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Can AMLO’s Popularity Survive a U.S. Recession?

Americas Quarterly
Mexico
BY LUIS RUBIO
JUNE 29, 2022

 Mexico’s president thinks his penny-pinching has kept the peso afloat, but the real support has come from across the border.

MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s president is obsessed with the peso-dollar exchange rate. Looking back at Mexican history, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is certain that a president who oversees a devaluation in the currency will soon see a different kind of devaluation—that of his own popularity. And he may be right.

But how to avoid such a devaluation is a more difficult question. So far, a key factor keeping the peso, and AMLO, afloat hasn’t been the Mexican president’s much-touted austerity—but rather the U.S. government and economy. That support may dissipate in the months ahead, leaving AMLO’s future unclear.

AMLO’s view is that what went wrong in the 1970s, his principal point of reference, was high deficits. Hence his obsession with keeping Mexico’s budget balanced. Everything else—economic growth, jobs, inequality—has become secondary. This stance was more than evident during the pandemic, when he refused to spend to support families that suddenly lost their sources of income. In retrospect, particularly when one looks at the dire fiscal situation of countries like Peru or Brazil, AMLO wasn’t wrong. In contrast with those nations, Mexico still has some fiscal room to maneuver, which also explains its standing with the rating agencies.

That has also helped the peso hold roughly steady against the dollar. But what AMLO doesn’t account for is that it is the U.S. that has so far made this equation possible, in two chief ways.

One is the rapid growth of the U.S. economy. Since Mexico’s main engine of growth is exports, whatever happens to the American economy has a direct impact on Mexicans’ welfare. Exports are easily traceable and go up or down according to the performance of the US economy. And they are especially important because of very low levels of private investment, which AMLO discourages with his rhetoric, by undermining energy contracts and trust (the basic ingredient for investment) with rash decisions like canceling the new Mexico City airport contract.

The other is remittances of Mexicans living in the U.S. to their families in Mexico, which show a highly revealing trend. Remittances have risen from 2.8% of Mexico’s GDP in 2017 to 4% in 2021, a quick pace of growth. This figure is extraordinary and resembles the growth of similar transfers to Indian and Central American recipients. It tells the story of the U.S. government spending heavily during the pandemic to support workers and companies at an exceptional time, and a U.S. economy that experienced an extraordinary (and unexpected) recovery during 2021 and early 2022. Mexico has thus been an unwitting beneficiary of American largesse.

It’s impossible to say how López Obrador might have fared without these remittances, but there’s no question that he has greatly benefitted from them. But now the president, in the fourth year of a six-year administration, is beginning to lose control of events. Although he has been intent on centralizing power, he does not control key variables that may well determine how his administration ends, like a potential U.S. recession, U.S. interest rates and remittances to Mexico, now that cash transfers in the U.S. have ended. Nobody seems to know who he’s working for.

It’s also worth noting that AMLO’s self-presentation as an austere president is misleading. He has been extremely careful not to run a fiscal deficit, true, but he has also drained funds from the core functions of the government (security, health, education and the like) to channel them through direct cash transfers in the president’s name (rather than the government’s) toward his political base, as well as to a set of big infrastructure projects that have become notorious for their low multiplier effect and which don’t seem to be built to last.

The new airport for Mexico City is no substitute for the existing one, the Maya train project in the southeast does not run through either Campeche or Merida, two of the three main cities in the Yucatán peninsula, and the Dos Bocas refinery is set to come online just as oil consumption begins to wane. The president invests heavily in his electoral base and nurtures his popularity as the core objective of his administration, but without incurring into a large fiscal deficit or excessive debt. All this is about ensuring political succession, the measure of a government’s success or failure.

Were the election to be held today, AMLO’s anointed candidate would most likely win. But elections aren’t until two years from now, a very long time in politics. As time goes on, circumstances beyond AMLO’s control, especially the U.S. economy, will become paramount.

The political outlook is complex. It’s not inconceivable that there will be more than one candidate running from his Morena party. Equally important is that the opposition parties have yet to show their hand. Potential opposition candidates would have to be politically suicidal to raise their hands at this point, because AMLO would stop at nothing to erode their standing and, if possible, destroy their reputations.

It’s too early to predict the results of the 2024 elections, but what happens may hinge not on events in Mexico, but on what’s changing in the U.S. economy: a fact that may serve as poetic justice for a president obsessed with Mexican autonomy.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. He writes a weekly column in newspaper Reforma, and is the author and editor of dozens of books, including Unmasked: López Obrador and The End of Make-Believe, published by the Wilson Center.
@lrubiof

https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/can-amlos-popularity-survive-a-u-s-recession/

From Below

Luis Rubio

In its eagerness to impose its manner of seeing the world, the federal government has gifted us with a true picture of what does not function and what, for that reason, it should not be. Decades -if not centuries- of centralized government with vertical control structures had the effect of stabilizing the country, but not of achieving its development. The decentralization that has characterized Mexico during the last decades did not translate into a generalized renaissance of local creativity, perhaps due in good measure to the enormous weight of the idea of central control that the president intends to recreate. As Marx wrote nearly 200 years ago, what is tragedy the first time, is a farce the second.

Accustomed as Mexicans are to powerful central governments, it is perhaps difficult for them to understand the transcendence of the local governance and, above all, the costs incurred of imposition from “the center.” The great economic successes of the last decades have arisen in states and regions that devoted themselves to promoting growth and they addressed themselves to creating conditions for this to be possible. The boom undergone by the states of Querétaro, Aguascalientes, Yucatán, Nuevo León and others has not been the product of chance, but rather of effective structures of local government.

Contrariwise, the incapacity to eradicate violence, extortion and other forms of criminal activity, as well as the poverty that continues to prevail in many zones of the country, especially in the South, reflects local governments that are incapable or, more to the point, that are dedicated to control and plundering.

The numbers show that the deterioration in matters of security advanced in parallel fashion with the weakening of the structure of centralized control from the nineties and, although there was a certain improvement at the beginning of the second decade of this century, this was not consolidated. The centralized controls of yesteryear became unviable in a country that was diversifying and democratizing, but nothing was done, especially at the local level, to build government capacity, starting with the police, the local judiciary, and mechanisms of interaction and communication between the citizenry and the elected authorities.

