Author Archives: Luis Rubio


Luis Rubio

An ancient Chinese proverb argues that “when there is turmoil under the heavens, little problems become big problems, and big problems are not dealt with at all. When there is order under the heavens, big problems are reduced to small problems, and small problems should not obsess us.” Judging by the account furnished by John Rogin of the Trump administration, everything was done, consciously or not, to heighten the conflict, therefore making it unmanageable.

Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century is a fascinating book that describes the dynamic within the Trump government, an administration characterized more by chaos than by organization and clarity of purpose. Trump’s team failed to find the way of turning the rhetoric of the president into concrete policies or of managing the diverse factions marshalled within his administration to advance (or impede) the consolidation of an agenda.

In the relationship with China, the central theme of the book, the only word that can portray what took place there is chaos, throwing open the door for the Chinese President to make headway with his own agenda, being as he was in full control of his government. Not by chance does Rogin begin the book with a quote from Mao that rhymes with the previously mentioned proverb: “There is great chaos under the heavens… The situation is excellent.”

Although the book refers to the strategy -if what occurred there can be called that- of the Trump government toward China, there are myriad commentaries and chronicles throughout the text regarding other matters that motivated the president and that create a window to observe his way of operating. Therein appear NAFTA, meetings with diverse presidents, the contempt of Trump for the ordinary citizen (his most solid political base), the logic of foreign intervention in U.S. politics, his disdain for the members of his own cabinet, and his tortuous fashion -instinctive and off the top of his head- of arriving at a decision on issues as complex and sensitive as the World Trade Organization (WTO), Taiwan, China, USMCA, North Korea, Covid, etcetera. Enormous disorder one would not expect from a superpower with a nuclear weapons arsenal within reach of its president.

Trump did not anticipate winning the 2016 election. His campaign was hinged on instinct, contrary to what electoral strategy professionals considered elemental, but it was successful because it matched the feelings of a broad segment of the electorate. That victory emboldened him to proceed with an agenda based essentially in his perceptions and mood of the moment. As Bob Woodward illustrates in Rage, instead of according their place to the professionals, he regarded their function with scorn and appointed or removed them from their posts constantly, frequently with great gusto, usually in a visceral manner.*

Thus, a highly institutionalized government ended up operating on two planes: that of the president’s spur-of-the-moment decisions, and that of a professional bureaucracy attempting to maintain a semblance of order. Between both extremes, the political functionaries (appointed by Trump) fought over controlling the agenda, while some accused others of being dominated by the “Swamp” or the “Deep State,” which is nothing more than professionals dedicated to doing what they always do: preserving the status quo, whether that is their intention or not.

Rogin’s account of the factions exercising control over the distinct moments of the administration is perhaps what is most valuable about the book. A group of amateurs in governmental affairs in charge of transcendental decisions and in permanent conflict, some for pressing Trump’s rhetorical agenda forward (like Bannon), others seeking to “correct” the president’s agenda (like Bolton), while still others strived to protect the status quo, above all in economic matters and those involving international trade (like Cohn, Mnuchin and Kushner). The latter, the president’s son-in-law, comes across as the meddler, lurching back and forth among his personal interests, saving his father-in-law from his worst instincts, concerning himself with the stock market and promoting some relevant international agendas. Surrounding all of this, during the first years of the administration, members of the military in strategic posts (such as White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor) were able to sustain an outward appearance of order, as if they were the adults in a kindergarten.

The manner of functioning of the Trump administration was much worse than one could imagine. While some of its objectives were meritorious, most importantly that of breaking with the bureaucratic inertia that supposes that all that exists is good and warrants no change, Trump’s personality, his inexperience (and poor experience) did nothing other than create and magnify a perennial chaos that, nevertheless, engendered new realities, such as the conflict with China, the renegotiation of NAFTA, and the legitimacy of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Along the way, he destroyed crucial relations and deepened the internal conflict.

Most governments endeavor to resolve or manage the problems and conflicts that they encounter. Some try to change the world. Most do no more than stay the course, just barely. Trump, and others, like Mexico’s, end up by demolishing more that they build, enhancing the problems and rendering them unsolvable.


*Christopher Buckley’s Make Russia Great Again is an extraordinary comical version of the same administration.

Pettiness or Greatness

Luis Rubio

The dearth of statesmen in the world, argued Napoleon, is due to the complexity inherent in the function: “to get power you need to display absolute pettiness. To exercise power, you need to show true greatness.” Nearly three years after he assumed the presidency, it is evident that Andrés Manuel López Obrador does not understand (or does not accept) the difference: he stayed on the side of pettiness.

Rather than governing, which the President considers “very easy,” he has devoted himself to dividing the Mexican people, while simultaneously advancing an agenda whose essence is the elimination of everything that existed during the past four decades. His mode of acting is perfectly explainable, in that it includes two projects that are incompatible and at odds with each other. The presidential project point of departure is that the institutional development that took place in the past decades was a total failure.

