“The future, environmental activist Dana Meadows once said, is a choice, not a destiny.” This year, commemorating the centenary of the Revolution, is a good time to reflect on the future. In addition to concentrating power, the revolution of a hundred years ago caused a huge number of deaths and was accompanied by the physical destruction of productive assets, resources and infrastructure. Now that power has descentralized yet again, the big challenge will be to give viability to the country. What is clear is that no country can succeed if it is not endorsed by and above has all the confidence of its people
The Mexican Revolution was the result of the Porfirian regime’s collapse and the inevitable inflexibility that accompanies the age of a single character. As Roger Hansen wrote decades ago in his famous study of the PRI, the PRI system solved this problem, in the unforgettable words of Cosio Villegas, with a non inheritable monarchical structure. But the PRI system also collapsed and its fall, albeit without revolutionary destruction, did not solve the problem of power. Today the country is again adrift, without clarity on the future or a sense of purpose. Nothing is more risky for stability than such an environment
Revolutions, said Jean Francois Revel, “either concentrate power or they are useless.” The Revolution of 1910 led not only to the concentration of power, but also to the creation of a system that, while it worked, allowed to respond to the challenges the country was facing. Like all revolutions and regimes arising from them, we had our own paraphernalia of myths, excesses, abuses and interests. But the interesting thing, and that was the point that Hansen emphasized, is that the success of the revolutionary regime was the same as that of Porfirio Díaz: the concentration of power made it possible to control a country as diverse and dispersed as Mexico, with an ever-changing geography and susceptible to generating political fiefdoms everywhere. Porfirio Diaz subjected regional powers in exactly the same way that General Cardenas did. What neither of the two systems achieved was to give institutional permanence to the country.
A country with Mexico’s traits can only be governed in two ways: either concentrating power or institutionalizing it. It is no coincidence that concentration of power was the common denominator of two successful eras in the country’s independent history. Unlike the Porfirian regime, the PRI built a system of inclusion that used corruption and its accompanying tolerance as control mechanisms, both key elements in the system. Unfortunately, the end of that era was not accompanied by the creation of a mechanism to resolve issues of power. In the absence of strong institutions to contain power, its dispersion has translated itself into a permanent source of instability
The extinction of the old mechanisms of concentration of power and the lack of institutions to contain those who have and wield power, constitutes a threat to development and is an essential component of the economic paralysis that characterizes us. People distrust politicians because they don’t see in them the ability to decide and act, while politicians reflect the enormous diversity that characterizes the population, which in turn leads them towards paralysis. The problem is not new: What is different today is that there are no mechanisms to solve it.
Many PRI politicians and former PRI members criticize PAN governments for its inability to act and think it is a people of individuals. This is why, they claim, the day they come back to govern everything will be different. It is impossible to question the lack of expertise in policy and government affairs among many PAN members. However, it is illusory to think that everything depends on those individuals. Ironically, it was Fox the president who thought the problem was one of morality: an honest president replaces the corrupt PRI and with that everything is solved. Clearly the matter was a bit more complex especially since his own election involved the “divorce” of the PRI and the presidency. But the main point is that the defeat of PRI did not solve the problem of power, of economic growth, and much less the one of morality.
The old question thus remains valid: how to govern Mexico? The constitution says that the solution is federalism, and after the PRI’s defeat in 2000 this is somehow what we have been saddled with. Except that our federalism does not involve a sum of effective local governments, but a permanent bickering by governors. Instead of a national emperor we now have a multiplicity of local feudal lords. The result, as shown by the poor growth of the economy, has been pathetic. From a liberal perspective, the solution has to come from an active and vibrant citizenry ready to enforce their rights and become an effective counterweight against local power. But no one can decree the existence of a militant and responsible citizenship, and its absence entails the risk of someone trying to restore order by hook or by crook.
“The revolution, Trotsky said, is impossible until it becomes inevitable.” That is our current risk: that mismanagement from benign rulers or an attempt to re-concentrate power by other less benign leads us to the usual state of affairs: that despair and fear of chaos makes the ruler think that all is matter of will and personal determination.
Indeed, Mexico is extraordinarily difficult to govern because of its diversity and dispersion and because of the population’s nonchalance. As my friend Claudia Diaz says, “what harms countries is largely what harms people: inertia, rigidity, inability to form healthy alliances, counterweights and delusions (personal and collective)”. The question is how to break that inertia and that rigidity. Perhaps the answer can be found in leadership, as in Brazil, a country devoted to building the institutions that are indispensable for development. The risk, of course, is slipping back into a dictatorship.
One day Robert Pastor asked a taxi driver in Mexico City if he thought there would be a new revolution. “Mexico,” replied the driver, “already had one and that taught us that revolutions do not improve anyone’s life”. Now that we are marking an anniversary we should focus on what we lack: strong institutions that channel politicians and limit the power of special interest groups but at the same time make it possible to govern.