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The Impending Change

 Luis Rubio

Mexico is living through the enormous paradox of a society and economy in full effervescence in the face of a political world that inhabits unbridgeable palaces of the old PRIist system, including its partners and godchildren. On the one hand, the economy has been experiencing an accelerated transformation for decades: both winners as well as losers in the processes of adjustment to the reforms that, since the eighties, have altered the old ways of producing, exist in a world that is different from the one reflected in the media or in the political discourse. At the same time, the day-to-day reality has obliged the population, above all the most modest of this in rural zones, to solve their own problems, the majority of the latter the product of the absence of government. On the other hand, the political world resides in a nostalgic bubble, believing that their decisions, from the nether regions of Mount Olympus, suit the reality of today. This is somewhat akin to the proverbial discussion on seating arrangements at the next supper on the Titanic.

The change that the Mexican society is undergoing has two origins. On the one hand, the economic change is palpable, but it is one of very distinct characteristics along the length and breadth of the country. Vast regions have adapted to the change, have made the unstoppable technological change their own and are accruing the benefits of high levels of productivity, investment and development. If one were to draw a line just above of Mexico City, almost everything to the North grows at more than 5%, with some localities substantially above that number. This has produced a new society, evermore optimistic and successful, one that welcomes the future. On the other hand, there are communities, above all to the South of that line, which have remained stuck, in good measure due to the political and social structures that continue to grant privilege to political, union, and local economic interests. These powers maintain a status quo that exerts no effect other than that of preserving poverty, and in any event, increasing it. No one in their right mind can speak today of a sole country when they think of policies of development.

On the other hand, the Mexican society has acquired an   unheard of militancy in the last decades. All types of civil organizations have arisen, presenting formal complaints, manifestos proliferate and discontent mushrooms. That has nothing to do with the recent earthquakes, although they are symptomatic of what occurs there, in the depths of the society. But the true change does not lie in the so-called “civil society”, however much a new political reality is gestating therein that multiplies in impact via the social networks, but instead in the “base” of the socioeconomic pyramid, where there are signs of an insuppressible change that, sooner or later, will transform Mexico.

On that plane, there are extraordinary examples of communities that have assumed the leadership, above all in matters of violence and criminality, and they have assumed the safeguarding of their localities and have converted them into territory not permitting the entry of bands of criminals. Numerous experiences of actions, dialogues and conflicts among base organizations, particularly those of victims of human rights’ violations and disappearances -excessively frequent events in recent decades-, yield important examples of capacity and a willingness to act to solve and construct solutions and not acts of revenge. Innumerable victims of the violence have ended up organizing themselves for protection from the judicial authorities, whom they perceive as reluctant to see them and respond to them, which has led to the constitution of organizations that mobilize the population and that de facto create awareness of the ineffectiveness of the judiciary and of the abuse the citizenry undergoes. What is impacting about these processes of organization is that, in the majority of cases, these are caused by the absence of government, which translates into insecurity, which in turn escalates when citizens approach the government entities supposedly dedicated to protect and help them to solve their problems.

Faced with this, our politicians have returned to their origins. The PRI adopted a mode of succession indistinguishable from that of the sixties, while Morena, well, did the same thing but with less drama. In contrast with that era, however, the president will choose the presidential candidate, not the president, the difference not a minor one.

Much more importantly, the contradiction between what is happening in the society and what is occurring in the political world is not only flagrant, but unsustainable. Mexico is progressing at an accelerated pace but one that is invisible to those who do not wish to see it, and the mismatch between what may be observed in the debates on the presidential succession and what is taking place in the depths of the society is extraordinary.

Not obvious is what the outcome will be from the confrontation brewing in the breeding grounds, but I have no doubt at all that everything will depend on the manner in which the civil and urban organizations communicate among each other and integrate into those with popular roots. That is, on encountering the incapacity of the politicians to emerge from their tiny and protected world, the future will be decided upon by the willingness and capacity of the society to join forces and learn to coexist, independently of its social or economic provenance.

People and institutions

Luis Rubio

Few decisions in our history will be as transcendent as the nomination of the new Prosecutor General. The appointment will be critical not only for the crucial role played by the person who will be responsible for administering justice and the fight against corruption, but for the enormous autonomy it will enjoy under the new law, to which is added the fact that the appointment will be for nine years and whoever holds it will be immovable. An error in the appointment and the country will not only lose another opportunity, but would be at the mercy of the personality defects that might characterize the appointee. Here, once again, Mexico’s enormous institutional weakness is revealed.

An appointment of this nature and caliber is complex and difficult in any country and circumstance, but it would be infinitely more complex in the absence of strong institutions that limit the excesses and fallibilities inherent in people. Madison said it better than anybody: “If men were angels, no government would be required … the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” When there are no mechanisms to achieve one or the other, the appointment becomes always risky.

