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Corruption

Luis Rubio

When he was a comedian on television in Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, garbed in a prison inmate’s uniform,  criticized the corruption of the politicians, accusing them of being atheists and not being able to imagine a better life than that deriving from the reigning corruption. Three years later, as President of Guatemala, Morales’s son and brother were accused of corruption. Nothing new under the sun. Corruption is an endemic vice that affects nearly all nations of the world, but its manifestations and effects change from country to country.

Yuen Yuen Ang, a university professor who is an expert on China, affirms that everyone supposes that corruption affects economic growth, but evidence in this regard is tenuous. After analyzing and comparing dozens of lands over time, her conclusion is that corruption changes as countries develop and that some achieve its eradication almost entirely. In her book, China’s Gilded Age, Ang concludes that what distinguishes this nation has been its capacity to attain such high growth rates for several decades despite the enormous corruption characterizing it. Ang’s analysis is particularly relevant for Mexico.

Corruption is conventionally defined as: “the abuse of public office for private gain” that, says the author, includes too many types of corruption, clouding over more than clarifying, because not all varieties hamper growth, thus explaining differences among nations regarding what this phenomenon entails. Elucidating the differences permits understanding the impacts that corruption exerts and explains why it persists in many nations, on occasion legally or, de facto, legalized.

Ang thus differentiates between corruption involving exchanges between governmental officials and social actors (including bribes) from corruption that involves robbery, embezzlement and extorsion. To the latter she adds a second dimension for telling apart the nature of the actors involved: politicians and social leaders (in a broad sense) are not the same as low-range functionaries like police officers, customs officials, inspectors, and governmental office workers. This dimension allows for discerning between the bribes an ordinary person offers to facilitate a procedure and great decisions at the governmental level where funds, contracts, concessions, and other valuable resources are allotted concerning those over which the government has jurisdiction.

Based on these categories, Ang comes to define four types of corruption: a) petty theft: “acts of stealing, misuse of public funds, or extorsion among street-level bureaucrats” (that affects ordinary citizens on their interacting with lower-level functionaries or police officers); b) grand theft: “embezzlement or misappropriation of large sums of public monies by political elites who control state finances” (treasury theft through the over-invoicing of governmental purchases or other, similar mechanisms; c) speed money: “petty bribes that companies or citizens pay to bureaucrats to get around hurdles or speed things up” (“gratuities” that people employ to enable a process, the product of cumbersome requisites and abusive inspectors; and d) access money, which “encompasses high-stake rewards by business actors to powerful officials, not just for speed, but access to exclusive, private privileges” (expensive gifts, bribes, the profit-sharing of a project in exchange for extraordinarily profitable favors). “Whereas the first three categories are almost always illegal, access can encompass both illegal (e.g., massive graft) and legal access (e.g., political finance and lobbying).” Illegal categories can be great bribes, but access can involve “ambiguous exchanges or completely legal ones that do not involve bribes” such as connections, campaign financing, influence peddling, etc.

Jagdish Bhagwati, an Economics professor, said that once there was an idea, now mostly forgotten, that the “tortoise” India could eventually overtake the “hare” –China. “That’s an exaggeration, I think”, he says. “A crucial difference between the two countries is the type of corruption they have. India´s is classic “rent-seeking”, where people jostle to grab a cut of existing wealth. “The Chinese have what I call ‘profit-sharing corruption’: the Communist Party slips a straw into the milkshake so “they can have an interest in having the milkshake grow larger.”

The method of differentiating corruption by means of its characteristics permits Ang to separate between the amount and the quality of the corruption and, on observing it over the course of time, this leads her to arrive at the conclusion that the evolution of capitalism frequently has necessitated not only the eradication of corruption, but also its transition from “mafioso-like” forms and theft into sophisticated exchanges of power and profit-sharing. In this, notes the author, China is not different from the way the United States was at the beginning of the XIX century and its manner of evolving distinguishes it from innumerable nations that have been bogged down in primitive forms of corruption that, far from expediting economic development, obstruct it. I don’t know why, but Mexico seems much like this to me.

www.cidac.org

@lrubiof

The World and Mexico

Luis Rubio

In New Zealand, the Maoris engage in a ritual at the start of rugby games called “haka,” which consists of a series of grimaces, exaggerated gestures and movements –ranging from sticking out the tongue to jumping and making all kinds of menacing noises- with the object of scaring their opponents. Their competitors are familiar with the rite and appreciate it as art but, after years of practicing it, no one feels intimidated. I wonder whether, after Trump and now Afghanistan, the world will get accustomed to the new international reality implicit in the ongoing changes within the nation that led the world and kept it in balance from the end of the Second World War.

