One More Envelope

Luis Rubio

In the “envelope theory” –an old joke of Mexican politics- the outgoing president leaves three envelopes to his successor. When things get stuck, the president, pressed, remembers the envelopes and opens the first one. “Blame me” says the paper. President López Obrador opened the first envelope some time prior to his inauguration and has been squeezing out of it all the juice possible, now empowered by the revelations of the ex-head of Pemex, Lozoya, albeit now diminished by evidence of the president’s brother’s corruption. There is no doubt that he will continue pushing the issue to the hilt without, regrettably, attacking   the cause of the problem: the impunity that lies at the heart of the political system. Sooner or later this will cease to be effective.

The second envelope -“reorganize your Cabinet”- will have a lesser impact. The problem for a president who wears so many hats and for whom everything is decided without the help of his collaborators, in addition to which, with minimal exceptions, that he confers zero space and responsibility on the members of his Cabinet, is that no one would even notice that he has already made changes in the team. The second envelope ends up null and void due to its being inadmissible. Soon he will come upon the third envelope, the one recommending the preparation of three new envelopes.

The envelopes are relevant for a government that entertains no greater aspiration than that of keeping the ship afloat, a characteristic common to many governments throughout the world. Improve a program here, correct the errors of a policy there, and see to the problems of the community of such and such a region are all valid objectives and, doubtlessly, those most workaday in public life.

But once in a while a government with enormous ambitions comes on the scene that purports to carry out a transformation. Some of those governments come garbed in grand ideas, initiatives and projects; others are urged on by nothing more than the strength of their will power and the expectation that that the mere force of their desire will lead to the achievement of the coveted transformation. When reality exceeds expectations and the absence of a plan begins to be evident, the envelopes become indispensable. What happens, however, when there are no more envelopes to open and the government has not even concluded its first years in office, long before the midterm elections?

The mediatic din with regard to the past will no doubt be deafening and could be infinite if the president goes ahead with a criminal persecution of some former president. Nonetheless, in addition to the dubious legality of such an enterprise, one should ask oneself whether it would be sufficient to cover the massive hole created by the unemployment and the recession that are already there but that are not yet perceived in the entirety of their depth and social implications.

The noise problem is that it is only lasting and truly a transformer when it has something more than utilitarian objectives behind it. In politics, of course, being utilitarian is always pertinent and, as the matter of the envelopes suggests, diverting the attention is a natural and logical part of the art of governing. The question is, noise for what? If the noise serves to appease spirits while other programs now underway advance but have not yet borne fruit, the circus is not only logical, but also highly valuable. Nevertheless, if the aim is pure and simply to buy time, trusting that things will return, by themselves, to their level, the risk is exacerbated, in that it is improbable that things would improve within a reasonable span of time, given the profundity of the recession and the absence of private investment susceptible to curtailing it. The issue is further complicated if what is behind the noise is not even a utilitarian proposal, but rather an objective of revenge, the product more of personal hatreds than of affairs of State.

The great advantage that the President enjoys resides in that an important part of the electorate continues to be angry with the status quo and is convinced that besieging the past is necessary. In a country where corruption has reigned to such a great degree as part of the exercise of power, visible in all of its splendor in the previous government, the media circus entertains prodigious validity because it responds to the visceral resentment prevailing beyond any political alternative, the latter inexistent to date. Although the government’s performance is mediocre in the best of cases, a wide swath of the electorate continues to be emboldened more by anger than by the hope or expectancy of something better. This is not a lesser advantage and constitutes a source of fodder that can be much more candescent and effective than might appear.

But anger does not solve quintessential problems, starting with eating and surviving. Notwithstanding that there could be a media “coup” in the form of major judicial persecutions, if they do not address the mainsprings of corruption, the citizenry will in the last analysis see that everything is a circus, but without sustenance, on the horizon. Decades of mediatic spectacles (large or small, regardless) have decanted a culture of cynicism that transcends any individual leadership, however powerful.

In the absence of another envelope, the government will soon confront the products of a project that does not respond to the circumstances and needs of the nation, but too soon before finishing it. The opportunity to transform, a real transformation, is still there.