In recent weeks and months, we have witnessed debates and elucidations about the transition of the old office of the Attorney General to that of the new Prosecutor General and, more recently, the removal of the head of electoral prosecutor because, at has happened in other circumstances, he became uncomfortable to the powers that be. In both cases, the discussion is the same: is the person suitable? Does she behave properly? Will the appointee fulfill his obligations? Will he be allowed to perform? The questions are relevant because of the importance of the position and the realities of power, but also due to the fact that, at the end of the day, those who have occupied those positions are not, as Madison would have it, angels.

Our first problem is not the person but the fact that we have to discuss the person instead of the institution, where ultimately lies the key. We face the dilemma of the person because we have weak institutions that adapt to the person instead of having strong institutions that fulfill their mandate while limiting the worst excesses of those who are responsible for leading them. The real question we should ask ourselves is why we have institutions that are so weak, malleable, and prone to such risks.

For decades Mexicans have been building autonomous institutions under the principle that distance from the executive resolves the deficits that the country faces in terms of justice, corruption and impunity. However, the notion that “autonomy” is synonymous with impartiality is absurd, just as that a public institution can be better run by “citizens” than by professional functionaries. These conceptions are perfectly explicable given our history and system of government, but the crucial thing is not the autonomy but the checks and balances, which must be applied in exactly the same way to the executive as to any independent agency.

Today we have a number of supposedly autonomous entities -such as COFECE (competition), IFETEL (telecoms), INE (elections)- which have become equally vitiated territories, prone to arbitrary decisions by their vast discretionary powers, which are neither accountable nor subject to the normal checks inherent to a democratic system. The point is not to criticize the institutions that have been created with good intentions, but to the peculiar way in which they have built spaces prone to the development of personal and group fiefdoms, whose actions and resolutions are not subject to effective mechanisms of judicial -or equivalent- review. Autonomy, poorly understood by the absence of counterweights, ends up being one more “de facto” power (poder fáctico), which is precisely the substance of the discussion regarding the appointments (and removal) of the prosecutors at this moment.

We are where we are: before the need to appoint the prosecutor and, by design, without institutional counterweights. This circumstance invites all kinds of proposals for the appointment of persons whose central characteristic is to have had no experience in judicial matters or the handling of large and complex bureaucracies precisely because it is assumed that any previous contact with these worlds implies corruption. The problem is that the lack of experience in these matters leads to many of the vices and risks that are observed in the so-called autonomous entities: personal fiefdoms, arbitrariness, excesses and, even more important, failure in the central mission.

Whoever is named must at least meet three criteria: first, personal probity; second, ability and experience in handling complex issues and unredeemed bureaucracies; and, third, seriousness: a practical person with a clear mind with respect to the objective that should be pursued, which is, first of all, constructing an institution that in turn ends up limiting the person. The last thing Mexico needs is a saint or a true believer.

So much power can lead to a system that institutionalizes vendettas. Nothing more perilous. An institutional drive, rather than the rush to get there, should guide these appointments.


The 9 Lives of the PRI

Luis Rubio

When in the presidential campaign someone told Enrique Peña Nieto that he could not could not believe in the PRI because of all that the latter had done and caused. The current President answered him that he understood but that his was a “new PRI,” one which young people viewed positively. In effect, PRI won the presidency in 2012 and has been able to preserve more than half of the governorships of the country; in fact, nothing is holding it back from winning next year. Is this logical?

Mexico is an anomaly compared with countries characterized by State parties, authoritarian in nearly of these cases. In Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT) has adapted and become a competitive party because it put aside its former vices, enters and leaves the presidency and, when it comprises the opposition, as it is today, it behaves like just another party. In Eastern Europe, the communist parties have disappeared or have been transformed.

The PRI goes on being, well, the PRI. It is true that it has adapted itself to the competitive world but the contrast with other nations is patent: in Mexico, the old system is as alive as ever; instead of the system changing and the PRI adapting to an open political regime, the other parties have adapted to the old system, evolving into the pillars that sustain it.

How can it be explained that there are competitive elections but that the PRI regime and its power monopoly continue to be there, in a few hands that do not change, as if they were musical chairs? There are many possible responses, in addition to those that might occur to you, dear reader:

  • Above all, the PRI never left: it is still there, dominating a good part of the national territory, counts with a formidable electoral machine that is incomparable and, although it has lost many state-governor posts, it has been able to achieve that all of the governors, as well as the opposition parties, behave like PRIists. That is, it could be said, nearly almost, that the other parties became mere franchises…
  • The electoral reform of 1996 was peculiar in one sense: it did not create a competitive party system. Although from that time Mexico developed an impeccable electoral-administration system, the parties compete among each other only to later fix things up and maintain themselves distant from the citizenry. We have an electoral system at the service of the political parties.
  • When the PAN arrived at the presidency, one would have hoped for a change of regime: the elimination of the old control mechanisms, privilege and abuse (therefore, corruption and impunity), but precisely the opposite happened: the PAN became like the PRI, building a new future was forgotten and the PAN emerged corrupt to the core, to the degree that today it does not even have the capacity to understand where, when and how it lost its way.
  • It has not gone better for the PRD. Heir of the PRI in its principal bastion, Mexico City, it has devoted itself to attending to its clienteles, corrupting them and, in recent months, seeking ways to survive its nemesis, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Instead of changing the system of government and improving the lives of the city’s inhabitants, its dedication has been to inventing constitutions, new names and generating a lot of noise, but not a better standard of living, better infrastructure or an ability to see to the citizenry. The fact that it is struggling for its survival says it all.
  • No less importantly, the present government has pushed all the limits to the max. It has employed the institutions to attack its enemies, protect and forgive its “partners-in-crime”. It has generated a climate of extreme impunity that not only alienates the citizens, but one that has dramatically risked the future.

