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Rancor and Animosities

 Luis Rubio

Live by the sword, goes the saying, die by the sword.  In this manner, storm clouds- in the form of animosities, rancor, disqualifications and contempt- have ushered in the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. This is a way of conducting politics that wagers on the permanence of favorable winds, of continuous support, and the resignation of the population to its fate. It is a risky bet because sooner or later, storms arise and, by then, the “others,” those who have been wronged and reviled, will be involved in other things. The politics of discord are useful in electoral times, but lethal in the process of national construction.

All nations require a level, at least a basic one, of agreement to advance; but equally valuable is disagreement, whenever the latter concerns ideas and ways of resolving problems and never involves personal disqualifications. At least this is the way that civilized and democratic societies get ahead, as the United Kingdom showed in full color this week. However, in recent months the morality is judged of persons and groups by their political position: the good are with me, the others are conservatives or, in the vernacular, highfaluting, “fifi” in Spanish. The President pardons and excommunicates at will, with an almost religious fervor. Instead of bringing the population together in what should be the essence of the governing function, he disqualifies, eliminating spaces of agreement.

No one disputes who the president is; his legitimacy is the point of departure. That the electoral process is over and that the President is responsible for the future of the country are not under discussion. The nation’s best interest lies in joining with the population as a whole in his development project: nothing works better than with the participation and acquiescence of everyone. The strategy of dividing, polarizing and disqualifying is logical and rational in times of electoral contest, but it is not only absurd in governing times –all the more so when no one challenges his legitimacy- but it is also absolutely counterproductive.

Six years comprise many months, many weeks and many more days, each of which can dawn with problems, crises and complex circumstances difficult to manage. Some of the latter are domestic, others worldwide, but problems never fail to emerge for the President of Mexico. The question is how to confront these and solve them when they make themselves known. The strategy that the President has followed to date suggests that his calculations are optimistic: everything will come out fine, there will be no problems and time is on his side. Any one of the last fifty presidents of Mexico, including AMLO’s favorites, could confirm for him that the reality is never like that.

Problems appear at the least expected time, and the government has no alternative but to act. Such was the experience of President López Portillo with the 1976 devaluation and of President Miguel de la Madrid with the expropriation of the banks and the assassination of DEA agent Enrique Camarena; of President Salinas with the explosion in Guadalajara; of President Zedillo with the 1994 devaluation; and of President Calderón with the 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. The problem appears and the government must take action extending beyond its fancies or stances. It is at that moment that what matters is not only legitimacy of origin- perennially put to the test in crises- but also the political capital that the president has accrued in prior times.

The strategy of polarization and discord to which López Obrador adheres, and which contaminates his entire Cabinet and government, does not augur well for the future. Crises call for the best in he who governs and the support of the society; when the society is divided –into the good ones and the bad- governance is difficult and, in times of crisis, impossible. AMLO’s gamble on a strategy of permanent division and disqualification entails the risk on not counting with the society when the easy times evaporate.

The ample legislative majorities that the President has allow him to suppose that the earthly kingdom is his and that no one can curtail his sources of support. But there are two scenarios of which no one must lose sight: the first is that there’s a big difference in the support a candidate can accumulate vis-à-vis the difficulties inherent to the daily exercise of the functions of government. AMLO’s current popularity could easily vanish should things not improve. The second is that, when crises materialize, all suppositions cease being valid: at that moment in time, everyone sees to his own interests and that is as true for the most ordinary of Mexicans as for the loftiest of these.

No government can have the luxury of alienating half of the population (the 47% who voted for other candidates) nor can it presume that their own base is unalterable. As Napoleon once said, “to get power you need to display absolute pettiness. To exercise power, you need to show true greatness.”

Chairman Mao was more direct in his appreciation. When historian C.P. Snow asked him what was needed to govern, Mao responded: “A popular army, enough food and the trust of the people in their governors.” “If you could only have one of the three things, which would you prefer?” asked Snow. “I can dispense with the army. People can tighten their belts for a time. But without their trust it is not possible to govern.”

Why AMLO’s Attempt to Centralize Power Comes at a Cost


The Mexican president’s revolution speeds on, with little regard for the consequences.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has a nostalgic vision of the country he wants to build over the next six years: a return to Mexico’s past in which presidents make decisions while officials and the public simply follow. But after a full month in office, his commitment to that vision – and the lack of care he shows for the risks it entails – have clashed with a country that is far too diverse and dispersed to simply fall in line.

Six years ago, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto entered office promising wide-ranging constitutional reforms through the Pact for Mexico, an agreement on the PRI’s ambitious legislative agenda that included the then-two largest opposition parties, the PAN and PRD. Though it succeeded in pushing through important constitutional changes, the opposition’s association with the PRI’s history of corruption helped pave the way for AMLO’s rise.

