Author Archives: Luis Rubio

Here We Go

Luis Rubio

This will be the decisive year for Mexico. It will be the last opportunity for the government and the last opportunity for the opposition. The clash of those two forces will determine whether Mexico will continue adrift or whether it will find its way in the face of the worst performance of both in the last two years, but, especially, because of the warped preconceptions and ahistorical prejudices that urge on the Mexican president.

The factors that will determine this year’s fate are very clear. What is not evident is what shape they will take, above all in that much will depend on the manner in which the president reacts on confronting the circumstances and how much (more) these become complicated.

Above all else, the great imponderable will be the social consequences of the pandemic and of the politicized rationale of the vaccination process. To date, the President has appeared to be decidedly unruffled, assuming that the combination of the transfer of patronage to his favorite clienteles and cautious management of the public finances would be sufficient to avoid a major crisis. However, none of this attends to the monumental problem of unemployment and the bankrupt companies that the pandemic generated. It is evident that the government is not to blame for the pandemic, but there is not the least doubt that paying the damages for it will lie in its hands, partly because of what it did not do at the beginning and partly because of the disdain with which it dealt with the virus and the population. The dogged reality is about to set in.

In second place, the Morena party coalition has been an exceedingly unstable entity from its origin, engaging the agendas of different groups and the natural interests of those who aspire to the presidency in 2024. The coalition brought together different groups, forces, persons and interests of the most diverse etiologies, ideologies and objectives, a necessary condition to win the presidency two years previously. Nonetheless, the internal divergences, the conflicts embroiled therein and the total absence of institutionalization imply that the administration of this complex entity is nearly impossible, which will affect this year’s election but, more than anything else, the political dynamic and that of the government in the upcoming three years. While all the internal forces share the common objective of reigning victorious in the legislative election in June, the internal divergences will inexorably, albeit little by little, gain in strength. It is to be expected that the opposed agendas, many of them radical, of the Morena tribes will consume a good part of the president’s time in the foreseeable future, with potentially dire consequences.

Third, corruption was perhaps the nodal factor that conferred triumphant legitimacy to the president in 2018, but the government’s performance has done nothing to diminish the former, as illustrated by innumerable examples of corruption within the government itself and in Morena. While the governing party changed, traditional practices remained as usual. In addition to the latter, the onslaught against the ex-presidents will more probably lead to a day of reckoning when this six-year term ends than to a successful judicial persecution, which, increasingly, will resonate in the spirits of Morena leaderships, beginning with the president himself. In the absence of a strategy to eradicate corruption from its wellsprings, the government will be as exposed in the future as its predecessors, if not more so.

Fourth, the president’s popularity continues to be high, which could translate into a less damaging electoral result than the voters’ experience has been from when the votes have been well counted, that is, at least since 1997. At each mid-term election from that time on, the party in the government lost ground, in some cases dramatically. Yet, it is virtually impossible to repeat the 2018 task owing to the characteristic attrition that governments undergo, such as the economic conditions at which Mexico will probably arrive next June. Beyond the popularity, it is not possible to ignore that the sum of the votes for the legislative branch of all the parties that postulated today´s president resulted very much below the 50% mark in 2018. Even a small erosion in preferences changes the political panorama in radical fashion.

Finally, even though all of those in Morena are after power and will attempt to preserve internal peace for the sake of winning the Congress, the in-house contradictions are so great that the factor of cohesion and contention, President López Obrador, will find himself pressured from all sides. At a moment of economic and social emergency such as this, instead of peace and quiet, the country will endure more polarization, conflict, and poor decisions. None of that will help the government and the country even less so.

If one were to extrapolate from the past, everything indicates that the most probable scenario for the government will not be a benign one next June. Needless to say, much will depend on what the government and the opposition do. The government has the upper hand and, on altering its biases and taking a sensible turn in its economic strategy and concerning polarization, the outlook would be less negative, although time is running out. On their part, if the opposition parties nominate candidates likely to win with a credible and hopeful narrative (and, of course, if they do not cannibalize each other as they did in Puebla in 2019), the upshot would throw open the door to opportunities for a better future after 2024.




Luis Rubio
Mexico Today – 12 enero 2021

  Conflict is the essence of politics, since it is politics that allows for conflict to be addressed and processed. The most fundamental difference between societies facing conflict lies in how they resolve it, not in the very fact of its existence. Last week, Washington showcased the two sides of conflict: explosion and resolution. “The measure of a country,” wrote John Kampfner, “is not the difficulties it faces, but how it surmounts them.” How do Mexicans live up to that measure?

Trump was never a normal president. Since his presidential campaign, he has shown himself to be a challenger of established norms and institutions. He’s recently dedicated himself to denying the electoral outcome, mobilizing his followers to attempt to force a change in the result, even inciting them to forcibly take control of the U.S. Congress, an institution which, with grandiloquence, has come to be referred to as the “sanctuary of democracy.” In doing so, Trump broke with the essence of democratic politics, which starts from the principle that all participants accept the rules of the game. Like Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Trump only accepts rules that favor him—and yet, the chaos Trump provoked in the U.S. Capitol did not last more than a few hours. By the following morning, Joe Biden had been formally declared president-elect, and numerous news outlets, including many favorable to Trump, had called for his resignation.

