Luis Rubio

The times change, but not that much. I remember a comic strip of Abel Quezada in which he made fun of political reactions regarding the surgical procedure that the Mexican president had undergone. Comparing the precise details published on the surgery that President Reagan had had some time prior and the absence of details in the case of the Mexican president, Quezada cited the responses and reactions that there had been in Mexico: “Healthy operation honors Mexico” one headline entreated. Others read: “Congressmen applaud the operation”, “The economy will be strengthened with the operation: CANACO”, “Fidel states that the operation is positive for the country”, “CANACINTRA and CONCAMIN support the operation”, “The operation: one more triumph for Mexico, asserted Bartlett”. Judging by the reactions to the detention of Elba Esther Gordillo, the country hasn’t changed that much. But what has changed is indeed significant.

In contrast to what Quezada related in the eighties, reactions to the detention of “The Teacher” were revealing of the perspectives, interests and standpoints of today. While the majority of reactions were more like than unalike those of Quezada, one notable aspect was the willingness of many to permit their most intimate feelings to be observed. In the past, everyone held himself in restraint before “Mr. President, Sir”. Today the Head of State is appreciated, admired or criticized but what one (almost) never sees is that manifestation of uncritical discipline that was the prototype of the old system. In a word, the country has matured politically and that in no way detracts merit from the President of the Republic for consolidating his power.

Observing the reactions not only allows one to understand personal or group motivations, but also to evaluate the degree of advance or retreat that Mexican politics has experienced. As would be expected, there was a little of everything. Some reactions were noteworthy because of the perception of power they employed: above all, the inability of the onetime union leader and her acolytes to read the political times. Beyond her personality or the motive that enlivened her exercise of power, what is clear is that “The Teacher” did not understand that times had changed. In my life as an observer of national politics I have come across only three presidents who are men of power and Enrique Peña-Nieto is certainly one of these (the others were Echeverría and Salinas). Not understanding that the former era of Mexican politics was returning ended up being tragic for the teacher. More than a sin, said Oscar Wilde, it was stupidity.

Perhaps the most impressive reactions came from the Panists who, without even a wink, assumed the detention as if it were something personal. Ignoring Mark Twain’s maxim that read “never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference”, some Panists hailed their wisdom. The legal process will take its course, but it is evident that the charges faced by the now detained teacher will overwhelmingly stem from information gathered throughout the previous administration, and much of it from the very ministry the loudest voice is hollering. Better to keep their mouths shut than to place the poor exercise of the previous administration or unconfessed complicities in evidence. It is revealing of their reality that a good number of Panists were incapable of recognizing that their alliance with the teacher ended up being an example, itself powerful, of all that was distressing and pathetic about their passage through power.

More interesting was the absence of public reaction on the part of the frightened, those that know (or assume) themselves to be “guilty” for their abuse of power or, at least, susceptible to similar actions. Some have not even taken note of this, but for all of the observers –the disinterested ones- of national politics it is clear that the environment has changed and that the rules heretofore will be others. Welcome the discipline and the existence of authority, if they are not arbitrary. A keen analyst warned that there may not have been many differences between the form and charges facing the teacher and those of the Frenchwoman Cassez. For a government for which complying with form is a distinctive and characteristic display of the care with which this process was conducted, whatever follows needs to be equally clean and impeccable. In terms of what is in store for interests or groups – the de facto or veto powers- who have not read into the implications of the detention vis-à-vis themselves, it would be worth it to them to “get cracking”.

The big losers did not hide their feelings. The perennial excandidate may not have liked the current government but understood to perfection that “the times they are a’changin’”. The same appears true of the majority of the teacher’s disciples, minions and sidekicks. All nice and quiet or sending out signs of peace (and submission?) to the president. They reminded me of a big and prominent businessman who, immediately on hearing of the detention of the oil workers’ leader La Quina, caught the first plane out of the country and spent many timorous weeks on foreign soil. He returned when, in an attempt to elucidate his own situation, he called the president’s secretary with some spurious excuse and the secretary picked up on the first try.

This lesson seems crucial to me: the exercise of authority has two possible derivatives. On the one hand, it leads a good number of persons and groups aware that they are vulnerable to quake in their boots. Nothing bad about that, except that fear is a poor prescription for the development of productive activity (as well as political or otherwise). On the other hand, the exercise of authority, if it leads to the institutionalization of power and, with this, to the transformation of the country, constitutes what Weber termed legitimacy. President Peña now finds the choice on his hands of setting himself up in power as all of his predecessors did but without the possibility of transcending, or of constructing a modern country. Power for power’s sake or power for transformation.

In his theatrical work on the relationship among hierarchy, scientific inquiry, politics and truth, Bertolt Brecht explored how distinct actors are reflected in the reality. In the version of David Hare, the most dramatic moment og “Galileo” is when the inquisitor refuses to look through Galileo’s telescope: the Church had decreed that what Galileo said he’d observed could not be there. The inability to see things as they are, even if the consequences are distasteful, is apt to be disheartening and, in politics, tragic.

The teacher’s detention uncorks the opportunity of redefining the direction of the country and constructing the foundations of a modern one, but it doesn’t guarantee it. It would be tragic if it were to end up a mere settling of accounts and not the dawn of an institutional transformation. Of the former there is a surfeit of experiences. Of the latter not a one.