Since his inauguration on Dec. 1, López Obrador has taken a different tack. Rather than negotiating a broad agreement like his predecessor, AMLO is moving by stealthy imposition. He’s advanced at breathtaking speed to remove as many checks on his autonomy and independence as possible – particularly as they pertain to economic regulation. The independent institutions he has not been able to remove or subdue, he has begun to starve by reducing their budgets, as in the case both of Mexico’s national transparency agency and its independent hydrocarbons regulator.

But there are limits to what AMLO can accomplish by these means. The more he pushes forward with a government by imposition, the harder time he’ll have realizing the “transformation” he so desires.

His first budget is a case in point. AMLO is convinced that his government can and should not spend more than it takes in. But there are two problems. First, AMLO’s base, having been promised the sky during the campaign, is ready to collect and won’t just let López Obrador off the hook. Second, business and investment decisions in the 21st century have nothing to do with a president’s wishes.

The budget, presented and approved by Congress in December, was an attempt to appease both constituencies. In the immediate, it seems to have worked: financial markets broadly – though not universally – approved of the proposal without forcing AMLO to compromise on his promises to increase social spending on the young and the elderly and fund pet infrastructure projects. But this is unlikely to hold.

That’s because while the budget didn’t break the parameters of sound macroeconomic management, danger looms if it’s implemented as planned. The budget holds the seeds of an ambitious program that is unlikely to satisfy the same financial markets in the future: investments in a new and economically questionable new refinery, infrastructure projects that will rely heavily on government funding, and a rapid growth in transfers to AMLO’s favorite constituencies, all of which provide disincentives to the growth of private investment or productive employment. In addition, the disbursement of these transfers will be made based on a roster of beneficiaries that was built by AMLO’s own teams, ignoring the official, professional institutions in charge of such activities.

Even then, AMLO’s coalition is so diverse and complex that, one way or another, he’ll soon be forced to accept trade-offs that are inherently contradictory to what markets are hoping for.

Beyond the actual allocation of funds, the process of putting the budget together itself shows why AMLO’s vision of tight presidential control is bound to clash with the reality of governing a modern, dynamic economy. That process was political, full of symbolism and catering to his base and vision. He purposefully reduced allocations to a series of programs and institutions in order to exact their allegiance. The case of Mexico’s universities is extraordinary: university presidents submitted to his wishes and rhetoric, and funding that seemed to have been taken away was immediately reinstated. The point was made very clear: whoever submits to the president wins. Indeed, AMLO’s aim seems to be to recreate the old ideological and political hegemony that characterized the PRI era.

AMLO despises technical considerations; for him everything is political. His recent attempt to thwart rampant gasoline theft is another example of this. AMLO’s top-down, improvised decision, and its amateurish implementation, led directly to scarcity and long lines at gas stations that affected millions of consumers. It’s not clear what he’ll learn from the experience, but one thing is apparent: the real world is different from what he imagines or wants it to be. And yet, so far, he’s enjoying broad popular support for his actions.

This has been the pattern of AMLO’s first month and a half in office. A clear idea of what he wants to do, but a lack of planning and care in execution. Mexicans are paying attention. Despite AMLO’s tight control of his base, the general public is not the submissive crowd of the 1960s. Protests, jokes, memes and demonstrations have marked AMLO’s first days in office, especially during his gasoline debacle. AMLO’s base has already shown fractures; as time goes on, the new president will not only face greater opposition, but the need to spend much more time, energy and resources appeasing his followers.




Luis 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. His most recent book is A World of Opportunities, published by the Wilson Center.

Government or Revolution?

Luis Rubio

In the historical vision of the Left, the government was not the product of an election but rather as the result of a revolution or, in any case, as a takeover. The objective was power and the means for acquiring it were least in importance: assumption of power to change the world. The conduct of the Morena party in the Mexican Congress during recent months leads one to think that its contingents do not yet note a difference: for many of these groups (or tribes, as the they were known within PRD), what is important is to possess the power to effect a radical change and not that of governing for the entire citizenry, as would be expected of a government in a democratic system. The question is where this new government is to be found: in the democratic rules or in the revolutionary ones.

There are three angles that can be observed: first, the overwhelming victory and its implications for those who as of a month ago formally hold power; second, the inherent complexity in such a diverse coalition, so disperse and with opposite rationalities; and, finally, the most ambitious vision that President López Obrador has outlined for his government. Each of these elements entails its own dynamic that, when combined, as could be seen in the gasoline disaster, has a high propensity for producing great discord.

The triumph of Morena was so overpowering that it surprised even its own adherents. Describing the composition of its bench at the San Lázaro Legislative Palace, a Morena delegate mentioned that they never imagined such a scenario, to the degree that many of the new representatives clearly were not suitable for their new responsibility. But beyond the persons themselves, the win has not been recognized by the Morena followers themselves as the fruit of a democratic vote: in fact, to date recognition has not come forth for the National Electoral Institute, for the Electoral Tribunal, or for the democratic procedures regarding this AMLO’s and Morena’s electoral triumph. For many of its members, it comprised not an election but the takeover of the government or, at best, a recognition of their power. The practical difference may appear to be insignificant, but in reality it is more than transcendent because it determines the nature of the political game: will it be a government that complies with the rules of the civilized political game or will it attempt to change the reality, sweeping away the whole political structure, imposing its law as if this were the Old West.

