Luis Rubio

If politicians say it, it must be true. That is the way Mexican politics has worked during the past years: pure verbosity. One needs no more than to listen to the endless ads by Mexican legislators claiming to have fixed one problem by passing a new law. Problems suddenly vanish. If it just were so easy. Of course, many issues that are key for Mexico’s development do require legal reforms. However, the mere fact of passing a law or voicing a pompous government statement does not solve the problem. It is pure sham for politicians’ speeches. 

It is said that we Mexicans live in a democracy. This is in part true given that today Mexicans elect their leaders and legislators in clean and free elections. This is not a small matter after decades of electoral frauds and decisions from the top down. Nevertheless, the  average Mexican citizen has not improved discernibly just because of that fact. There is one critical exception: Mexican leaders have today less capacity to commit abuses than in the past. But if by democracy we understand representation, participation and limits to the leaders’ ability to commit abuses, Mexicans are very far from having arrived there.

The easiness with which current administration has been able to erase any trace of checks and balances demonstrated the frailty of Mexican democracy. Despite this, democracy liberated Mexican citizens from authoritarianism. Above all, it also gave free rein to Mexican politicians -party leaders, lawmakers, state governors, Presidents- to build a rhetorical scaffolding that never comes to fruition. It is the pretense that Mexico moves forward when, in reality, specific problems are not even clearly defined nor are they diagnosed correctly to solve them.

In their book on how the former Soviet countries in Europe evolved after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes describe how the Russian élite employed language in order not to change the status quo, that is, they built a fake democracy that allowed them to keep their lives of privilege. However, Krastev and Holmes stress that the most important aspect was that pretending living in a new democracy was entirely natural given that they have pretended that communism was democratic and worked well for the two decades prior to the end of the Soviet Union. Any resemblance to the way Mexican democracy evolved is purely coincidental.

Perhaps the most transcendental question would be whether Mexican citizens believe politicians’ rhetoric and accept it is the supreme word. Undoubtedly, many politicians not only believe their own words (and their lies), but that they also assume they become real once they utter them in public. Yet, there is a crucial element that is part of citizenship: history suggests that people believe what politicians say, until they stop doing so. Rhetoric is an inherent part of politics. However when facts on the ground do not change or when day-to-day reality does not take a turn for the better, the relationship between politicians and citizens deteriorates inexorably. The experiences of former Mexican Presidents Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) ought to teach us a lesson about this.  The question still up for grabs is when the same thing will happen with the current López Obrador administration.

This behavior has brought Mexico to a standstill for several decades. Instead of debating the nature of problems and potential solutions, Mexican politics has cultivated verbosity and pretense. The mediocrity that these two rhetorical elements have encouraged is not only reflected in the country’s lack of economic growth but also in believing the idea that growth is even necessary. This mediocrity is also exemplified today in the daily Presidential press conferences whose main goal is to divert attention away from relevant matters.

At bottom, the key problem of Mexico’s political system is perhaps the dysfunction (if not the absence) of a government inclined to comply with its responsibilities from the most basic, such as providing security, to those that are essential including creating the conditions for progress in the broadest sense of the term.

The phenomenon is clearly explained by Francis Fukuyama: a country’s progress depends on the existence of a competent government, an efficient system of accountability, and a democratic electoral system. However, Fukuyama asserts that the order in which these factors arrive is crucial. If a country becomes democratic before building a strong and competent state, the result will be paralysis, dysfunction and, potentially, instability.

Mexico built a great scaffolding to guarantee clean elections. However, it did not transform its system of government into one capable of guaranteeing the country’s social and economic viability. The Mexican government ended up being frail, lacking in suitable tools for the challenge, with weak and mostly powerless institutions (from the Supreme Court to independent agencies) and overwhelmed with non-institutional disputes among political actors.

Political rhetoric has allowed to disguise the fragility of the Mexican government. However, it has also impeded it being addressed as the main national priority that it should be. Worse yet, it is being taken advantage of in trying to recast the omnipotent Presidency of yesteryear that in the end left Mexico where it is now.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.

Twitter: @lrubiof