The triumph of Donald Trump as President of the United States surprised the world not only due to the fact of his winning, but also above all because he did not moderate his discourse on assuming the presidency. Biden has devoted himself to dismantling the Trump legacy, but nonetheless shares a common objective with his predecessor: modifying the premises that characterized the United States at least since 1945. Trump won the 2016 election largely due to the imbalances created by the globalization era, but also to the speed with which technology has made headway and the “shrinking effect” that it has brought about on curtailing distances and on engendering new vulnerabilities –or, in any event, the sensation of vulnerability- where formerly there was no reason at all for it. Biden won the 2020 election largely in reaction to Trump, albeit with a similar agenda: an inward looking vision which, beyond the rhetoric, withdraws the US from the global arena.

The peculiarity of the moment, a phenomenon that could well have enormous implications for Mexico, is that these changes take place in parallel with the rise of China as a world power. China has adhered to a transformative process that has not only permitted the accelerated growth of its economy –to the point of rivaling in size that of the U.S.- but also its leadership is buttressed by a strategic vision that has become exceptional in today’s world. In contrast with U.S. presidents of the Cold War period, the two most recent presidents do not even perceive of the need to think strategically, reacting suddenly and viscerally to circumstances as they materialize, as recently demonstrated by the chaotic exit from Afghanistan: maybe a deserving objective, but pathetic in its execution.

The Chinese ascent, and its construction strategy of a logistic empire, constitutes what Parag Khanna described as the re-creation of the old British Empire, not with colonial possessions but with a network of highways, railways, ports and communications that allow integration of the entire Asian region within itself and with Africa and Europe. This concerns the most ambitious geopolitical project that has been conceived which, without doubt, embodies a threat to the might of the U.S., now saddled with a leadership that does not have the capacity for, but even less so the interest in, understanding or on to what to react.

For many, this constitutes an opportunity to diminish the depth of Mexico’s ties with the U.S. and to embark upon a diversification in its commercial relations. And, doubtlessly, as Luis de la Calle argues,* the commercial and political conflict that characterizes the two powers opens teeming possibilities for Mexico to “reaffirm its position as a credible competitor in the two leading economies,” substituting for Chinese imports in the U.S. and attracting novel sources, and lines, of foreign investments. The opportunity is immense, but requires a concerted strategy on the part of the Mexican government to poise Mexico in the enviable position of being the natural alternative with respect to these two nations; but the window will not be eternal: on not being taken advantage of, it will be lost.

In the broader framework of Mexico within the changing international environment, it is fundamental to reflect on the implications of China’s rise and the potential political changes in the U.S. in the coming years, for the interaction between the two will determine the panorama in which Mexico will be able to move. China has exceptional strategic leadership, an extraordinary capacity of adaptation and its political nature permits it to have associations that democratic nations would not even contemplate.

On the other hand, it is not possible to minimize the challenges that China will confront in economic as well as in political spheres in the coming decades. On its part, Americans lack a similarly enlightened leadership and are undergoing great political polarization that makes it possible to visualize marked shifts in their internal politics before they recover, as so many times in the past, their traditional strategic clarity. It is easy to underestimate the Americans, but their open political system empowers them to regenerate fast. Nothing is written in stone.

Mexico has remarkable opportunities if it intelligently takes advantage of the fissures that are today paramount on the U.S.–China relationship, but this will require a great exercise of leadership and vision, something that has not been one of Mexico’s most noteworthy trademarks. On the other hand, the rapidly advancing disappearance of the liberal vision that, at least in concept, was the centerpiece of the recent decades’ economic policy, constitutes a formidable impediment for seizing this opportunity.

