Author Archives: Luis Rubio

Risks

 Luis Rubio

All societies face risks, but the risk that Mexico and Mexicans confront today is immeasurable, above all because it is self-inflicted.   Mexico and the U.S. are advancing in the direction of a potentially uncontainable train wreck that, with enormous ease, could lead to the cancellation of the principal engine of the country’s economy.

The scene is not at all difficult to visualize. On the Mexican side, the government is preparing itself for war with its sparce arsenal. With the knowledge that its stance contravenes the content and spirit of the existing trade agreement, the United States-Mexico–Canada Treaty (USMCA), which links the three nations economically, the president is absolutely unwilling to alter the electricity-related legislation that is the motive of the dispute. Consequently, in his logic, the only way out is to go to war: thus, the recent changes in the Ministry of the Economy.

On the American side, President Biden has tolerated one after another of the pranks that President López Obrador has pulled on him; the question is whether the midterm results modify this circumstance. Trade negotiations must be ratified by the U.S. Congress, while the Office of the Trade Representative, an entity created by the Congress, but which belongs to the Executive Branch, reports to both. This circumstance obliges it to act and confers great latitude with respect to the administration. In a word, the key decisions of following or not the constitution of a panel for resolving the controversy, while subject to political criteria, depends substantively on that entity and not solely on the president’s objectives. Additionally, the new political circumstances for President Biden, who came out better than expected from the midterms, could be defining for the bilateral relationship, given that it could determine whether President Biden will run for re-election. Incumbent upon that scenario, released from the burden of having to deal with multiple flanks, Biden could opt for no longer allowing the continuation of the abuses foisted on him by President López Obrador.

The Mexican Government appears to be blind to the transcendence of what is at play with its (pathetic) defense of an autarkic regimen in electric issues. When the new Minister of the Economy was formally appointed, the President stated that: “We are no more under the conditions of maintaining the same neoliberal policy that had the government sequestered. Imagine 36 years of dominion of neoliberal policy.” Just imagine! Thirty-six years of lower prices for consumers, greater economic and political freedoms, certainty regarding the availability of energy and better-quality and better-paid jobs.  Just imagine!

It is obvious that everything was not good during the last decades, but (nearly) everything that was good, in economic concerns at least, took place during those decades, thanks to the reforms undertaken and the Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. After decades of crises every six years, the country achieved many years of stability, sufficient international reserves to avoid recreating the years of crisis that preceded it, and a growing export sector that guarantees the country incomes, jobs, better salaries and foreign currency.

 

Placing at risk the instrument that has afforded the country these opportunities constitutes a senselessness that can only be understood from a dogmatic ideological posture, blind and perverse. USMCA is crucial for guaranteeing access of exports that, due to the indolence of one government after another (exacerbated by the current one) became the sole relevant engine of economic growth. Instead of worrying about opening spaces for investment in the domestic market and generating conditions for a better distribution of the benefits, the country remained limited in its potential for development to this unique instrument that enables Mexican economic activity. In addition to that, on undermining private investment in energy, the government shut off one of the sources of greatest growth potential that also is crucial for attracting investment in other sectors. From indolence Mexico passed to negligence and from there to an intensifying risk of instability.

The president is vexed by the technocrats, those who know the factors that make possible the development of the economy. But affairs of trade and investment are absolutely technical and require personnel trained and experienced. What lies in the balance is monumental: beyond the question of the current controversy and the likely panel to settle this controversy, disputes with  European and Asian nations with respect to the same issue regarding electricity loom in the horizon; then come the lawsuits of the private companies, whose criterion is not that of obtaining compensation for their investment, but rather for the cash flows that they are (or would be) no longer receiving. That is, the matter in financial terms could easily end up as an exorbitant amount. Unless the president wishes to become a universal pariah (e.g. The IADB), with what that would imply in terms of incomes for the population, the issue merits care and a very different approach from than the one he is assigning to it.

It is natural for a politician to consider that all conflicts can be settled on those terms, but not on these issues, which are technical and call for less dogma. The government is playing with fire without realizing that fire burns.  Everything to it seems simple and hand-in-glove with an easily executed political solution. This time certainly not.

 

@lrubiof

a quick-translation of this article can be found at www.luisrubio.mx

 

Dissonance

Luis Rubio

“Cultures notoriously differ as to the content of their rules, but there is no culture without rules.” In the last half century, Mexico was propelled from a world of rules established from the helm of power and for the power -the important ones always being the “unwritten” rules and, among those, the first was that no one would dispute the authority and the legitimacy of the president- toward a system of rules codified and instituted in black and white. It was a praiseworthy attempt, but one undertaken without conviction further than some areas of the economy, especially those linked with investment and foreign trade, and in the electoral ambit. The remainder continued, and continues, the old pattern. Now Mexicans are witnessing the return to the reign of the supreme overlord. The key question is whether those two areas -the economy and the electoral system- will lose that unique quality that has made them pivotal and distinctive for the prosperity and democratization, respectively, of the country.