Behaving like a vulgar, Third World strongman who privileges loyalty above all, Trump surely envisioned that his party and the people he had nominated or supported for various positions would come to his rescue. In recent weeks, what has been shocking—though normal in a country with strong institutions that transcend the individuals who inhabit them—is the way conflict has been processed and eventually surpassed.

The list of those who worked to nullify Trump’s legal and political challenges is revealing insofar as it was mostly Republicans who put an end to Trump’s pipe dreams and malicious tactics. It was largely Trump-appointed judges who rejected his attempts to eliminate votes state-by-state through the courts. It was Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices (on whom Trump presumably pinned his hopes for protection) who rejected his calls for salvation. It was the Trump-backed Republican governor of Georgia who refused to be cowered by the president’s’s pressure. It was the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who opposed the maneuvers that Trump demanded to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory. It was Tom Cotton, one of the most hard-core Trumpists, who openly condemned Trump’s actions, perhaps indicating that, once he leaves, Trump will not be as threatening to Republicans as many imagine. And finally, it was Vice President Pence, perhaps the most submissive and loyal of Trump’s collaborators, who adhered to the constitutional rule that put the last nail in the coffin of Trump’s presidency. To end the violent attack against the Capitol, police and the National Guard did not hesitate to fulfill their responsibility to restore order, thus allowing the legislative process to proceed.

In the U.S. electoral process, noisy and conflictive like few others, the winners were institutions and all those responsible actors who adhered to the rules of the game, because doing so is the essence of democracy and of their duty. Despite Trump’s pressure and tantrums, even some of his closest allies distanced themselves.

The contrast could hardly be greater: In Mexico, for at least the six years between 2006 and 2012, López Obrador paralyzed Mexican politics and prevented his party, the PRD, from participating in legislative debates. Today, his only mission seems to be eliminating anything that hinders his lust for power, even if doing so implies impoverishing the population, and particularly those who, with their votes, made possible his ascent to the presidency. His collaborators, past and present, have behaved as loyal servants to his cause, never privileging institutions and the greater values of the country’s development. The contrast is striking.

Mexico is about to start an electoral process for the renewal of its federal Chamber of Deputies, 15 state governorships and hundreds of municipalities and local legislatures. The president has shown utter disregard for the rules of the game, most of which were tailored-made for him after the 2006 election. He is determined to win the elections at any price, violating all norms and principles, not only of democracy, but also of fundamental civility. It is no longer just—as AMLO famously said after losing the presidential election in 2006—“to hell with your institutions”: now, it is to hell with the country.

It’s reminiscent of former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s phrase: “All under heaven is great chaos. The situation is excellent.” López Obrador first causes chaos and then turns it into opportunity. Unfortunately, in contrast to our northern neighbors, in Mexico there are no institutions that can resist the pounding and not enough officials who are willing to hold them up. López Obrador has Mexico on tenterhooks. Trump tried a similar course, but U.S. institutions blocked him. There is a huge difference.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI).  A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.

Twitter: @lrubiof


Virus and Exit

Luis Rubio

The virus and the potential conclusion of the health crisis depends, ultimately, on science, which, hopefully sooner rather than later, it will produce the drugs to deal with it or the vaccine to suppress it. There’s hardly any serious laboratory in the world that is not dedicating enormous resources to achieving these objectives, but these are processes that are unpredictable by definition as they follow the scientific method of trial and error, learning from what does not work.

Discovery, the essence of science, is an inherent component of human nature and precedes by centuries the formal processes of scientific research that exist today. Thinking of the end of the year, here are some ideas about discovery that I found striking.

The unknown is the largest need of the intellect

Emily Dickinson, 1876

Evolution has arranged that we take pleasure in understanding: those who understand are more likely to survive

Carl Sagan

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such trifling investment of fact

Mark Twain, 1883

“Read to live,” says Flaubert somewhere in his letters, and where else does one live if not in a house of straw, signs, and symbols made from the shaping and reshaping of a once-upon-a-time. History is a record of events (kingdoms lost and battles won, cities built and churches burned), but it is also the compost heap of human civilization; the finding of the present in the past, the past in the present, is the stuff of which our lives, our liberties, and pursuits of happiness are made.

Lewis H. Lapham

A few years ago, as Your Highness well knows, I discovered many things in the heavens that had been invisible until this present age. Because of their novelty and because some consequences that follow from them contradict commonly held scientific views, these have provoked not a few professors in the schools against me, as if I had deliberately placed these objects in the sky to cause confusion in the natural sciences. They seem to forget that the increase of known truths, far from diminishing or undermining the sciences, works to stimulate the investigation, development, and strengthening of their various fields. Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions that for the truth, they have sought to deny and disprove these new facts that, if they had considered them carefully, would have been confirmed by the very evidence of their senses.