With the “divorce” between the PRI and the presidency in 2000, the governors, organized as a syndicate, “purloined” the federal government’s checkbook, but did not employ this sudden wealth of resources to transform their structures with an eye toward the development of their entities, but instead to get rich and/or to promote their own political careers. In manifest confessions of their priorities, the governors found no motivation to protect the citizenry in view of the brutal increase in organized crime.

From that time, we have witnessed two equally erroneous and absurd responses: on the one hand, President Felipe Calderón mobilized the Army to confront the criminals. The value of his radical decision lay in the fact that he recognized the threat that organized crime constituted    and its impact on the destruction of all vestiges of stability and economic viability; but his deploying the Army would not constitute an ideal response: the military, not being policemen, know how to pacify a region, but not to develop capacity for long term security. Aside from a few months of peace, the criminals returned, and nothing changed for the people.

The second response is that of President López Obrador, who has taken the opposite route: arguing that the ultimate causes of criminality must be attended to, he has impeded the National Guard from acting, with which he has in fact promoted a new wave of criminality, which expresses itself in the form of extortion, abduction, protection rackets and all sorts of illicit businesses. Half of the country experiences that terror.

What none of these strategies takes into consideration is that well-being -from security to development- starts from below, from the bottom, from the municipal government. The most successful cities of the world have block or neighborhood police officers who know their residents and who, by their mere presence and the authority that they represent, become guarantors of the population’s peace and security. The attempt to impose security from above has failed for the simple reason that it has never been recognized that the objective, and the raison d’être of the government, is (or should be) the citizenry and its security.

Mexico is too vast and diverse to pretend that it can be controlled from the bastions of the federal government. The thrust of the current federal government in this matter will fail, as occurred in all the previous experiments.

Fixing the security issue can only be possible to the extent that it is recognized that, first, the government’s raison d’être is the population’s well-being and, second, that the latter is only possible with the citizenry’s active involvement and participation. It is possible that in societies with autocratic cultures, or in those under dictatorships, the order can be issued from above, but that is not the Mexico of today and thus all experiments in that regard will continue to fail.

Mexican democracy suffers from multiple shortfalls because the citizenry continues to be held in check, while organized crime flourishes. This set of circumstances has made the country increasingly unstable and its economic potential dwindling. We must start with recognizing the citizenry as the heart of the future and build from below. There’s no other way.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubiof

 

 

 

 

 

No Mercy

Luis Rubio

In the novel Zero and the Infinite of Arthur Koestler, Ivanov, a bureaucrat loyal to the orders of the Revolution’s Number 1, interrogates Rubachov, one of the old revolutionary leaders arrested for having doubts about the fate destined for his country after the revolutionary triumph. Rubachov, disillusioned, rebukes Ivanov with an incisive statement: “We made history; you only play politics.” Rubachov had fought to change history and improve the peoples’ lot. However, for him, the Party and the State no longer represented the true interests of human progress after the victory of the Revolution. The government, commandeered with an iron hand by Number 1, dedicated themselves more to preserving power than to promoting the well-being of the majority. Political reality eclipsed historical idealism. Ivanov or Rubachov? The eternal plight of those who govern.

As the López Obrador administration forges ahead, there appear interminable dilemmas of power that come to bear mercilessly because they recap what was done and what was not built, what made headway and what went into retreat. At this point, the only thing that does not stop, and that is irredeemable, is time, and that of President López Obrador begins to pay the piper.

All governments, in Mexico and in the world, follow a natural cycle that starts with great expectations and promises, ascends to the extent that it is consolidated and then commences to decline concurrently with the dawning of the inevitable succession. The most successful governments invest in foresightedness at the start to reap a harvest toward the end of the period and finish with flying colors. Whatever the discernment one may entertain of President López Obrador, this scenario is not the one that awaits him.

President López Obrador has pursued a very peculiar pattern: sudden ideas supported by deeply entrenched beliefs and prejudices instead of analysis and diagnosis deriving from the concrete situation that he encountered. Although his campaign was devoted to issues of poverty, inequality, stunted growth and corruption, none of his emblematic programs nor his public policy strategies have been effectively channeled toward dealing with them. This peculiarity determines the characteristics of the inescapable close of the cycle. Left to determine is the specific way payment will be exacted.

Of course, there is no doubt of the high levels of popularity, but they refer to the person of the President, not to his policies, in which divergences are great. While his predecessors displayed similarity between their personal popularity and that of their governments, in the case of the current Mexican president that does not materialize. This confirms what we all know: the President enjoys inalterable support from a political base that has placed its expectations and beliefs in the individual. No one knows how this phenomenon will evolve but, beyond the hard-core believer base (around 16 million voters to judge by the recall election), the rest presumably will go along with the results that the administration generates in the upcoming two years and with the inexorable process of succession, which will focus on the electorate on what was not done or accomplished. Transfers to clienteles will doubtlessly help, but they will go hand in hand with the political cycle.

All of which brings us back to the dilemma posed by Koestler nearly a century ago: when revolutionary fervor comes up against the reality of power, what remains is a government that did not think to sow the seeds of a better future, which in turn sealed its fate in three exorbitantly priced projects without greater viability and little impact on growth, inequality or poverty and that wagered on the personality of the president rather than on improving peoples’ daily lives. Nothing describes it better than the president’s incapacity to recognize that the corruption corroding his own government -in no way distinct from that of the past- cannot be swept under the rug.

At the end of the day, the malady of all Mexican governments, independently of their party, efficacy or popularity, is one and the same: they all consider themselves untouchable and unaccountable, until the succession arrives, and the true accountability is set into motion. The political cycle not only pertains to the government: it also pertains to its personages, all of whom become arrogant, go deaf and are blind to what from the outside is evident, but ceases being so once inside the apparatus as the sensation of power become addictive. When that process takes shape, nothing stands in its way and all the rulers and their functionaries end up suffering from it.