The president is dedicated to the construction of his vision of how the country should work. In truth, it consists of the recreation of his historical memory: the presidency of the seventies, the Mexican nation’s golden era as conceived of by López Obrador. During that epoch, the presidency was, in that cartoonish view, almighty: the president could impose his will, which guaranteed the functioning of the country, the economy would grow and there would be order. Those of us who lived through the seventies know that the presidency of those times -Echeverría and López Portillo- was a source of infinite frivolity, the economy was running amok (actually, both presidents inaugurated the era of financial crises that later became an almost everyday occurrence) and it was precisely they who initiated the era of disorder that later turned uncontrollable.

A book on the Palace of Versailles affirms that “Louis XIV built Versailles, Louis XV enjoyed Versailles and Louis XVI paid for Versailles.” Something like that happened to Mexico in the mid-XX century: the era of “stabilizer development” allowed the economy to grow; the two previously mentioned presidents, known as those of the tragic dozen (two six-year terms of office), enjoyed what their predecessors had built; and the eighties was the decade during which Mexicans had to pay for the licentiousness and frivolousness (personal, political and economic) of those personages.

The eighties were a convulsive period: economic crisis, nearly hyperinflation, exacerbated debt, tremendous anger, mistrust, and repeated attempts to reestablish some semblance of order and stability in all spheres of national life. After several failed efforts to return to the era of stabilizer development, the government of the time ended with the understanding and recognition that such course of action was impossible and that the world -and Mexico- had changed in the interim. That which followed -the era of economic as well as political reforms- was unequal and partial, but without doubt reinstituted a veneer of economic and political order, although along the way control of territory and organized crime were lost.

Key in that process was the erection of institutions whose objective was to confer trust on the population (such as the Federal Electoral Institute [IFE], a new Supreme Court, the   National Institute for Transparency [INAI], the National Human Rights Commission [CNDH]); on the economy (such as the Federal Economic Competition Commission [COFECE]); and on specific sectors (such as the Energy Regulatory Commission [CRE], the National Hydrocarbons Commission [CNH], and the Federal Telecommunications Institute [IFT]). Some of these institutions achieved constitutional rank, others autonomy, some were more effective than others, but all pursued a common rationale: to confer trust and become checks to the power of the almighty Executive branch of yesteryear. It was about (or tried to be about) giving shape to a modern economy and a democratic society.

The project of López Obrador is exactly the opposite: his objective is to centralize and concentrate the power, impose the presidential vision, and eliminate every vestige of independence, democracy, and competition, as these are incompatible with his model for the country.  Consequently, it becomes clear why he would need to abolish, neutralize, or eliminate all these institutions, many of which, unfortunately, proved too flimsy to bear up under the presidential siege. In attack mode, López Obrador and Trump are remarkably similar, but the U.S. institutions, in contrast with Mexico’s, proved strong enough to withstand the onslaught.

The problem for López Obrador, but above all for Mexico, is that his model jars with today’s world and with the daily reality of a populace with aspirations and expectations proper to the XXI century. Many of those people voted for López Obrador due to their believing in him or being fed up with the past, but what he has attempted to advance is not only a reactionary adventure; rather, it is nothing more than a chimera and an unrealizable whim of fancy. This, more than anything else, better spells out the electoral hecatomb that the President underwent.

“The essence of democracy,” wrote Deng Yuwen, editor of a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, “is how to restrict government power: this is the most important reason why China so badly needs democracy. The overconcentration of government power without checks and balances is the root cause of so many social problems.” López Obrador is beginning to experience these same twinges.

Mexico and the Art of Governing


Mexico Today –  July 14, 2021
Luis Rubio

 Governing is the art of managing the gap between citizen expectations and day-to-day realities says Argentinean economist David Konzevik. Mexico is a living example of the huge rift between both elements and also of the inability of its government to bridge it. The question here is why.

 Mexico’s most recent midterm election  provides us with a clue to the country’s key problems which several Mexican administrations have avoided for decades.  Independently of the electoral result, the midterms made evident two clear patterns among the Mexican electorate. On the one hand, a recognition of the immense change for good that Mexico has undergone throughout the last decades. One needs to look no further than the impressive urban vote -all the way from Mexico City to the cities in the border with the US- to see an active, demanding and resolute side of the country that fully envisions a promising future. On the other hand, the midterms showed the underdevelopment that continues to be the definitive trait of a large part of southern Mexico and other areas.

In a way, not much has changed since Mexico’s decisive 2018 election when Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president. The country exhibits enormous inequality levels which have been exacerbated (not diminished) by the president’s own tendencies. Rather than advancing toward the goals that López Obrador brandished in his campaign, Mexico has withdrawn into itself, and the country’s problems are now more accentuated.

It would be easy to assign the blame for Mexico’s current state to López Obrador only. Yet, that would ignore that the issue at stake are the institutional structures that made it possible for a president to change so many things without any checks and balances. Some Mexicans like what López Obrador has done as president. Other Mexicans disapprove him. Yet, both points of view elude the underlying stumbling block: Mexico does not need a savior or a tlatoani, the ruling monarch of Aztec times. What Mexico needs is a system of government that works, that solves problems and that builds a suitable environment for the country’s development. Such idea implies providing Mexicans with effective services (education, health and public safety) and creating the structures that make long-term development of the country possible.