The coalition that Morena built will be without doubt the most complex part of the AMLO government.  The coalition includes persons and retinues ranging from the Extreme Left to the Extreme Right, passing through former guerrillas, intellectuals, base groups, former members of PRI, PAN and PRD, shock groups, businesspeople.   Each of these coteries or tribes retains its own aims and many are not only incompatible with the others, but also contradictory. For many AMLO is a superior being, but for others he is a mere instrument for advancing their agendas, with or without him. It is a rare day that some do not attack others from the rostra of the two legislative chambers. Administering the conflict inbred in this coalition will be as difficult and tedious as the properly enunciated governmental function.

In addition to the latter, AMLO and his cohorts seem to view last July’s election as an immoveable and immutable milestone: the 53% who voted for AMLO is point zero and everything after that is up. If one were to observe any country in the world, highs and lows are normal and, ever more frequently, the lows. We must remember that at the beginning of 2018 AMLO entertained only a 30% preference, suggesting that the additional 23% is more volatile than he imagines. Many citizens voted for AMLO because they saw no alternative or because they expected rapid and effective solutions; if the latter do not materialize, his support will begin to erode. The way AMLO makes decisions will not help him: should he pursue his current way of acting, his support will vanish, quickly.

All of this is only the jumping-off point. AMLO has proposed an extraordinarily zealous vision for the development of his government. The vision is not accompanied by a plan, but instead by a series of objectives or agendas of his own or of his group -many of these obsessions- which do not contribute to the construction of that vision, the very one that in many respects requires the reconstruction of an idyllic past that has in no case ever existed and one that is impossible to recreate. This implies that there would be many individual projects, some emanating from the Executive Branch, others from the Legislature, that would not be markedly coherent among themselves but that would respond to the objectives and agendas of particular groups or of ideological conceptions, without there being an evaluation to measure their consequences in terms of the growth of the economy or of their impact on the distribution of income, something easy to argue but very difficult to impact in practice.

AMLO was never a legislator and appears to view legislative power as pure and simple rubber stamp; however, it is there that he will be confronting the complexity and dispersion of his own coalition. More importantly, on ignoring the opposition, he would incite confrontation, nearly sure to gnaw away at his own legitimacy. The paradox is that it may be in the legislative power that his government will consolidate or collapse.

Now’s the Time

Luis Rubio

The sum of the expectations, demands and needs of the population do not allow the new government much leeway. A month after his inauguration, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is now formally in charge and is responsible for the daily and the long-term comings and goings of the country. Now it is his responsibility and on him depend not only the satisfiers that the citizenry presses for, but also the change of perspective that he promised.

The paradox of such a resounding win is that there is no mincing of words in terms of the responsibility involved.  When a government emerges from a plurality of votes, as has been the case from the time the millennium began, the president knows that there is a majority citizen contingency that did not vote for him; however, with such an overwhelming triumph, the responsibility is integral and, in fact, absolute. The government of AMLO is responsible for what ensues and this does not make it freer, but precisely the opposite: it has to produce lasting results. In contrast with minority governments, the expectations are virtually infinite, and in a 6-year government, the short-term achievements must subscribe to the final result: there is no margin for error nor anyone else to blame for what goes wrong.

The problem for AMLO is that he does not control all of the variables that will affect his performance, and even those that are found within his sphere of influence, at least in principle, are subject to factors outside of his control. In terms of the former, the Mexican economy is implanted into the world and its main source of income derives from exports, which entails the enormous virtue that the internal errors (of vast transcendence with a coalition so complex and diverse as that which led to the win) are minimized but, at the same time, constitutes a factor of uncertainty about which the government possesses null influence.

The U.S. economy has been in an expansion period for more than ten years after its last recession and, in recent years, has been growing at rates superior to those of its historical average, which has generated a growing demand for our exports. The problem is that no expansion is perennial and this one shows all the signs of a recession in some months or at the beginning of next year. In addition to this, the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, has started to raise interest rates, due to lesser degree to some inflationary threat than to the rapid growth of corporate debt of that country.  Both factors –the potential recession and the rise in interest rates- imply a strong dollar, that is, a devaluated Mexican peso, and lower economic growth due to fewer Mexican exports.

On the other side, in the upcoming months we will see a perceptible growth in the transfers that the governments makes to the so-called “ninis,” young people who neither work nor study, as well as to older adults. This would involve a source of satisfaction for its beneficiaries and higher consumption, but not more economic growth. Independently of what happens outside, internal expectations will improve, at least for AMLO’s base.