Rules, says Lorraine Daston,* are an inherent part of human nature, but not all rules are the same and each culture develops their own and modifies them   to the extent possible in their evolutive process. Each society, writes the author, sets into motion two types of rules: those thick and those that are “thin.”  The former are dispensed by judges or experts because they are accompanied by circumstantial exceptions, such as occurs with judicial processes, the game of chess or the leading of military operations. These cases require the interpretation or judgement of experts or individuals specialized in applying rules that, by nature, entail an elevated degree of discretionary latitude. Therefore, these are the type of rules that lofty politicians prefer because these confer on them extraordinary powers, with a heightened propensity toward  arbitrariness.

The “thin” rules are explicit, precise and not subject to interpretation: writing (with its alphabet and grammatical rules), geometry, vehicular traffic and other similar rules that make possible coexistence and human interaction because they generate basic disciplines. All societies develop rules that are codified and published naturally.  In serious countries, obtaining a driver’s license requires an examination of knowledge (of the rules) and of driving, both essential requisites for living together peacefully.

While there are always rules that stand in need of interpretation, the development of societies and the growing complexity of economic activity demand trustworthy rules (and laws) that are known by all, not subject to interpretation and applied in a uniform manner. An exporter counts on that the fiscal and customs rules of the country he sells to will be respected; an importer hopes that, on arriving at customs, his merchandise would pass through expeditiously, so long as all requirements have been complied with. In parallel form, an investor who attempts to manufacture goods in a certain country counts on the rules being applied equally to all, according to what is established in the respective codes or treaties.

One can easily imagine the process that led to the adoption of rules for driving automobiles: when only a few vehicles were in transit, especially in what today are city centers with narrow streets, each driver drove as they saw fit; the same for parking or the direction of the streets themselves. Little by little it was necessary to espouse rules so that the circulation of the traffic would flow. When these rules are invoked, they become social norms, with which they acquire permanence and legitimacy. This is what has happened in the electoral realm which, despite their complexity, became the norm that the citizenry recognizes as a distinctive and crucial characteristic for determining who will govern us.

The pretension of repelling this scaffolding is inborn in a government that prefers to impose its own rules, to interpret them and, along the way, maintain an ample margin of discretion. But there is no greater risk for an organized society than a governor who acts in that way, particularly when matters of enormous volatility are concerned. For example, the electoral reforms, from the end of the fifties but significantly from the nineties, were undertaken not by divine mandate but instead due to the imperious necessity of avoiding political violence. The Morena party would never have come into power without the existence of that normative framework. The same happened in Mexico’s relation with the U.S. and Canada: the treaty that binds us exists to render the flows of goods and investment in both directions predictable. The country would become paralyzed, politically and economically, on placing in doubt those two sources of peace and certainty.

Carl Schmitt, an enthusiastic promoter of the Nazi regime, defined sovereignty as “the power of deciding on the exception.” It is not by chance that he would detest the existence of laws and the due process of law because these limit the governmental powers. That is the type of company that Mexicans would be keeping if, rather than advancing toward civilization, they would proceed embracing this trail of destruction of everything that makes the country function, without contributing anything better to achieve it.

*Rules: A Short History of What We Live By

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

 

 

Stuck

Luis Rubio

“The crisis consists precisely of that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there appears a great variety of morbid symptoms.” That is how Gramsci characterized the processes of political transition.  Mexico ended up in a quagmire in the middle of that process, which can be appreciated in political matters and, especially, in issues of security.  Authoritarian politics is very distinct from democratic politics. The question is whether Mexicans presently find themselves in a process of transition or whether they are trapped, as Gramsci suggests, foundering in an interminable limbo.

The evidence is overwhelming in whatsoever ambit one chooses to observe. When the president reviles the members of the Supreme Court for adhering to what is established by the law and for not following his orders, he does nothing other than make it obvious that the separation of powers does not exist and that he does not respect the individual responsibilities of the other branches of government. And it is the same when gangster-like means are utilized to force a legislative contingent to vote the way the president prefers, a flagrant case of extorsion.

Within the scope of security, not even the pretension that the country is found in a process of transition exists: instead of building the foundations of a normal and typical security system for a democratic society (a pretention clearly in place in the political environment as illustrated by the existence of the National Electoral Institute, INE), the response to the heightening violence is limited to deploying the Army, which does not possess the abilities nor the capacities to deal with the phenomenon.

The transitions toward democracy undertaken by nations such as Spain and several in the South American Continent served as rhetorical mooring for the erection of institutions that took place in Mexico during the nineties and that tangibly resulted in the two electoral institutions: the (then) Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and the Electoral Court. Those two entities have been key in resolving the hottest topic in Mexican politics from the eighties to date: access to power. While costly, those two institutions leveled the playing field of the political dispute, they professionalized the organization and administration of the electoral process along its entire length and breadth and conferred certainty on citizens and political actors. The problem was resolved of how to accede to power, but not that of how Mexicans would govern themselves. The problems Mexicans confront today derive from that absence.

For three decades, one government after another played pretend. Each of these, from the nineties up to 2018, acted as if the institutions that they were building -the Supreme Court of Justice, the IFE/National Electoral Institute (INE), the legislative branch, regulatory entities such as the Energy Regulatory Commission and the Federal Economic Competition Commission- these constituting true counterweights to the president’s manner of acting.  Thanks to the way of being and acting of President López Obrador, now we know that all of that was pure fiction. The supposedly independent or autonomous entities were vulnerable and prone to manipulation by a president with political adroitness and, above all, with an absolute unwillingness to accept the existence of counterweights to his own power.