To this end, they have put forward various objections and published writings full of vain arguments and, more seriously, scattered with references  to Holy Scripture taken from passages they have not properly understood and that have no bearing on their argument. With the passing of time, the truth that I first pointed out have become apparent to all, and the truth has exposed the difference in attitude between those who simply and dispassionately were unconvinced of the reality of my discoveries and those whose incredulity was mixed with some emotional reaction…  It is not as easy to change one’s view of conclusions that have been demonstrated in the natural world or in the heavens as it is to change one’s opinion on what is or is nit permissible in a contract, a declaration of income or a bill of exchange.

Galileo, 1615

At the beginning of 1595, Johannes Kepler received a sign, if not from God himself then from a lesser deity surely, one of those whose task is to encourage the elect of this world. His post at the Stiftsschule carried with it the title of calendar maker for the province of Styria. The previous autumn for a fee of twenty florins from the public coffers, he had drawn up an astrological calendar for the coming year, predicting great cold and an invasion by the Turks… Johannes was charmed with this prompt vindication of his powers… O a sign, yes, surely. He set to work in earnest on the cosmic mystery…  He had not the solution, yet; he was still posing the questions. The first of these was: Why are there just six planets in the solar system?  Why not five, or seven, or a thousand for that matter? No one, so far as he knew, had ever thought to ask it before. It became for him the fundamental mystery.  Even the formulation of such a question struck him as a singular achievement.

Graz, 1595

Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?

Shannon L. Alder

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life. You can spend your life wallowing in despair, wondering why you were the one who was led towards the road strewn with pain, or you can be grateful that you are strong enough to survive it.

J.D. Stroube, Caged by Damnation

I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all for fear of being carried off their feet.

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1840

Happy New Year!


More Readings

Luis Rubio

Once when he received an important recognition, Sean Connery explained that, on coming from a modest background, the great opportunity in his lifetime presented itself when, at five years of age, he learned to read. Reading was one of the great opportunities in this year of the virus. Here go some other books.

There are few matters as controversial as politics in the U.S., especially when it is about its impacts on the rest of the world and, particularly, on Mexico. The convulsions that that nation has undergone in its foreign policy in recent years are transcendent precisely because this is a question of the sole superpower, the one that built the post-war order and that, during these years, has done everything to undermine its foreign policy instead of reconstructing it under novel circumstances.

Among my readings of this year two stand out in singular fashion in this respect: in Why Are We Polarized? Ezra Klein embarks on a meticulous, profound and convincing analysis on the causes and dynamics of the present polarization in the U.S. Tracing the structures and fractures that characterize the party system reveals how each of these has been maximizing their positions, converting social or personal identity into the major differentiating element, to the point that they represent irreconcilable postures. What the author does not explain is how it is that the stances that are self-evident for the followers of one party are have the effect of alienating the followers of the other, as occurred with Obama and Trump, respectively

In United States in the World, Robert Zoellick describes the patterns that have guided the foreign policy of his country, with notable emphasis on the constraints that have shaped decisions in the matter from its Independence. In addition to narrating the history, Zoellick incorporates an interminable series of anecdotes, specific disputes and states of affairs that not only render attractive the reading a text of such analysis and depth, but also absorbing. The final part of the book, written in the light of Trump’s last hurrah, is particularly relevant for Mexico in that the author discusses the transition of NAFTA to T-MEC, situating it within the context of North America. The book ends with a quote from de Tocqueville that highlights the general tenor: “The greatness of America is not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Samir Puri*, an ex-functionary of the British Diplomatic Service,  devotes himself to analyzing the empires that crumbled in the XX century, but that left in their wake unresolved conflicts, some insoluble, which mark the XXI century. Throughout the work Puri studies the geopolitical dynamic between Russia and the Western nations, the changes that the African continent is undergoing and the sources of conflict that distinguish countries like India to the region of the Middle East. In conventional terms, Puri discards an easy reconciliation between China and the European nations or the United States, as they are cheered on by objectives to a substantial extent contradictory. He accentuates the conflict between the U.S and China, concerning which he anticipates “an era of interplay between many post-imperial visions, evident in everything, from geopolitics to commerce and inter-cultural exchanges. Rather than the future being Asia, it will feature more two-way streets of reciprocal influence between different nations.”

What explains the different configurations and histories of democracy in distinct civilizations? There are many studies that compare Europe to Asia, but few delineate the differences of origin. In an extraordinary book, The Decline and Rise of Democracy, David Stasavage sets forth a fascinating hypothesis: States developed as democracies or autocracies depending on the strength or weakness of the governments that emerged around the world from their initiation. Democracy had a tendency to proliferate where there was a weak government and simple technologies: where there were no strong institutions, above all a bureaucracy capable of collecting taxes, the governors required the consent of the population, as occurred in diverse regions of Europe. Contrariwise, where the central bureaucracy was stronger, as in China, consent was not necessary, which gave rise to the ascent of autocracies. One of the most interesting cases in point that the author relates in his work is the difference between Tlaxcaltecans and Aztecs, attributing to the former an early democracy in the face of the autocratic centralism of the latter.