Where expectations will not improve will be in the support platform that swept AMLO into power. In a growing and vigorous economy, the government has at hand many means to parcel out benefits to the diverse groups comprising its coalition, as transpired in the seventies with the oil boom and as undergone by countries such as Brazil and Argentina with the accelerated growth in the demand for their merchandise (grains, meat, steel) from China in the past decades. However, once that exceptional situation was over, the accounts payable reverted and, on not having invested in future growth, the recession ended up being inevitable. That’s what happened in the seventies in Mexico and could well happen again.

The point is that we have at our door a year that should be benign for the Mexican economy, but great thunderheads at the end of this period. The colossal question is how the brand-new government will confront the panorama that presents: will it seek to create conditions for a more accelerated growth in the future, or will it devote itself to identifying guilty parties for a situation that is quite obviously predictable.

Even more important, how will the coalition behind AMLO react: Will it be willing to adapt itself to a complex environment or will it call for immediate satisfiers, benefits and public expenditure?  Faced with the inexistence of options, will it exact radical actions from the government? The scenario, easy to foresee, obliges thinking about potential conflicts or, at least, about the huge complexity in political management on the part of the government.

The essence of politics is the imperative of being able to choose. Galbraith said this in a manner beyond compare: “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” The problem for AMLO is, as illustrated by his party’s conduct in the Congress, his followers are not on board with the plan of accepting what is difficult to digest: rather, they are characterized by an absolute intransigence and a total indisposition for understanding the complexity of the exercise of power. In this context, Will AMLO behave like a statesman or like an activist, adding or alienating?


End and beginning

            Luis Rubio

To my dear Gaby and Rafael in this terrible hour

Every year the same thing happens: one year ends and another begins, like the normal cycle of life. On this occasion, Mexico is starting a new ear, under the promise of a radical change regarding what Mexicans have lived through in recent decades. Like all changes, there is a sense of expectation and worry, anxiety and delirium. However, none of this deprives us of the celebration of the year that is ending and the hopes for the one about to begin.

Each quarter Lapham’s Quarterly devotes its space to exploring the history, meaning and perspectives of topics such as rivalries, time, fear or discovery. An infinite variety, all rich in content and learning opportunities. The first issue of this year was about the rule of law, a subject that I am passionate about and that I have devoted a lot of time to studying, as well as looking for ways to advance it in the country. Here are some of the most interesting quotes I found in this volume.

The more corrupt the state, the more numerous its laws,Tacitus c110

Law is a flag, and gold is the wind that makes it wave. Russian proverb

If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us. Francis Bacon, 1615

When you break the great laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws. G.K. Chesterton, 1905

The development of our laws has gone on for nearly a thousand years, like the development of a plant, each generation taking the inevitable next step, mind, like matter, simply obeying a law of spontaneous growth. Oliver Wendell Holmes

The law is established from above, but becomes custom below. Su Zhe, c 1100

Petty laws breed great crimes, Ouida, 1880

Under the Draconian code almost any kind of offense was liable to the death penalty, so that even those convicted of idleness were executed… Plutarch c, 46

The benefits of the Code Napoleón, public trial, and the introduction of juries, will be the leading features of your government. And to tell you the truth, I count more on their effects, for the extension and consolidation of your rule, than on the most resounding victories, Napoleon Bonaparte, having established the Kingdom of Westphalia in 1807

David Frost: Would you say that there are certain situations where the president can decide it’s in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal? Nixon: Well, when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.

There’s a delightful image in Plato that explains why a sensible person is right to steer clear of politics. He sees everyone else rushing into the street and getting soaked in the pouring rain. He can’t persuade them to go indoors and keep dry. He knows if he went out, too, he’d merely get equally wet. So he just stays indoors himself and, as he can’t do anything about other people’s stupidity, comforts himself with the thought: “Well, I’m all right anyway”. Thomas More, Utopia

One law and one justice protects the man of property, the man of wealth, the foreign exploiter. Another law, another justice, silences the poor, the hungry, our people. Ngugiwa Thiong’o, 1976

Anarchism urges man to think, to investigate, to analyze every proposition… Anarchism: The philosophy of anew social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful as well as unnecessary. Emma Goldman, 1906

Laws, like houses, lean on one another, Edmund Burke, 1765

It is perhaps impossible to review the laws of any country without discovering many defects and many superfluities. Laws often continue when their reasons have ceased. Laws made for the first state of society continue unabolished, when the general form of life is changed. Parts of the judicial procedure, which were at first only accidental, become in time essential; and formalities are accumulated on each other, till the art of litigation requires more study than the discovery of right. Dr. Samuel Johnson

The law of the land was vital to civilize society; but it could be a cumbersome and unfair thing. Richard Cohen

The law is like rain –it can’t fall the same everywhere. The person if falls on grumbles, bit it´s a simple matter- the laws like a knife, it doesn’t hurt the one who handles it. Jose Hernandez. The Return of Martin Fierro

There is something of ill omen among us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgement of courts: and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice… There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law… Abraham Lincoln

End and beginning: what’s gone is gone; now comes the time of opportunities, if we know how to grab them.

Happy New Year!