 

*http://consejomexicano.org/index.php?s=contenido&id=5700

 

 

www.cidac.org

@lrubiof

Three years of López Obrador: Where to?

Mexico Today
Luis Rubio 

It has been nearly three years since Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president of Mexico. His administration has clarity of purpose, but no other aim than to impose it dogmatically, relentlessly, and unsparingly. Circumstances are changing, but the president does not waver, oblivious to the consequences. Wasn’t that what the López Obrador himself and his followers claimed the previous Mexican technocratic governments did? Didn’t they said that the technocrats wanted to make reality fit their theories? Three years into the López Obrador administration it is already possible to glimpse what’s coming for Mexico, and it’s not a pretty picture. As US economist Thomas Sowell wrote in 1995: “Dangers to a society may be mortal without being immediate.”

The damage to the country is tangible. In the immediate term, the seriousness of what Mexico is experiencing can be seen by comparing 2018 figures and 2021 figures. Mexico’s household income fell 5.8 percent, while GDP is down 4 percent in the first quarter. The damage to the Mexican economy is enormous and it began with López Obrador’s decision in 2018 to shelve the construction of Mexico City’s new international airport. In a world in which information flows instantly, every action (and every statement) of a head of state has consequences. For Mexico, the president’s actions have all been detrimental to the growth of the economy and, therefore, to achieving his goals set in terms of economic growth along with inequality and poverty reduction. The only thing that has cushioned the fall of the economy has been the rise in remittances from Mexican migrants in the US, thanks to the hefty stimulus checks distributed by the US government as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic downturn.

The damages to Mexico’s political institutions are also tangible, but are, to a large extent, the result of the confrontational governing strategy that has been president López Obrador’s hallmark. Convinced that his way is the only way, López Obrador has not deemed it necessary (or useful) to open negotiations with opposition parties or other social actors. Although he publicly acknowledges from time to time the shortcomings that his strategy has caused (like when he spoke of crime as the country’s greatest challenge or when he met with Mexican businessmen to foster private investment), the López Obrador’s overall project has not changed one iota.

President López Obrador does not recognize that it is impossible to isolate one act from the totality of actions and that, in this age, everything impacts everything else, meaning that there has to be complete agreement between the administration’s discourse and its day-to-day actions. The lack of coherence means that everything in Mexico remains paralyzed, with ensuing economic, political, and social damage. Many, particularly the Mexican president’s acolytes, may think that these are minor tolls on the road to redemption or that there are factors (i.e. the Covid-19 pandemic) that have prevented the sweeping change promised. But no one can avoid seeing the worsening decline. Again, as Sowell says: the damage can be fatal even if it goes immediately unnoticed.

 The key question for Mexico is how to deal with the consequences of this period of systematic, clearly self-inflicted decline. Mexican citizens gained effective freedoms, particularly in terms of freedom of expression in 2000 when the party in power changed for the first time in 70 years. Today, such freedom has been somewhat diminished by the day-after-day intimidation of the press from the Mexican president’s podium. Of course, many of those freedoms are somewhat abstract for those Mexican families living day-to-day and needing basic essentials. Add to this, the administration’s information overload that has generated expectations that are impossible to be met, especially when instant satisfaction is the cry of the day. What will happen when the expectations raised by López Obrador fall short?

The president has launched a campaign to “win back” Mexico’s urban middle class, the ones he has labeled as “ignorant”. López Obrador does not realize that their dissatisfaction cannot be solved with his patronage tactics. Given that the president’s goal is the subordination of all sectors of Mexican society, López Obrador is simply unable to use tools to win over the urban middle class.

The contradiction, and paradox, is glaring: those Mexicans who pride themselves to be middle class have achieved a minimum economic stability that allows them not to rely on the government. This is why trying to win them over with freebies is counterproductive. How can you attract this sector of Mexican society? Providing a truly safe environment, better public and health services, schools that allow social mobility and effective actions against corruption.

López Obrador may find it very appealing to attack Mexican presidents going back four decades. However, the memory of most Mexican citizens doesn’t go back further than his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, and who López Obrador protects. The contradictions remain archetypal.