As the Prussian General von Moltke would say, no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. The Mexican presidents from 1988 to 2018 could have dismantled that institutional framework, but they opted to respect it for the sake of advancing a process of (alleged) democratic transition. President López Obrador revealed this to be a fallacy, a house of cards.

The reality is very clear:  Mexico had taken enormous steps forward in some ambits, but it continues to be mired in an authoritarian past in most of the others. Worse yet, the authoritarian mechanisms of yesteryear no longer function, which is why all that Mexico of the past that was left behind lives immersed in a sea of violence, extortion, inequality and the consequent resentment. Neither authoritarian nor democratic: a diffuse and precarious space mid-river.

But that river is extraordinarily risky, unstable and one entertaining a proclivity for violence. The grand accomplishment of the president has been in exploiting the sentiments and resentments of that whole population (the majority) that remained trapped along the way, but to which no solution has been offered. His response has been simply rhetorical:  perennial and non-stop daily blindsides at daybreak that assign blame without ever assuming responsibility. Everything but solutions.

Unfortunately, examples such as those of Spain, Chile or Korea, to site three irrefutably successful transitions, are not applicable to Mexico. In those nations, each embroiled in its particular circumstances, the transition was integral: the objective was to abandon the authoritarian past in order to edify a democratic society. In Mexico the objective was limited to attending to certain problems, especially those pertaining to investor trust and post-electoral discord. The objective was not, nor is it, the transition toward a democratic society.

Ensnared midway across the river, where nothing works: the economy does not grow, the violence persists and the resentments are brutal. Society -all of it together- must have the last word: with its acting and its activism, it has in its hands the opportunity to lead out of the quagmire. The question is whether it can lead the way. Today’s demonstration will be a test of wills.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

The counterweight that was not to be

 

 WILSON CENTER
By Luis Rubio
on November 07, 2022

 The Supreme Court of Justice was the first branch of government to experience drastic transformation in modern Mexico. In an attempt to advance the consolidation of a new political regime, one based on democratic elections and checks and balances, the Supreme Court was thoroughly revamped at the end of 1994. The objective was clear: to begin an arduous process of institutional development that would lead Mexico into a democratic era.

Over the following quarter of a century, Mexico saw the gradual constitution of an independent electoral institution, a strengthened and autonomous competition commission, and its telecommunications counterpart, and, later, as part of a far-reaching energy reform, entities to regulate rapidly-developing electricity and oil markets. Every administration from the early 1990s on, abided by these institutions’ rulings and helped solidify the process of institutionalization.

President López Obrador never subscribed to the objective of turning Mexico into a market driven economy and a democratic society. From the moment he was inaugurated, AMLO, as he is known, went to battle against each and every one of these allegedly independent entities. His first target was in fact the Supreme Court, where, using his majority in Congress, he immediately appointed two new members to the Court, negotiated with and subordinated the president of the Court and, through extorsion, forced the resignation of a fourth member. Mexico’s Supreme Court is one of only two in the world where a two thirds majority (eight of eleven votes) are required to issue an opinion. Hence, by controlling four votes, the president owned the Court from the very beginning.

Getting thorough control of the Supreme Court was only the first step. López Obrador quickly moved on to neutralize, eliminate or control entities such as the Hydrocarbons Commission, the Energy Regulatory Commission and the Telecommunications Commission. He decided not to appoint any new members to the Competition Commission, leaving it in some sort of limbo. He made appointments of people close to him to the Central Bank and has been in permanent battle against the National Electoral Institute from the start. The president’s thrust in simple and clear: to recreate the old, president-centered political system.

With a couple of exceptions that were not critical to the president, the Supreme Court’s performance has been dire. Chief Justice Zaldivar has shamelessly aligned with the president, to become his man inside the Court, where he has specialized in delaying critical issues, watering down others and, in one word, doing the president’s bidding. In striking contrast with the old Mexican tradition of at least attempting to cover the Court’s decisions with constitutional legalese, Zaldivar has been blatant, direct and unbashful. He has even declared that he is ready for a new appointment, presumably a presidential one.

President López Obrador’s onslaught has proven that the institutional buildup of the previous three decades was nothing more that a Potemkin village. Not that AMLO’s predecessors believed that they were playing a role in a big charade, but that most of those institutions proved to be no more than frail entities that could not withstand a presidential frontal attack. It has all proven to be a house of cards.

Previous Mexican presidents were aware of the potential frailty that they were building. Understanding well the nature of Mexican politics and the vulnerability to extorsion that characterizes most politicians, Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) sought outside help to create a strong, credible and sustainable institution that would not be subject to similar vulnerabilities. His vision was not that of an altruistic politician but of a realist statesman: he realized that Mexican institutions were always vulnerable and thus he went on to seek American support for his endeavor.

NAFTA was the result of those negotiations. Though clearly a trade and investment agreement, the political subtext was unmistakable: the US was willing to lend American institutions to support the reforms that Mexico’s government was attempting. In the words of General Scowcroft, in an interview I conducted with him in the early nineties, NAFTA was “a no brainer” for the US: “a prosperous Mexico was in the best national-interest of the United States.”

