The Past

“Life, said Kierkegaard, can only be understood backward, but should be lived forward”. But, in our case, how can the past be understood if we are not willing to live forward, and how can we live forward if we do not resolve the past?

Mexico has not known how to contend with its past, and I do not refer to the distant past, to our origin as a country. We are making our way from a regime founded on a dominant party and an exacerbated presidency toward a democratic paradigm, but lacking in rules and frames of references, which produced the mismatch in which we live today.

At the initiation of the present decade, with the defeat of the PRI, there were three groups of proposals on how to deal with the past: those that clamored for a retrospective recount and moral indemnification in the form of truth commissions oriented at putting the PRI in evidence; those that proposed a grand national pact that would “draw the line in the sand” regarding the past and construct a new political foundation; and those that outlined a pragmatic vision of understanding pari passu, i.e., “part and parcel”. I am not sure whether at some moment there was an actual decision in this respect, but what is evident is that a third-world pragmatism triumphed that did not lay the foundation for future development, nor did it compel the modernization of the PRI.

That is, there was a dramatic political upset but no directorship berth: everything was left to hook, or, as we can see in retrospect in many ambits, to crook. Zedillo’s government was satisfied with the electoral reform that leveled the playing field and left the remaining institutions to adapt as if by magic. On his part, Fox came into power with neither plan nor agenda, and stopped worrying forthwith. There was no attempt at reforming institutions, and all efforts were concentrated on undermining and debilitating the old bastions of the PRI in the government, such as the Ministry of the Interior, Gobernación in Spanish, without making amends to that which undermined its own ability to act. In addition to that, much more alarmingly, Fox ignored evidence of an accelerated growth in criminality, which then began to come to light. The sum of Zedillo’s lack of vision and Fox’s complete absence of responsibility impeded the country from achieving a smooth political transition.

What might have been, say the politicians, does not exist. The moment when there was the opportunity to restate the country’s political architecture in an elegant and pristine manner remained in the past. What did not remain in the past were the consequences of the old regime and the imbalance that these represent for the reality of today.

Alternation of parties in power in 2000 came to pass uneventfully. The losing presidential candidate recognized the defeat, and both governments, the incoming and the outgoing, cooperated to ensure a professional handing-over and reception of power. What was not seamless was the management of the consequences that the transition entailed and that handicapped the country from consolidating a stable democratic regime and the possibility of sowing the seeds for its development.

There are two types of consequences: those having to do with governability, and those that are concerned with everyday life. While, in a certain way, this is about two sides of the same coin, each merits its own analysis.

Perhaps the greatest of the costs generated by Fox’s do-nothingness can be observed in the fact that everything in Mexican politics continues as before, except for the robustness of the presidency. That is to say, with the separation of the PRI, the presidency lost its principal instrument of control and action. But everything else continued the same: contempt for the law; governmental and police corruption, and both administrative as well as criminal impunity. Instead of a government, we had something akin to Sicilian novelist Lampedusa running the presidency: pretending to change everything so that everything can remain the same. Six years later, the country was on the brink of chaos.

In terms of governability, there are two main elements: the capacities of the individuals in charge, and the might and competence of the tools at their command. The population gave Fox the benefit of the doubt with the former, recognizing that because of historical reality –there were no expert PANists in governmental management -you can’t ask for the moon. What has been incredible is that ten years later, the PANists have not been able to generate a contingent of competent politicians who are skillful in these matters.

Would that this were the only problem. The governing instruments and mechanisms that existed decades ago eroded little by little until they became unserviceable. Years prior to the PRI defeat, the country began to experience a gradual decentralization of power, one that suddenly bolted ahead in 2000, with the effect of previous institutions becoming inoperative, while new institutions were never created. The case of public security is paradigmatic: the Federal Government was de facto ceding power, mechanisms, and monies, but neither the federation nor the states develop the concomitant capacities. Ten years later, we are facing the phenomenon of a fortified, organized delinquency, emboldened and extraordinarily well armed. That is, precisely when the country was experiencing the breakdown of police capacities, extensively corrupt though they were, organized crime ballooned, with no rein or encumbrance whatsoever.

All this translates into growing costs for the society. Companies, beginning with the small ones, have become easy prey for extortion. Those with options and leverage amass their investments in distant places, if not abroad. Insecurity has destroyed businesses and opportunities. The obvious consequence is that investment declines, and with it, job creation. We can construct all the hypotheses that we want on the causes of the gridlock, but there is not the least doubt that physical insecurity and uncertainty concerning the rules of the game are the two main ones.

Perhaps the saddest feature is that now we retain all the ills of the old system without the benefit of the stability and predictability of the old sexenio, the six year term of office. The old system decayed from within and this ended up destroying it, a circumstance that occurred well before the transition. This should be understood by PRIists who dream of restoration and by PANists who wish to relinquish all and any responsibility. The issue at present is not to identify the guilty parties, but rather, to understand what happened in order to set the country on the right track.

We need a renewed country, with new institutions and governmental capacities derived from an overarching political arrangement among the powers that be. Nothing less than this is going to work if we want to live forward.