Optional and A Loser

                                                                                    Luis Rubio

                                                                                    Luis Rubio

A taxi is driven along one of the main arteries of the city, until, suddenly, it stops in its tracks. From a distance it can be seen that traffic at the junction with the branch of one of the city’s “expressways” is practically not moving. The taxi driver looks to the left and observes that, on the other side of the avenue, there is an entrance through which one automobile after another is entering the street. The taxi driver thinks fast and decides to recklessly make the turn and shave a few minutes off his trajectory. The cars coming the other way sound their horns at the driver, reminding him of his maternal ancestry but, in a few minutes, the taxi driver gets his way and handily returns the insult. The taxi driver behaved as many of us do time and again every day when we double park, beep our horn outside a hospital, go down a one-way street in the wrong direction, drive over the speed limit, etcetera. We do it and think we are very smart.

Behind the taxi driver there was another driver on his way to work and who observed the same scenario but who opted to remain in his lane until arriving at the junction, complying with the rules to the letter of the law. The taxi driver gloated over his bad behavior and made fun of the fools waiting in line to merge, while the man in the car behind him got to work late. It turned out to be expensive for the driver who chose to adhere to the traffic rules. This story is not different in any way from that of the exemplary citizen who goes to pay the yearly excise tax on his automobile within the established time limit, while their neighbor puts off going to pay until the last day. The citizen who pays on time later finds out that the local government has awarded a special discount to those who put off their payment. The one opting to follow the rules loses out.

In Mexico compliance with the law is optional, for governors as well as for citizens. Public functionaries decide to either apply the law or change it without the bat of an eye; the worst that can happen to the man-in-the-street for not complying with the law is paying a bribe and later observing, “I got out of it cheap”.  Those who observe the law get there late, pay more and complicate their lives. He who complies with the law is a loser.

In Mexico’s governmental system the law is an instrument that is used when it is convenient for the system: when it satisfies the objectives, usually political, of the functionary-of-the-moment, the law is THE LAW and must be complied with. When a government functionary dislikes what the law exacts, the public servant has two possibilities: one is to ignore it (the most frequent); the other, above all if it is the President or a high-level functionary, is to proceed to modify the law or to promote a new law that adheres to the objective being sought. When President-Elect López Obrador responded to Carlos Slim on the matter of the new airport, his point of departure made it evident that he sees the law as an instrument to adapt to the circumstances: without flinching an eye, he took it upon himself to decide whether he would apply the law or grant Slim the airport as a concession, as if it were his to give. It is not necessary to hold a bidding process, nor for Congress to revise the law or for the process to be transparent. The decision of a sole individual suffices.

None of this is novel or especially revelatory, but it does portray the clash between Mexicans way of being and their pretensions. Not long ago I watched a highly indignant driver, sounding his horn and shouting at a lady who had parked on Reforma Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Mexico City, creating an enormous bottleneck. One cannot just stop like that on Reforma as if it were a private parking lot. The interesting aspect of this was that just two blocks ahead, the same driver who had done the shouting did exactly the same thing. The driver stopped on a dime, clicked on his emergency blinkers and got out of the car to buy a newspaper. When someone beeped the horn at him, as he himself had done a few moments earlier, his body language was challenging and then threatened: “Want a fight?” He appeared ready to whip out a gun. Mexicans are indignant when another violates the regulations but it appears wholly natural to each of them to repeat that very action when convenient or when it serves their purpose.

Skipping over the procedural hurdles is part of Mexicans’ DNA and they do it every day. The case of the transit issue is perhaps one of the most conspicuous cases or, at least, the most visible, but it is merely a sample of the way we are. On one occasion I attended a session of the U.S. Congress with various Mexican legislators. The police officer at the entrance had a list of the visitors and requested an ID from each of us to check against his list.  One of our group moved up close and, with a tone of authority, told the officer, “I am a Senator of the Mexican Republic”, as if this mattered at all to the official responsible for who enters and exits. In English, the police officer answered in the most natural but unmistakable manner: “If you want to enter you must show your identification.”

The most successful and developed countries stick to the rules and do not dwell even for an instant on the alternative: the rules and the laws are not optional: they are obligatory. Those countries’ public servants have no doubts that the law is what lies within the code and that compliance is obligatory without the uttering of a word: it is not something optional. That is what renders equity and development possible. Someday, we Mexicans will have to decide whether we want a country that is developed and what that implies, beginning with complying with the law and making it be complied with. In the meantime, only the fools (there are better words for this) will comply with it.



My Readings

Luis Rubio

Let other boast about how many pages they have written; I’d rather boast about the ones I’ve read
Jorge Luis Borges

Jonathan Tepperman, the editor of Foreign Policy, argues in The Fix, that there are unconventional solutions to the problems that confront countries and that everything depends on the way the crises that come to present themselves are taken advantage of or utilized. Among the examples that Tepperman presents is that of   Botswana when diamonds, its main wellspring of resources, dried up; the manner in which Singapore ended corruption; and the extraordinary reconciliation that Rwanda achieved after the ethnic massacres.