Mexico’s institutions are decaying and the elimination of NAFTA with its geopolitical content bodes ill for its ability to recover a path to development. Not that all was successful in the previous decades, but at least parts of Mexico were moving along. The challenge today, for both Mexico and the United States, will be to find a way to lever on the ever-expanding economic relationship to build new institutions capable of sustaining long-term development for Mexico.

Nothing can undo the damage caused, successively, by Trump and by López Obrador, but the challenge remains: Mexico is clearly vulnerable to the criminal organizations that sprang to satisfy American demand for drugs, while it has been unable to reform its system of government to truly transform itself into a modern, civilized nation.

Some of Mexico’s institutions might be saved, beginning with the Supreme Court, for it is individuals who have done the damage, not the institution itself. But the issue at heart is that one person can do enormous damage. That is the true challenge for Mexico. Back in 1929, then-president Plutarco Elías Calles called for transforming Mexico from a nation of caudillos to a nation of institutions. A century later, the task remains the same.

 

LUIS RUBIO

Global Fellow;
Mexico Institute Advisory Board Member; Chairman, México Evalúa; Former President, Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales (COMEXI); Chairman, Center for Research for Development (CIDAC), Mexico

 

 

Death Rattles

Luis Rubio

The fight for the National Electoral Institute (INE) entails two very simple explanations. First, it is evident that at this point there is no guarantee of the continuity of the so-called Fourth Transformation (4T) or, at best, of the Morena party. Natural attrition and absence of results lead the president to seek means to avoid a potential catastrophe for his political project. The other explication, more benign for the regime, is that, to stay in power, it needs to tie down a key loose sail: the Electoral Branch. As supposedly stated by Stalin, “The people who cast the vote decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” Controlling the voting process becomes a categorical imperative: the only way to preserve the power is to annul the right of the citizenry to decide, as in the good old times.

The electoral system is a hindrance for the failed project. This syllogism makes it evident that the problem does not lie in the INE and in its counterpart in the Electoral Court, but instead with the pretense of recreating a world that disappeared a half century ago and that cannot be recreated nor is it repeatable. The mere pretense of imposing an all-embracing vision of the country and of the world on 130 million citizens, practically twice the population of Mexico in the seventies, is impossible in that it is unreachable as well as because it ignores -or consciously rejects- the diversity and dispersion that characterize the country and due to which there is no way back. Feigning the reproduction of an epoch that has been already eclipsed by time and by the changing reality is nothing more than a mirage and, at the end of the day, a fantasy.  A population that has become accustomed to the exercise of its life without the omnipresence of the government cannot be submitted anew.

Of course, not that the entire population enjoys full freedoms. Lack of access to the modern economy, to justice or to personal and patrimonial security, to cite three obvious examples, limits the capacity of the development of individuals and, in general, of the country. That is where the lack of a government that is competent and one with clear objectives manifests itself acutely and decisively. It is also there that President López Obrador, without commitment to the previous status quo, had the enormous opportunity to modify the game rules to make possible a government willing to engender conditions for the whole population, especially the most poverty-stricken, that which most lags behind and that endowed with the least opportunities, to break with that apparently abstract, but absolutely real, barrier.

Rather than making a difference by the building of a more equitable and successful country, the 4T project has been nothing else than a vain attempt to control everything and to reconstruct the old presidency, the one that wreaked poverty on the country in the seventies. The government consists of a permanent rhetoric -the daily presidential speeches- that are high sell-outs in terms of the president’s communicating with his social base and exploiting historical resentments, but without offering anything in return. Popularity, like all emotions, is volatile and dissipates with the greatest of ease. However much the president capitalizes on and sings his own praises about his lofty score in this regard, he would do well to observe his predecessors from the nineties on: there is nothing more ephemeral than popularity. Worse yet when the distance between the evaluation of the government is found so far from that of the president: a faithful representation of a government that talks but that does not govern.

The fifth year of any six-year presidential term in Mexico is always crucial because it is then that the results of the four prior years become patent, vividly revealing the successes and the failures therein: that is where the results of the term are presented in summation. Never, in the decades during which I have been witness to one government after another have I seen fewer investments in the future than during the current government. Some of those governments were cautious, other ambitious; some competent, others inept; but uniting everyone was a common endeavor to improve the future.   López Obrador has done nothing more than invest in the past -an oil refinery, a provincial airport- without there having been a proper assessment of any of these: his vision sufficed.

And that vision is not even developmental in the sense that it was employed during the era in which the president takes such immense pride, the so-called stabilizer development, which afforded the country a duo of decades of high economic-growth rates. Contrariwise, the manifested purpose is one of impoverishing the population, eliminating the main economic-growth sources and consolidating an omnipotent presidency.

Lashing out at the INE and against the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Treaty (USMCA) (in the form of a rejection of resolving the dispute with our partners, leaving open the possibility of the cancellation Mexico’s membership) is inscribed in this strategy. This could be a conscious or an unconscious project, but evidence of the intention is increasingly widespread.