López Obrador has devoted three years to trying to recreate an obsolete and unrepeatable Mexican system of social and political control. They have been three years of systematic deterioration. There are three more years to come. The damage to the country will be unfathomable. It is possible, but not certain, that the president will prevent Mexico falling into a financial crisis, but not the outcome of a presidential term full of potentially mortal damages.

* 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

https://mexicotoday.com/2021/09/07/opinion-three-years-of-lopez-obrador-where-to/

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubiof

 

Development

Development

Luis Rubio

The objective, as the president tells Mexicans once and again, is regime change. However, to judge by his actions, his true mission is that of concentrating power and eliminating any source of opposition or counterweight. Perhaps this would be a new regime as the president promised, but that is certainly not the reason why the electorate went for the president back in 2018 in such a big way.

The real problem that Mexico faces, the reason why President López Obrador won the presidency in 2018, is that the population was fed up after three decades of reforms from which it was perceiving few benefits. And that electorate was right. What the country had experienced in recent times was not an incorrect path, but instead a skewed process that had not resolved -in fact, that it had not even confronted- the structural problems that had ended up translating into enormous convergences of power and wealth, as well as intolerable regional disparities.

The key question is not who the guilty party is, the daily theme of the President´s early-morning press conferences, but rather what the cause is of these poor or biased results. Had Mexico been the sole nation on the planet that undertook that reform process, it would stand to reason to proceed to determine who made a mistake and why. However, given that the strategy followed comprises a virtually universal blueprint, the pertinent query is another: why were results of nations such as Korea, Taiwan, China, Chile, and similar others so much more successful?

In a word, what is it that Mexico did not do -or that it did wrong- that was done right in other latitudes? In the sixties, for example, Korea as well as Mexico made the opportunity created by the U.S. Customs Law their own by permitting the importation into the country of manufactured goods paying only a tax on the value added in a third country, which is known as a maquila or assembly tariff: raw materials, prime parts and components are imported, and processed goods are exported. In Korea, maquiladora plants were installed in that nation´s industrial centers to stimulate the development of an ample industry of suppliers, to the extent that, decades later, more than 80% of inputs are derived from local enterprises. In Mexico, that number was never higher than 10%. The establishment of similar value-added operations in Mexico was circumscribed in northern border regions to avoid “contamination” of the remainder of the industry.

Something much the same took place from the eighties in which the economy was opened to imports to promote the growth of a modern industrial plant, an export base and to raise the general productivity of the economy. The objective was clear and indisputable, identical to what occurred in other nations that in the end proved successful. What was the difference? It was that those nations understood the liberalization as an integral process of change in which there would be no sacred cows: this is no better illustrated than by China. In that nation it was decided that the priority was to raise growth rates and that there would be no obstacle that would impede this. Next step was to deal with unions, petty fiefdoms, and personal interests that impeded growth to achieve the objective. Mexico continues to be plagued by mafias in charge of education and abusive unions and criminal syndicates that extort firms as well as workers, and a panoply of untouchable political and business interests.

The result is an industrial powerhouse, but accompanied by an old manufacturing plant that is obsolete, living in a limbo of ever lower productivity, incapable of competing in the world.

An example says more than a thousand words: in view of all the ongoing conflict between the US and China, many speculate that there will be thousands of plants migrating from China to other locations, including Mexico. Nonetheless, the experience of Apple with the iPhone suggests something quite distinct. The production of that sophisticated artifact required a highly skilled work force, one that is extraordinarily disciplined and that possesses skills specifically developed for high-tech processes. Apple has explored other options, but none offers an educative system capable of generating that labor force, and a government dedicated to resolving problems for their productive system to be successful, and the scale necessary to satisfy their market. Many nations would entertain dreams of attracting the Apples of this world -which pay excellent salaries and contribute to the general development- but none is devoting itself to engendering the conditions for this to come about.

A workforce such as that of Apple -one example among thousands- allows the middle class to grow, elevates overall welfare, and propagates prosperity. In other words, it becomes a regime change because it undermines the concentration on wealth and diminishes regional imbalances.

Companies can generate jobs and produce exceptional artifacts, but only governments can create the conditions for a middle class to prosper in an accelerated manner, as have the previously mentioned nations. None of that is happening in Mexico.

