All and Nothing at All

Luis Rubio

Everything changed but everything stays the same. That’s the sum of nearly two months of government. In less than a week, the new government installed itself and changed the political dynamic of the country: the professionals had returned and, with them, formality in politics. Forms are without doubt an essential part of a country’s political life but, without substance, forms do not suffice. Perhaps the greatest risk for the new government –and for the country- is that it perceives that its initial success, as enormous as it has been, leads it to conclude that it’s not necessary to do anything, that the problem was the incompetent actors of before and not the reality.

In a few weeks something unusual has take place: the sensation returned that there is a government. It has advanced towards restoring state rectorship and showcases efficiency. It didn’t take the new team more than a few minutes to displace the former, to wipe off the map –or from the media- themes that get in its way (such as criminality) and to make itself felt as a preeminent and omniscient presence.

Even with the difficulties it has encountered in the legislative arena, the old practices are back. Money flows like water. No vote is too expensive: everything and everyone may be bought. When money is no longer effective other instruments will come into use, less palatable. The media are finding out that the era of “license” is coming to an end. Now there is authority that is willing to employ its means and resources to reward and punish. Like before. Similarly, there are signs that another of the old vices is returning: self-censorship.

The existence of authority is an enormous asset if employed for carrying out relevant changes. Form is fundamental as long as it serves for something. The PRI of yesteryear constructed a modern country but afterward the party became stagnant, lost its compass and nearly destroyed the country. While that was happening, the forms continued to be impeccable: the same as the proverbial story of those who discussed the menu on the Titanic as it sank. The government has reestablished a sense of authority and possesses the capacities and skills to convert that enormous asset into a source of transformation. If it opts for watering down its reform proposal and lives off the assets that prior administrations constructed (which, with all of their limitations, were not few), in a couple of years, if not sooner, it will begin to see the limits of control without substance. Or it will end up running straight into a wall. By that time it will be too late to begin. The time is now.

The central matters are evident: public safety, economic growth and political stability. None of these is new and the three constitute basic challenges that are not resolved by the fact that there is a credible government in place, although without this it would be impossible to confront or resolve these.

Public safety is much more than fighting organized crime or, as many propose, ignoring it and allowing it its space, as long as it doesn’t get in the way. The country existed for centuries with weak judicial and police structures, all subordinate to the central power. Violence and crime were growing during the eras of weak central power (the XIX Century) and diminished with strong powers at the center, as occurred during the era of Porfirio Diaz at the end of that century and in the PRI era. This observation has led many to conclude that it is evident that what is required is the recentralization the power. The problem is that decentralization did not take place by will but rather through the evolution and growing complexity of the society and the globalization of the economy. While it is evident that a new political structure is required, the notion of centralizing would not work there either. The country urgently needs strong institutions that respond to the citizens and to resolve their problems.

Economic growth has been the objective and concern of all governments since the Porfirio Diaz era, but in recent decades –within a complex and highly competitive international context- it has been fleeting, when not slippery at best. Although there were moments and actions of great vision, such as the NAFTA, an integral strategy for transforming the country never developed. The contrast with Canada, which converted the same instrument into its ticket to development, is impacting. Of course the circumstances and characteristics of both nations are very distinct, but the main difference lies in the capacity, and above all, the willingness of the Canadians to define their objectives, construct strategies likely to reach these and to do everything necessary to achieve them.

Economic success will require a radical change of vision: to accept that the required transformation will entail costs but that once carried out, these become sources of investment, employment and wealth. In the past few decades, we have witnessed moments of vision but an environment of risk aversion: it is no coincidence that so little has been harvested. The results that we have seen are the product of the limitations of the objectives as well as of the strategies adopted. Even at the most visionary moments, enormous benefits were promised but the actions undertaken -like privatizations, deregulation and economic liberalization- were never themselves visionary or decisive. The easy way was always chosen, that of short term benefits and maintaining the status quo. If the government wants to be successful it will have to take the bull by the horns with a long-term perspective because everything succumbs when there’s an attempt to dodge the immediate costs.

The political stability that the country has experienced has been propped up by structures that gave out a long time ago. The “federal pact” doesn’t work and the best evidence of this can be noted in the inexistence of modern and functional police and judicial institutions at the state level, and in the way the public expenditure is exercised. The easy way out was also chosen in this ambit: leave things to take their course without authority or, as they now and once again phrase it, without rectorship. Our system of government is dysfunctional, weak and out of phase with the needs of public safety as well as those of a modern economy: there is not a sole check and balance. Without checks and balances, no country can be successful. Viewed from this perspective, it’s incredible that we are not worse off.

It’s been decades since the country has had an opportunity as enormous as the current one. A competent government and one capable of exercising authority is indispensable, but it is not sufficient: it if wants to transcend or, even, end in peace, the government had better begin utilizing its skills to transform the country. In its previous era, the PRI went astray because it allowed itself to be dominated by “de facto powers” that paralyzed the country. If it doesn’t get rid of them, they will snuff out the new government.