The death rattles of a government that begins to languish but that refuses to accept the verdict of the citizenry. Better to decide on its name; better to impose a succession than respect its desires, concerns or preferences. As Yogi Berra would say, “You got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” The country runs the risk of losing its way in this road of good intentions which, as the saying goes, could lead to hell.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

Illusions

Luis Rubio

In July of 1914, a month before WWI broke out, none of the protagonists of what would be a grisly conflagration had any idea of what was to come or, as Christopher Clark writes, they were sleepwalking toward the precipice. On reading that and other accounts on the initiation of that sanguinary conflict it is impossible not to think about the way in which President López Obrador proceeds to configure his chessmen in terms of the 2024 succession, that is, as if the country were presently experiencing a glorious milk-and-honey moment. During recent weeks, he organized the Morena Congress to boost his candidate and exclude all other aspirants, he has attempted to divide -destroy is a more accurate term- the entire opposition, and he is readying himself to underwrite his desires through the inherent beatitude to his burgeoning waiver of power to the Mexican Army.

The “Great War,” as the First World War is known, was violent, horrific for those who lived through long periods (or died) in the trenches, submitted by firearms heretofore unknown such as machine guns and, eventually, tanks that could riddle an entire regiment with bullets in a question of minutes. The means, says Paul Fussell,* are always “melodramatically disproportionate” to the ends that are pursued. That is what appears to be the approach of the president in this process.

 Morena has been gaining ground, in part because of the disillusionment that has distinguished the electorate at least since 1997 during which, nearly systematically, it has voted against the incumbent party at every level. Little by little, with the enormous aid (in many cases illicit) of President Lopez Obrador, the candidates of his party have won governorships, displacing the traditional political parties, the latter seemingly lost at present in the opposition. The project is clairvoyant: control, destruction of the enemy (the correct characterization these days) and integral submission.

The problem is the project. A hopeful narrative that polarizes and alienates the resentment is useful for control, but sooner or later it starts to take on water. Now that the president has entered the administration’s subsiding stage, the project is, and increasingly will be, ever more vacuous and irrelevant. Thus reflect the morning narratives, which have lost the edge -and impact- of the early days of the government. The president tells of the day-to-day happenings as if he were a mere spectator and not the leading actor. This allows him to fabricate the guilty, assign the blame and adjudicate those responsible, but the Mexican is too accustomed to hardships to cede their personal and familial development in exchange for a fiction farther and farther away from the quotidian reality.

Our system of political parties is excessively inflexible to favor the realignment claimed by the reality, which has led to unholy alliances between dissimilar parties. In political systems such as that of France or Brazil, the old parties would have dissolved, or new political formations would compete for the vote. The ductility of those systems endorses the rapid adaptation of the changing realities, dismissing persons and parties no longer entertaining a raison d’être. In Mexico similar situations generate opportunities for political attacks and the paralyzing of politics. Today it is not clear where the opposition will end up in the upcoming political cycle, with the decimation of the PRI and the PAN’s lack of leadership. With it all and despite of this, those two entelechies were victorious in nine of the ten largest cities in the 2021 mid-term elections.    What the parties cannot do is being done by the electorate: as illustrated by the recall referendum, a milestone of undiluted arrogance, only one half voted for the president’s permanence that elevated him in 2018. The population is not foolish and the wager on the narrative is pure and simple illusion.

Citizen opposition is there; the question is who or what can capture it to convert it into an unstoppable force. There are two elements in this equation: one is the political parties or the party alliance; the other the candidate, whether male or female. To date, none of those elements is resolved. Whosoever aspires to the candidacy would have to be suicidal to stand in the line of fire of the presidential morning rants in this moment, because the destructive capacity of that instrument is ruthless, the reason why that element of the opposition will have to manifest itself in a year’s time. On their side, no candidate can carry the day if they cannot count on an organizational structure that permits them to draw near the citizen, present their proposals and promote the vote. The opposition, as it currently stands, is incapable of organizing a national election, with a reasonable degree of probability of winning it, especially when the true competitor is the President of the Republic and all the accoutrements he has at hand.

Perhaps the great point-at-issue is whether the opposition understands itself as such, ranging from the PRI to Movimiento Ciudadano, passing through the PAN and the PRD. Unite or die. All perish If they continue to cower and, with them, Mexico.

The challenge confronting the president is for the control to be sufficient in the face of the choppy waters coming from the North; for the opposition, all as one, the challenge is to be, as it were, the latter…

 

 

*The Great War and Modern Memory

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

 

Changes

Luis Rubio

“Distance -wrote Samuel Johnson- has the same effect on the mind as on the eye, and while we glide along the stream of time, whatever we leave behind is always lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude”. The times change and the realities do also; what was valid before stops being so because the only thing that does not cease is the inexorable march of time and, with that, the expectations: those fulfilled as well as those destroyed. Usually, the latter to a more prominent degree than the former.

I wrote some time ago that, without politics, the great changes that the country had undergone during the last half century were vulnerable because, especially in the government of Peña Nieto, the reforms had been imposed instead of socialized. Rather than being assigned the role of protagonist, the population was relegated to a position outside the arena and without a ticket to ride. The legal framework was altered without our beloved politicians explaining the what and why or grasping the importance of persuading the citizenry. Without legitimacy, Peña’s reforms ended up victims of a barrage of volleys from the Morena party, whose rationale is not the development of the country, but to exact the control of everything, from the economy to the society.