At the heart of the Mexican dilemma lies the difference between the economic and political reforms that the country undertook during the past decades. Mexico’s economic reforms since the 1980s followed a very well-articulated model despite mistakes and implementation biases. Meanwhile, Mexico’s reforms in the political realm occurred in reaction to other developments and they did not have a sense of direction. Mexico’s political reforms of recent decades were designed to appease political actors and interests starting with the very man who is now president of Mexico and who spent decades in the opposition. These reforms did not built a wide and inclusive system that could encompass all Mexican political forces. The result was what Mexicans have lived through since then: a dysfunctional and distant government that does not serve the needs of the population. In addition, Mexicans live in a divided country where special interests protecting the status quo impede progress of vast regions.

A film about the 1993 Oslo peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians shows the disparity of views between the two sides. The first Oslo negotiation produced agreements on general principles. It was not simple, but what emerged was an outline of what could be worked with. However, it was not until they began to discuss the details -like trash collection or taxes- that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had to bring down to earth such big general principles so that everyday governance could be achieved. The true negotiation did not start until they approached what makes a country work. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process failed for other reasons. But the example seems highly relevant for Mexico.

Mexico’s process of political reforms never arrived at a juncture like that. Of course, the Mexican political forces reached agreements on electoral matters or on issues dealing with the Supreme Court. One could think other less visible but no less transcendental key agreements like agreeing to an independent Mexican central bank. Notwithstanding this, Mexican political actors never entered a negotiation on issues that really mattered to the population in its day-to-day life.

Among the issues that were never agreed upon during Mexico’s process of political reform were: the relations between Mexican state governors and the federal government, the distribution of state and federal monies and the much broader separate sovereign arrangements between states and the federal government. Mexican political forces never discussed and agreed on a public security system not dependent on the army, the nature of the justice system at the local level, the nature of political parties, the accountability mechanisms for members of the federal cabinet, how to guarantee freedom of speech and the financing of Mexican media. Without coming to an agreement on those “details” it would be impossible to solve “small”, everyday life problems affecting Mexicans like garbage collection and criminal extorsion.

Mexico’s landmark 1996 electoral reform solved a specific problem, but simultaneously created a much larger one. The reform solved the issue of how the opposition could compete for power for opposition through free and fair elections. It did not solved the issue of the way Mexicans would govern themselves. All the different problems that Mexico faces today stem from the dismantling of a one-party political system that controlled everything but which was not replaced by a new one that solved citizens’ demands. Since that moment, special interests from all sides rose to the top and rendered possible the arrival of a hyper-presidentialism with no checks. No country can make progress or prosper under such circumstances.

* 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: @lrubio

Unfortunate Bedfellows

Mexico Today –  July 07, 2021
Luis Rubio

 No one can mistake the government of China for the government of Mexico. Regardless of their huge historical and cultural differences, both countries are pursuing transformation, each in its own way and style. Whatever the future of the Asian giant holds, the great contrast between the two countries is that the Chinese government has monumental ambitions and is crystal clear on how it intends to achieve them. Anyone who has seen its airports, roads, trains, and especially the increasingly sophisticated products emerging from ifts factories can only marvel at its achievements.


And yet, Stanford University-based researchers Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell argue that China’s successes in recent decades obscure the enormous challenges facing that nation. Despite being the world’s second largest economy, China still remains, in many ways, an impoverished nation. These authors’ emphasis is not on the visible and successful portion of China, but on its backwoods, where the necessary conditions to escape poverty and underdevelopment are non-existent. In particular, the authors analyze education in China’s rural areas (where hundreds of millions of people live) and conclude that the desired transformation is impossible based on its current educational reality.


The authors’ analysis of China could also be an account of the Mexican reality: success to date is largely due to the availability of cheap labor with few skills, which has yielded extremely high growth rates for several decades. However, only 12.5 percent ​​of Chines workers have a college education, the lowest rate of any nation at China’s level of development. Although it has a theoretically inexhaustible source of cheap labor, China beginning to lose competitiveness due to constant wage increases in the manufacturing sector. In contrast to Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and other nations that achieved a complete transformation, China has not invested in education and is now paying the price.


The authors’ core argument is that the transition to an advanced economy requires a population with high levels of education, capable of adapting to the changing demands of the labor market in order to raise the economy’s overall productivity levels. The authors differentiate between countries that make these investments in education and those that do not: the former manage to avoid stagnation along the way, the so-called “middle-income trap,” while the latter get stuck and are unable to sustain a growing level of income. The authors point to Mexico as the perfect example of the second case: countries that bet on cheap labor and ended up stagnating along the way, and suggest that China, having undervalued education, is in the same predicament.