In The Economy of Extortion, Luis de la Calle makes clear the manner in which diverse mechanisms, customs and ways of conducting public affairs in Mexico constitute a ballast in that they impede productivity from escalating, diminish the appeal for companies to grow (above all informal ones) and sentence the country to underdevelopment. Extortion, says the author, is nothing other than corruption: the abuse of power for personal gain and it manifests itself at the moment that a self-appointed street valet extorts to “keep the car from coming to harm” to the bureaucrat who presses for a bribe or to union leaders who threaten a strike by their union members. What is captivating about this book is the diversity of forms in which extortion rears its head and its consequent social, economic and cultural impacts.

*The Great Imperial Hangover

My Readings 2020

 Luis Rubio

 I ended the year reading a book nearly unique in its genre, and extraordinary in its transcendence: the history of two revolutionaries as seen by their daughter. Daughter of Revolutionaries, by Laurence Debray, tells the story of her parents prior to her birth and throughout her life, and what she relates is not something about which her progenitors would be proud. When the priorities are war and lust, personal prestige and political influence, the daughter always remains marginalized. There is no more brutal, direct and indisputable –and agonizing – indictment than that of a daughter and the Debrays end up in a bad way. That said, the book imparts exceptional details of two extraordinary lives, from the incarceration of her father Regis in Bolivia when Che Guevara attempted to ignite the revolution, to the majesty of her grandparents and the equally fantastic story of her mother, Elizabeth Burgos, with glimpses into Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and the goings-on of the French government.

One of the best books that I read this year was “The Conservative Sensibility,” by George F. Will, a commentator who has for decades written in newspapers and provided commentary for television. Historically conservative, this volume would appear to be his intellectual legacy in which he abandons a great part of the premises of U.S  conservatism to confirm himself as an integral liberal, but not one, in the North-American libertarian fashion, in which one decides to distance oneself from civilization but rather, contrariwise, as one convinced of the importance of functioning in the real world, diagnosing problems, proposing solutions, criticizing governmental acts and being active in the central disputes of the ideas that characterize a society.

In Institutions, Inequity and Systems of Privilege in Mexico, Cuauhtémoc López Guzmán, an academician at the Autonomous University of Baja California, pens a splendid essay on the incomplete transition in which Mexico became mired. One paragraph sums up his argument:  “Corrupt government, rent-seeking entrepreneurs, and violations of the Rule of Law in Mexico are the result of a predatory institutional order instituted from Colonial times for pillage. The existence today of rival substitutes for the leader should have ended the corruption, but everything seems to indicate that substitution of those in government (alternation of parties in the presidency) has not changed dishonest conduct, in that the opportunities for enrichment and privileges remain unaltered.” The book is especially relevant now that the three main political forces have occupied the presidency without it changing the system of privileges an iota. The problem lies elsewhere.

Christopher Caldwell* writes one of the best analyses that I have read on the political change that has portrayed the U.S. in recent decades. The heart of his line of reasoning is that the so duly celebrated legislation in matters of Civil Rights of 1964, which freed the Black people and opened a new era toward the equalities of opportunities, also planted the seeds of division and alienation that took place some decades later and that exerted an effect on marginalizing the White male in particular. A very sophisticated historical explanation of the gap thrown open by that legislation and that, half a century later, materialized in the form of Trump. A doubtlessly controversial analysis, but highly interesting and enlivened in the manner in which the politics of identity and the consecration of the rights of and budgets for the minorities created a new minority that ultimately rebelled in 2016 with the election of Trump.

Nadia Urbinati** asserts that populism is a new species of representative government, founded on a direct relationship between leaders and those who they define as good. In contrast with traditional representative democracy, where the winner of an election  represented everyone across the board, the populist kingpin exists to ignore those they considered their adversaries, thus pressuring the entire existing constitutional structure, which opened the door to authoritarianism.  The populism resulted from the growth of inequality, as well as the existence of a “rapacious oligarchy” that becomes an easy target in electoral terms. Its strength is that it breaks with the time-honored partitioning of social and ideological classes, but its weakness resides in that they end up plundering the same system that they attacked and that sustained them in power. Powerful polemic.

The New Class War*** by Michael Lind summarizes the perspective of the “forgotten” in the battle that has come to distinguish a good part of the world during the last decade. For Lind, the dispute is about the power of decision that has been concentrated in recent decades in a sector of society typified by their formal credentials (academic, bureaucratic or professional), which confers on their members an immoderate influence on the decisions. The solution lies in a pluralistic democracy, presumably one not impacted by professionals of any strain. A sentence sums up his practical proposal: the “four neoliberal freedoms” (the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital) should be replaced by the “four regulations.”

*The Age of Entitlement, ** Me the People, ***The New Class War

South vs North

Luis Rubio

There is no issue more critical for Mexico than the poverty that characterizes the country’s South. It is an issue that impacts Mexico’s entire national life. Southern Mexico is home to vast natural and human resources that cannot display the best of themselves. It is the place from where much of Mexico’s historic migration to the United States originates. The Mexican South is also the origin of a good part of the resentment that dominates national politics. There is not the slightest doubt that creating conditions for the development of the country’s South is a domestic priority. It is not just a matter of basic justice. Accelerated economic growth in the Mexican southern region would result in widespread benefits for the country especially in the context of the current economic recession. The paradox is that a successful strategy for the Mexican South would also be a source of certainty and of development for all Mexicans.