Rightly, Macario Schettino wrote me that the NAFTA was a counterexample: “It was also promoted and approved in 1994 without asking, by the PRI/PAN (PRIAN) alliance, against that of PRI/Morena (PRIMOR), but by 1997 the population had already accepted it.” The point is crucial and merits a more wide-reaching explanation since it reveals the citizenry’s wisdom and maturity.

There is no doubt that the first wave of reforms, in the eighties and nineties, was indeed levied on the society: from the liberalization of imports to the privatizations, the government acted under an economic rationality that entertained great internal coherence, but its crux did not lie in its willingness to spell it out in the public forums. Although the earlier breed of technocrats were much less arrogant than those of the Peña administration, their attitude was that it was enough to be right in the technical sense for public policy to become reality. Nor do I have any doubt that, had they sought public support, they would have avoided many of the errors of that moment and, much more transcendentally, the technocrats themselves would have been able to count with the popular favor to affect interests that later hindered and, in many cases, thwarted the success of their reforms.

One must remember how the times have changed: in the eighties and nineties the PRI was hegemonic, there were no social networks, and the country suffered a devastating crisis after the “Tragic Dozen” years (1970-1982). In that epoch no one was consulted about anything and Congress, as in the last three years, was nothing more than the president’s rubber-stamping office. Salinas procured the support of the PAN to win over legitimacy from it for his reforms despite not requiring this legitimacy legally: he did this because he realized the political transcendence of conferring permanence on his reforms. That was never appreciated by Peña Nieto, who lived at a radically different time, one of permanent public debates and with AMLO at his heels.

The case of the NAFTA is peculiar because the citizenry saw it for what it was: a guarantee of long-term change. Salinas was not navigating in the dark: the surveys told him that more than half of the population had some direct relative in the United States. NAFTA was recognized as a way of accepting that adopting the rules of the game inherent to the U.S. would be of benefit to the country, as they had become for their family members who had emigrated. The popularity of the instrument enjoys strong roots and, therefore, full legitimacy.

The leading mistake of the previous government was to ignore the transcendence of socializing and achieving legitimacy for its projects. Governing is not an act of will but one of uniting wills. When the population makes a project its own, it becomes invulnerable, as occurs with the electoral institutions or the NAFTA Itself. An informed and respected population understands the vicissitudes of reality, in the good times and the bad. Just to illustrate, a sudden rise in gasoline prices is comprehensible and comprehended by those who are not hoodwinked all the time.

Contrariwise, Jorge Fernández Díaz writes, “populism is reserved solely for the good news and any sacrifice is inadmissible to it, given that it renders the ‘happiness of the people’ vulnerable. This cowardly and mediocre hypocrisy, and this vicious circle, are the chief reasons for our recurrent calamity.”

A half century ago the function of a president was to exercise leadership and that was what engendered the reforms from then on. “In times of the revolution of expectations, says David Konzevik, the president must be the Master of Hope.” There’s no secret in this: the era of ubiquity of information makes it much more difficult to govern (in any country) as the key to success dwells on convincing the people, and that calls for respect. AMLO communicates dogmas, which does not lend itself to convincing, because this is not even the objective.

The nostalgia of López Obrador will not extract the country from the hole in which it finds itself. García Márquez wrote: “As always happens, we thought then that we are very far from being happy, and now we think the opposite. This is the trap of nostalgia, which plucks out the bitter moments from their place, paints them another hue and puts them back where they no longer hurt.”

There is no other way than straight ahead.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

Sequelae

Luis Rubio

Long after the promotors of “great” changes imagine they would, the consequences appear, generally the product of not recognizing that human beings learn and respond in the face of the stimuli presented to them. G.K. Chesterton described the phenomenon with an example: “Don’t remove a fence before you know why it was put up in the first place.” His argument was that it is imperative to understand the reason why things are the way they are to not end up leaving them worse.

Many of the great changes in history, those that take shape in the long term, begin with mundane decisions and good intentions. Programs are adopted, legislations are approved and the rulers who promote them are applauded as heroes. Everything progresses as if it all were about advances inexorably destined to lead to prosperity. The greater the ambition of those changes, the greater the kudos, but also the risks: there’s always the possibility that removing the fence, in Chesterton’s metaphor, would create sequelae that undermine the future.

In their haste to transform everything, the promotors of progress tend to lose sight of the fact that what is popular is not always benign and that what appears to be benign is frequently weighty with unanticipated messages for the rest of the population. This becomes more acute when the transformer’s claim derives from unmovable dogmas that have nothing to do with the milieu to which they purport to apply. The average Mexican has for centuries endured grandiloquent rulers and perfectly recognizes the implicit risks, but also understands how limited their options are, so they delimit themselves to the transaction-at-hand: perquisites conferred for a vote or, in the present case, cash-transfers in payment for popularity.

The president prides himself on the great feats he has achieved or that he is advancing. Cancelling the airport without gauging the consequences for the long-term development of the country, constructing infrastructure projects that are not likely to afford significant long-term benefits, legitimizing corruption for those close at hand, eliminating key regulatory entities, setting upon judges that rule against the government’s wishes or wiping out lodestar academic institutions. The day-to-day theatrical scenario facilitates decisions based on rigged surveys, mockeries and attacks, but the population recognizes these for what they are, and no resentment is sufficient, in the long term, to substitute for employment, opportunities and prosperity.