Every country has its own circumstances and follows the logic mandated by its realities. In Mexico’s case, one government after another has preferred to use the teachers’ unions to advance its political objectives rather than betting on the country’s development. For some Mexican administrations, these unions have been key to maintaining political control over vast regions of the country; for others they have been nothing more than an electoral tool. Still other more radical political actors are betting on Mexico’s unions and their leaders as the muscle for the day when the “great confrontation” between the forces of good and evil takes place. Regardless of the rationale behind the plans of previous Mexican administrations, the glaring fact is that neither has understood the enormous challenge that shifting from an industrial society to a knowledge society entails. Therefore, betting on Mexico’s educational status quo is betting on poverty.


In the industrial era, what added value was the production process itself, and companies focused on improving production technology and boosting productivity on the factory floor itself (i.e. improving the use of workers’ manual skills). In the knowledge era, the major difference and the space where the greatest value is added is on the creative front, which has to do with process design, software development, and applying the human mind to devise new technologies, all requiring a command of computer skills. In one word: a radically new world. Education ends up being key to incorporating the entire population to the digital world.


China is an authoritarian nation that used all its capabilities to push whirlwind development over the past four decades. If Rozelle and Hell are right, its future will be less commendable than it would appear today, and certainly will fall well short of its ambitions. The problem with Mexico is that, in order to get out of the hole in which Mexicans find themselves, the bare minimum required is to imagine a better future, something that China has in spades, but which Mexicans seem to be denied, at least with the current López Obrador administration.


* 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: @lrubio


Mexico’s cycle of reforms

Mexico Today –  July 02, 2021
Luis Rubio

 There’s an old proverb that says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Something like this happened to Mexico in the late 20th century with several reforms of its electoral system. The reforms were devised by political actors who wanted to lead Mexico towards, first, political stability (from 1958 to 1978) and, later, towards democracy (starting in 1996). The problem is that those efforts focused exclusively on electoral issues, leaving the matter of how Mexicans should govern ourselves up in the air.


Theory and practice explain the problems Mexicans have experienced in these decades and, also, the rationale behind president López Obrador’s governing strategy. Theoretically, it’s been known for decades that in democratization processes around the world, consolidating a strong and effective government is critical before liberalizing political competition. Constituting a government that can effectively govern and meet the demands and expectations of the population is otherwise practically impossible. Additionally, those countries that achieved successful transitions to democracy also consolidated their rule of law, the crucial framework to curb a government or its bureaucracy’s potential for abuse. Mexico’s grade in these matters is not good.

On the practical side, Mexico has experienced two very successful periods of economic growth with political stability: the Porfirio Diaz era at the end of the 19th century and the hard-line PRI eras, between the 1940s and the late 1960s. Both had as their political earmark an authoritarian government whose only check and balance was the population’s and the investors’ willingness to participate in their own spaces. Both historical moments ended badly due to their rigid structures and processes: when difficulties arose, they were unable to adapt to a new reality. In the Porfirio Diaz era, the challenge was partly political and partly the famine that gripped the country at the turn of the 20th century. Without the slightest flexibility to undergo reform, the Porfirio Diaz era collapsed, opening the door to a civil conflict that decimated the economy and left over a million deaths.


The second moment, in the early 1980s, ended differently, but no less chaotically. After the Mexican economy and politics began to implode in the 1960s, the government sought to artificially extend its validity through foreign debt, encouraged by the expectation of ever mounting oil prices. In the end, the excessive debt brought about a financial meltdown and led to a decade of near hyperinflation in Mexico. The economic reforms that followed solved part of the problem by stabilizing the economy, opening the country to international trade, and building a manufacturing powerhouse in the process.


What was not addressed was the Mexican society’s wish to participate in political decisions and thereby limit government excesses. It’s clear that  president López Obrador believes that building a new era of stability and growth is what Mexico requires, and in his mind this calls for a strong government that limits citizen excesses. That’s why he’s centralizing power and ditching checks and balances left and right. Mexican history gives him formidable hope.


The problem is that the Mexican government is not set up to solve problems, pave the way for growth, or build a platform for development in the next century. Our government, heir to the Porfirio Diaz era and organized under the post-revolutionary pact -with the unequivocal goal of having the revolution do “justice”- is designed to plunder, corrupt, and abuse. Political, union, and business groups in Mexico -and their associates within the political class- are not interested in citizens, workers improvement or the quality of products and services, but rather in ensconcing themselves in a system that yields them rents, sometimes inordinately big.


Mexico’s electoral reforms from 1996 on were accompanied by the assumption that the country’s problem lay in the lack of political competition and that once unfettered, everything else would fall in place. What in fact happened was that electoral democracy was mounted on the existing political system, with its stagnant bureaucratic structures and tangle of interests which continue to benefit at the expense of the country’s full development. Thereby stem the two great evils we face: Mexicans’ frustration as manifested at the polls one election after the next, and the enormous inequality of opportunities and economic possibilities.


The solution that president López Obrador advances will only postpone and heighten the frustration because it doesn’t address it, just attempts to evade it. Instead of confronting the political, bureaucratic, and special-interest structures that rob the treasury blind and maintain half of Mexico mired in poverty, the López Obrador government, like its predecessors, devotes itself to inventing new excuses instead of solutions. What Mexico requires is a transformation of its political system, without which we will never extricate ourselves from the vicious circle we have been in for decades.


