The Myth of the Past

Luis Rubio

For President López Obrador the sixties were the climactic moment of the public life of the country. In that era Mexico grew at rates of nearly 7%, there was order and there was no social conflict. The time seemed idyllic; much more so, on being viewed in retrospect. However, a backward glance at the way that Mexican society functioned during those times reveals circumstances that were much less commendable and, in any case, unrepeatable.

The main characteristic of that time was the almighty presidency that set the course, fixed priorities, resolved disputes and kept the peace. At least so goes the myth, but the undeniable fact is that the post-revolutionary system had achieved an effective equilibrium between the diverse interests of the so-called “revolutionary family” and the requirements of a thriving economy. The governing coalition –and the party’s structure of control that allowed the president enormous latitude- sanctioned a huge capacity of decision and action that, in the specific context of the post-WWII era, created an exceptionally favorable environment for economic growth.

The powerful presidency was maintained thanks to the conjunction of remarkable circumstances that, years later, no longer existed. In the first place, the private sector was strongly controlled through requisite permits for investing, exporting and importing. The closed economy gave the government immense carte blanche in terms of decisions and control over this factor of production that, in addition, was complemented by severe limitations to foreign investment and a robust propensity toward endorsing the existence of monopolies. The government regulated competition and determined, indirectly, the profits of the enterprises. For businesses, what was important did not dwell in the quality or the price of their products, but in their close proximity to the bureaucracy.

In second place, the unions worked as a mechanism of control in which the union leaders became wealthy in exchange for upholding control of the bases. The Labor Congress made it appear that there was union democracy, but this was limited to the rhetoric and worked provided that the leaders operated within the clearly delineated rules of the game. The key was control without any dissidence.

In third place, the governors lived under the constraints of the central government, always aware that they could undergo what was known as a “disappearance of powers,” that is, their removal, at the least provocation. Governors who in the recent past have boasted about not having any reason to answer to the president, received instructions from third- and fourth-level civil servants without a flinch.

In a word, this pertained to an authoritarian system centered on the president who, through the party’s tentacles and the mechanisms of reward and punishment sustained an iron-fisted grip on the country. A European diplomat based in Mexico during that time cited a Soviet functionary in that nation’s embassy, affirming that, compared with Mexico, the Russians were mere amateurs because here the construction of an authoritarian system was achieved with complete control but absolute legitimacy,  while in his country control could only be preserved through acute repression.

The success of that era permitted dreaming of its re-creation. The notion that it is possible to subordinate the private sector and economic decision-making to political priorities would lead to an alignment of priorities and higher rates of growth. Workers’ freedom, as mandated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the new free trade agreement, the USMCA, would facilitate the elimination of corrupt leaderships and their replacement by leaders trained in Canada, upgrading anti-corruption criteria to levels never seen before. The budget endorsed the reconstruction of political controls over governors, subordinating them to the central power and obliging them to cede their ambitions to the designs of the great national leader. Finally, the army would become the touchstone that empowers the central control with absolute dominion over all local and sectorial actors, with no consequences or risk of corruption. In other words, Nirvana, the XXI century version but with a 1960 signature.

The world of the sixties ended badly, not because it was poorly conceived or structured, but because it, simply, ended. As the saying goes, everything used gets used up, and that is what happened to the epoch of stabilizing development. It came to an end because it became unsustainable: because the way of producing in the world changed, because there was a financial revolution and another technological and because, little by little, communications created the conditions for the radical democratization of information.

Instead of leveraging what had been accomplished in order to then transform the political and productive structure as so many other Asian, European and a couple of Latin American nations had done, Mexicans insisted on proceeding stubbornly from crisis to crisis. And there we continue to this day. Pretending to reconstruct that era will not end up distinct because it is not anchored in the reality, but in an unattainable nostalgia.