Mexico’s northern half (starting somewhere north of Mexico City) along with the Yucatan Peninsula, have grown at an average annual GDP rate above 5 percent and some cities in the region been growing above 7 percent for decades. In contrast, the states that form the Mexican South (Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and some parts of Veracruz, Puebla, Morelos, and State of Mexico) have hardly changed from where they were forty years ago. Not only has the South not made progress: in relative terms, it has fallen behind dramatically. While the economy of  a state like Aguascalientes in the North has more than quadrupled in size during this period, the states in the South have remained nearly unchanged.

The López Obrador administration is not the first to be concerned with how to rescue the Mexican South, nor is it the first to design ambitious government programs to induce higher growth rates in that region. Since at least the 1970s, administration after administration have produced countless government programs aimed at generating higher growth rates. Nonetheless, the region has grown very little. Some of these past programs sought to create infrastructure. Others provided subsidies to the poorest families. Some administrations devised the idea of special development zones with tax incentives while other were just devoted to   strengthening electoral clientelistic networks. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to expect a better outcome with the current administration’s dogmatic line.

The López Obrador administration’s plan includes massive projects such as the Mayan Train and the Dos Bocas oil refinery. The most serious critics of the Mayan Train argue the lack of business rationale from the conception of the project. Specifically, they point that the train does not connect key points to make it not only a viable infrastructure project, but to turn it into a potential detonator of other investments. In addition, the train does communicate with tourist centers, the region’s main source of income. Meanwhile, the Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco is being built at the worst moment when demand for gasoline is beginning to decline and when the state-owned oil company (PEMEX) is virtually bankrupt. Both the Mayan Train and the Dos Bocas oil refinery exemplify the problem with the López Obrador administration: they not only ignore the economic context but also there is no solid diagnosis behind them. They rather stem from the desire to do good but anchored in an idea of a Mexico that is long gone. But wishes are not realities. The economic recession and PEMEX’s dire situation threaten to further impoverish a region like southern Mexico that with good projects, could easily see much greater economic growth, especially if it industrializes agriculture, for which the area appears uniquely endowed. As the success of people from Oaxaca in Chicago shows, there is plenty creative capacity in that state. However, there is also an abundance of political, bureaucratic and social hindrances to development.

The case of Oaxacans in Chicago is crucial because it confirms that the problem is not one of capabilities or potential, but rather of realities at the local level. Put in simple terms, perhaps the most obvious difference between Aguascalientes and the southern Mexican states lies in the presence of myriad political bosses in the South who thwart development of people and companies. The realities of the Mexican South has also inhibited investment in infrastructure, making it impossible to attract, even under the best of circumstances, productive investment. The vicious circle of insecurity along with the presence of political, union, and teacher chiefdoms have held back not only progress but even actions by the Mexican government to develop adequate infrastructure as in other parts of the country.

People from southern Mexico are not different from the rest of Mexicans. We all need certainty to prosper. For decades, the North has enjoyed both legal and functional schemes, beginning with NAFTA, which generated huge opportunities. The North also could count with the government’s willingness to eliminate political obstacles to development, not only strengthening the but systematically raising average incomes. None of those elements has been present in southern Mexico, not even the most basic transportation infrastructure.

Instead of continuing to erode the sources of success of the northern Mexican states, the López Obrador government should learn from them and create sources of certainty and stability in the South.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.
 Twitter: @lrubiof



Political Deficit

Luis Rubio

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the world is fast becoming dramatically complex. This is nothing new. During the past decade, all the world’s reference points of the last half century were eroded, called into question, or erased. What Mexicans are witnessing in their domestic politics has been taking place in the world at large. Just look at Brexit in Great Britain, the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US, the far-right governments in several European nations, the attacks against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the sudden rise of migration throughout the world and its repercussions for developed countries. All this happened even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Furthermore, sources of conflict have multiplied and many of the balancing agents -which at one point in time were numerous and also widely credible- have now practically disappeared. The context, one could say, has been altered or, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, “everything has changed except our way of thinking” .

Change affects all countries, but each responds to it according to its own set of circumstances, capabilities, and conditions. In some cases, their capacity of response depends on internal factors, in others on external circumstances. Electorates in many countries have tended to grow more polarized and to choose leaders previously unthinkable. Political systems that once produced weak governments, now make possible the emergence of “strong men,” even in countries with long and deep democratic roots and with solid systems of checks and balances. What seemed impossible not long ago is an everyday thing now.

In Mexico, we currently have a government with huge capacity for action that, however, has responded in contrasting ways to external phenomena. This was evident during the negotiation of the new USMCA trade agreement when it yielded to U.S. pressure very much like the previous administration did when talks started. Meanwhile, the Mexican government behaved with renewed activism when dealing with the crises in Venezuela and Bolivia. The administration has also being firm in its ludicrous reluctance to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory in the US presidential election. Countries act according to internal and external circumstances. The Mexican government has recognized its vulnerability vis-à-vis the North (the U.S.) while at the same time displaying rare confidence when dealing with the South (even enjoying domestic support despite political division).