At the end of the day, the old regime is preserved for two reasons: on the one hand, because the electorate has become fragmented to such an extent (in good measure intentionally) that everything is adjusted at the level of votes that the PRI can glean. However, as the recent one-act comedy concerning the installation of the governing body of the Congress and the Senate illustrated, all of the parties played the same game: preservation of the status quo.

But the other reason is much more reveling: while 70% of the electorate is against López Obrador, he not only holds sway over the panorama, but also constitutes the factor that illustrates the failure of those electoral reforms and the main parties involved. The overwhelming majority of voters do not like him, but he could win precisely because he represents, or has been able to position himself, as the only one capable of offering an alternative.

The Mexican electoral problem boils down to one element: all the reforms that have been advanced in the last decades have had a central objective, that of not altering the power structure. That rationale is explicable for an incumbency emanating from a revolution, but entails an evident consequence: sooner or later, the deceit becomes evident. What is peculiar, and pathetic, is that the central challenge derives not from a futurist and promising option (the famous Mexican Macron), but from the most backwater and reactionary perspective possible.

Weeks away from the beginning of the real electoral process (the devil with the formal one), the citizenry knows that its options are limited because of everything that the parties and their politicians have edified. The dilemma in which they, and the entire country, find themselves, is not due to chance.



The new dilemma

Luis Rubio

The current government is irrefutable proof that the problems facing the country do not depend on the will of the president. When the present government was about to be inaugurated, its main consideration lay in how to rebuild the state’s capacity for action. It was evident that the ability to govern had been deteriorating and that no country could prosper with a weak, incompetent and paralyzed government, as well as being overwhelmed by factors beyond its control. The proposal of an “effective government” summed up its vision in a clear way, but also showed its limitations: it implied the idea that the what existed could be recovered, that is, nostalgia drove its thinking to what had worked decades before.

In this, the Peña Nieto government is not exceptional. The same arguments that were put forward in the campaign of 2012 can now be heard from the side of Morena: before things worked, today everything is a disaster. Are these two PRIistas, one of ancestry, the another of history, right? The reality is that there are many things that work well in the country and that fully justify the reforms and transformations that have been experienced over the last four or five decades. Of course, there are parts of the country that lag behind and innumerable problems, imbalances and obstacles persist, but any objective observation would reveal the obvious: the challenges ahead are enormous, but the potential, as well as thee point of departure, are exceptional.

In 1968, iconoclastic Samuel Huntington made waves when he asserted that “the most important difference between nations refers not to their form of government but to their degree of government.” That statement, published at the height of the cold war, continued with other heresies, such as that the United States and the Soviet Union had more in common than any of them with nations from Africa or Latin America. The point of the author was that, beyond ideologies and forms of government, some nations had the capacity to govern themselves and others did not.

So, Where is Mexico in that dimension? When President Peña proposed an effective government or when Andrés Manuel López Obrador promises a government capable of getting the country out of its rut, they speak of a system of government that existed half a century ago and was capable of implementing the decisions that were made at the top. That is, both public figures conceive the function of governing as the capacity to impose their decisions. They speak of a competent and institutionalized government and idealize the old PRI system but, in reality, they refer to an authoritarian system where its two key pieces -the presidency and the party- complemented each other to maintain a tight but legitimate control over the population, making it easy to govern. As the past five years have shown, that system no longer exists and, more importantly, it cannot be recreated.

The partisan or ideological banner is irrelevant: the claim that one can return to that idyllic world is simply absurd. The challenge facing Mexico is to create a new political system, appropriate to the circumstances of the 21st century. Porfirio Díaz stated that “to govern the Mexicans is like herding turkeys on horseback;” the PRI thought that authoritarian controls had solved this complexity, but today it is clear that the problem is not of individuals but of structures and institutions.

Regardless of whether or not the NAFTA remains or is killed, the country’s core deficit is its inability to govern itself. NAFTA made it possible to pretend that, with the effective guarantees for investment and with the basis of trust provided by that instrument, it was possible to avoid having to reform the system of government. Today we are in the worst of all worlds: facing the risk of losing NAFTA and against an election in which nobody is focused on the real problem facing the country. Instead of debating the problem of governance, our true deficit, we live the noise of worn-out and outdated rhetoric about how to return to the past or how to protect what exists. The true promise of AMLO, like that of EPN, is a benign authoritarianism: I can do it because I am strong.