Actions and decisions that entail consequences as they alter the perceptions of the population, modify the fate of the country and cancel its options of development. It is clear that the president’s objective is precisely to undermine what already exists; but it should be similarly clear that not everything that exists is bad and that acting thus inevitably entails pernicious consequences. And the greater the pretention of the change, the worse the sequelae.

When a president quashes the autonomy of an entity or impedes the transparency of his government’s investments his message is evident: in the words of Lord Acton, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Not all corruption involves money: impunity is also corruption.

Endeavoring to predetermine the future, control the variables in ongoing fashion, including the supposed presidential successor (whether male or female) is the oldest trick in the book of Mexican politics. Rarely has a president in the country’s history not ventured this, but only Plutarco Elías Calles (1920s), the system’s founder, was able to and in circumstances that cannot be reproduced. The exercise is in good measure futile, but not for that reason does it not embody consequences. And that is the relevant issue: for three decades, one government after another devoted itself to building an institutional framework to grant certainty to the populace with respect to the future, starting with the NAFTA. Without doubt, there were excesses and errors along the way and very few of the resulting institutions enjoy full popular legitimacy, which explains the ease with which the president dismantled them.

But at present the consequence of his way of acting has brought home the inexistence of investment and the swiftness with which many industrial processes (key for exports) are becoming obsolete, especially due changes in energy policy. If ongoing polarization causes confusion, the future ends up being overly uncertain, a circumstance never of service to the continuity of the status quo which the president desires. Mexico underwent something much the same at the beginning of the eighties and something the size of the TLC was required to restore a sense of certainty. The chief question for the future is what will be required in this instance, how big will it have to be?

A foreigner, an old-time observer of Mexican politics, said that Mexico suffers from a nodal deficiency: “Either you have the rule of law or you don’t. And if you do not, people fall back on the rule of power, on bribery –a form of financial power- or on criminality to obtain what they should be entitled to under the law.”

Instead of moving toward legality, for which this government was exceptionally endowed, what it has done is promote corruption and criminality. The consequences will not be long in coming.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

After AMLO

Luis Rubio

What is it that is left in the wake of a disruptive president whose objective -de facto- has been tearing down instead of building? That is the question that Mexicans should be scrutinizing as the present administration begins its final third.

The daily news reports do not deceive the people: inflation, unemployment, unconstitutionality, purposeful deterioration, thievery, deaths, extortion, mockery, attacks and counterattacks, and an entire series of impositions, such as those related with the new Mexico City (CDMX) airport. All signs of the deterioration that the country is undergoing. Rather than growth, opportunities, possibilities and a perspective likely to transform the country into one with a promising future, reality begins to catch up with the country and its government.

Clearly, none of that has made a dent in the popularity of the president. Also, the Morena party governs two thirds of the states, both marks of a president who holds in his grip the attention and close proximity of a great number of citizens. These same surveys show a highly unpopular government, reproved in practically all indicators. The paradox has been analyzed multiple times from many vantage points and only time, or the upcoming elections, will return a verdict.

With respect to the state governorships won by the party of the present government, the surveys reveal an opposition that confounds instead of inspiring certainty in terms of the future, and an unaltered propensity of the electorate to vote against incumbents, regardless of their stripe. That is, Morena secures benefits from being the new party on the block, implying that, on the persistence of the anti-status quo sentiment, its candidates could be spurned the next around. In a word, Mexican politics are intensely volatile and no one’s future is guaranteed.

I have no doubt that if the presidential election were to take place today, the president could name his favorite candidate and be victorious in the election, but 20 months are left until the next election and that is a world of time in politics. At this stage of the presidential term what’s left is to harvest what has been sown during the past four years, and in this respect the current government has little to offer beyond transfers to their clienteles and an enormous animosity within the Mexican society. All the same, what was not sown will have to be paid for and that will not yield advantageous outcomes. The harvest will be bleak in the best of circumstances.

The matter of cash transfers to clienteles is more transcendent than is apparent because it has implicated an extraordinary distortion in the public accounts and a tremendous incentive not to work for those who are the beneficiaries. The president has done everything imaginable to shift budgetary funds to his pet clienteles, chalking up massive deficits in the most basic public services and creating vulnerabilities regarding emergencies on draining the respective trust funds. Whoever turns up in the government in 2024 will encounter a huge financial problem and will confront severe dilemmas that will render them eminently unpopular.

Up to now, the government has enjoyed an internal and external milieu that, despite the pandemic, has been benign toward it. The population has resisted a stringent recession, interest rates had remained very low and the market for Mexico’s exports has grown much more rapidly than anticipated. All of that -in addition to the remittances, transfers and the narrative skill of the president- have allowed politics to bask in stability, endorsing the governing party. Now the complicated period begins, at the precise moment of the natural decline of the government.

The president initiated his government offering a change of course towards lower levels of poverty, an end to violence, less inequality, greater growth and less corruption. In all those fields an advance has only been notable for having taken steps backward. The pandemic can be blamed for some things, but not all of them, certainly not the transcendent ones. The population continues being besieged by criminality, corruption is in its heyday and the economy is more dependent on exports than ever before.

