re self-funded and unconnected with Slim’s competitors in Mexico. They’re planning more events -- including one later this month in Las Vegas -- to spread their message that Slim has overcharged Mexican consumers to enrich himself, an accusation the billionaire denies.
At the library, where Slim was speaking about digital education as part of a lecture series, protesters drowned out his comments with laughter, then stood up and shouted that his charitable giving was a joke. They tossed fake bills around the room that said “$73 billion” -- Slim’s estimated wealth. (It’s now $73.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.) Then they began playing the “Imperial Death March” from the “Star Wars” films as they filed out.
The moderator, New York Public Library President Tony Marx, told the remaining audience that Slim has given billions of dollars to charity. Slim shrugged.
Each time they pop up around the country, demonstrators say they’re representing the cause of Two Countries One Voice, a self-described coalition of Hispanic organizations. Yet at this week’s event, participants in the protest said they couldn’t recall who had told them about the planned action or how it had been organized.
“I got an e-mail about it,” said one of them, who said his name was Andy Bichlbaum, outside the library this week. He said the person who sent him the e-mail wasn’t a friend, and that he couldn’t remember who it was. He promised to look it up and respond over e-mail. The following day, he was quoted in a press release from Two Countries One Voice as one of the organizers of the protest.
Bichlbaum and another protester, who declined to give her name, said they weren’t members of Two Countries One Voice, just sympathizers. They both said they weren’t sure who to speak with to learn more about the organization.
Members of Slim’s press office, who have documented the protests on Twitter, have encountered similar responses at previous events. They’ve also said some protesters at an earlier demonstration told them they had been paid to hold picket signs.
Andres Ramirez, a political communications strategist who helped forge Two Countries One Voice, said in an interview yesterday that he had no knowledge of protesters being paid, though the group hasn’t always had control over everyone who attends. Two Countries One Voice got its start in Las Vegas, where local Hispanic organizations wanted to raise awareness of Slim’s wealth and business practices in Mexico, he said.
The kazoo protest came as Mexico’s government was taking its most aggressive action yet to cut into Slim’s market dominance. Congress passed a bill last month, currently before state legislatures, that would allow regulators to break up phone companies or force them to share parts of their networks if they’re deemed too big.
Hispanic Americans are concerned that high prices at America Movil SAB, Slim’s phone company, make it difficult for their Mexican relatives to communicate with them, Ramirez said. They asked his firm, called the Ramirez Group, to help design websites and promote their cause, which he’s doing pro bono as a favor to many activists who have helped him, he said.
A press official for Slim’s companies had no immediate comment yesterday. The company has vigorously disputed claims that it overcharges consumers.
Ramirez has appeared at events sponsored by Azteca America, a U.S. television network owned by another Mexican billionaire, Ricardo Salinas. Slim’s America Movil competes with Salinas’s mobile-phone company, Grupo Iusacell SA. Ramirez said he hasn’t worked for Salinas or for any other foreign company. Two Countries One Voice has only spent a few thousand dollars to put together its events, all coming out of the resources of organizers, he said.
The group continues to be a loose organization with many affiliates, which may explain why people at the New York Public Library event were evasive or unfamiliar with how it was organized, Ramirez said.
“We’ve all gone through our individual pockets and participated that way,” said Juan Jose Gutierrez, another leader of the organization. “We’re right now thinking about putting together a board and applying for nonprofit status so we can raise funds that way.”
The group’s goal is to get Slim to offer lower prices in Mexico and to donate more to charity, Ramirez said. The billionaire has refused to meet with Two Countries One Voice so far, he said.
“We know he’s paid attention, although his people say they’ve ignored us,” Ramirez said. “We want to unsettle him and make him acknowledge and make him aware of what’s going on.”