* 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: @lrubio

The Mexican president’s harm to institutions

Mexico Today –  June  23, 2021
Luis Rubio 

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power in 2018 with the clear idea that the economic and government reforms economic that previous Mexican administrations enacted since 1983 had to be repealed. In his mind, Mexico’s problems began with those reforms, so repealing them was a must. Since the onset of his administration, López Obrador has nullified or dismantled those Mexican government institutions that he considered unnecessary or restrictive, has concentrated power, and has modified the regulatory framework to accommodate his priorities. This course of action -sometimes following law, sometimes not- has fostered a high degree of uncertainty. This uncertainty stems not so much from the Mexican president’s actions themselves from him being able to modify laws, regulations, practices, contracts, and institutions with no real check or balance.

The ease with which López Obrador is tearing Mexico’s institutional fabric reveals how superficially these institutions were entrenched and their lack of credibility given their lack of relevance for the average Mexican’s daily life. At the same time, however, it evidences the Mexican government’s enormous weakness, as no country can withstand so sudden, radical, and -in some cases- serious changes. Although Mexico is used to the traditional policy swings from one administration to the next -which are a feature of our political system-, the way president López Obrador acted has become a factor of uncertainty and –potentially- instability. This in an era in which the well-being of virtually all Mexicans depends on the deep-rooted supply chains that span the entire North America. The tension between the president’s goals and the requirements for progress is more than glaring.

President López Obrador clearly wants to attract private investment to Mexico, but he is not willing to accept that, in the 21st century, the only chance of doing so lies in creating conditions for investors to do it on their own free will. The possibility of government forcing people –well-off or needy- to save or invest ceased to exist decades ago. Private investment will flow only to the extent that the uncertainty emanating from the Mexican government itself disappears. And institutions are key to creating an environment of certainty. However, that will not transpire as long as the terms set by the government remain anachronistic.

There is one precedent: the nationalization of Mexican commercial banks in 1982 was a violation of an understanding between key actors in Mexican society. The government’s decision to nationalize the banks and more importantly the way in which it was carried out -to spark confrontation and social anger- led Mexico to years of uncertainty, lack of savings and investment, and an extremely precarious economic situation. It took more than a decade to rebuild political understandings that would restore peace between these key actors in Mexico. In the end, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the institution that sealed those agreements among Mexicans. From the Mexico’s perspective, NAFTA’s true significance was that it tied the Mexican government’s hands, imposing very high prices on any attempted abuse, imposition or nationalization.

NAFTA became the most important institution that Mexico built. From the logic of an open Mexican economy consecrated in NAFTA, other reforms sprang out including those that created the regulatory entities to make them work. For over 20 years, this framework made it possible to give functionality to various markets and activities. Today we know, in hindsight, that the validity and significance of these institutions was due not to the legitimacy they enjoyed, but to the respect that later administrations granted them. The price of removing these institutions will end up being much higher than anyone could have imagined. The cesspool uncovered by president López Obrador isn’t new, but is much more consequential because it cancels Mexico’s future growth.

Beyond the transcendence of these institutions for the functioning of the present-day Mexican economy, there is another cost more significant in the long term. The erosion of Mexican regulatory institutions also affects citizens who are now realize the devastating capability of the Mexican executive branch for brandishing immense powers with nary a check or balance. The ensuing institutional destruction, which might seem insignificant, has eliminated key mechanisms that have helped in solidifying trust among Mexican society and investors. It turned out that the idea that Mexico had changed -geared to grow and eventually address inequality- was no more than a mirage. Clearly, the López Obrador has other plans, which are at odds with that idea.

The obvious question for Mexicans is how far president López Obrador can go. Will the elimination of the current independent regulatory agencies be followed by new ones with a better social foothold among Mexicans? Once unpunished institutional destruction is in gear, the inexorable question is, what is next?


(Excerpts from Luis Rubio’s newly published Spanish language book: “La nueva disputa sobre el futuro: Ideas viejas para un México moderno”, Editorial Grijalbo).


* 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: @lrubio

Mexico’s next three years

Mexico Today –  June 15, 2021
Luis Rubio

  Citizens spoke loud and clear during Mexico’s midterm election. Now, the entire political system will have to adapt to a new reality. In a show of great wisdom, Mexicans ratified its trust in the the country’s independent elections authority (INE), rejected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s excesses, demanded good sense from political actors, and continued its quest for “a change.” By claiming sweeping victories, party leaders demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the moment, unlike president López Obrador, who undertook an attempt to moderate his approach (though it did not last long), in his own peculiar way and without acknowledging the electorate’s message in the polls. It would have been hard to find a better scenario for Mexico, given the country’s polarized and furious climate threatening to reach fever-pitch by the second.

Since 2018, López Obrador outrageously and immoderately milked the election where he was elected president. Surmising an unassailable endorsement by the polls to do and undo at will, he proceeded to turn the Mexico’s clock back 40 years. López Obrador’s persistence and single-mindedness led him to decisively alter the country’s circumstances, to the point of widespread rejection by the middle classes and investors. This was, in fact, a middle-class rebellion in Mexico’s urban areas against the president’s party MORENA.

