Trump has been a headache but for a reason that we Mexicans are obligated to accept: because we have not built a platform of certainty for the citizenry to be able to lead their lives in a normal manner. Overwhelmed by the insecurity, the bureaucratic excesses and the permanent economic ups and downs, we Mexicans have become accustomed to living on the dark side of the law. What is most revealing about the current political moment is that the president-elect and his team do not recognize that the principal challenge that the country is presently encountering is not economic but rather one of certainty.
From the time of his campaign, it was evident that Trump would be an enormous challenge for Mexico. His violent rhetoric implied a new political relationship and a severe risk for the sources of sustainability of the Mexican economy. And rightly so: NAFTA has been the main domestic economic engine and, however much the political grandiloquence may denote something else, there are no easy substitutes. The nation wagered on closeness to the U.S. economy through NAFTA for obvious reasons: above all, because it was more efficient and rational in economic terms but, mostly, because NAFTA has served as a source of certitude without which the tremendous progress of the last several decades would have been impossible.
The fact that Trump called into question the permanence of NAFTA gave rise to vast uncertainty that appears to be incomprehensible for many politicians because they cannot fathom the lack of trust and uncertainty that lie at the heart of the nation’s dilemma. In the face of the absence of a functional government and clear and reliable rules (the latter nothing other than the Rule of Law), NAFTA has been the main source of certainty in the Mexican economy; all of the governments, from 1994 to date, have opted to enshrine NAFTA as if it were a museum piece instead of constructing a great institutional scaffold that incorporated the entire economy –not only the one that interconnected with foreign trade- and the society in the logic of a modern country, one sure of itself.
The weakness of the Mexican stance in the recent negotiations derived from the reality that during all of those years political and institutional reforms were not carried out that created a modern system of government in a manner in which the country could replace the political function of NAFTA: that is, the risk was not, in the strict sense, of economic nature; the risk dwelt in that the sole source of trust and certainty currently existing in the country would disappear. Consciously or unconsciously, this has been the foremost source of stability of the middle class, the business community and the investors. And that risk mushrooms dramatically inasmuch as radical changes might be proposed for economic policy, something that would have been less threatening prior to the arrival of Trump.
Mexico’s system of government has made development impossible because it is designed for a few to control the key processes that generate power and privilege. As long as that does not change, the economy will continue to exhibit immense variance throughout the nation, whatever the economic project of the incoming administration might be: whether one of the great reforms or one focused on the national market. It’s all the same.
The fundamental challenge for the next government, even more so because of its long critical stand of the reforms, will be that of creating sources of internal trust that consolidate and solidify the function that NAFTA, during all these years, has fulfilled. Certainty is achieved when there are game rules -laws, practices, actions- that cannot be modified by a functionary or the bureaucracy without mediation by a legislative process with effective checks and balances. The reason NAFTA has been as powerful as a source of confidence, at least until Trump threatened to withdraw his domain from it, is precisely because its content could not be modified on a unilateral basis. In this fashion, in contrast with the Mexican laws that change every time a public official decides to do so, NAFTA instituted perennial, thus reliable, rules, something less certain now with the new agreement. It is certainty that is at stake in the decision of the new airport.
The quasi democratic life that the nation is experiencing occurs within a context in which there are no certainties for the citizenry. The president-elect will wield immense –excessive?- powers that are susceptible to recast the lives of Mexicans for good or ill. The virtue of NAFTA was that it limited the potential of pernicious effects on a vital part of the Mexican nation, that is, productive investment. With the new agreement, “ACME” in Spanish, the incoming administration can count on a more or less solid source of external trust, but will have no choice but to develop new sources of certainty deriving from an integral political transformation, a political reengineering that supplies better equity and a new equilibrium among the government and the populace. This is not about concessions to the citizenry, but rather recouping the capacity to grow the economy within a context of political stability and citizen security. And trust.
The worst that the president-elect could do would be to underestimate the enormous distrust, uncertainty and insecurity in which the citizenry, of all colors, lives.