The future is built, whether consciously or unconsciously. The Mexican President, through his actions, decisions and rhetoric, shapes it, like it or not. Nearly a year and a half after the beginning of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration, there are two things that are very clear: first, his objective is to change the future that was under construction throughout the previous four or five prior decades. And, second, he holds a series of very fixed and clear-cut ideas with respect to the future that he intends to build on and that are incompatible with the 21st century. Therein lies the problem.
The President’s vision arises from an era very different from that of the present. Mexico began to change decades ago –a change President López Obrador demonizes as “neoliberalism”- because the development strategy based on the substitution of imports in a closed and protected economy had delivered all it could muster. During these decades the world changed due to the revolution in communications, the ubiquity of information, and, above all, the realities that those elements engendered at the global level: the internationalization of production; the threats from the environment and potential pandemics; the rules imposed by the importing nations; the exploitation of information -Big Data- by the technological behemoths; and the magnification of the expectations of an increasingly knowledgeable and in general a more worldly wise population. Rebuilding an idyllic past is simply not possible.
Despite the truism of our circumstance as a country embedded in the global context, the Mexican tradition of reinventing the government every six years continues to be as operative as ever. In terms of what distinguishes the current government is the enormity of its ambition: it wants to not only reinvent the government, but also to recreate the country. The steps it has been taking in that direction are revealing: it has been making mincemeat of all the structures and institutional organisms constructed to confer certainty on the population in its different aspects: the human rights commissions to protect the citizenry from the actions of the State; and the regulatory commissions in matters of energy, communications and competition to provide certainty for the actors in the economy.
The result of its performance is two-fold: on the one hand, it has increasingly concentrated power; on the other hand, it has generated an exceedingly elevated degree of uncertainty. The gap between the President’s popularity as a person vis-à-vis his government -of around 40%- illustrates the phenomenon: the citizenry trusts the President but does not see eye to eye with the actions of his government nor with its policies. We are at a let’s-see stage as to whether the National Electoral Institute (INE), an institution much more transcendent and well known to the ordinary citizen, is being similarly set upon. The evident question is: At what moment will the straw that breaks the camel’s back appears to topple the President’s popularity?
In fact, the easiness with which the institutional framework was dismantled reveals the lack of deep rootedness of those entities and the absence of credibility regarding their importance for Mexican daily life. At the same time, it exhibits the enormous weakness of the government itself because no country can bear up under the jolts between administrations that characterize the Mexican political system, and even less so in the period during which the well-being of almost all Mexicans depends on the mightily entrenched supply chains traversing the three nations of the subcontinent. The contradiction between the President’s objectives and the requirements for progress is more than evident.
The President undoubtedly wishes to attract private investment, but is unwilling to accept that, in the 21st century, his sole possibility of producing this rests in creating the proper conditions for it to flow on its own free volition. It has been decades since there has been the possibility of a government to force people modest or lofty- to save or invest without their permission. Investment will flow only to the extent that the uncertainty stemming from the very government itself and its troops.
The point of departure for the group in power resides in its belief that democracy was inaugurated in Mexico in 2018. Therefore, everything that existed prior to that should be eradicated and, simultaneously, the legitimacy that the government enjoys allows it to do whatever it pleases not only with the past, but even with the future. That type of arrogance has already sunk more than one government in our recent past and there is no reason to think that things would be distinct for the present one. The President’s alternative path lies in convening the construction of a common future, something that is plainly contrary to his nature and strategy but that, in the long term, will come to be recognized as its sole possibility of success.
Democracy, says David Runciman lives in the moment and displays its strengths over time (The Confidence Trap).This mismatch produces confusion and uncertainty. We can’t wait out the confusion and uncertainty because waiting them out gives them the room to grow, damaging both democracy and the economy. The question is whether the intention is to create or to destroy because the current milieu provides no alternatives. It is in this sense that it is worthwhile to think about the warning of the historian Mary Renault: “There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare”.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.