However, one thing is how a country reacts to a particular situation and, a very different one, is to set a course of action. During the recent presentation of a policy paper (“Mexico and Central America: A Delayed Encounter”), the internationally-renowned migration expert Demetrios Papademetriou made two comments that are especially relevant for the present moment.

First, referring to migration but applicable to the entire world’s complexity, Papademetriou said that the problems the world is facing have a solution but that it requires cooperation among governments.  Thus, it is necessary for the parties to share a minimum of mutual trust. The problem, Papademetriou went on to say, is that no national government can currently count on the trust of its population and there is even less trust among national governments themselves.

It is not a surprise to say that the current Mexican government subordinated Mexico’s old foreign policy principles and practices (some praiseworthy, others less so) in order to preserve superior objectives like economic viability.  This was evident in 2019 when President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. if Mexico did not stopped the irregular flows of Central American migrants through its territory. Despite the criticisms, the López Obrador administration acted in the only way possible: ceding to Trump’s threats. The Mexican government did this less based on the asymmetry of power vis-à-vis the U.S., but rather thinking on the potential consequences for Mexican exports and on the peso exchange market, which would have destroyed Mexico’s economic stability in a flash.

Papademetriou’s second comment was about how  problems need to be addressed following a carefully conceived, developed and proactive strategy because, in his words, “when you play catch-up, you never catch up.” Solutions are the result of an action plan that responds to the specific nature of the problems. As much as migrant source countries might would want it (or for that matter the U.S. and Europe), altering demographic trends is something that by definition can only be measured not in years but in generations. I can only be altered in the long run. To put it simply: irregular migration cannot be eliminated altogether in the short run even if President Trump wanted it.

This is also true for Mexico. The problems that the country faces can certainly become even more acute if a belic conflict flares up in the Middle East, if Central America’s insecurity expels more migrants, if the China-U.S. tension continues endlessly or a myriad other factors beyond Mexico’s control. Some of these factors could be turned into opportunities like in the case of the U.S. trade tensions with China. But it could also be in the case of a new conflict in the oil-rich Middle East. This of course, as long as the current Mexican administration stops putting into doubt the country’s landmark 2013’s energy reform. Otherwise, Mexicans would end up just watching without being able to take action.

Crises are always sources of opportunity. However, in order to seize opportunity it is needed a clear willingness to change criteria, obsessions and dogmas. Today’s government deficit in Mexico is not fiscal, but rather political.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof



To Destroy

Luis Rubio

 Things in Mexico were certainly not perfect two years ago. It had been some time since the promise of being part of the First World had vanished. However, reality was not black and white: Mexico had taken great strides forward, as shown by the boom in the country’s aerospace, automotive, and agricultural exports. Some Mexican states like Querétaro and Aguascalientes have not only maintained internal peace, but had also been growing at Asian rates. Nonetheless, there are other Mexican states that have not only stagnated and lagged behind but that also became migrants’ sending states. Anyone with a minimum of common sense and who does not see things through an ideological or partisan lens knows well that Mexico had undergone great advances and that still had enormous deficiencies. One can see the broad range of grays everywhere you look in today’s Mexico. The question is whether for the country to make decisive and generalized progress is it required destroying everything or if on the contrary, the ideal recipe is rather to correct course by building  on what’s right and correct mistakes.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office exactly two years ago convinced of the first approach: everything in Mexico is inadequate and must be destroyed to go back to an era when things once worked. Next thing you know, Mexico has undergone under AMLO a whirlwind of changes including eliminating government programs, cancelling projects, and all kind of other policy actions, some justified and most of them arbitrary. Some in Mexico share the president’s urge to overhaul everything. But what is certain, two years hence, is that the sole plan guiding AMLO is to roll back everything and, on many occasions, due to the most deep-seated motivations: hate, the spirit of revenge and the lust for power.

There are two key factors on which AMLO’s narrative is based on: first, that Mexico’s reform process starting in the 1980s followed an ideological rationale; and, second, that things in Mexico were better before the reform process started.

If one analyzes the way how Mexico’s reform process was built in the 1980s, the first thing that jumps out is that there was no plan. The administration of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) inherited a bankrupt government and an unhinged Mexican economy. All of president de la Madrid’s actions during his first two years in office were directed towards attempting to rebuild the country’s economic stability of the 1960s: controlling government spending, lowering external debt, and restoring financial equilibrium. The great shift the de la Madrid’s administration undertook was to begin the liberalization of imports with the goal of attracting foreign investment and increasing the Mexican economy’s productivity.

That big swerve during the 1980s -conceptually huge for Mexico but very modest in its first implementation phase- did not respond to any ideological consideration but instead to a crucial recognition: the world had changed. First of all, the high economic growth rates that Mexico experienced in the 1970s were based on an exceptional circumstance: the discovery of extensive oil fields in Mexico’s Gulf Coast and the expectation of huge government revenues stemming from it. When at the beginning of the 1980s these revenues did not materialize, the Mexican economy collapsed. The key point here is to  remember that it is not true that the economy was in very good shape before the reform process started in the 1980s. Those who like to believe that the Mexican economy was doing well  in the 1970s are looking at the effects of the “oil mirage” and not at its real structure.

