One feature that defines the current Mexican government is its emphasis on the past. In stark contrast with its predecessors, who always promised a better future, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) appears to fervently believe that one can find in the past the foundation for the future. In reality, the Mexican President battle is a battle to define the country’s future and above all public perception. English writer George Orwell said it best: “He who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Therefore, political power resides in the capacity to forge the way in which people perceive the world.
What George Orwell was referring to was “ideological hegemony”, an idea also posed by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Today, campaign and political strategists call it “the narrative.” Everybody tries to shape public discourse as a means to control public life. A political project can only prosper and move forward without limits to the extent that every citizen (or a great majority of them) accepts such public narrative as valid. This also applies on a lesser scale to particular private interests. President López Obrador’s early morning “press conferences” are exactly that: a means to manipulate and discredit his alleged opponents in order to wipe them out.
However, the mere control of the public narrative does not guarantee progress for the country. If such public narrative does not contribute to unite the population comprehensively it accomplishes nothing more than creating an illusion. This will only frustrate all those who share such narrative. A new public narrative can be extraordinarily powerful but pointless if its goals are impossible to reach. The unsolved investigation surrounding the disappearance of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Teachers College illustrates this well. When it arrived in power, the AMLO administration changed the public narrative. It vowed a new investigation and it nearly promised the students’ parents that they would see their children again. It is clear that many of the parents understood it this way. At present, many of those parents are coming back with the same demands as in years past. Independently of the soundness and honesty of the previous administration’s investigation, the current government knew well that the eventual return of the students was impossible. The López Obrador government was able to appease the victims’ parents temporarily, but their demands seeking to find their children are resuming with renewed fury. Nothing is free in politics, and the AMLO administration’s response to the Ayotzinapa case exemplifies its entire approach to governing.
A fallacious public narrative based on a biased and prejudiced reading of history magnifies a country’s problems and exacerbates polarization. The public narrative coming out of President López Obrador’s morning press conferences is not capable of moving his own governing agenda forward. It is not unifying the Mexican people around a common goal even if it implies the submission of specific groups or interests. Furthermore, the President’s public narrative also nurtures the rise of alternative narratives including some exceedingly reactionary. For example, the fight to discredit an education model based on merit also erases any incentive to create jobs and improve wages. If the idea of merit ceases to be relevant, violence ends up being a legitimate tool and crime ends up being a reasonable response in face of Mexico’s dominant inequality.
A public narrative designed to polarize is born from the idea that it is not necessary to accept reality as it is. While changing reality is a rightful objective, achieving such change is impossible if it is based on the denial of reality. Talking about Argentinean politics, film director Juan José Campanella wrote on Twitter some years ago: “Let’s not allow the immense (government) corruption to hide the management (of the country). The management was worse”.
Almost two years into López Obrador’s term, Mexico find themselves at what seems as a transition stage. Back in 2018, the current government arrived in power lambasting the corruption of others, only to find itself with that its own corruption is not a lesser one. This took the wind out of the AMLO administration’s sails. Soon, Mexicans will begin to realize the woebegone quality of the government’s management. It is true that the AMLO government is not guilty of emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic but it will inexorably be guilty of the way of it is managing it. The administration will be responsible for what it did, what it did not do and what it does in the coming months. No public narrative can hide a reality like the one that it is starting to take shape in Mexico.
The past is certainly the origin of what we have today but it cannot be the cornerstone of Mexico’s future. It is precisely such past which produced the outcomes and distortions that Mexicans now find unacceptable and that were at the heart of President López Obrador’s campaign promises. Like everything else in life, every age is full of strengths and shortcomings. However, time marches on and alters the conditions that gave birth to both.
Mexico’s so-called era of “stabilizing development” of 1950s and 1960s yielded some 20 years of high growth and stability. This economic model allowed the accelerated growth of an urban middle class but the circumstances rendering it possible disappeared. This outcome was the result of changes in the international arena and especially, of mistaken measures taken by Mexico in the early 1970s. Were it not for the sudden discovery of vast oil fields, Mexico’s drunken spree of the late 1970s and at the early 1980s would not have taken place. Mexico would have been in a better place. However, this runs against President AMLO’s early public narrative. With all their successes, failures and biases, the economic reforms that followed had no other purpose than to solve the same woes that President López Obrador claims to fight: the low pace of economic growth, the inequality among Mexico’s regions along with political instability. Knowing real history matters greatly.
All governments need to build their own public narrative to attest their own legitimacy and to be able to govern. Only those governments accepting reality as it is are successful.
* 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.