What Mexico needs are not strong and enlightened men but effective institutions. That requires a willingness of our political class to face the structural problems of the country which have now been stripped naked by Trump by making it clear that we do not have Plan B nor ability to articulate one, because we did not do our homework for the past twenty-five years. The NAFTA was a very effective and intelligent means to solve a core problem (like stabilizing the country and conferring certainty to the population and to the investors), but it is not enough to achieve an integral development and exposes us, as we now know, to the avatars of the US, which was supposed to have strategic permanence.

The country requires a new system of government, anchored in the citizenship and in effective institutions and mechanisms. Today we have an absurd combination of old, obsolete and illegitimate institutions with endless demands for the government to act and respond. We have to find a way to tie both: government capacity and legitimacy.

The Three Axes

Luis Rubio

The dispute for the presidential candidacies is white hot and it manifests itself in conflicts, proposals, trip ups, attacks, negotiations and many lighted candles. All of the so-called “yearners” vow everything necessary to court their public: some, the PRDists, are set on building a Front to achieve their survival; the PANists stir up discord and become entangled in impregnable feuds forgetting that first one must win…; on their part, the PRIists do their upmost in being attentive –this bordering on adulation- to the person invested with deciding the candidacy, the President.  Internal competition is natural and inevitable and each party solves this in its own manner. Presumably, all intend for that process to heighten the probability of their party winning the presidential election.

The aspirations and contests are all legitimate, but   have nothing to do with the problems and challenges confronting the country or with the needs and expectations of the population, which  ends up a mere spectator in a process in which it is the protagonist but over which it has practically no influence. And much less about what follows after election day.

Despite the distance that separates who will come to govern from the population, what is evident since at least three decades ago is that presidents cannot govern or be successful without at least the recognition and esteem of the population. If one were to observe the evolution of the administrations from the eighties, the governments that advanced and contributed something relevant were those that sought out and procured the support of the citizenry. All those who ignored and scorned it wound up in defeat.

Popular support is always important, thus the maxim of Mao to the effect that one could govern without food or an army but never without the people’s trust. That elemental principle has become crucial in the era of the ubiquitous information in that the governments of today do not control that fundamental input that, in the past, served to shroud the citizenry in ignorance. Today the social media and other means of delivering information are nearly always more important than the instruments that governments possess to act. If the latter is added to the enormous power of the financial markets and their disruptive potential, it is clear that those who aspire to govern must bear in mind at least three decisive axes that so many of our governments have recently ignored.

The three key axes for the viability and potential success of the next government are very plain: to govern, keep the finances on an even keel and win the trust of the population. These would seem obvious but, on judging from the results of the last decades, none of these is easy to come by. In addition, after Fox, by whom the citizenry felt betrayed, the voters have learned to use their vote to reward or punish, respectively, the parties and their candidates.

Into this environment will arrive a new president at the presidential house, while the Ministers of Finance, the Interior and the other key government offices will all feel that the Revolution did them justice. They made it!  All that when the job has not even begun.

To govern, that rarified verb whose meaning today’s young people have never witnessed, implies taking charge of the basics: security, justice and public services; deciding on priorities, explaining things to the population, convincing the electorate and joining forces to re-direct the nation’s destiny. Those aspiring to govern typically disregard what that infers: winning over the citizenry, affecting interests, submitting those who threaten or harm the population and, in any case, giving up some of their powers to institutionalize their own function. The dispute over the Office of the new anti-corruption czar is a good example: Would this not have been the great opportunity to depoliticize the administration of justice and lay a foundation for the progress of the country, breaking away from the past?

Maintaining public finances in balance is something that would appear to be simple since for any citizen it is elemental not to spend more than one has. However, there is no lack of ministers who think they can defy the law of gravity: they spend more than comes in, they put the Public Treasury in debt and then pretend to wash their hands from the resulting inflation and devaluations, all of these factors creating anxiety among creditors, contempt on the part of the people and the mushrooming costs of the debt. Decades of crisis have been insufficient to internalize these things that are so obvious in nature.

Finally, no one can profess to govern if they do not explain to the citizenry what it is that they intend to achieve, convince it of the soundness of their proposals and report to it on the difficulties that come about along the way. Instead of that, our rulers tend to opt for the lie, gloss over their errors and pretend that no one noticed. How much simpler it is to cultivate the citizens’ confidence and be accountable, in the good times and the bad.

All good leaders understand this. Liu Bang, the first Emperor of the Han dynasty (202-195 AD), supposedly said that “he could conquer an empire from horseback but had to dismount to rule it.” Mexico is not different: one must dismount to govern…

The risks of ending NAFTA

Luis Rubio

 The growing complexity of the NAFTA negotiations has led to a series of discussions and statements regarding the potential scenarios that a critical situation in the negotiations themselves, or in a unilateral decision by President Trump to abandon the treaty, could precipitate. The Mexican government has been constructing a narrative aimed at preventing a sudden collapse of confidence and expectations, involving in that process the main business leaders. The objective is very clear and reasonable; however, it is fundamental to understand what is involved because the national mood has been radically altered in recent weeks as a result of both the attempts to minimize the relevance of NAFTA, while adopting catastrophic positions.