Mexico is about to embark upon the descending cycle of the present government and there is no human power that can stop or impede it, even though from the summit of power things are beheld as brilliant or impeccable. The hows remain to be elucidated, but the whats are clear not just because I say so, but because that’s how all governments are:  the wear and tear is natural and uncontainable.

The art of statesmanship, wrote Talleyrand, foresees the inevitable and expedites its occurrence. The greater part of Mexican presidents, despite their greed for power, knew that this ends and that then everything changes. Not so President López Obrador, for whom the exit from power will therefore be so much more complex.

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

 

Le Mexique tient tête aux États-Unis

 Institut Montaigne

Le Mexique tient tête aux États-Unis
Trois questions à Luis Rubio
INTERVIEW – 17 JUIN 2022

Luis Rubio
PRÉSIDENT DU THINK TANK MÉXICO EVALÚA

L’invasion de l’Ukraine par la Russie le 24 février 2022 a entraîné une réaction ferme de la part de l’Occident. Elle s’est caractérisée par une collaboration exemplaire entre les États-Unis et l’Europe pour imposer des sanctions à la Russie et fournir une assistance à l’Ukraine. Mais un tel engagement n’a pas été partagé à l’international. Bien que 141 pays sur 193 aient voté en faveur de la résolution de l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies du 2 mars exigeant que la Russie “retire immédiatement, complètement et sans condition, toutes ses forces militaires du territoire ukrainien à l’intérieur de ses frontières internationalement reconnues”, certaines abstentions ont été frappantes – notamment celles de l’Algérie, de l’Inde, du Sénégal et de l’Afrique du Sud. Et même parmi ceux qui ont condamné l’agression russe en votant en faveur de la résolution, un certain nombre de pays ont refusé de suivre l’Occident dans sa tentative d’isoler et d’affaiblir Moscou. Cela est en partie dû aux liens stratégiques et économiques de certains de ces pays avec la Russie. Ils ne sont pas disposés à compromettre leurs intérêts nationaux en se joignant aux sanctions, dans une guerre largement considérée comme un problème européen – bien que l’Occident la considère comme un enjeu mondial. L’argument, brandi par l’Occident, d’une menace pour un ordre mondial fondé sur des normes et conventions est également difficile à entendre pour de nombreux pays, qui accusent les États-Unis de faire “deux poids, deux mesures”, en citant par exemple l’invasion de l’Irak par les États-Unis en 2003, lancée sans l’approbation du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies. 

Ce contexte a conduit Mahaut de Fougières, responsable du programme de politique internationale de l’Institut Montaigne, à recueillir des points de vue non occidentaux, afin de mieux comprendre l’ambiguïté perceptible de certains pays vis-à-vis de ce conflit, les dynamiques derrière les décisions, et les conséquences attendues de cette guerre au-delà du sol européen. Le Mexique est le premier pays choisi pour cet exercice. Sa position quant à la guerre en Ukraine est ambivalente. Le président Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador a refusé d’imposer des sanctions à la Russie et a critiqué l’Union européenne concernant l’envoi d’armes à Kyiv. Pourtant, le Mexique a voté en faveur de la résolution de l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies du 2 mars exigeant que la Russie mette immédiatement fin à ses opérations militaires en Ukraine. Luis Rubio, président du think tank mexicain México Evalúa, explique que la réaction du Mexique est influencée d’une part par sa relation complexe avec les États-Unis, et d’autre part par le désintérêt du Président Lopez Obrador pour les affaires étrangères.    

Comment expliquez-vous la position du Mexique sur le conflit ?

Le Président mexicain Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) fait preuve d’un manque profond de connaissances et de dédain pour les affaires internationales. En ce qui concerne la politique étrangère du Mexique, l’une des citations préférées du président est : “la meilleure politique étrangère est une bonne politique intérieure“. En inversant quelque peu le célèbre dicton de Carl von Clausewitz (“la guerre n’est qu’une continuation de la politique par d’autres moyens“), le président partage sa conception de l’ordre mondial et son dédain pour la façon dont il a évolué. AMLO est fermement ancré dans les années 1970, époque durant laquelle il était le chef du Parti révolutionnaire institutionnel (PRI) dans son État natal de Tabasco.

AMLO est fermement ancré dans les années 1970, époque durant laquelle il était le chef du Parti révolutionnaire institutionnel (PRI) dans son État natal de Tabasco.

C’était l’époque où PEMEX, entreprise pétrolière publique et monopolistique, était en pleine expansion. C’était aussi une période où les agents de l’État, tel que le président actuel, avaient les moyens d’entretenir une clientèle favorable au parti au pouvoir. De fait, l’ensemble du gouvernement d’AMLO illustre un retour au modèle des années 1970 car, de son point de vue, celui-ci était efficace  en son temps. À cette époque, l’économie du Mexique était tournée vers l’intérieur et pilotée par le gouvernement.

Le président croit donc qu’il faut isoler le Mexique politiquement et économiquement autant que possible pour deux raisons :

  • Premièrement, sur le plan économique, il pense que la pauvreté, la corruption et l’inégalité au Mexique sont dues à la libéralisation de l’économie qui a eu lieu dans les années 1980. Que cette prémisse soit vraie ou fausse, il attribue ces problèmes aux réformes menées après la quasi-faillite du gouvernement en 1982.
  • Deuxièmement, il a fait marche arrière sur les réformes démocratiques, en concentrant les pouvoirs et en éliminant ou neutralisant l’édifice institutionnel bâti au cours des dernières décennies comme contrepoids au pouvoir présidentiel et il refuse d’être jugé par des personnes de l’extérieur sur ses actions.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador s’est donc efforcé de limiter les contacts avec le gouvernement américain et est revenu à l’ancienne méthode pour son pays : attaquer verbalement les États-Unis, en partant du principe que cela renforcera sa popularité nationale. Cependant, AMLO est aussi un politicien pragmatique, qui comprend les limites de son champ d’action, lui qui a joué un rôle déterminant pour faciliter la ratification de l’accord commercial USMCA (les États-Unis, le Mexique et le Canada ont mis à jour l’ALENA pour créer le nouvel accord USMCA en juillet 2020).