Carlos Elizondo writes, in Los de adelante corren mucho, that the inequality characterizing the Latin American region is not the product of chance but rather, the result of the contradictions typifying our political systems, because they permit arrangements “outside” the legal regimes, lead to the exchange of favors among the elite and, in general, sanction the establishment of their own oligarchies whose logic is not that of development but instead one for their own benefit. The book lays bare the way these societies operate and provides perspective to the enormous challenge entailed in procuring a more equilibrated and across-the-board development.

The technological advance appears unstoppable, now with the connection of all sorts of devices, vehicles, clothing, toys for all ages, and persons to the Internet. Pax Technica, a book by Philip Howard, contends that we are approaching the “algocracy”, the government of algorithms, instruments that have become the most powerful political tools ever created and that threaten to subvert all manner of authority and political organization, beginning with the Nation-State. This author’s vision is catastrophic, thus obliging the rethinking -and reevaluating- of the freedoms that, with all of the obstacles and avatars, we have come to enjoy.

The vote on Brexit and Trump has generated far-reaching debate worldwide on the value and attributes of democracy and its viability. In Democracy and Its Crises, A. C. Grayling analyzes the circumstances that impeded the democratic system from dealing with the social forces that democracy itself had created.

The best book I read this year, without a doubt, was When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, by Jeffrey A. Engel. It is a political study of the foreign policy of the first President Bush, the years during which the Soviet Union collapsed, the first Gulf War, NAFTA, the unification of the two Germanies and the invasion of Panama, all of which came to shape what that President denominated “a new international order.” The work portrays a series of photographs that evidence the dilemmas and calculations that face decision makers at key moments of history, although they are unaware of this at that juncture. The book reflects the human fallibilities, the uncertainties and the complexity in the face of the unknown: Can Gorbachov be trusted or is this nothing more than a ruse? What is the Soviet Union’s real situation? This is a treatise on foreign policy –on the cusp between prudence and pluck- on when the whole world appeared to be at a new dawn. This volume complements that published by Bush himself and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed, two decades previously: a dispassionate perspective on what it is to govern. Both reveal in Bush a statesman perhaps less recognized precisely for his having been so solid, cautious and prudent, in dramatic contrast with the present occupant of that same office.

The Marshall Plan, designed to contribute to the recovery of devastated European nations (above all the losers) after the Second World War, has savored a prestige out of all proportion. It is rare to find a government that has not demanded a similar program to aid poor nations or those who underwent a civil war; in Mexico, this program is frequently invoked as an example to resolve the problems in the country’s South and Southeast. Benn Steil has just published a book in which he provides an explanation of the program in its historical context and its U.S. foreign policy dimension. The book explains that the character of the program was not one of aid, but a means to support local efforts and capacities in order for these countries to emerge from the hole in which they found themselves. Whoever reads this book will know that there are no easy or automatic solutions: development is not accomplished with hand-outs, but with great administrative and managerial capacity. It is no coincidence that Germany and Japan ended up being more successful than Greece.

Stephen Pinker, the author of The Better Angels, a book in which he demonstrated that humanity has experienced a constant improvement with the declining of violence through the centuries, has now published, in countercurrent, Enlightenment Now. Here Pinker presents the exceptional progress that distinguishes the human race, rejecting head-on the Populists who refuse advances and progress. What is fascinating about the book lies in the way it focuses on the propensity to take as a given that what has advanced will last and, within that context, the author’s defense of progress is relentless, in that he presents Populist movements as arrogant and fallacious.


The Opportunity

Luis Rubio

Mexico needs a change of regime just as the citizenry demanded and President López Obrador offered. But not any change will do.

For the second time in a few decades, Mexicans find themselves face to face with the opportunity to modify the regime and build one that responds to the needs of all of the citizens, one that impedes abuse by those in charge of governing -present and future- and that guarantees the stability of the country.  Vicente Fox had the first opportunity in his hands but did not have the vision nor the capacity to grasp it. Now, the circumstances have created a new, perhaps last, opportunity to institutionalize the country and truly transform it. The question is whether the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will promote a transformation towards institutionalization or authoritarianism.

The key question is what does a regime change mean. This is not a play on words:  for some, the regime is the person, while for others, the matter lies in the nature of the projects that will in fact drive a given government. In reality, the regime is something very distinct and much more fundamental: it is the way that a society is organized to govern itself.

One thing is the political system of a country, while another, very distinct from this, is the nature of the regime. Most European nations govern themselves by means of a parliament that reduces the system into two powers (the legislative branch within which lies the executive and the judiciary), while the presidential system is based on separate powers with a president heading the executive branch. The regime is distinct from the system of government: it is the way that the citizens relate with the political system, as well as the mechanisms that allow for their interaction with the system’s diverse components.