What’s relevant is to recognize what NAFTA is and why it is important. In a word, the NAFTA is transcendent because it constitutes an anchor of stability, a source of certainty that enjoys international support and recognition. This certainty is key both for internal confidence and for attracting foreign investment.

  • NAFTA was conceived as a mechanism through which the Mexican government obtained a kind of certificate from the US government as a guarantor that the rules of the game would be preserved, that the open trading regime would be maintained, and that the commitments made in the text of the NAFTA would be strictly adhered to.


  • At the outset, the objective of those negotiations was not trade, but a guarantee for investment. This guarantee would serve both to generate confidence in the preservation of the open trading regime and in the protection of foreign investments. What turned out to be NAFTA incorporates these two elements in its text as well as in the political commitments that accompanied it.


  • In the extreme speculation that Mexicans have fallen in through the past few weeks, there is no discussion about how to preserve NAFTA, but who should get out first: the Americans if they see that Canada and/or Mexico are not willing to accept their demands (many of them clearly unacceptable) or Mexico as a symbol of congruence and manhood. The reality is that if the US government withdraws from NAFTA (a scenario that I still think is unlikely) for Mexico, it is crucial to sustain the relationship with Canada, which, although less relevant in both economic and political terms, at least obliges Mexico to preserve the legal regime of protection for investment, nota mean feat. It would also compel Mexico to preserve the trading framework inherent in NAFTA, which entails a fundamental internal discipline, thus reducing the potential for incorporating endless distortions in economic decisions.


  • On the other hand, it is imperative to understand the political role of NAFTA within Mexico: its objective was to dramatically limit the latitude of future governments for making changes to the basic framework of economic policy (the open trading regime) in the event that a president with a different economic philosophy came to government. That is, the NAFTA was conceived as a profoundly political instrument for internal purposes, in recognition of the enormous de facto powers of the presidency, something very different from the checks and balances that characterize the US. It is thanks to NAFTA that the economic policy was not altered in the midst of the massive crisis of 1995 and could serve the same purpose should Lopez Obrador win the presidential election next year.


  • In other words, NAFTA constitutes a limit (smaller now than before due to the Trump effect, but a limit nonetheless) to a radical change in domestic economic policy, something of enormous relevance for the country’s political stability.


  • In this context, should the NAFTA with the US end, it is clear that, as has been argued repeatedly lately by government and business leaders, most of our exports would continue to have access to the US market, but now under WTO rules, where Mexico and the United States are granted most-favored-nation treatment, the essence of international trade where all participating nations enjoy the same rights and obligations.


  • However, the end of NAFTA (at least with the US) would indeed jeopardize the general economic policy, since it would open the door to the imposition of new import tariffs (those committed by Mexico within the WTO framework are much higher than those of the USA), as well as other changes in fields as diverse as the handling of the banks, the tax and fiscal policy. That is to say, in the absence of NAFTA, the government would feel completely free to favor companies and discriminate against others, grant protections, incentives and subsidies to their favorites and, in a word, abandon the regime of economic equity that, although it certainly has not fixed all the problems of the country, constitutes the backbone of the economic activity.


  • It is important to remember that the country’s economy shrank by 9% in 2009 because, as exports declined due to the US crisis, domestic demand collapsed, thus provoking a snow ball effect that brought about the sudden contraction of all economic activity. That event demonstrated that the NAFTA is the only engine of growth of the Mexican economy. Modifying the economic framework that isinherent to NAFTA would imply putting the engine of the Mexican economy at risk. This is not a minor matter. It is equally important to remember that Lopez Obrador’s approach to economic policy consists precisely in reversing the economic framework towards that which prevailed in the 1970’s.

In short, the risk of NAFTA’s termination would not be appreciated, at least not at the outset, in foreign trade, particularly in exports, but in the ability to attract investment from abroad and in the preservation of domestic confidence. NAFTA is the only source of certainty in the Mexican economic world; disregarding its importance or minimizing it could have dramatic consequences, none of which are in the interest of either Mexico or the United States.

Yesterday and today

Luis Rubio

For Leonardo Curzio, for whom
principles matter precisely
because they are inconvenient 

A half century ago, the per capita GDP of Mexico was double that of South Korea. Today, the per capita GDP of that nation is three times superior to ours. Beyond the strategy that South Korea followed in its development, it is evident that, first, it did indeed have a strategy and, second, that it was inclusive, razing the regional differences that had characterized it.  That was yesterday; today, South Korea faces the greatest existential challenge since its birth. I ask myself whether there is a lesson here for Mexicans.

Fortunately, the North Korean missile crisis is nothing like the crisis Mexico is experiencing with our neighbor to the North. However, in all seriousness, Mexico is confronting an existential challenge in terms of its development, and in that there are relevant lessons that, at least in concept, are of similar nature.

