Whenever I see or find out about cases of corruption in Mexico, I keep thinking of whether the country has changed or whether everything remains the same. Some things continue being the same for decades if not centuries. Others, contrariwise, change swiftly. What is the real Mexico, the one from before or the one now? If one takes a backward glance, it is evident that we have experienced profound changes, some dramatic and many exceedingly positive. In the same fashion, some things appear to be permanent, immovable. What will remain permanent, that which doesn’t cede or that which has just been built?
Like so many other things in the country, the answers are essentially grey in tone rather than black or white. Before, corruption was a component inherent to the political system. Today we see corruption as an evil, as a distortion in an unfinished process of modernization. The old PRIist saying, “don’t give me anything, put me where there is”, is a faithful reflection of a political system built by the winners of the revolutionary exploit and dedicated to benefit their own. That system, still alive in more than one corner of the country, was constructed under the promise that to those who were loyal and who obeyed the chief du jour, the Revolution would “do justice by him”, that is, would give him or her access to power and/or wealth through corruption.
Perhaps the greatest merit of the PRIist regimen was the achievement of pacifying the country without being excessively harsh. The country proceeded from the extreme violence of the civil war years to a productive peace from the mid-thirties, all this without having constructed the Rule of Law, but rather, a political structure that, on privileging discipline, maintained peace and stability. This is the world that Graham Greene portrayed in his book The Lawless Roads on the Mexico of the thirties, in which the author describes a desolate place where corruption reigns and the most modest inhabitant has no alternative other than to accept life as it is, a lawless world and one without the possibility of achieving the most minimal respect for his rights.
Decades afterward, the incipient industrial companies that were the product of the imports substitution program, lived with another facet of the same reality: the Ministry charged with supervising and regulating industry was a breeding ground for interminable corruption where everything had a price: import permits; export permits, and authorizations for investment. Businessmen were required to ante up for everything: to obtain the permit or so that his competitor would not obtain it, to accelerate some paperwork, or to paralyze it permanently. Everything was up for sale. A world unto itself.
But a world that ended up changing. When opening to imports and economic liberalization came about they rendered these controls irrelevant, the bureaucracy lost its corruptive power and the Ministry was downsized from more than thirty thousand employees to fewer than three thousand. With the end of controls the possibility of extortion, the value of paper pushers passing documents from one desk to the other and of these procuring the signature of the responsible party disappeared. Although many indirect control mechanisms have returned and the logic of control persists, that bureaucratic corruption disappeared from the spectrum of the prototypical entrepreneur’s considerations. Now what counts are production, quality, and the market.
The example depicts how corruption does not have to be permanent. It also illustrates the nature of our bifurcated reality: although many things have changed, many remain. The old Mexico of corruption has stopped being valid in some ambits but persists in others (those that have not been liberalized and where the bureaucracy is in control). The true issue is this: we have not achieved completing the transition process to modernity, to a space where coexistence is governed by impersonal rules (the law) instead of by personal relationships (where corruption is never far removed).
The existence of the two contrasting yet simultaneous realities describe a country that has changed begrudgingly, without an integral project of modernization and without the capacity or disposition to articulate a consensus regarding an objective likely to enthuse the population. This duality was present when, at the beginning of the nineties, the government recognized that it could not pretend to be modern and, at the same time, maintain the hegemonic party through funds procured directly from the public purse.However, the solution that the government proposed was not at all modern, i.e., that the businessmen who were beneficiaries of the modernity would sustain the party.
The mixture of tradition and modernity, corruption and transparency, has prevailed in these years of change. At least hypothetically, one possible explanation for many of our day-to-day ravages are concerned with precisely that permanent contradiction: where opaque spaces are in the end not annihilated and many of those that should be transparent are far from being so; where competition continues to be an objective rather than a reality, but where advances are attempted with the methods of before; where the spaces of corruption are still too many and return much more quickly than others evaporate.
Many blame the politicians, the businessmen, the unions, and the governors for every type of evil because they can get away with it, that is, because the system lets them. The opposite is also true: until and unless the society desires to live in a regime of transparency and refuses to accept the rules of opacity and corruption, the latter will continue to survive. The reality is that it is convenient for everyone (or at least most perceive it is) to solve a problem with a bribe or to avoid a nuisance with an “outside” arrangement”. The problem is that convenience has its counterpart in corruption and the one cannot be cancelled out without finishing off the other.
The country that Greene described eighty years ago continues to possess underpinnings of reality and this is a tangible demonstration of how much we still have to go. But the example of SECOFI (ministry of trade and industry) in the eighties also illustrates the possibilities held out by a deep structural change. Perhaps the tragedy of the modern Mexico –and I say tragedy because it entails a context that made possible the growth and development of criminal organizations with the end of the old system and the absence of the type of controls that a modern country requires- is that the idea and instruments of modernity have not permeated into the majority of the members of the political class nor into society in general. In addition to being highly improbable, to await a great leader who will change everything and be our savior along the way constitutes an old way of attempting to construct modernity.
The country will continue being corrupt inasmuch as we all continue liking it like this.