The true problem of Mexico’s reform process, which got more structured in the 1990s and was consolidated with the enactment of the NAFTA trade deal, lies on the fact that it was conceived to avoid political change. In contrast with other countries that also underwent change -Spain, Chile and South Korea-, the reform process in Mexico was being carried out not by a new government -emanated from democratic elections after the fall of a dictatorship- but by the very same party that had been in power for decades. The Mexican reform process can only be compared to that of the USSR which did not survive it. In consequence, the Mexican reform process was born incomplete because it pursued two contradictory goals: on one hand, liberalizing the economy and rendering it more efficient; and on the other, protecting the interests of the political establishment in companies, sectors and tasks. The result can be seen in things such as Mexico’s current education system which currently blocks progress in vast regions of the country. The education system is also what makes it almost impossible for Mexico to replace China as the source of many of US imports. In Mexico’s education system one can also attest to vast monopolies that survive to this day and all sorts of interests that keep southern Mexico poor.

There are many reasons for change in Mexico. President AMLO was uniquely positioned to carry out the changes Mexico required. Only someone like him who is knowledgeable of history, adept at political mobilization, and who was not linked to the original sponsors of the reform process of the 1980s could have made the changes Mexico needed. Unfortunately, AMLO chose a different path. He refused to acknowledge the circumstances that led the country where it is today and he allowed himself to be dominated by primitive motivations that are not compatible with the office of the Mexican presidency. The result is a president embarking on the systematic destruction of things that work in Mexico -at any cost- without creating anything that is able to decisively transform the country, with better economy, less corruption and more rule of law. In short, we can say that it has been two years of destruction. And what’s still left to do.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. 

Twitter: @lrubiof

Against Nature

Luis Rubio

The saying goes that one defies nature at his own expense and risk. In economics, there is ample evidence of the risks involved in challenging the most basic principles of human behavior. The idea that government should devote its actions to reconstruct a bygone era cannot lead to anything other than failure. In plain terms, no government can survive if it disregards the context within which it attempts to conduct public affairs. 

Three moments changed the history of the world in a radical fashion: the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, the Digital Revolution. Each of those moments transformed humanity and altered all patterns and ways of life. Just as there were people making whips for horse-drawn carriages when the automobile appeared, the desire to reconstruct the lost fatherland of the past is absurd given the Digital Revolution we live in.

Each of these transformative moments in history was accompanied by dislocations. The most conspicuous and well known is the effect that the arrival of the steam engine had on production  at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Previously depending on people assisted by pack animals, production was revolutionized in a matter of years. This change left behind a trail of suffering in the form of poverty, unemployment and uneasiness. Anyone who has read the harrowing chronicles of Charles Dickens can understand the enormous human cost that these processes of change entail. The memories of such processes explain the reluctance to accept their inevitability and, above all, the impotence -of both individuals and governments- in the face of the unstoppable force of such Revolution.

The time we are living in presupposes exactly the opposite of what the current Mexican administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) intends to do. To begin with: tomorrow was yesterday. Everything is interdependent, and nothing waits for you. What happens in China or France affects everyone in the planet and can unleash actions that seemed unimaginable a minute prior. Just as Brexit practically annihilated the traditional British political parties, Mexico’s ruling party (MORENA) emerged as a movement that, in just a few years, displaced all existing political forces. Nothing is permanent anymore. The only constant certainty is that nothing is constant.

Second, the traditional educational system is no longer relevant in a world in which the skills demanded by the economy change inexorably. Mexico’s old teachers’ unions will continue to protect the interests of small groups or of the most extreme elements in the current Mexican government. However, they are nothing more than obstacles to the adjustments that today’s education needs in order to make children successful in a world they will have to faces sooner than anyone could have imagined.

In the same way, the once all-powerful Mexican government has no choice today but to manage its weakness if it wants to remain relevant. This structural weakness has nothing to do with the immediate political moment we are living in. It has to do with the way that communications, markets and citizen demands work now. The key lies in government strengthening and rendering efficient its primary functions such as security and basic services. The ambition to control everything is just a chimerical idea that defies the basic laws of nature, this is, reality. López Obrador’s predecessor in the Mexican Presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto, attempt it and one can see where he is today.

The challenge for the Mexican government today is flexibility and adaptability, not control and dogmatism. Certainly, wealth in Mexico is poorly distributed and everyday life leaves much to be desired. All this manifests itself in a nearly total shutdown of social mobility, the factor that provided Mexico decades of progress and stability during the past century. The solution is not to be found in more government spending, greater austerity or in an always elusive tax reform that solves everything. It is rather to be found in a very different use of Mexico’s public resources. If the key component for economic success is adding value through knowledge, it is  impossible not to conclude that what is urgent is a radical change of direction in the nature of the Mexican education system. Needless to say what this change could imply for the functioning of Mexico’s justice and security system as well as for the markets.