Let’s take this step by step. First, I have read and heard various experts* state that the matter has ended up falling into the hands of the South Korean government. China as well as the U.S., each for its own reasons, has proven to be impotent before the threat. China, it is attested, would have the possibility of imposing conditions on the Pyongyang regime, achieving with that a moderation of its nuclear escalation, although it is not evident that doing so would be in its interest: for China the risk is greater of having a regime militarily aligned with the U.S. on its border than the threat of Kim Jong-un. The U.S. declares it has the military capacity to destroy key nuclear installations, while it is increasingly clear that its capacity is not utilizable due to the inherent risks in its employment. On its part, South Korea is the country running the greatest risk in this, given that its main and capital city, Seoul, is localized a few dozens of kilometers from the border. Given this scenario, what Seoul will do is more crucial than what the two powers involved will.

South Korea and the U.S. have been allies since the fifties; that alliance includes a vast U.S. military presence in Korean territory and guarantees of joint action in case of conflict. Notwithstanding that, for South Korea, the Trump government is proving less and less reliable than Korea would prefer and the risks are increasingly greater, all of these for the Korean population. When would be the right time for Seoul to break with the military alliance in exchange for peace with Pyongyang and the disappearance of the nuclear threat?

Of course, there’s no parallel of the predicament confronting the Seoul regime with the dilemmas we Mexicans are facing: theirs are of life and death, ours are of development. Both cannot be equated in dimension, but they can in concept. Both are encountering avatars ordained by an equivocal and vacillating government in Washington, which obliges both to make fundamental decisions on their future. I am certain that the South Koreans would prefer to be encountering Mexico’s dilemmas than theirs, but ours are no less transcendent because of that.

For South Korea the dilemma appears to lie in its own internal strength: Does it possess the capacity to advance its interests and protect its population without its alliance with the U.S.?  Not a trivial problem, above all when the risk is incommensurable: anyone who has visited the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea understands what fear tastes like and immediately comprehends why the site is denominated “the most dangerous place on earth.” For Mexico the question is whether it can develop sources of internal trust and certainty that would allow us to diminish the importance of NAFTA for the economic viability of the country.

Each nation has its own history and Mexico’s does not include, fortunately, existential risks of the magnitude confronting the Koreans. Nevertheless, the existential for us deals with the poverty that afflicts a good part of the South of the country and an integral part of the solution dwells of the absence of internal sources of trust and certainty that, without NAFTA, might hinder the attracting of investment, the essence of any development strategy and of combatting poverty.

The dilemma is conceptually simple: the central reason for NAFTA, the core objective that the government of President Salinas sought to procure with that instrument, was the generation of the trust of the investors with the purpose of creating sources of wealth and employment in Mexico. Without NAFTA, Mexico would be exposed, plain and simple, because we have done nothing during these decades to solidify a regime of the rule of law equal to that which NAFTA creates. That, more than anything else, is what is involved in this complex Kabuki dance –the Japanese theater and drama in which it is never clear where one stands- that Mexico is now playing with the Americans.

The negotiations obviously have to continue, but the essential part is not what a president who gets up at 4 a.m. to tweet what suddenly occurred to him, but instead what we are going to do to build certainty and legality inside Mexico.  No more and no less. Our vulnerability is great but not existential: therein lies the central lesson.

“The strength of a country”, said a finance minister of a European country”, is reflected in its capacity to confront crisis situations.” Is Mexico strong?


*see, for instance,




Crisis and Opportunity

Luis Rubio

The moments of crisis bring out the best and the worst of us, of all: society and government. The earthquake that hit the central part of the country last September 19 showed a society that was ready and fully organized, with the ability to respond immediately, and a citizenship instantly dedicated to what is important. Both the preparation that already existed and the citizen response showed not only a commendable face of Mexican society, but also a committed and active citizenship. The same can be said of the government: its responsiveness, its preparation and instant reaction were visible and decisive. The sum of the two, citizenship and government, saved the moment.

Society did not wait for the government: it took control of its space and in a matter of hours the centers of collection were literally saturated; in turn, the young moved immediately to all the affected areas, doing everything they could to contribute to the rescue of the victims. The effectiveness in the former was simply impossible to match in the latter: whereas preparation is key and served to attend basic needs everywhere, the ability to actually rescue someone requires more than will: this demands equipment, experience, knowledge and almost military discipline. The opposite is true at the government level: its ability to act on affected sites is immense because it has been preparing, has the equipment and has the necessary experience; on the other hand, because of the enormous distrust – and contempt – that the government -of all political parties- has won from the population, its capacity to generate the necessary social mobilization is extremely limited. At least in Mexico City, society and government acted successfully in the areas that were natural to each, both showing the best of themselves.

There were also less laudable things. Robberies did not diminish, flagrant attempts to manipulate emotions were all over the place, and bureaucratic zeal prevented other government entities -and, especially, the technical contingents that arrived from the rest of the world to help in the rescue efforts- from acting immediately, all of which led to a greater loss of lives that may have been warranted.

