The country of the imaginary

Luis Rubio

At the heart of the political dispute that ends today is the great lack that Mexico has suffered for decades: capacity of government or governance. That ability to act and resolve disappeared in the maelstrom that produced a lethal combination of circumstances -financial crises, (near) hyperinflation, globalization, organized crime and blindness of the political class- between the seventies and these years of the millennium. Instead of producing solutions, the paralysis led to the decline in government capacity and this generated an endless nostalgia.

The nostalgia, that longing for a mythical past, is easily explained by the daily deficiencies and complexities that the population suffers: insecurity, poor public services, terrible education, poverty. But nostalgia is a bad counselor and can easily become a propaganda instrument of political control and not good governance.

The government that emerged from the revolutionary era was more authoritarian than institutional, a circumstance that allowed it to deal effectively with crime and to allocate resources discretionally, all of which favored some decades of political stability and economic growth. At the same time, its inherent rigidity prevented it from adapting to changes that occurred both within the country and in the external environment.

And those changes ended up undermining its structures, making the government increasingly ineffective. The first manifestations of this decline were the economic crises of the seventies, the insufficient and sometimes inadequate reforms of the eighties and the security crisis since the nineties. All these factors were the product of changes in the external environment that the Mexican government did not have the capacity -or disposition- to face. In a word, Mexico did not prepare itself for the changes that took place in Colombia and the United States and that had the effect of altering the operating patterns of organized crime. Nor did it create favorable conditions for all Mexicans to insert themselves successfully into the process of globalization. Both phenomena transformed the world, but in Mexico the government did not adapt and thus was unable to avoid the security crisis or to generate a strategy to better distribute the benefits of globalization.

In this context, it is easy to fall into the nostalgia of returning to a world in which things apparently worked, where the economy grew and there was no violence: a moment in history that is unrepeatable. Hand in hand with nostalgia for stability and growth comes the dream of unipersonal command, the control of the population and the subjugation of trade unions and employers. It sounds attractive because it allows the voters to imagine magic solutions for the problems that afflict the country, at no cost. But it is a myth: magical solutions do not exist.

For those who live in that idyllic moment of the past, it is impossible to understand that the world changed not because somebody willed it, but because there were circumstances that ended the livelihoods of that era: technology evolved prodigiously, communications accelerated exchanges and the integration of the productive processes allowed to elevate economies of scale that translated in impressive improvements in the quality of the goods and lower prices. Those who drive a car today cannot conceive that thirty years ago they would have had to take their cars to the workshop every so often because the breakdowns were frequent: life has improved dramatically.

The challenge is to right the wrongs of the present without creating a mega crisis and this requires a clear recognition that there are no more resources. The (alleged) austerity of the governments from the eighties onward was not the result or their wishes but of the lack of alternative. There was not that much austerity and there are no savings.

Mexicans live endless contradictions in their daily activities. Instead of things being organized so that it is easy to prosper, obstacles of all sorts are pervasive: bureaucratic, special interests obstructing new ideas and government officials looking after their personal or political affairs rather than generating conditions for development. All of this speaks for the need of a political reform to make it possible for the economy to prosper.

The existing economic structures have made it possible for vast regions of the country to grow at Asian rates, but ancestral political structures have preserved poverty in the south of the country. This speaks of the absence of a government capable of breaking obstacles, not of an erroneous economic model: our evils stem from the political hindrances that keep states like Oaxaca and Chiapas in poverty. The dilemma is not to reconstruct the past keeping the good of the present, something impossible, but to change the vectors that currently exist to make development possible. Therein the political challenge.

The paradox of this election rests in that the regions that suffer are those in which the economic reforms that have been so criticized have not been implemented. Inequality and poverty are the result of intricate special interests: changing that reality entails a change of regime with two characteristics: a modern and functional and the Rule of Law.

As The Economist recently wrote, “Nostalgia, in any form, is an indulgence. And as any clergyman worth his salt will tell you, indulgences come with a price tag.”