The balance is not commendable and two long years are in the offing in an international environment that could be exceptionally inhospitable and for which there are no longer protection barriers. The mechanisms and trust funds that existed as reserved for difficult times were extinguished. What is left is feeble and subject to a tide that might not continue being calm.

Worst of all is that the president presses along the course that he plotted from the start and from which he does not seem willing to veer off even one inch, independently of the circumstances. The robust indices of popularity spur him on to proceeding ahead without rectifying, but that is not a trustworthy mainstay. However elevated, popularity is a mercurial indicator, as history has shown myriad times in the past.

On the horizon are two years of growing uncertainty that, in the best of scenarios, will bequeath a fragile and brittle platform to the subsequent government. As the saying goes, the president has sown winds and will reap storms. What remains is to observe the price of that so very volatile end-of-the-presidential-term climate that used to shape such periods, but that appeared to have been transcended. Until now.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

Statesman or Prophet

Luis Rubio

 According to Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to destroy and a time to build… a time to tear and a time to mend… a time for war and a time for peace.” The pertinent question for Mexico is which of those ways of going forward have characterized the president. While alternatives have existed, he has done more to destroy, divide and attack than to build, mend and pacify.     Nothing indicates that his nature will change from here to the end of the administration.  Statesman or prophet?

Statesmen, says Kissinger, understand that a couple of essential tasks must be developed: preserving the integrity of their society, driving change and progress while preserving the essence; and attenuating visionary attitudes with caution. Statemen tend to be conscious of the myriad hopes that have been dashed, the good intentions that have not been achieved and the dogged persistence in human affairs of egoism, the thirst for power and the violence. For their part, prophets set out from imperatives: “prophetic leaders invoke their transcendent visions as proof of their righteousness.” Believers in ultimate solutions, “prophetic leaders tend to distrust gradualism as an unnecessary concession to time and circumstance; their goal is to transcend, rather than manage, the status quo.” Among the former, states Kissinger, are Atatürk, Roosevelt and Nehru; typical of the latter are Robespierre, Lenin and Gandhi.

Where will Mexico be at the end of the López Obrador six year term? Six years of systemic battering, relentless destruction and polarization as a strategy will leave the country divided, in permanent struggle and without a natural sequence to follow. Worse, the fiscal situation in which the outgoing government will leave the country will oblige the successor to confront an inexorable reality: the Treasury will have been drained, perhaps not by corrupt functionaries (although there are also plenty of those), but instead by means of a systematic diversion of the funds of the elemental governmental functions (such as health, education and security) to Pharaonic projects and, above all, to the president’s pet clienteles. An empty Treasury vault and one without a future will obligate a revision of everything, beginning with the ruinous dogmas that comprised the sum and substance of the current government.

Six years of a prophet certain of his probity, but without the least concern for the daily problems that the citizenry bewailed (such as employment, security and incomes) will have left the country on the brink of bankruptcy and with few options for forging ahead.  While the president’s popularity may have been high, this has been a reflection of the person’s nature and of the media–narrative success of his master plan, but not of a capable government and one accomplished at attending to the immediate needs of the country or setting in place the structures and institutions that would foster long-term development.  The prophet incapable of discerning the circumstances of the country, the world or the citizenry.

Precisely when Mexico necessitated the presence of a statesman with a clear vision of the future, accompanied by solid centering on the reality of the country and of the world of the time, AMLO arrived on the presidential scenario with far-ranging popular backing, but without a grasp of (or interest in) the circumstances of the moment. Convinced of the probity of his vision, the president ignored the rationale -correct or incorrect, but not dishonest- that had urged on his predecessors, to tear down everything that existed. Rather than the purported “new” regime, he leaves a nation bereft of opportunities and engulfed in contradictions.

There will come a new government that will have no better alternative than to begin to work the soil from zero. Some are concerned that a Morena government will persist, others fear that someone different will come, from a party or alliance that is today in the opposition. The truth is that, come what may, the problems that will confront the new president, man or woman, will be enormous. After decades of building fiscal structures designed to confer stability on the economy, the president has wagered on things turning out well on their own. Why save during the years of plenty if, with luck, the lean years will never present? He sapped the coffers and trust funds, wiped out institutions, violated all sorts of legal and regulatory precepts to finance his popularity. The mark of a prophet, not of a statesman.

Leadership, to be sustained and effective, must be greater than personal ambition. The challenges accosting Mexico and Mexicans are incommensurable and do not improve by financing the deficits of companies such as Pemex or the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), which are going nowhere, and they are much less resolved with transfers to a resentful and desperate  population that requires instruments for transforming itself and going forward, as well as opportunities to grow and form part of the development. These six years will have come to be a great waste not only because of the annihilation of possibilities, but also above all because of the creation of myths that will render the task difficult for whomever comes in 2024.

Herbert Stein, a famous economist, coined a law of economic stability that bears his name and that describes toward what Mexico is going: “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The world of fantasy that the president imagined and to which he devoted huge resources is not sustainable, which is why it cannot go on. Regardless of who comes next, the task-at-hand will begin by chipping stone.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof