50 Years of Change

 Luis Rubio

Don Quixote was a simple nobleman, belonging to the decadent lowborn nobility, who sprang from a lineage of ancient wandering knights in the Middle Ages. But the time-worn prestige and power that these men possessed had disappeared with the fall of feudal society, bequeathing no quarter to these antiquated knights. The nobility of old in which they had a rightful place had undergone important changes and, with the birth of the professional army, the only honorable way out for these idolatrized cavaliers was that of enlisting.

Enrique Peña-Nieto’s government represents a project of power, but it’s not evident whether it contemplates one of development. With the detention of the teachers’ union leader (on charges of embezzlement) the government has ventured onto a new stage that frees up a galaxy of possibilities. It is now that we will see what it wants that power for and whether, as in the world recreated by Cervantes, it will adapt to the exigencies of the modern world.

Mexico has experienced a brutal transformation over the last 50 years. From a chiefly rural country, with a population of less than one third of its current numbers, it went on to being a complex, modern, demanding nation full of conflicts and unfinished reforms. Whosoever looks back cannot be other than impressed by that has changed. More than suffice to say that the system of government that had characterized the country fifty years back is thoroughly incompatible and inadequate –and could even be counterproductive- for the present-day reality. But I fear that it’s what the new administration could be attempting.

In this half century the country has experienced a metamorphosis in its economic and political structures, in its social reality, in the governmental-societal relationship, in the growing autonomy of a primitive and ineffective judicial system. We went from a closed and protected economy to one that is a fundamentally open and subject, at least in terms of goods, to market rationale. In politics it proceeded from an authoritarian political system to an incipient –albeit conflictive- democracy. The country has decentralized and the society has multiplied the number and ways it relates with the rest of the world. What practically hasn’t changed is the nature of the system of government.

While the people adjust and adapt to the changing reality because they have no alternative, the government, as generic entity, continues to be guided by ancestral criteria. The government does not dedicate itself to “serving the people” nor is it designed to resolve or address the people’s problems or to promote development. Governmental logic is always one of control, subordination and imposition. A great number of public servants and politicians continue seeing it as a means of political ascent, or as a wellspring of access to corruption. None of this is unusual or novel, but it is certainly incompatible with the needs of an ever more competitive economy or with the criteria of effectiveness proposed in his campaign by the now president. In this scenario, what does the detention of Elba Esther Gordillo mean?

Perhaps the main reason that Enrique Peña-Nieto won the presidential election lies less in his programmatic offering than in the sense of authority betokened by his presence, his history and his campaign strategy. However great the very significant advances over the past several years, the sensation of disorder was growing relentlessly, shielding everything else from view for an extensive number of voters.

The disorder started from at least the dawn of 1994 –at the zenith of the PRI era- with the Zapatista uprising; however, the proliferation of violence, insecurity and the apparent incapacity to achieve the much heralded economic transformation ended up opening the door to whomever offered the promise of reinstating peace, effectiveness y in governmental function and, above all, a sense of order. The visual message was in the end much more powerful than the specific offer.

It was thus to be expected that the president would act forcefully. A president with a vocation for power could not tolerate the perennial and systematic challenge to his authority that “the teacher” had been practicing. Her detention is a clear indicator of the government’s intent to recover its authority in order to govern, something nearly unheard-of since the beginning of 1994.

Whether it recognizes it or not, the government’s leading challenge resides in its converting power into a tool for development. The new team has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to get things done; however, the crux of the challenge is that a system of government does not exist that is liable to create conditions for the permanent development of the society, of the economy and of the country in general. Even in the good PRI years, the country was never governed with an eye to development; it was always organized for the control of the population and administration of power. I ask myself whether a government holding as its model the old PRI era’s most successful president –Adolfo López-Mateos- will construct a system of government that is appropriate for the present era, radically distinct from that of those bygone years. The detention of the leader of the teachers in Mexico opens up the possibility, but is not a guarantee, of its converting this into an opportunity.

As the number of deaths and economic difficulties that increase daily illustrate, the enormous success of the debut of the present administration in its first months cannot make the reality of the country nor the problems besetting it disappear. The fact of being in the process of building the legal scaffolding  (such as the law of appeals) and the image of power (such as acting against “the teacher”) permits the government to deal with the problems, groups and interests that keep the country paralyzed and confirms the project of power. But establishing and imposing the authority for which many Mexicans are eager is indispensable, but not a substitute for a modern system of government, befitting the circumstances of today.

From my perspective, the great deficit of the most recent governments was due to the inexistence of a strategy of development, but above all to the total absence of the political capacity for carrying out the changes that the country requires, that is, what the politicians do to reach deals and get things done. The Peña-Nieto government has exhibited a surplus capacity for this. The sum of legal and political instruments that the government is amassing with the evident capacity to make use of them to advance its aims implies that there is one half of what’s needed: the half that was found lacking in the prior administrations. Without that, this government would be akin to the former administrations and would not entertain a better prognosis for success.

The president has begun to take charge. Now we will start to see what he wants and how he will employ the new found power. If he achieves the fusion of a vision of development with his new powers,  he could end up replicating the success of the administration that he has employed as a model, but with a version that is applicable to and viable in the XXI Century.