The electoral result leaves president López Obrador enough elbow room to save face and to be able to argue that his (huge) losses were not so major. He can contrast the 20 percent decrease in members of his party in Mexico’s Lower House of Congress against the growth in the number of state governorships in MORENA’s hands. However, both the election results and the moment in the presidential cycle herald fundamental changes for Mexico.

First, ever since Vicente Fox announced his candidacy to the presidency immediately after the midterm election in 1997, Mexican presidents lost their old instruments to control and postpone the succession process. This will be especially hard for MORENA given its lack of institutional structures and internal discipline which promises constant intra-party clashes. This fact in itself will amplify the already MORENA’s existing fractures, which will inevitably weaken the López Obrador ability to control the succession process or promote new political or legislative initiatives.

Second, although MORENA will govern more than half of Mexico’s states, the potential for intimidation -the president’s main instrument for keeping the state governors in check- will be diminished. Regardless of their party, the 15 new governors -out of Mexico’s 32 states- will enjoy freedoms vastly superior to those of their predecessors.

Third, MORENA will no longer have the supermajority that it had in the Lower House of Congress, nor will it be easy for it to find a “swing” party to push through constitutional amendments. That changes the Mexican legislative dynamic in several ways. Most of all, it introduces an element of instability to the coalition formed by MORENA, the Green Party and the Labour Party (PT). The results encourage these eccentric allies, especially the Green Party -which never misses an opportunity to profit from the political moment- to contemplate different alliances for the future. No less important, the Lower House will become Mexico’s space for political interaction and negotiation that the supermajority previously held by MORENA made impossible.

All of this creates a new environment for Mexico in which visions and proposals that sketch a less contentious and bitter political future could -indeed, should- flourish. To date, Mexican politics has focused on the past: for some, the 1970s, for others pre-2018, despite the fact that not many Mexicans would like to return to those times. The contrast between the 2018 presidential election and the 2021 midterm election makes it clear that Mexicans want to move forward, towards a more cordial future, with greater progress, and a better distribution of benefits. Early in his term, president López Obrador should have undertaken such effort but he was lost in the confrontational strategy that has not yielded Mexicans results, and even less for him as the midterm election result evidenced. In fact, López Obrador’s political future is now in a difficult position: unless he rectifies course, his ambition to go down as one of the great transformers of Mexican history will have vanished.

President López Obrador has been falling into a not unusual paradox, frequent among those who accumulate power without a vision that can attract and marshal the citizenry. The more power he amasses, the less power he can exert. More power could tempt him to follow a more radical route risking crises, thus destroying his whole project. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the risk that Mexico devalues its currency, something López Obrador has said won’t happen. Something similar happens with the idea of extending his six-year term in office. The consequences of trying to break a centuries-old Mexican political taboo would be devastating for the promoter and detrimental for the country.

Three tricky years lie ahead. These could become an exceptional opportunity for reconciliation to lay the framework for a better future. Unfortunately, it is not obvious that there are statesmen -in the López Obrador administration or in the Mexican opposition parties- capable of leading and advancing it. But the opportunity is still there.


* 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: @lrubio

Let’s Vote

 Luis Rubio

Today’s the day, the day of the citizenry. The day on which, with their vote, the citizens will individually express their feel for the government and their expectation for the future. There have been few times that a midterm election has been so transcendental, and that is because the President has defined the moment as a dilemma: for him or against him. Rather than a clean and respectful democratic process, he is demanding a response from the citizens that is unequivocal, definitive and one that is obviously in favor of him and him alone.

The responsibility that each of us assumes as citizens is extraordinary: with a single vote each of us must choose our popular representatives and local governors. But, more than that, our vote entails a judgement of the moment in which we are living, our hopes for the future and the best way to attain them. The problem with, and the virtue of, democracy is that these must be expressed in an instant, with a mark on each of the respective ballots. What is interesting in this is that we Mexicans will find ourselves on pins and needles regarding how everyone else votes.

As we near the time to vote, it is essential for us to consider where we are, where we are going, what is next and who offers a greater degree of certainty for advancing toward the desired direction. It is evident that each citizen will evaluate distinct factors when deciding concerning their vote, but there is doubtlessly an array of elements that affect all of us, directly or indirectly, albeit in different ways.

What is exceptional about election day is not the enormous number of posts that will be settled by the citizen vote (the most extensive number to date of this young democracy), but that a midterm in itself commands such great transcendence. In a country of divided government with the president in charge of the Executive Branch, definitory elections tend to be presidential. However, given the personalistic, aggressive, and exclusionary fashion that has typified the government of President López Obrador in its first three years, the question before each voter is whether carte blanche should be conferred on its upcoming, and final, three years, or whether its way of being merits strengthening of the legislative branch to ensure the existence of an effective counterweight contributing to a more balanced country and to a president more committed to the entire citizenry.