C’est dans ce contexte qu’il faut comprendre la position ambiguë de l’administration Lopez Obrador à l’égard de l’Ukraine, avec des forces intérieures contradictoires en jeu ; entre celles qui veulent faire partie de la communauté internationale et celles qui préfèrent s’en retirer. Il s’agit avant tout d’une tentative d’affirmer son indépendance vis-à-vis de la grande puissance du Nord. Mais c’est aussi une façon de tenir tête aux États-Unis sur des sujets relativement peu pertinents.

Quel est l’impact – s’il y en a un – de cette guerre sur la politique intérieure ? Y a-t-il un consensus sur cette question ?

Protégeant sa souveraineté nationale (avec un œil constamment rivé sur le Nord) et ayant opéré principalement dans le cadre d’un système de parti unique, auquel l’administration actuelle espère revenir, la politique étrangère traditionnelle du Mexique s’est toujours articulée autour d’une stratégie non-interventionniste. Ceci afin d’éviter tout jugement extérieur.

Il n’est donc pas surprenant que le gouvernement Lopez Obrador ait refusé d’imposer des sanctions à la Russie. Bien qu’un certain nombre de personnes soutiennent cette position, le citoyen mexicain moyen “vote avec ses pieds” (c’est-à-dire qu’il s’adapte d’une ville ou d’un État à l’autre en fonction de ses politiques gouvernementales locales), il est donc, de fait, ancré dans le local. Le meilleur indicateur des priorités et des préférences des Mexicains est l’émigration.

La politique étrangère traditionnelle du Mexique s’est toujours articulée autour d’une stratégie non-interventionniste. 

Bien que la masse de migrants ait diminué au cours de la dernière décennie (en grande partie en raison de l’évolution de la pyramide démographique), la tendance est récemment repartie à la hausse. Ce phénomène est alimenté par les difficultés économiques que connaît le Mexique et par les opportunités offertes par l’économie américaine.

La guerre peut-elle affecter les relations entre les États-Unis et le Mexique ?

Malgré une frontière commune et plus de deux décennies de partenariat, la relation entre les États-Unis et le Mexique est sans doute l’une des plus complexes au monde. Les deux pays sont divisés par l’héritage de l’histoire et des cultures très différentes. Les niveaux de développement de chaque côté de la frontière méritent également d’être mentionnés. Une forte asymétrie de puissance persistera toujours entre les deux pays. Néanmoins, l’influence du Mexique sur les États-Unis ne doit pas être négligée. L’hypothèse d’un manque de coopération du gouvernement mexicain sur des questions politiquement pertinentes pour les États-Unis ne peut être minimisé. Les deux nations comprennent donc qu’elles sont étroitement liées et s’efforcent de contrôler leur niveau de conflictualité.

Il y a près de 40 ans, les deux nations ont convenu de gérer leurs relations bilatérales sur la base de deux principes. Le premier est le cloisonnement des affaires : ne jamais mélanger les affaires qui empoisonnent la relation (comme la migration, la drogue, les exportations, les importations, les investissements, etc.) afin de ne pas politiser les problèmes et de pouvoir les traiter efficacement. Le second, est qu’aucun des deux gouvernements ne “piège” l’autre publiquement, et, comme les diplomates le disent aujourd’hui, de ne pas montrer au grand jour leurs différences afin que leurs problèmes communs puissent être gérés et anticipés. Ces deux principes ont posé les bases d’une relation pacifique et économique qui ne cesse de se développer et qui satisfait les intérêts des deux nations. Même si l’inaction politique sur différents fronts empêche le Mexique d’atteindre le niveau de développement des États-Unis, les deux pays n’ont jamais manqué de s’attaquer aux problèmes résultant de la complexité de leur voisinage. Encore récemment, le Président López Obrador a pris de court le Président Biden en annonçant publiquement le conditionnement de sa participation au Sommet des Amériques à la présence de Cuba et du Vénézuela. En outre, AMLO est le premier président, depuis la conclusion de cet accord dans les années 1980, à ne partager ni la vision d’un rapprochement, ni la nécessité d’aborder les problèmes communs en tandem.

La question cruciale pour le Mexique et, inexorablement pour la relation bilatérale, est de savoir si la vision actuelle d’AMLO marque le début d’une nouvelle ère, ou fait plutôt figure d’exception à la proximité toujours grandissante entre les deux pays, qui a caractérisé les dernières décennies. Cette question sera d’une importance capitale lors de l’élection présidentielle mexicaine de 2024. L’élection présidentielle américaine de 2024 s’avérera également cruciale, car le retour d’une administration Trump pourrait changer de manière décisive le cours de cette relation bilatérale.

Copyright : PEDRO PARDO / AFP

https://www.institutmontaigne.org/blog/le-mexique-tient-tete-aux-etats-unis

 

 

Don’t Give Me That…

Luis Rubio

“Don’t give me that the law is the law,” said President López Obrador. In this, his approach does not constitute a break with the reality of Mexico’s recent past, except that the president does not express the minimal unease concerning the law being the guide for the functioning of the relations between the government and society and among the distinct members of the latter. The difference is that in the past, the written letter of the law was abided by -for the sake of formality, to keep up appearances, in Mexican political jargon-, while now the reality of arbitrariness has been laid bare. But contempt for any concept of legality by the Head of State constitutes a license to break the law.

When a government assumes itself to be the sole proprietor of the truth and its way of acting as a model of proper behavior, all this without rules known by all, its actions become the law of the jungle and an invitation to everyone to behave as it does. Last week’s elections demonstrated that very behavior on both poles of the Mexican political spectrum, the product of that extraordinarily pernicious way the president conducts himself.

The law is not a black and white issue: it is not as if one day there is the Rule of Law, and the next day it disappears. It is also not a matter of degrees: instead, it is an accumulative process that secures practices, institutions, and experiences until complying with the law becomes inevitable, thus obligatory for all. In the opposite direction, when practice and experience constitute unfailing evidence of the absence of a framework of laws that are known, respected and made to be complied with by all, the whole institutional lattice collapses in on itself and the country enters into the realm of permanent uncertainty.