After the first stage, that of the tragedies and the reconciliation of each one with their new circumstances, the new political realities begin. The volunteers did an extraordinary job, but now they return to school or work; the government returns to its usual activities, certain that it fulfilled its duty; it will heretofore work on its normal chores: manage the consequences. Whereas the former feel that they achieved a citizenship milestone, the latter forget the emotions of the moment and return to their bureaucratic routines. Maybe they notice that things have in fact changed, but not exactly in the way they imagine it.

It is commonplace to say that the earthquake of 1985 changed Mexican political life because it showed an incompetent government, unable to cope with the immediate crisis, all of which created a citizen conscience. All this is factual and undoubtedly relevant. However, what really changed Mexican politics was the crisis created by the population that survived the earthquake but lost their home. Not very sacrosanct political agreements and arrangements among odd political bedfellows emerged from that, building the coalition that had the effect of changing the Federal District and, eventually, the country. Today’s equivalent could be in the making: thousands of families survived the quake but were left homeless. Worse, many of them owned condominiums (something very different from 1985), so they have been left not only without a place to live, but without their main patrimony also.

In other words, the crisis has only just begun and the challenges ahead are enormous because the affected population is fundamentally middle class and does not have the kind of options that would be conceivable in rural areas. In a legal sense, it is clear that the problem does not correspond to the government, as each person is responsible for protecting their possessions, so those who did not buy insurance for their apartments, de facto chose to assume the risk themselves. But that would be the perfect world, not the typical Mexican way of behaving; hence, it is not difficult to fathom a new political fact looming which, unlike the legal one, ends up producing enormous pressures on the government to solve the crisis.

The way this and other situations are dealt with in the coming weeks and months will be absolutely determining of the political dynamics of 2018, particularly for the PRD government of Mexico City and the federal government. Both have the opportunity to seek solutions, anticipate complications and find effective outlets that avoid a major schism. Just as evident is that both governments (and their parties and candidates) will face the usual opportunists – internally and externally- sniping all over the place.

In his notebooks, Mao Tse Tung wrote, paraphrasing Clausewitz, that “politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with blood.” The earthquake and its immediate consequences ended, but now we return to the usual political war. What changed was the relative position of the political actors: the crisis gave the federal and local governments an opportunity; now everything is in their hands.

Chance and opportunities

Luis Rubio

In an exercise in which I participated in Boston years ago, the teacher who organized the event raised the possibility of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky collaborating. The question he asked the audience was: Will it be” war and punishment” or “crime and peace”? The purpose of the exercise was to force the participants to think “outside the box” and to look for solutions other than the conventional ones in each one’s affairs. These days of earthquakes made me remember that adventure and observe the government in a different way.

The earthquake that destroyed countless communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas showed a competent, fit and responsive government. Three decades after the terrible earthquake of 1985, which sank the administration of that time and sowed the seeds of rupture within the PRI and thus the birth of the movement that would lead to the candidacy of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his eventual triumph in the Federal District, it is quite clear that the administrations, from then on, learned the lesson and the risks involved. The same competence has been shown in Mexico City, after the deadly events of September 19. In fact, it is astonishing to see the president of the last few weeks willing to communicate with the population, explain the facts and try to convince the citizenry. Will there be political consequences of this change?

This current presidential term would have been very different had President Peña Nieto developed a public presence like the one he’s shown in the last few days. In contrast to the past years, the president of today is clearly in charge, visible and even convincing. Perhaps the differentiating factor is that the issue of today is not technical, as were the reforms that he promoted, but entirely political and therefore much more part of his nature. Whatever the explanation, the fact is that in a country so avid for strong and clear leadership (perhaps the main reason for which López Obrador leads the polls), the sudden (and, to this day, successful) prominence of the president of the Republic makes it compelling to ask if this new public persona will allow him to save his sexenio or, in any case, if it will have an electoral effect.

After reviewing several surveys, three are the factors that seem to me to determine the behavior of the expectations and perceptions of the electorate at this time: first, leadership and clarity of course, especially in light of the huge anger of the population with the government , the status quo and, in general, with the perception of the absence of solutions; second, honesty and corruption: it seems clear that the population has become absolutely intolerant of the misuse of public funds, the criteria with which rulers and officials manage at both the state and federal levels and, above all, the blatant way in which those who hold public offices enrich themselves; and, third, jobs, growth and inequality, with particular emphasis on the growing gap growing in the country: half of it growing above 6% and half contracting or, at best, remaining the same as two decades ago.

No poll is definitive and emotions and perceptions change with time and circumstances, so that its electoral effect is not always perceptible until the last moment. Hillary Clinton’s much-maligned book about her electoral defeat is interesting in more ways than one, but what struck me most is her claim that she did not realize during the campaign the enormous anger that characterized the American electorate which, in the end, Donald Trump managed to capitalize successfully. I mention this anecdote for a reason: American campaigns are extraordinarily sophisticated in the use of technical tools, polling, and analysis of the so-called “big data” and, yet, all this (very expensive) apparatus in Clinton’s hands was unable to detect the factor that, in the end, determined the outcome. Could something similar happen in Mexico next year?