The changes that Mexico requires to build an accelerated development platform are many and undoubtedly complex. However, to achieve their objective, these changes must be compatible with the Digital Age. Authoritarianism, government control, contempt for education and rejecting the nature of the 21st century’s economy are reactionary recipes that will only impoverish Mexico. The series of reforms that the current Mexican government has undertaken, and those that it proposes to carry out in the upcoming months, are the product of nothing more than nostalgia for the past and resentment.

However one wants to measure it, all these actions will impede progress, and will provoke the opposite of  what was sought because they imply ignoring and challenging reality. It is not a good starting point to say the least.

As commendable as it might be to seek to return to a less convulsive and accelerated time, it is a futile effort that in itself defies the force of nature and that involves incommensurable risks.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. 

Twitter: @lrubiof


Corruption and Impunity

Luis Rubio

One key question in Mexico these days is understanding whether corruption is a tool for the government to advance a political project or an evil that should be eradicated. What is certain is that both things cannot coexist given an evident flagrant contradiction: corruption is either something government makes use of or something it fights to erase from sight. Available evidence shows that corruption is an instrument in the hands of the current Mexican government to consolidate its political base and power at large.

Government corruption is an ancient vice in Mexico, but not an inexplicable one. In historical terms, there are two factors that have fostered and allowed corruption to take root. In the first place, Mexico’s post-revolutionary political system transformed corruption into an instrument of power. The political regime that emerged from Mexico’s revolutionary era required the creation of a mechanism to satisfy the ambitions of the many leaders on the winning side and that could consolidate its hegemonic nature at the same time.

The key to solve this post-revolutionary Mexican dilemma laid in creating a system of political loyalties nourished by two components: on the one hand, access to corruption and, on the other, interrelated complicities. The former would allow the existence of a verbal arrangement to justify any act and to excuse anyone stealing as some sort of service to the nation. People would often say: “the Revolution did justice to them”. Government and party jobs were assigned following one rule: reward loyalty. This can be summed up in another revelatory popular dictum of Mexico’s authoritarian era: “Don’t give me anything, just put me where there is”. People appointed to become purchasing managers at the different Mexican government Ministries (or even better, at a government-owned company like Pemex) knew that they have been sent there not to improve productivity, but rather as a reward for their loyalty.

Another factor that fosters and that renders corruption possible in Mexico, is the nature of the legal system. For example, construction inspectors in Mexico know that their function is not ensuring that the authorized blueprints of buildings are complied with. They know that their job is rather one of negotiation between what has been authorized and what the builders are actually doing. Under-the-table arrangements allow buildings to have 15 floors when they were originally authorized to have 10. Still, the responsibility does not lie with the inspector or the builder, but in the Mexican legal system that confers such vast discretionary power upon the inspector.

Discretionary power becomes in the end arbitrary power because it does not have to comply with any previously established and duly published code, regulation or rule (the basic condition for an effective Rule of Law). The discretionary power that a government official has in Mexico grows as he ascends through the bureaucratic hierarchy. One example is the law of foreign investment that the administration of president Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) advanced. The bill’s title did not leave any doubt of its goal: Law to Promote Domestic Investment and Regulate Foreign Investment. One might agree or not with the objectives or specific limits to investment established in it but the wording of the law was clear and it intended to give certainty to potential investors. However, the law also included one clause granting all-encompassing powers to one single Minister in the Mexican government who was able to redefine limits to investment following his or her own judgement. With this ability, the foreign investment law ceased to have any relevance given that this discretionary power superseded the law itself. The point is that discretionary power easily becomes arbitrary and, thus, a wellspring of corruption within the government, between citizens and the government, and also among private actors themselves.

Corruption in Mexico assumes many forms and not all of these necessarily involve money: taking advantage of public resources, profiting from the government’s budget and buying land through which a future highway will pass are just some of the many means of illegal enrichment. They have become an intrinsic component of what is Mexico and no political party is untainted, including the current López Obrador administration. The diversion of public funds to nurture political clienteles is corruption no matter how it is disguised.

In addition to time-honored modes of corruption, Mexico is witnessing the growth of other phenomena not entirely new: the pardoning of corrupt officials or businesspeople close to the government, the destruction of government institutions, the elimination of key services like daycare for working mothers and the scarcity of medications in public hospitals. All of these are forms of corruption that prevail in Mexico given the country’s full impunity.

The two crucial sources of corruption in Mexico –the nature of the country’s legal system and the informal system to repay loyalty- can be eradicated in that both arise are from factors that are known and, at least in principle, modifiable. But none of that is being done. The decision to send to jail the former Social Development Minister Rosario Robles and the President’s use of the bully pulpit to attacks his alleged opponents are in no way different from the arbitrary actions of any previous Mexican administration. The idea behind these actions is not to expunge corruption but the derision of people. The president is applying a pliable standard and not acting following the law.

Thus, political rhetoric changes but corruption persists. As it has happened in other times in post-revolutionary Mexico, what we are seeing today is a process that has to do with consolidation of power, nothing more.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.
Twitter: @lrubiof