Instead of obsolete refineries and inoperable airports, the government should, for instance, remove the union mafias and devise a new educative system with the teachers themselves at the helm. That is, reforming everything that no one has wanted to touch because it threatens the true objective, which is not development but power.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubiof

Inter Temporality

Luis Rubio

The key to development lies in the joint action of millions of individuals exercising their freedom and making their own decisions, within the framework of rules established by the State. When those rules are coherent and, above all, derive from the recognition of human nature as it is and not how some politician would prefer these tenets to be, development is attained and flourishes. There is perhaps no better way to exemplify this than the contrast between Mao and Deng: Mao devoted himself to persecuting and impoverishing his population; Deng made it possible for his nation to thrive. In Deng’s words, “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” The difference: Deng accepted human nature instead of attempting to adapt it to his political or ideological predilections.

Deng recognized that people are in quest of their personal benefit and that the sum of millions of persons making decisions in economic matters translates into an enormous collective benefit and in that fashion, the development of his country advanced. The decisions of those millions of citizens over time -intertemporally- contribute to development and are rendered possible to the degree that there is an environment of certainty to which those individuals can adhere. The difference between Mao and Deng ended up being that Deng, on discerning that facet of human nature, dedicated himself to creating the politico-normative fabric that would make it flourish. The result was that the Chinese government created a milieu of trust for its population, the most integral explanation for the prodigious success of the past decades.

The lesson of this for Mexico is obvious: the country has prospered at times when there is certainty and has stagnated or retracted when this disappears. For many decades, that trust depended on each sexenio, the six-year presidential term of office. If one were to observe Mexican economic cycles, these always lasted six years: the first year was recessive because investors and savers awaited signals from the new government and sought to understand how it would attempt to reinvent the wheel; when the rules of the game were clear, the upward cycle began, only to wind down toward the term’s sixth year, when the process started again. That is, everything depended on the president-in-turn, in that his power was (is) so vast that he could change the rules at any moment. That is the reason why the trust factor in the governor acquired such great transcendence.

This method of functioning entailed three evident costs: first, long-term projects were never developed; second, the propensity for recessive cycles to become sharper was huge; and third, everything depended on the president, each of his expressions would take on cosmic dimensions, for good as well as bad. The lack of factors of long-term certainty led to the crisis era of the seventies, eighties and nineties and it was not until the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was consolidated that the country underwent, for the first time since the Mexican Revolution, an era of stability and clarity of rules, at least for part of the economy.

An intelligent government, one capable of perceiving the deep-rooted nature of the phenomenon, would have extended the rules regime inherent in NAFTA to the whole economy and to the entire national territory. However, as things turned out, the nation entered into an epoch of two Mexicos and two velocities that allowed for there to be great growth in one part of the country and stagnation in another. On top of that, Trump came along, the first President of the United States during the NAFTA period who had no knowledge about and much less interest in the political relevance of NAFTA for Mexico, removing the existing “safety pins” from the entire framework.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) has many virtues but does not give rise to the same wellspring of trust as the original NAFTA and to that one must add the rhetoric of President López Obrador, which has had the immediate effect of undermining certainty and generating mistrust in a broad spectrum of the population, as could be appreciated in the recent electoral processes. In contrast with the PRI-era presidents whom he seems to admire, López Obrador has not the least intention of engendering a framework of trust for investment. His discourse and treatment as adversaries (when not as enemies) of all those not in agreement with him have resulted in economic stagnation.

In these times of the ubiquity of information, political and private messages are indistinguishable because they immediately become part of the political process and yield a binary result: either they occasion trust or there is none. The strategy of confrontation, expressly designed to divide, whets social animosity, closes the spaces of potential dialog and spawns uncertainty. Instead of forging a milieu of peace and tranquility, crucial for attracting investment and savings, this becomes impossible.

It was Mao himself who affirmed, in an interview with Edgar Snow, that to govern requires “A popular army, sufficient food and the confidence of the people in their governors.” “If you were to have only one of the three things, which would you prefer? asked Snow. Mao replied, “I can do without the army. People can tighten their belts for a time. But without their trust it is not possible to govern.”