Developed countries have formal and informal mechanisms that constitute counterweights so that no component of the system abuses or imposes itself on the others. Of course, each nation has its own characteristics, the product of its history and experience. In this manner, a constitutional amendment in Denmark, to cite a paradigmatic example, can take years because it requires three votes of the parliament and at least one election. In England there is no written constitution but there is a constitutional tribunal that settles differences among powers and advocates for citizen rights. France is distinguished by a hybrid system, with a strong president and a parliament with its prime minister. Each country is different, but the common denominator of all the developed nations is that they incorporate institutional mechanisms and formal Institutions that obligate the distinct elements to negotiate, interact and adhere to transparent procedures in decision making.

Those mechanisms are the essence of the regime of each country because they constitute the way the citizens are protected -or unprotected. An example says more than a thousand words: in a developed country, no government can expropriate an enterprise without just cause, in addition to that its decision is subject to judicial review. These mechanisms are designed in order for no governmental functionary to abuse his or her faculties to the detriment of a citizen, thus conferring certainty on the citizenry. If President Trump shouts or becomes angry, the average U.S. citizen does not suffer the consequences in their everyday life. In Mexico’s case, if the President decides on an expropriation and the next day changes the law to justify this, the citizen is absolutely defenseless. Something similar takes place when the government spends more money than it has without having to give explanations, engendering with this a devaluation, which immediately affects an entire society in the consequent rising of prices and rents. That cannot happen in an institutionalized regime with effective checks and balances, the latter the necessary condition for development.

The regime emanated from the Mexican Revolution consisted of a political system around which everything functioned. That system continues to operate and now not only in practice, but also even in the overwhelming legislative numbers accompanying the new president. With that power, President López Obrador can transform the country; the question is whether he will do this in the spirit of polarizing the citizenry or constructing the regime of the XXI century, one that fits the needs of the citizens and the economy, or whether he effects this transformation to consolidate his own power and that of his political group.

In 2000, Fox wasted the opportunity of exchanging the institutionalization of the country for making tabula rasa of the past: the conditions were perfect to achieve this because the PRIsts were terrified that the new president would raze everything, including themselves to the ground. Something not very distinct is occuring today: the whole country is on tenterhooks, desirous of building a different future. Everything is lined up to construct a new regime, a modern one, geared to joining all the population together toward a better future. This is the opportunity to break with the unions that hold back the development of the population and the abusive monopolies, with the lack of transparency and with the corruption. There will not be another opportunity. Hopefully AMLO will not squander it by leading the country backward.





I’ll be damned if I don’t (end corruption)

Luis Rubio

The country lost its way when it began to privilege economic decisions over political criteria. Things went well when leaders emanated from the people made decisions that separated -and, in fact, subordinated- the economic power and the interests of the elites to the political power. Therefore, the solution to the problems of the country -from security to the growth of the economy- lies in a change of vectors: from now on, the government will establish priorities and society -including all its social and economic components- will have to adapt. The result will be good because I am not corrupt.

This is a change of paradigm: the criteria that have governed the functioning of the country over the past thirty years will disappear, to give rise to a model of society that proved successful in the past and that should never have been abandoned because, in contrast with what followed, the previous one produced economic growth, social mobility, employment and political stability. It is no coincidence that Mexican society lived in peace, order and without violence. Our mandate is to restore the balance that privileged the people as a priority.

The message is transparent: Mexico can solve its problems if it heeds its internal causes, something that was abandoned with the change of economic strategy and the beginning of the reforms from 1982. That economic policy caused poverty and inequality because it did not generate enough growth to employ young people who, due to lack of opportunities, ended up in organized crime. The government will reorganize the political structure because therein lies the key to solving the country’s economic problems and, therefore, the issue of security.

At the heart of the country’s ills lies the corruption that characterized all previous governments, which cannot be prosecuted because there is not enough space in all of the country’s jails. However, as long as everyone is aligned, as was the case in the sixties, the mafia of power that produced all this corruption will disappear and the economy will be transformed to meet the needs of the people.

In terms of security, the strategy has been wrong because it was not understood that the police, military, drug traffickers and criminals -all of them- come from the people and the people are always good. Therefore, we must attend to the symptoms and consequences instead of fighting the causes. Violence is not a solution but, rather, the cause of the problems that affect us today. El Chapo, since he comes from the people, is good and deserves amnesty.

The world that the country abandoned after the sixties worked because the hierarchy of things was prone to development. The State ruled and defined objectives, priorities and rules, assuring benign results for the society. Infrastructure spending set the stage for private investment. The government controlled the private sector via permit requirements and the unions were disciplined through corrupt leaders. The governors were the implementing arms of the presidential priorities. The recreation of that structure requires an inward looking perspective, maintaining effective control of the governors, a new unionism driven by the State and the subordination of the economic power to the political power. The following months we will see the implementation of this new political structure and its results, in terms of economic growth and social peace, will become evident.