Historically, the Rule of Law has always been addressed with enormous laxity, generally in rhetorical fashion, but the political discourse is important because it entails consequences, above all before the reality of judicial lack of definition -and frequently defenselessness- that affects all Mexicans. The law (and regulations) is argued about, but the reality is one of permanent arbitrariness in their application, judges suffering political pressure, and public prosecutors are corrupted. The government does not conceive of the law as an instrument for protecting the citizenry, but rather as a mechanism to harass it, thus hindering it from becoming a relevant political factor.

When a president -in terms of his position as Head of Government but, above all, as Head of State- relinquishes even the pretension of complying with the law, when the president attacks other the other branches of government accusing them of treason (because they didn’t vote the way he preferred), the pertinent question is whether he considers that his word or his will are above any basic principle of social coexistence.  Because one thing is the historical laxity with which these affairs are treated, and it is another thing to eliminate them completely from the panorama: two very distinct worlds.

For most Mexicans, justice and the law are two entelechies that serve only in their capacity for abuse or to benefit the rich and powerful, a key element of the president’s public support. Whosoever has been subjected to a judicial process knows that the latter are not designed to achieve “swift and expeditious” justice as promised by the Constitution, a circumstance that renders the presidential rhetoric attractive. However, the correct solution would be to transform the judicial system to make it effective and at the service of all of the citizenry, without distinction of economic or social condition.

Mexican politicians have always changed laws to fit their objectives, without realizing the implications of their actions. Rather than strengthening their mandate, they dilute it, evidencing that they merely adherence to the proper forms, but with a total disdain for the Rule of Law. López Obrador doesn’t even pretend.

The basic principle of the Rule of Law lies in protecting the citizen with respect to the arbitrary actions of the authority. That is, it implies above  all else  the political and legal protection of individual and property rights; the existence of an efficient judicial power that effectively limits the predatory behavior of the authority and that is accessible to the entire citizenry independently of their socioeconomic status; and the existence of an environment of legal safety with rules known before the fact and with the certainty that the authorities will not employ coercive power against citizens in arbitrary fashion.

In practical terms, the Rule of Law implies that laws are known beforehand, that they cannot be modified easily and without effective counterweights and that the authority cannot employ its instruments of pressure, including the threat of jail (as the preventive prison without the intervention of a judge is now being utilized) as a means to impose the will of the government on citizen rights.

The objective of a regime of legality is pacific coexistence among the members of a society with the purpose of making possible economic development and social peace. There’s hardly any doubt of the prodigious lacks that hinder the consolidation of the Rule of Law that is equal for all in Mexico, but that is no excuse to hold it in disdain, because the alternative is the law of the jungle, at whose door Mexicans manifestly find themselves.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

Mexico: Playing Hardball with the United States

INSTITUTE MONTAIGNE

Three questions to Luis Rubio
INTERVIEW – 10 JUNE 2022

Luis Rubio
CHAIRMAN OF MEXICAN THINK TANK MÉXICO EVALÚA

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022, was met with strongly by the West, characterized by remarkable collaboration between the US and Europe in imposing sanctions on Russia and providing assistance to Ukraine. This determination is however not shared by the whole world. Although 141 out of 193 countries voted in favor of the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”, some abstentions were striking, including from Algeria, India, Senegal and South Africa. And even among those that condemned the Russian aggression by voting in favor of the resolution, a number of countries refused to follow the West in its attempt to isolate and weaken Moscow. This is in part due to some of these countries’ strategic and economic ties with Russia. They are not willing to compromise their national interests by joining in on sanctions, in a war widely seen as European – rather than global as the West portrays it. The argument of the threat to the rules-based world order brandished by the West is also difficult to hear for many countries, which accuse the United States of “double standards”, taking as an example the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq launched without the UN Security Council approval. 

This context has led Mahaut de Fougières, Head of Institut Montaigne’s International Politics Program, to gather non-Western perspectives to better understand countries’ perceived ambiguity on the conflict, the dynamics at play behind decisions, and the anticipated consequences of this war beyond European soil. Mexico is our first country. Its stance in the face of war in Ukraine is ambivalent. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declined to impose sanctions on Russia and condemned the EU for sending arms to Kyiv, yet Mexico voted in favor of the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. Luis Rubio, Chairman of Mexican think tank México Evalúa, explains Mexico’s reaction is both influenced by its complex relationship with the United States and by President López Obrador’s lack of interest in foreign affairs.  

How do you explain Mexico’s stance on the conflict?

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) has a profound lack of knowledge and disdain for international affairs. When it comes to Mexico’s foreign policy, one of the President’s favorite quotes is “the best foreign policy is a good domestic one“. By somewhat inverting Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum (“war is a continuation of politics by other means“), the President shares his conception of the world and his disdain for the way in which it has evolved. AMLO is firmly anchored in the 1970s, a time during which he was the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) leader in his home state of Tabasco.

AMLO is firmly anchored in the 1970s, a time during which he was the PRI leader in his home state of Tabasco.

This was the time during which PEMEX, the government’s oil monopoly, was growing rapidly. It was also a period where government operatives, like the current President, had money to create a clientele favorable to the party in government. AMLO’s whole government has been built around a recreation of the 1970s model because from his perspective, things worked out well then. During that era, Mexico’s economy was inward looking and government driven.

The President thus believes in isolating Mexico politically and economically as much as possible for two reasons.

  • First, on the economic side, he believes Mexico’s poverty, corruption and inequality all stem from the liberalization of the economy that took place during the 1980s. Whether this premise is right or wrong, he attributes these ills to the reforms carried out after the government went virtually bankrupt in 1982.
  • Second, he has been backtracking on democratic reforms, concentrating power and eliminating or neutralizing the institutional structure built over the past few decades as counterweights to the presidential power, and he does not want to be judged by outsiders on these actions.