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

The Umpire

The Umpire

Luis Rubio

The function of the umpire in constitutional matters is that of breaking the ties among the other branches of government. In recent years, with the legislature in control of the executive, the sole guarantee of political and institutional stability has resided on the Supreme Court of Justice; but what happens when the umpire renounces its constitutional responsibility and its president publicly subordinates himself before the President of the nation?

The 1994 reform of the Supreme Court was conceived for a moment such as this. The objective was to confer certainty on the process of political change that began to take shape with the modernization of the structure of the judiciary. Very much in the style of the times, that reform was two steps forward and one step back: for example, there is no Supreme Court in the democratic world that requires more than a simple majority for its decisions; in Mexico eight of the eleven votes are required. In the same manner, an enormous power of control was conferred to the Court’s president. These original sins reveal, once again, the lack of vision of Mexican presidents and their perennial commitment to the status quo, in this case one neither very democratic nor commendable.

The anomalies with which the Court came into being are those that have created the conundrum in which Mexico finds itself at the present time because it permitted President López Obrador to take control of the institution on forcing the exit of a minister, the naming of two that came up for nomination, and the subordinating of the President of the Court. In the blink of an eye, the President ended up in control of the umpire and, through the Court’s president, froze all the vital issues up for Court review that undermined and threatened the most elemental rights of the citizenry. When the umpire abdicates its role, the country moves into very slippery terrain.

The list of pending issues before the Court grows by the minute; some of those pending points-of-issue speak to the most elementary attributes for the life of a nation, such as the very freedom of the people, property rights and the permanence of the reforms adopted over the past decades. These issues matter and affect the entire citizenry because they refer to the essence of the relationship between the society and the government, between the federal government and the states, and, above all, to the counterweight mechanisms that every democratic and civilized society needs to function. A society deprived of those mechanisms or when those counterweights are called into question and no safeguards remain capable of protecting them, ceases to be able to conceive of itself as civilized and democratic. Mexico has not yet crossed that threshold, but the subordination of the Court, especially of its president, to the federal executive, advances in that direction.

The retired Minister of the Court, José Ramón Cossío, argues that “the central function of constitutional justice is precisely to contain those attempts to it being seized. Constitutional justice requires justices willing to sustain the plaza, which in this case is the Constitution.” When those justices allow the subordination of the last constitutional fort to the executive, they not only convert justice into mere mockery, but they also attempt against the stability of the country.

The electoral result of the recent midterms partially reduces the gravity of the predicament in which the Court has placed the citizenry. The loss of the qualified majority by the Morena party and its allies, changes, at least in part, the political panorama. However, it does not solve the damage which has already been inflicted on the issues at the doorstep of the Court, but which the Minister President of the Court jealously guards under lock and key, such as preventive imprisonment and domain extinction without the acknowledgement of a judge, to cite two that are especially abominable and ominous.

The question is what comes next. One possibility, that preferred by Mexican politicians, now spurred on by the president’s decision to “pop the cork” on the presidential-succession process by “unmasking” the potential candidates of Morena, is that of keeping low and doing as little as possible for the remainder of the current presidential term. Given the pressure to which the members of the Supreme Court of Justice are submitted, this would appear to be an attractive option as individuals, particularly its president, but it would imply absolute irresponsibility with respect to the latter’s constitutional obligations.

Another possibility would be that proposed by Denis Jeambar and Yves Roucaute in their famous book Eloge de la Trahison: betraying whatever understanding the Court’s president might have with López Obrador. It is time for the president of the Court to recognize the historical moment: “not to commit treason is to perish: it is to fail to recognize time, the spasms of society, the mutations of history. Treason, the expression of pragmatism of the highest order, is lodged in the center of our modern republican mechanisms… Treason is the political expression –it is the framework for the norms rendered by democracy- of the flexibility, the adaptability, the anti-dogmatism; its objective is to maintain the foundations of society, while that of criminal cowardice is to disaggregate them.”

The least Mexicans deserve is for the Court to assume the maxim of José María Morelos, one of the nation’s forefathers: “That anyone who complains with justice will have a court that listens to him, shelters him, and defends him against arbitrariness.”