Nobody can predict what the future holds. Notwithstanding this, there is not the least doubt that during the last decades the country has had bad governments and some that were mediocre, all promising grand solutions only to end up with shattered expectations and a sea of corruption. President López Obrador made it to the presidency due to an electorate that was fed up, to a greater degree than to the quality of his proposal of government that, in practice, has consisted of nothing other than the concentration of the power in his person.

His program of government is reduced to three infrastructure projects of doubtful relevance and a mechanism of cash transfers to his clienteles. Instead of seeking the way to generate an economic platform that permits the production of wealth and good and permanent jobs for balanced development and better income distribution, his vision is limited to handing out money without producing anything. The rhetoric can disguise many governmental acts, but does not engender incomes or permanent jobs, the latter the only means of emerging from the current paralysis, poverty, and inequality.

At the beginning of this President’s six-year term, I published a book in which I began by saying that the President had correctly identified the three principal problems confronting the country: the low economic growth rate (on average), the poverty and the inequality. However, I wrote, his proposal for tackling these was erroneous and it would fail because he would not recognize nor accept that the problem lies in the conditions under which a huge part of the population lives and that it is those conditions and circumstances that should be attacked. In place of that, the President has devoted himself to attempting to recreate the fantasy of an idyllic world that came to a halt, not by the design of those whom he calls adversaries, but because of the lack of vision of his predecessors who ended up in the doldrums, as he will, because they refused to address the problems of the reality of today.

The sharp contrasts that are the trait of Mexico today can be resolved and President López Obrador possesses the legitimacy to face up to them, but his project is blind to the political and economic reality, as well as the enormous complexity, of Mexico in the 21st century and the tremendous potential of the citizenry in all corners of the country. Returning to the impoverishing authoritarianism of the past will achieve nothing more than destroying what little advancement there has been, without building anything better along the way. But the President is not willing to consider alternatives, even those that fortify his probability of effectively eliminating those ancestral ills.

Faced with this, the citizenry must opt today, with its vote, between ratifying the path adopted by the President or constructing another way out in the form of effective counterweights that compel the population to assume its own responsibility implicit in that definition of the country’s future. Let us vote!

Mexican Nostalgia


WILSON CENTER, Mexico Institute

  By Luis Rubio

An old aphorism holds that nostalgia is not what it used to be. However, it constitutes a heavy burden that never quite disappears. Two sources of nostalgia cloud Tyrians and Trojans in current Mexican politics. AMLO leads with his nostalgia for the 70s, the idyllic moment in his memory when everything was marching wonderfully and, in his words, where people “lived well.” Recreating that idyllic past became his mantra and the raison d’être of his government. But other nostalgic people want to return to 2018 when everything was fine in their own mythical image. For this other group, everything worked immaculately until today’s President López Obrador arrived to spoil it. Like all myths and all nostalgia, both are false archetypes that will never produce a better future.

The presidential project is leading Mexico to a caricature of the PRI past, albeit a dangerous caricature. The presidency of yesteryear was most powerful since it had instruments at its disposal, beginning with the PRI itself, which conferred upon it a structure of political control that facilitated the effective implementation of governmental decisions. But the PRI was not a mere malleable mechanism that simply responded to the president: it was a bargaining apparatus that, in some sense, could limit the worst excesses of the presidents. There is no such mechanism today, and the president acts as if there is no limit to his power. Of course, reality is an inescapable counterweight, but its impact is often delayed. The question is how severe the damage inflicted by a hyperactive president will be, particularly as he believes that he can dismantle what has been built by an entire society over time without consequence.

The group of nostalgic people about the near past is scattered and shapeless. Although some of those who seek to organize the political parties and groups opposing the current government to form a common front raise the notion that all that has to happen is a return to 2018, many long for that idea and harbor the hope that on election day the return to the much-desired stadium will begin. Among these are activists from the various opposition parties, people in business, and not a few opinion-makers. The problem is that there is nowhere to return to: first of all, that past was not as commendable as these advocates now want Mexicans to believe; and second, the mere pretense of returning entails contempt for the millions of voters who in 2018 spoke out clearly against the status quo ante. For me, there is not the slightest doubt that the vote that elevated López Obrador to the presidency was much more a rejection of what already existed than an endorsement of a project that had no structure or plan beyond nostalgia.

The country was not going well. The two moments of great expectations -first with President Fox (2000) and then with Peña Nieto (2012)- ended in a huge disappointment that translated into democratic disenchantmentPrecisely the values ​​that López Obrador knew how to capitalize with enormous skill, partly because of his biography, but much because he managed to convince an electorate fed up with promises without positive results that the problem was the person: AMLO would be different because he was not corrupt, not because he had a better plan to move ahead.

 There is nowhere to return to, but, as of yet, there is no alternative project that is positive, hopeful, and viable in the current Mexican scene for the electorate to envision a better future. The highest cost of the failures of the reforms in recent decades and, especially, of the unfulfilled promises so far this century is that the willingness to visualize opportunities, debate proposals, and reach solutions without attacking and disqualifying other people or views has disappeared.