López Obrador has thus strived to limit contact with the US government and returned to Mexico’s old nature: rhetorically attacking the United States under the assumption that this strengthens his domestic popularity. However, AMLO is also a political realist, he understands the limits of what he can do, and was instrumental in facilitating the ratification of the USMCA trade agreement (the United States, Mexico, and Canada updated NAFTA to create the new USMCA in July 2020).

It is with this context in mind that the López Obrador administration’s contradictory stance towards Ukraine should be viewed, with conflicting domestic forces at play: those that want to be part of the international community and those that would rather retreat. Above all, it is an attempt to show independence vis-à-vis the great power of the North, an old way of playing hardball on relatively irrelevant issues with the US.

What is the impact – if any – of this war on domestic politics? Is there a consensus on this issue?

Protective of its national sovereignty (with an eye permanently glued to the North) and having operated mainly within the framework of a one-party system, to which the current administration is aiming to return, Mexican traditional foreign policy has always been based on a non-intervention strategy.

This is done to avoid outside judgment. It is hence unsurprising that the López Obrador government refused to impose sanctions on Russia. Though there is a constituency that supports this position, the average Mexican citizen “votes with his or her feet” (i.e. moving to a different city or state because they prefer its government policies compared to those in force where they currently reside).

Mexican traditional foreign policy has always been based on a non-intervention strategy. 

The best indicator of Mexicans’ priorities and preferences is emigration. Despite the volume of Mexican migration dropping in the last decade (largely as a result of changes in the demographic pyramid) it has recently picked up. This is fuelled by economic hardships in Mexico and by opportunities provided by the US economy.

Can the war affect the US-Mexico relationship?

Despite a common border and more than two decades of partnership, the US-Mexico relationship is arguably one of the most complex in the world. Both countries are divided by legacies of history and very contrasting cultures. The levels of development on each side also deserves a mention. A stark asymmetry of power will always persist between both countries. Nevertheless, Mexico’s influence on the US should not be overlooked. The potential lack of cooperation of a Mexican government on issues that are politically relevant to the United States cannot be minimized. Hence, both nations understand that they are joined at the hip and strive to control the level of conflictuality.

Almost forty years ago, both nations agreed to manage the bilateral relationship based on two principles. The first is compartmentalization of issues: never mix issues that plague the relationship (such as migration, drugs, exports, imports, investment, etc.) so as not to politicize problems and be able to effectively address them. The second, is that neither government should surprise the other in public or, as diplomats now say, no daylight should come about so that issues can be managed and both can anticipate changes in direction. These two principles set the foundation for an ever-growing economic and peaceful relationship that catered to both nations’ interests. Even though policy inaction on various fronts is preventing Mexico from reaching US levels of development, both countries never failed to address issues resulting from the complexity of their vicinity. Recently, for example, President López Obrador surprised President Biden by publicly conditioning his attendance to the Summit in The Americas to the presence of the presidents of Cuba and Venezuela. Most telling, President López Obrador is the first president since that agreement was reached in the 1980s who shares neither the vision of closer ties, nor the need to address common problems in tandem.

The critical question for Mexico and, inexorably, for the bilateral relationship, is whether AMLO’s current vision is the beginning of a new era, or rather an exception to the ever-greater closeness that has characterized the past few decades. This issue will be of paramount importance in the 2024 Mexican presidential election. The 2024 US presidential election will also prove to be pivotal, for a return to a Trump administration could decisively change the course for the bilateral relationship.

Copyright: PEDRO PARDO / AFP

http://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/mexico-playing-hardball-united-states

 

New Future

Luis Rubio

“There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen,” wrote Lenin. The great changes in direction in history are usually not appreciated at the time that they acquire points of inflection, because the daily lives of most of the inhabitants of the globe do not change radically. However, observed retrospectively, those moments are crucial. Everything indicates that the invasion of Ukraine points toward one of those instances, with enormous implications for the future of the world.

Paramount breaking points, such as the end of the Second World War, the collapse of the USSR, the constitution of the European Union or the distancing of China with respect to the West, above all since the 2008 financial crisis, are all inflection points that altered the way the world functions, in some cases dramatically.

The invasion of Ukraine marks another moment of transition. While some of the components of the “new future” had already started taking shape, such as the artificial islands that China had been building in the South China Sea for eventually converting it into an interior “lake”, the direct confrontation ensuing between the West and Russia inaugurates a new era. Primarily, it announces the end of the “holiday from history,” as George Will once wrote. The notion that it is possible for one nation to abstract itself from the interests of the powers assuming that everyone plays according to the same rules appears to have ended. Geopolitics is back.

Though it took some time for this to consolidate, little bits and pieces that were coming together along the way are suggestive. After the end of the Cold War, economic decisions gained preeminence and all nations dedicated themselves to competing by attracting investors to generate new sources of economic growth and development for their countries. Fukuyama penned his famous article entitled “The End of History” a notion that became a mantra for companies and governments: the capitalistic system had won, and the whole world became “flat” according to Thomas Friedman, which was taken to mean that there was no distinction between Germany and Zambia with respect to the localization of an investment. In the meanwhile, Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s teacher and a more profound and cautious observer, argued that cultural and political differences would not disappear because of their entertaining similar economic criteria, but the so-called “Davos world” nonetheless became the dominant dogma.

In retrospect, the rise to power of a pack of “strongmen” around the world throughout the last decade announced a change in that model, which, beyond their specific attributes or defects, signaled the appearance of leaders responding to novel sociopolitical realities in countries as a diverse as Brazil, the U.S., Hungary, Turkey, China and Mexico. When the Mexican president argues that economic decisions take a back seat to political ones, the message crystal clear: to hell with the Davos model. For citizens and entrepreneurs that implies a government much less concerned with development and geared to subordination and control.

These circumstances reveal a very clear trend, that which Huntington had identified and which, now, with Ukraine, promises to convert itself into a new geopolitical reality. The U.S. government has always been prone to making decisions that ignore its commercial commitments: its size and nature leads it to suppose that the whole world must fall into step. A recent sample of this is the subsidy for electric cars, which disincentivizes investments in Mexico (and Canada), and is proof that economic rationality has been subordinated to political factors.   For Mexico this is scarcely the first sign of what could come about the day that its main growth engine, the American economy, starts to act flexing its muscle as the powerful nation that it is, just as Trump did, in small scale, with respect to immigration.