 

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubio

Inequalities

Luis Rubio

Inequality is one of the most powerful grievances and complaints that President López Obrador has raised and that enlivens many in his base. There are good reasons for that, which does not mean that the president is advancing toward their diminution: rather, everything he does has seems to be oriented toward heightening it. Inequality comprises without doubt one of the characteristics of Mexican society but, instead of developing programs to resolve it, the government has devoted itself, as in everything that it does, to identifying the guilty more readily than the solutions. Better to transfer the responsibility than to assume the challenge of creating conditions for the phenomenon to diminish and eventually disappear.

The issue is not new. In recent years, the call to attend to inequality has been raised, in great measure, paradoxically, because headway in this matter has been substantial, but slower than people would desire. The paradox here is key because the president exploits social differences as an instrument of polarization without recognizing the nature of the phenomenon: the great majority of the population has gotten ahead in the last decades, but some much more rapidly than others. That is, the reforms that the president so resoundingly rebukes permitted nearly the entire population to rapidly improve their livelihood, but the fact that some became rich along the way generated expectations of swifter progress for all, which certainly has not come about. The question is why.

No less important is the focus for which the government has opted: in place of seeking to solve inequality, it has dedicated itself to putting its finger on supposed causes and guilty parties. Michael Novak said that understanding the roots of the backwardness and poverty is interesting, but more relevant yet (and, might I add, more powerful) is to ascertain the origins of the wealth. It is evident that it is politically profitable to find the guilty than to procure solutions, but what the president is doing is accelerating the inequality, impoverishing those who were already poor, but above all those who had been achieving sensitive advancement in their standard of living and their capacity as consumers, the most vulnerable part of Mexican society and, not a small irony, a sizeable source of electoral support for the president.

Three phenomena have occurred in recent decades: first, a large proportion of Mexican society raised their living standard and consumption capacity, the incipient middle class; second, the explosion of the Internet, social networks and, in general, the ubiquity of information, inciting a revolution in the expectations of the people: everyone sees who have become rich and they want to be and to have what they have, and they want it now. This wellspring of aspiration is also an enormous source of frustration, thus easy prey for traffickers in resentments; and third, another segment of society, particularly in the South of the country, has been left behind not due to a lack of aspirations or abilities, but more accurately to the cacique-like political and union bosses who impede prosperity in places such as Oaxaca and Chiapas.

The leading innovation of the Morena party and their leadership lie in their wishing to sort out these problems by impoverishing the whole population: better to raise taxes, expropriate, thwart the installation of new enterprises (and their consequent employees) than to clear up the structural causes of the inequality, which would entail the generation of novel growth sources, a more productive economy and one with better competition and less obstruction by dodgy politicians and  leaders who live off the permanent pillaging.

This debate is engaged in worldwide, in each case with its particular biases. For example, in the United States the idea is discussed of compensating for the evil engendered by slavery through making financial amends to the descendants of slaves. The ethical, moral, and practical dilemmas deriving from these approaches are immense and the reason why this issue has been on the stage for decades without advancing much. The complexity of coping with a fountainhead of such great bitterness, sufferings and passions is vast, but I bring up here this issue because there’s a gamut of innovative and creative solutions being proposed that could well be adopted in Mexico.

Instead of demanding that today’s citizens, who have nothing to do with the slavery of two centuries ago, pay reparations to persons who were never slaves, the idea is to engage in investments directed toward those enduring the inequality of the direst poverty, whatever its origin. Specifically, a widespread program is advocated for the construction of schools with the best teachers and living complexes for the most destitute communities with the express purpose of breaking the vicious circle of poverty–inequality–lack of opportunity.