Emotions and perceptions have different causes and are dynamic, changing all the time. For some the anger may be the product of the obvious enrichment of a governor, for others the effect of a bad public works project (as was the huge hole in the Cuernavaca bypass or the aqueduct in Monterrey). In many cases, as with the houses of the current presidential entourage, the lack of explanation and response was much more damaging than the fact itself: the government created a void that was immediately filled by those who were angry over corruption. I do not judge the relevance of the actions of one or the other; the political fact is that the current presidential term suffers the effects of its own actions and omissions. Fox promised solutions and his failure to produce them created the conditions for a demanding citizenship that has taken the vote with great seriousness and is ready to use it in 2018.

In the next nine months we will witness all sorts of leaps, strategies, stratagems and attempts to win the presidency. But the biggest risk and the greatest opportunity lie in the outgoing government’s lap, because its action in times of crisis could alter, for better or worse, the whole electoral picture. That’s where we are and there goes the country.



Luis Rubio

One way to summarize (inevitably simplifying) the last decades is the following: on the one hand, a struggle between two visions of developmentalism and, on the other, attempts to deal with their consequences. Both processes have been fruitless, but their main characteristic is that both approaches have meant looking back to the past. For at least two decades Mexico has been trying to return to a world that was not desirable but, more to the point, that is not possible. Nostalgia is not a good guide: what Mexico needs is to build a different future.

The developmentalist visions are obvious: in first place we find the current government with its grandiose development projects: highways, great and ambitious reforms, infrastructure and dreams of recreating an idyllic world. Emphasis is on the long term and on monumental objectives that, sooner or later, would lead to recognition of the grandeur of the government that promoted them. In second place is Andrés Manuel LópezObradorwith a similarly nostalgic vision but immediate in conception: his perspective embraces facing up to the challenges of the moment and managing the interest groups that are politically key; perhaps there is no better example of his thrust than the second-level beltway overpasses that he built when mayor of the former Federal District: major works that the governor bestowed upon the citizenry to enhance their comfort.

The common denominator is the magnanimous government acting with largesse for the good of the citizens without ever consulting them: the government is above all of those petty items, such as the populace, and its sole responsibility lies in magnificent works, infrastructure and actions that these should serve the citizens, and the government is not there to be questioned, to respond or to be accountable but to impose its own decisions. The two, the exiting PRIist and the Morena Party ex-PRIist, are much more alike than either imagines or recognizes.

The PAN has been quite distinct during its passage through the government: Fox straightforwardly lived out the end of the PRI era without bothering himself with the details of breaking with the pre-Columbian institutions that had sufficed for containing and keeping the population in check. Rather than dealing with the past and constructing new institutions or convoking the development of structures tailor-made for the XXI century (in contrast with those of the thirties of the past century that continue to be the essence of Mexican politics), Fox implemented the dead man’s float and that is how it went for him, and for the country. Calderón responded in the face of the old system’s consequences and Fox’s superficiality with a contention strategy against the criminal hordes, without ever taking upon himself the necessity of a new foundation for day-to-day security at the service of the people. A distinct vision, but likewise adhering fast to the rearview mirror.

Developmentalistic projects are not concerned with consequences because the government always knows better; the PANists do not worry about the consequences because they cling to what exists. Thus, none of them constructed government capacity for the future of the nation: none have engaged in governing in the sense of creating conditions of security, stability and credibility that would allow citizens to devote themselves to increasingly productive and relevant activities for their lives and, as a result, for the country. No one has advocated for the country of the future.

Governing does not comprise imposing preferences from above, but instead solving problems, generating conditions for the progress and prosperity of the people and, in a word, contributing to the citizens’ enjoyment of a better life. The function of those who govern is not composed (at least not fundamentally) of impressive public works, although there can be these, but instead in serving the citizens: winning them over, and their vote, by serving them. In other words, nearly the inverse of the rationale  typifying Mexican politics, which understands the citizen as an obstacle and the government as the solution to all problems.

How many of those who have been in charge of the government thought of curtailing the painful wait time -on occasion many months- for a person to receive medical care at the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS)? How many of our supposed governors have built infrastructure to drastically reduce commuting times in the country’s big cities, with today’s workers using up to five hours of their day for transport to and from their job every day? How many of our civil servants have sought to simplify the payment of taxes? How many of our politicians comprehend the day in, day out anguish produced in millions of parents by the absence of a reliable security system?

Governing of course includes reforms and works of infrastructure, but none of these is going to improve or solve public life if these are not conceived for and with the citizens. Today’s political system was engendered to stabilize the nation and to control the population, circumstances that were fitting for the country’s reality and that of the world one hundred years ago, in the post-revolutionary era. At present, practically one hundred million Mexicans later, that system has been totally outstripped and remedial gestures -such as the electoral one of recent decades- are no longer sufficient.

Mexico must build a new system of government, one that confers certainty and that obligates the elected leaders to govern and to serve the public. Without that, we will stay in the past, and worse in some scenarios.