The return of zones of influence will not be a repetition of what existed during the Cold War, but it will change the way nations relate to each other. The information economy and the era of artificial intelligence change the nature of political and economic activity while there are various burgeoning powers, such as India, which have the capacity to limit the impact of the two or three new zones of influence (U.S., China and Russia) that will foreseeably come into being. In the historical experience, zones of influence imply the preeminence of powers with the capacity to exercise control or some degree of discipline over the nations of a determined region. In the digital era and with real factors of power permanently on the radar, such as the competition between China and the U.S. in diverse demarcations, a new schema of this nature will surely imply greater conflict than that which characterized the Cold War era.

On the other hand, the greatest protection that a nation can achieve in the face of this new reality lies in the obvious:  in the strength of its own development, only possible within the context of a government with clarity of direction and a society with no major divisions. The absence of these conditions signals the complicated future that awaits Mexicans.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

 

Discontent

Luis Rubio

 

For many decades, democracy was perceived as the ideal mechanism for processing the demands of society and, at the same time, for generating conditions for the progress of nations. Not by chance did Churchill coin the phrase that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” However, during the last two decades, two phenomena have occurred that have placed the primacy of democracy in doubt. Much of the discontent that led to governments such as that of President López Obrador derives therefrom.

First, some nations have achieved producing better results in terms of economic progress than emblematic democracies. In particular, the success of China is impacting regarding its attaining elevated and sustained rates of economic growth for various decades and what that has implied for hundreds of millions of persons who have come out of poverty. The success of an autocratic government has kindled doubt with respect to the transcendence of democracy as the best system of government, which has engendered a schism, for the developing world, between autocracies and democracies.

Secondly, the technological change that the planet has been undergoing has dislocated all societies and produced hardly commendable results in terms of inequality, unsatisfied expectations for human development and the absence of opportunities for the development of the individual. While the political discourse blames pejoratively denominated “neoliberalism” for the ills afflicting nearly all nations of the globe, what is interesting about this is that no one disputes the economic system in the world: the essence of the dispute lies in the political priorities and their consequences. The digital world gives rise to extraordinary disruption because only persons who have the preparation necessary to prosper in that space have some certainty about their future.

These two circumstances -the effectiveness of the autocratic governments and the disruption deriving from the advent of the digital world became true manna from above for politicians ready to exploit the social discontent. The problem is that those politicians -and Mexico’s president is a perfect example of one- do not offer a better solution to the problems that their electoral success caused.

Yascha Mounk* argues that the general pattern of the governments that have emerged because of exploiting social discontent is the weakening of the elements that made their political ascent possible, like the previously existing liberal institutions. The concentration of power undermines the few or many vestiges of the structure of legality and independence of the institutions, strengthening the political leader, but not always solving the problems that they promised to tackle, which becomes the ultimate cause of their eventual decline.

The “existential struggle” that Mounk describes is suggestive: “As the opposition attempts to reverse the slide toward illiberalism, populist leaders seek to gain ever greater control. Were they to succeed, illiberal democracy turns out to be but a way station on the path of elected dictatorship.” However, says Mounk, the great challenge of charismatic leaders is that their popularity tends to erode to the degree that people demand the tangible satisfiers that they are not obtaining.

The peculiarity of the government of President López Obrador is that it has not employed its power to build a sustainable economic platform for the long term. In contrast with Singapore or China, two very different but nonetheless signature cases, Mexico is not on the road to consolidation with a modern, successful and transformed economy for the population. Just to cite an example, were Mexico to imitate China in its development process, the President would have been the leading champion of the Texcoco Airport, like the new one of Beijing. The fact that the President opted for a provincial, regional airport and one without a future reveals his genuine inclination. That is, the situation of Mexico does not form part of the autocratic–democratic debate that characterizes the world because its economy does not exhibit the trademark of a successful and vigorous nation like those. Thus, its path will be quite different.

The flagship projects of the government -the oil refinery, the airport and the Maya Train- are not works that will come to alter the gradual descent that the country is experiencing. These are much more monuments erected to the president than vehicles directed toward a new stage of development. When the electorate that enthusiastically elected the president in 2018 turns around and sees all that has not been accomplished and the solutions never considered, the question will be what’s next. Or, in other words, how far will his popularity go?

Mexico did not procure the consolidation of its democracy before the arrival of a government that was devoted to diminishing if not eliminating it, but democracy continues to be the best way to resolve the country’s problems for a very simple reason: not even with all its accumulated power was the current administration able to build a better quality of government or better results.  The citizenry ought to drive the construction of a system of checks and balances that renders the latter inevitable.

*Journal of Democracy, Vol 31 #1, January 2020

 

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Meditations

Luis Rubio

The Mexican president’s discourse of the past three years has modified the vectors of Mexican politics. Many elements that were taken for granted have been exposed as puny or insubstantial, while attempts have proliferated to explain the phenomenon that the president represents, as well as what will remain after his six-year term, beginning with the 2024 electoral feast.

Of course, nobody knows how this government will end or what will happen in the coming presidential election, but the factors that will determine both results are clear. Exploring them, or at least putting them on the table, is a necessary exercise to ponder what awaits Mexican society.

A first discussion refers to the depth of the change that President López Obrador has spearheaded or, in other words, how much of the previous political reality will prove to have been a constant and how much of it will have been radically changed. Many scholars close to the government have spoken of an alleged regime change and not a mere shift of nuance and priorities.

Not much clairvoyance is required to observe that the president has followed all the practices, criteria and strategies of the old PRI: the control of power as an objective and the development of mechanisms to ensure his permanence beyond the formal electoral processes. That is, the constant is power and its instruments. What has undoubtedly changed is the facade that had been built for thirty years to create the appearance of an increasingly institutionalized society, with counterweight mechanisms to limit presidential excesses. The facade has come down, but the goal of controlling everything is as alive as it ever was in the old political system. No regime change has taken place. The old one has only been stripped.