In Mexico, the union and cacique mafias such as the CNTE, a teachers’ union, give themselves over to the preservation of ignorance, consequently to inequality and the lack of opportunity. Perhaps there is no worse vice than that of the inequality caused by these mafias who are also Morena-party operators and whose objective it is for the people to continue being poor, submissive, and ignorant. Inequality is the product of the system that Morena yearns not only to perpetuate but to strengthen.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

Coercion

Coercion

Luis Rubio

“The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak” affirms Eric Berkowitz* in an extraordinary study on censoreship. For nearly a century the post-Revolutionary Mexican government suppressed freedom of expression, engaged in all sorts of efforts to censure the media, controlled the conversation and curbed the entry into the country of “dangerous ideas” that could call into question the legitimacy of the governments emanating from the Revolution. As this author says so well, censorship does not annul the expression that perturbs the governors, but rather transfers it to other media, creating “black markets” saturated with discussion, information, misinformation, conspiracy theories and an infinity of jokes and memes.  Symptomatic of our time is the fact that quips about the current Mexican president have been revived, just as happened in the seventies.

The matter of freedom of expression polarizes Mexican society. For some, beginning with the President, one now breathes an air of freedom without compare. And, of course, there is no doubt that President López Obrador employs and exploits his pulpit fully and freely. For others, however, the way that the President leads is nothing other than by the permanent intimidation of those whom he terms “adversaries.”

The polarization in this discussion is somewhat strange because we live in an era of the ubiquity of expression. The social networks permit every citizen to express themselves as they wish, with common sense or rare sense, with respect or irreverence, with correct spelling or not. More to the point, the defeat of the PRI in 2000 was accompanied by a radical change in the nature of the Mexican State, forever undermining the censorship troupes: irreconcilable enemies suddenly had access to all media, written and electronic, while the government not only lost the capacity of control, but also opted to not use it. Certainly, there was no lack of presidents and their “plumbers” who attempted to coax freedom of expression even after 2000, but the advent of social media rendered it impossible to return to the former age.  Many of those proclaiming that freedom of expression suddenly appeared in 2018 are the very ones who inhabit the world of the networks where expressions, affronts and conversations predominate outside of all possibility of control. Whoever doubts this should ask Peña Nieto.

In contrast with other governments, the Mexican used to distinguish itself (almost always…) by the subtlety of its methods, but it was never shy about employing others, which were more direct when, in its estimation, the circumstances justified it. The Student Movement of 1968 is vivid testimony of one of those moments. The government strove to control the flow of information because the objective was preservation of the post-Revolutionary legitimacy for which it engaged on the building of hegemony (through television and textbooks), as well as censorship in periodicals and other spaces.

President López Obrador is not a champion of freedom of expression, but his true intent and purpose is control of the narrative. His early-morning press conferences seek to intimidate, but above all to procure leadership in the conversation, to inform his followers, to establish the legitimacy (and illegitimacy) of issues important to him and to construct an ideological hegemony. Very much in the spirit of the seventies, he claims that it is possible to abstract the national discussion from what is taking place in other latitudes or that the data he produces and manipulates are the only ones possible. The problem is not whether he can achieve this, but that he has within his reach the instruments of coercion and extortion that can easily become effective hindrances to freedom of expression.

The question is whether, beyond the interminable spate of insults and counter insults that this generates in the press conferences and social networks, all this makes any difference. Freedom of expression is an inherent part of the national culture, as illustrated in the Posada graphics and the El Ahuizote newspaper during the Porfirian era: indirect means for sidestepping the censorship that now aims to reinstall itself through intimidation and disqualification. Needless to say, there are nations, especially China, that have attained enormous economic success without freedom of expression, but that was possible for them, at least during the time of Deng Xiaoping, with mechanisms that generated certainty and trust in the governmental proceedings, which is what generally occurred in the 20th century post-revolutionary Mexico.

However, Mexico is not China, nor does it share its history and culture. In that context, without freedom and without sources of trust and certainty, the country cannot prosper. It is also not evident that the tactics of Xi Jinping of controlling everything, centralizing the power and perpetuating himself, are going to yield better results than Mao obtained during his epoch.

In an exchange at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Lenin asked “Why should we bother to reply to Kautsky?…  He would reply to us, and we would have to reply to his reply.  There is no end to that. It will be quite enough for us to announce that Kautsky is a traitor to the working class, and everyone will understand everything.” That is the way of the current Mexican government: intimidate. Perhaps effective for control, but surely not for progress.

 

*Dangerous Ideas

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turmoil

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.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

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.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof