Heydays and Paradoxes

INFOLATAM – Luis Rubio

Mexico is experiencing a paradoxical moment at present. On the one hand, barely a day goes by that without a new milestone in legislative matters: the reform agenda that sat immobilized on the shelf has suddenly acquired uncommon impetus. On the other hand, political crises mushroom in all quarters: political parties splinter, some rural communities endure popular uprisings and, in multiple regions, local authorities collapse. Are these exceptional circumstances or faces of the same coin?

President Enrique Peña-Nieto came into power nearly like a hurricane. Even prior to its formal inauguration, the new government had already showcased its caliber of political operation in the processing of law initiatives during the time of the transition between governments. In fewer than 24 hours after it was inaugurated, it had announced a Pact for Mexico with the main opposition parties, including a detailed agenda of reforms on which consensus had already been reached. The media, very militant and critical right up to the day before his assuming office, abruptly began to sing his praises. A few weeks later, the country’s erstwhile teachers’ leader was in jail. No one seemed to have foreseen the possibility of Mexico having a government in shape: from the Zapatista uprising in 1994 to the arrival of Peña-Nieto, Mexicans had become accustomed to the incompetence and mediocrity of the presidency. Now, all of a sudden, everything seemed to be changing

The advent of Peña-Nieto in the presidency was akin to relief, a breath of fresh air, after years of the absence of leadership. In effect: Peña-Nieto heads a power project inspired by Adolfo López-Mateos, the last Mexican president (1958-1964) who concluded his mandate happily, presided over an economic growth period of nearly 8% annually on average, handed over the administration without crisis and exercised undisputed power. With Peña-Nieto there returned the forms of power and formality to the office and in relations among politicians. His legislative agenda in the first months has included diverse matters (education, telecommunications, the appeals law), but the common denominator is a very specific one: concentration of power. Step by step, the presidency has become stronger not through illicit acts or unilateral decrees (widespread practices in the past), but by means of legal tools that grant instruments of control to the government over key groups, entities and institutions and, especially, over what we Mexicans call the “de facto powers”, that nucleus of union leaders, entrepreneurs and politicians who, with the PRI loss of the presidency in 2000, became at-large powers, without the most minimal control and possessing veto capacity to safeguard their economic and political interests.

The paradox of the new government is that its project is more one of power than of development and that its vision is to recreate the PRI world of the sixties. During that era, the presidency and the PRI maintained a symbiotic relationship, the economy –closed and protected- functioned with the demand generated by governmental investment in infrastructure. The president was the central figure of domestic politics and the government was the factotum of development. As history is witness, the model’s success is irrefutable. However, the circumstances sixty years ago are radically distinct from those valid at present: a population four times larger, a political reality of fragmentation and decentralization, a globalized economy, the world of the Internet and a demanding and militant society. In a word, although the greater part of the population has welcomed a government in form, capable of reestablishing a sense of order, the prevailing reality is not compatible with an attempt to recreate the relatively simple world of a half century ago.

In this context, it is not surprising that, in parallel with the order that the administration imposes and the systematic progress of the legislative process, political crises abound in all parts. It’s not that one thing brings about the other (although this is so in some cases) but that  the institutions characterizing the political system are, to a goodly degree, those of before that are not up to processing the conflicts and demands of a radically changed society. In contrast with Spain or Chile, which underwent a clear break with respect to the old regime, Mexico never experienced a breaking point. For whatever reasons, the old PRI never had to reform itself and thus returned to power as if nothing had happened in the intervening years.

There are at least three sources of political conflict at present. One derives from the combination of political decentralization (and of budgetary spending) with the concentration of power of organized crime: governmental power was decentralized but the governors did not construct police corps, prosecuting capability and, in general, the State capacity that would replace the vertical control that the federal government used to exercise and that, for a long time, allowed maintaining a semblance of order. This occurred precisely when the Americans had closed illegal drug access by way of the Caribbean, when the Colombians had recovered the control of their country and, after 2001, when the Americans beefed up the border. All of this created a lethal mix: brutal strengthening of the criminal mafias and a weak system of government in general and of law enforcement in particular. The challenge is thus phenomenal and cannot be resolved merely with a revitalized federal government, although without one it would be impossible to succeed.

The second source of the clash has its origin in -often ancestral and mostly rural- community conflicts (land property, regional control, local bosses or caciques, exploitation of natural resources) that have always existed but that for some time were controlled and more or less managed by a strong and centralized political system that never occupied itself with resolving the wellsprings of conflict but that merely avoided the latter from detonating. As the capacity of control disappeared in the past two decades, the conflicts flourished. In many cases, this has to do with deep-rooted social movements that cannot be resolved through repression, but that demand novel forms of political participation. Inevitably, above all when this involves illegal drug trade routes it is not unusual to find that community-based movements are interwoven with organized crime, sowing the seeds of what eventually leads to the collapse of any vestige of order and functional government. Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán are paramount examples of some of these circumstances.

Finally, the third source of conflict is the result of disagreements that in turn are the product of an old political system that refuses to transform itself: a pre-modern political system, medieval judicial structures and non-democratic forms of political action. The legislators protest what they perceive in the Pact for Mexico as the usurpation of their functions and responsibilities. The governors exercise the budget with no accountability. The three branches of government have no well defined limits and there are no effective checks and balances. In a word, old institutions and forms that are incompatible with a transformed reality remain in place and, formally, in charge.

Mexico is living a time of paradoxes and effervescence. For nearly twenty years, the country was transformed little by little without a government that imposed a trajectory upon it and with no coherent strategy of institutional or economic reform. Although many things advanced, disorder grew all over. In the absence of political leadership, the country marched to its own drummer, but without the capacity to take advantage of opportunities and accelerate the pace of economic development. Now that there is effective leadership the big question is whether the government will be able to take advantage of the moment to construct modern institutions and forge a different future or whether it will limit itself in an attempt to recreate a world that is no longer possible.