A second element is that of the president’s power base. The revocation of the mandate showed that the hard-core base that supports him is approximately half of those who voted for him in 2018. A good part of it follows him uncritically, as if it were the flock running after its preacher. Time will tell how permanent it really proves to be, but what is not insignificant is that there is another part of the population that rejects the president, in an increasingly visceral way. Jan-Werner Müller, a student of democracy, says that one cannot ignore a counter phenomenon that manifests itself in populist moments of our era: that just as there are believers who follow the leader, there is also a silenced majority through the rhetorical mechanisms of defamation, polarization and delegitimization.

Müller* affirms that this type of strong but exclusive leadership has the characteristic of pretending to have a monopoly on the representation of citizens when, in reality, it is a dispute between leaderships and political parties. The weakness of many, perhaps most, of the institutions that existed has been the crucial factor that gave the president the enormous capacity to manipulate daily life and neutralize so many spaces in society, while at the same time intimidating vast sectors of the population. All of which does not imply that he has achieved control of society, but rather its appeasement, which raises the obvious question of how permanent this taming will be.

A third element of the current moment is precisely that of control. No one has the slightest doubt that the president has managed to concentrate and centralize power in the country, but he has done so at the cost of economic growth, the alienation of vast sectors of society, and the accumulation of an ever-increasing number of victims and enemies who will inevitably wait for the moment to reverse their circumstances and, perhaps, take revenge. The paradox of control is that it is not lasting: it follows a cycle that begins and ends with the six-year term and weakens along the way. Thus, another key question is how serious the damage will have been inflicted on the economy, society and those victims. The answer will determine the potential for a benign conclusion, or in crisis, of the current government.

Finally, the fourth element is that of the opposition. Democracy is not a matter of consensus, but of conflict management through institutional channels. The claim that it is possible to return to the era of the single, monopolistic party, as the president’s recent electoral reform bill would suggest, seems absurd, but that has been the presidential logic, although, paradoxically, it is organized crime that has advanced in the direction of recreating it. Therefore, one more question is who will ally with whom for the 2024 election. Perhaps today there is no more important question than this.

At the end of the day, the problem with the current government is that it has not solved any of the problems that it outlined in its campaign proposal. The country is worse off in all conventional indices. Looking ahead, the key question is not who will lead the next government, but what strategy will it adopt to deal with the problems facing the country -those that already existed and those that the current government needlessly created- all of this while addressing the grievances that led to the present moment.

*Democracy Rules, Farrar

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

Fractures

Luis Rubio

The president enjoys a high popularity rating, higher, for the first time (if only by a couple of percentage points), than his recent predecessors at this point in the game. This popularity has two relevant characteristics: on the one hand, it bears no relation to the performance of the government, where its rating is abysmal to say the least. On the other hand, the main source for the president’s high approval rate dwells on the cash transfers of the government’s social programs. The president did not bet on the growth of the economy, on employment growth or on the consolidation of previously existing projects, but on the construction of a structure of dependence of his social base. This begs two questions: first, how solid is that base of support? And, second, is it a source of power and popularity that could transcend the six-year presidential term or does it reflect a merely transactional relationship, as used to happen in the PRI era? The answer to these questions could well determine the future of the sexenio and the nature of the next government.

The great success of the president has been precisely the approval that he enjoys personally and the consequent high popularity. In this, his management has been exceptional not because of the high numbers, but because of the disconnect between the president’s popularity and the way in which the population evaluates the things that directly affect them, such as security, employment and consumption capacity. In other words, the population does not feel satisfied in terms of their well-being and, nevertheless, gives high marks to the presidential management. The contradiction seems evident, but that is where the president stands out: in his ability to communicate with his base, based on cash transfers, not results.

Virtually every government in the world begins with high expectations that reflect the hope that the new administration will be able to successfully deal with the challenges of everyday life. The president himself raised four fundamental challenges (poverty, corruption, growth and inequality) as the issues to deal with, but the population has not experienced relief in any of them: the indicators show a growing deterioration. Worse, there is no reason to expect an improvement in the performance of the economy -or of government itself- in the next two years, from here to the end of the administration, because the government has not invested in projects likely to improve well-being of the population, solve their problems or attract investments that could achieve this.

In reality, the government has done everything possible to impede private investment, while overloading government accounts with obligations that have already become a burden for the future development of the country. After emptying all trusts, reserves and contingency funds to continue financing cash transfers, the public sector accounts are beginning to experience increasing fragility because the absence of growth results in a decrease in tax collection.  Although at first glance managed responsibly, public finances look artificial as all sources of promotion of economic growth have been stripped, the lack of new sources of revenue and the growing obligations assumed by the government to invest in and pay for deficits of PEMEX and CFE. In other words, the pretense of fiscal orthodoxy is unstable and will become a huge risk factor as the six-year term advances, interest rates rise, and the most basic problems that affect the daily life of the population are not dealt with.

The six-year term progresses while the natural problems inherent to the political cycle become more acute. Presidential control begins to diminish, the internal struggles for power intensify (and much more for having unleashed the succession three years before time), and the insufficiencies of the government become more and more evident. Also, the fractures in Morena are not small. Doubtlessly, narrative control and cash transfers contribute to maintaining a high popularity rating, but such support is only guaranteed from the social base that maintains a quasi-religious connection to the president. As the revocation of the mandate vote of April 10 demonstrated, that base is no longer what it was and its erosion can only accelerate. The president has benefited from the lack of compass and capacity shown by the opposition leaders, but this also has limits. The political cycle is uncontainable, and it will provoke swifter political activity and many items that today look virtues will begin to reverse, and that is if things go well for the president.

The revocation of the mandate determined the ceiling of unrestricted support for the president. The rest -some 70 million potential voters- is up for grabs. Clearly, the popularity index includes many of those 70 million, but that support, historically, is circumstantial, almost always dependent on an exchange of benefits for votes: it is interests, not beliefs, that guide that relationship. The president has been extremely adept at using government funds to solidify his support base, but there is no substitute for well-being. Now it is the opposition who has to prove that they have a better project to achieve it.

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