It remains to be seen how the current government will end. As in all administrations, the first couple of years fly without too many setbacks because the hope persists that their plans and decisions will translate into positive results. Soon, however, things change, as it is already beginning to happen to the current government. Hopefully, the damage that this government will cause will not be worse than what has already been, but there is no way of knowing since the destructive capacity of the president and his activist groups is vast.

After the 1982 debacle, in which another failed president tried to repair (or hide) his mistakes by expropriating the banks, it took more than a decade for the country to return to the path of growth and trust. This was achieved thanks to some reforms, but above all to the willingness of the United States to support the Mexican process of change through NAFTA. That option no longer exists today because it was exhausted due to the lack of deep reforms and results, the very same that discouraged the electorate and led to today’s government.

The future lies looking ahead, not in the past. The coming election of June 6 is critical for there to be a future because without counterweights Mexico will end up in the doldrums. But a promising future will only result from a hopeful and realistic new visionthe opposite of the nostalgia that today reigns in the government and the opposition. The “nostalgia trap,” García Márquez wrote, takes away the bitter moments and paints them in another color. But it is still a trap.


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

What’s Important

Luis Rubio

Next Sunday will be a key day for the future of Mexico. It is the day on which the electorate will decide whether it will vote for the existence of counterweights to power or whether it will ratify the course that, step by step, the president has been leading Mexico toward the total concentration of power on a sole person who, in a single instant, could convert it into tyranny. For Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of the XX century, what is essential for democracy is that the government not abuse the citizenry, thus the existence of checks to power. The nodal question for the voters is whether it will be possible to render this minimal definition of democracy effective.

What is at play next Sunday has nothing to do with President López Obrador, his attributes or style of government. The essential principle of democracy rests on the existence of checks on power son that nobody could abuse, regardless of his or her values or objectives. The issue has everything to do with the type of country that Mexicans want to experience and with the sources of certainty that are necessary for guaranteeing political stability and economic viability. The decision-making manner of the president, his constant warning to his party’s benchwarmers regarding not “changing even a comma” of his legislative bills, and his threatening discourse against the Supreme Court justices depict a leader who wants all the power for himself without relinquishing any space to the cardinal function corresponding to each of those branches of government, as counterweights and as protectors of last resort of the essential rights of the citizenry.

Voting for the Morena party or its acolytes implies advancing toward the risk of tyranny. Neither more nor less. On ratifying the Morena majority, the world changes because nothing that existed prior to that will continue to be valid. Throughout the last two and a half years, Mexicans have been observing that, one step at a time, liberties have come to be restricted or jeopardized, the arbitrariness of the government’s acts increases, legislation is modified without the slightest attempt to court the opposition toward arriving at a consensus, or widespread support for the presidential initiatives and decisions are made that directly affect the creation of new enterprises, sources of employment or opportunities for the country’s development. In a word, the country has been losing the few sources of certainty that there were, as keenly reflected in the meager performance of the economy across the board and in the current unemployment levels.

The president has done everything possible to convert this election into a referendum of himself. He does this because he wants to exploit his personal popularity as a calling card so that voters arrive at a decision at the ballot box, with no meditation whatsoever, in favor of the candidates of the party that does not “change even a comma” of the presidential initiatives. Each citizen should ask themselves where the logic is in electing representatives whose sole undertaking would be to occupy their seat in the House to raise a finger when instructed by the Head-of-State. As citizens, the key lies in there being the conditions that impede excessive or absurd decisions that negatively affect the people’s and the country’s well-being and for which the only thing that works is the existence of effective counterweights. There is no other way.

His decisions, above all his way of arriving at them, explains why it is so important for counterweights to exist. Each of his initiatives and actions have acquired a personalistic logic, a desire to recover an elusive past, and an implacable fancy for nurturing his clienteles. Every time I think about his mode of acting and coming to decisions, I imagine merchants who promise miracles impossible to come true.

So suggests the following anecdote:

In his comedy “The Knights”, Aristophanes presents the Athenians as a fundamentally good but bewildered old man who was tricked by the demagogue Cleon. The wise men of the epoch opted to postulate a sausage maker (the most repugnant profession imaginable) to run against Cleon in the popular vote. The two candidates sustain a public debate, in which the sausage stuffer shows himself to be even more vulgar, swaggering, egotistical and loutish than Cleon, accusing the latter of preposterous crimes and finally winning the debate by pledging free gifts that could never be defrayed by public funds.

The central characteristic of the government has been great and fallible promises focusing on grand projects (such as the Airport, the Train, and the Refinery) and his interminable thirst for increasing transfers to his clienteles which, as Aristophanes insinuated, cannot be fulfilled. The existence of counterweights would have thwarted those excesses.

An open and democratic society endures and is nourished by the existence of diverse positions and opinions, a principle that López Obrador rejects out of hand. He fights every day against what, as Garganella says, is a fundamental factor of development: the right to protest and to find fault because this has to do with basic rights that permit maintaining the society and its qualities alive. The President has been eroding citizen rights one by one.

This election will decide whether he will continue abusing the citizens’ rights or whether he will be required to negotiate, as in any democracy, his priorities and actions with the representatives of all Mexicans, rather than merely imposing them upon those of his own affiliation.