Everyone fits into the new project, as long as they accept the new rules -and are willing to give up the freedoms that they have enjoyed in these decades and legal certainty- and this is equally true for citizens, unions, businessmen, governors, investors from abroad, governments of other countries and the financial markets. To the extent that all these key players in Mexican society understand and join the project and respect the rules of the game of the new president imposes, progress will be unstoppable. Success depends on there being the will to address the country’s problems and to bring the people on board, because Mexico is a poor country that has been the victim of abuses by nationals and foreigners.

The previous governments went astray because they did not understand that the solution was in plain sight, in our own past. It was not necessary to look abroad, adapt the education system to the demands of globalization and search for social mobility in the chimera of exports, but to reactivate the domestic market, protect domestic producers and provide for young people who do not study or work. Instead, they engaged in frivolous pursuits: they accepted the imposition of rules from abroad, subordinated national interests to the market and business criteria, built pharaonic infrastructure projects, denationalized our oil resources and decimated the industry that lies at the heart of the development of the country, in the past and in the future.

The project is clear, and the vision leaves no doubt about what the new government wants to achieve. Its challenge lies in ensuring that the reality adapts to the project, because if not, too bad for reality.




Luis Rubio

Governmental changes are always paradoxical: one administration exits knowing that it did not achieve what it had proposed and another begins believing that the moon and the stars are within its reach. Whatsoever the nation or the moment in history, political transitions are always a study in contrasts between optimism and pessimism, derailed expectations and realism with respect to all that has been gone through. The inauguration of a government is always promising, but the end is closer than it imagines.

The phenomenon is not new and reflects the nature of humanity. In his Letter to Father, Franz Kafka pens a suggestive paragraph:  “…The world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I never knew why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance of their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.” Kafka was referring to his father, but he could also have been speaking about life in society or a change of government: the ones inside, the ones outside and those who pay the consequences.

Now the most arrogant and simultaneously incompetent adminstration in the modern history of the country is coming to an end: a lethal combination that rendered impossible the consolidation of its pertinent reforms and these becoming the bedrock of a better future. Its arrogance impeded the outgoing government from understanding that the politics of the era of ubiquitous information lies in explaining and convincing, not in imposing, pretending that the future would vindicate it. Its deeds not only defeated it, but also made possible the worst succession scenario that it could have been imagined.

Once the government takes its leave, another begins, which is paradoxical in that the latter has generated the highest level of expectations Mexicans have ever known, but one that sets out from the principle that Mexico is a poor country, incapable of rising up and transforming itself. While Peña Nieto envisioned a grandiose future without having the least idea of –or disposition for- constructing it, López Obrador gives rise to unaccomplishable prospects but does not envisage that the Mexico of the future can be successful. He entertains peak clarity with respect to the urgency of including the entire population in the development project, not only the segment that has been the beneficiary for a long time, but his vision is retrospective and modest.

Peña Nieto thinks that he has left the country at its most pivotal point in time, at the zenith of development; López Obrador clings to the issue of poverty and devotes himself to the symptoms of a country that have left innumerable Mexicans behind. The Mexico City Airport illustrates the contrast: Peña, expansive, who dreams of a splendid future without having convinced the citizenry, face to face with López Obrador who cannot visualize more than limited and small undertakings for an impoverished country and one without possibilities.

López Obrador entertains a very limpid vision of that he wants to achieve, but not a project specifically designed for this. The strategies he has outlined from the beginning of his campaign, but especially during these long interregnum months, reveal a propensity for annenuating symptoms -of poverty, unemployment, disabled elders- to a greater degree than resolving problems and attacking causes. There is herein a confusion of causes and symptoms and a natural inclination for amassing clienteles and loyalties. There are obsessions rather than strategies.  His problem is that the latter will serve to mitigate the privations and resentments but will not satisfy the enormous expectations that he has generated.

Peña Nieto leaves behind a polarized country, one whose citizenry despises politics and politicians for their corruption and incompetence. But the Mexico that he leaves has a vastly more solid economic platform than most of our neighbors in the continent to the south and of many other latitudes and one with prodigious potential for advancing. Together with the lacks, errors, corruptions and arrogance of those taking their leave, the new team appears to be incapable of recognizing that there are good things on which it can and should build. With greater proclivity for terse judgments than for diagnoses based on solid evaluations, the entering government will soon find the limits to their lack of consistency, as illustrated by the Airport eye to eye with the Tren Maya.

Some years ago I was privy to the anecdote of a Colombian exfunctionary that comes to mind because it is applicable to this time of transition and to each of those who were and will be responsible for heading up domestic affairs. The Colombian, recently named Undersecretary, felt that he was floating on air. A few days after being named to office, on a raw, rainy and stormy night, he got into his automobile, one of the privileges of the post, and gave instructions to the driver. On arriving at the first traffic light, he saw a very well-dressed man, soaked and shivering from the cold, waiting for a taxi. On regarding him carefully, he noticed that the man was none other than his predecessor as Undersecretary. My friend never forgot the lesson: power is temporary and must be used to advance or is wasted and one ends up in utter ignominy. Paradoxes.