Back to the Past Anew

Luis Rubio

Just when it seemed that, with the AMLO government, many of the worst vices of the old Mexican political system would be eradicated by an administration that says it represents a new regime, the daily comings and goings reveal the contrary, recreating as they do the worst practices of old. This recognition came to me from my reading of a book that is extraordinary and terrifying at the same time: Midnight in Chernobyl,* the story of the explosion of the eponymous nuclear reactor that not only killed an infinity of people, but that also was determinant in the end of the Soviet system. Reading it reminded me of a Mexico that never left, but that has now returned with renewed vigor.

First noteworthy in the history of Chernobyl is the sensation of moral authority. The bureaucracy, from the Secretary General of the Communist Party to the most unpretentious inspector and, in this case, including the nuclear scientists, know everything there is to know, thus requiring no additional knowledge or information. Self-sufficiency,  and its twin, arrogance, dictates every decision, ignoring the reality, the measurements, the complaints of those involved or the most tangible evidence. This reminds me of the parents of the unfortunate children with cancer waiting for their medicine at the Federico Gómez Hospital.

A second element is the lack of innovation. Scientists design a type of reactor and reproduce it systematically for all regions of the country. Once a design is reached, this is the one that will be at the service of everyone, without mechanisms for improving it or, even, surpassing it. Instead of having diverse designs competing to raise efficiency, make headway in safety and reduce costs, the vision of officialdom, always tunnel, leads to its perpetuation. In this manner, not only is systemic improvement, inherent in open systems, Western style, rendered impossible, but also when, as in this case, the danger of the design is evidenced, all the rest become vulnerable. That was the way of the Mexican Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) with its thermoelectric plants: once a design acceptable to its bureaucracy came into being, the plants were all the same. Innovation arrived with the opening of the sector. If the Mexico of today were to work like the USSR of those times, the entire economy would be in tatters, or worse, as the president recently proposed:

The management of information is equally revealing. Gorbachov’s government, purportedly aiming to liberalize information (Glasnost), and desirous of ingratiating itself with the rest of the world, did not know how to respond. Its natural instinct was to close its eyes and to report nothing, in spite of the interminable appeals of those who did understand that the menace closing in on the population should command priority over anything else. Instead of being reported, the data were stored, the government responded with lies, half-truths and flagrantly fake news. It was not until the radiation began to extend to other latitudes, above all to Sweden and Germany, that it became inevitable to issue reports, though in dribs and drabs. Even so, extremely long days passed before the decision was made to evacuate the population, probably causing many more unnecessary deaths. Even today in Mexico the governmental instinct is not to report or to report badly, as illustrated by the mishandling of information on Culiacan or on economic growth, the rating agencies and the pretension that development is possible without growth. The duping of the population.

Maniqueism in the manner of resolving –or forcibly concluding- sensitive issues was noteworthy in the management that characterized the Soviet government. Rather than determining what had happened and what the response should be, who were the good ones and who the bad was decided beforehand, depending on their propinquity to the Nomenklatura, the Soviet elite, or to what was functional for covering over the situation. Those ending up as responsible for the catastrophe were not those who caused the carnage but instead those not among the darlings of the hierarchy. Some were fired, others rewarded, some jailed, but those decisions were made prior to any trial taking place. What defined the result was proximity to power. Today it is obvious how the president decides to save his friends and their businesses and attack or vilify his enemies, independently of considerations such as the much-discussed austerity or, especially, the truth.

The great absent component, in the once Soviet Union and in today’s Mexico, is the citizenry. Zero respect for its preferences, concerns or legitimate claims. Not only lack of respect, but categorical contempt, even when it involves situations in which there are affected individuals who fear neither God nor man, like the radiated people of Chernobyl or the burned people of Tlahuelilpan. The feminist demonstration a few months back is the best example of a society that clamors without discrediting but that instead of applause garners thoroughgoing disqualification. Like in the old times.

Fortunately, Mexico is not enduring the agony that put Chernobyl on the map, but the way of acting, reacting and seeing the world of the current administration and of the establishment in general is not very distinct from that of the Soviet government then. A change of regime should imply a real democracy, for all, not only for the cronies because, well, that would not be very different from business as usual.

*Adam Higginbotham, Simon & Schuster