No Way Back

Luis Rubio

An old aphorism holds that nostalgia is not what it used to be. However, it constitutes a heavy burden that never quite disappears. There are two sources of nostalgia that cloud Spartans and Trojans in current Mexican politics. The president leads with his nostalgia for the seventies, the idyllic moment in his memory when everything was marching wonderfully and when, in his words, the people “lived well.” Recreating that idyllic past became his mantra and the raison d’être of his government. But there are also other nostalgic people, those who want to return to 2018 when, in their own mythical image, everything was fine, everything worked immaculately until today’s President López Obrador arrived to spoil it. Like all myths and all nostalgia, both are false archetypes that will never produce a better future.

The presidential project is leading Mexico to a caricature of the PRI past, albeit a dangerous caricature. The presidency of yesteryear was most powerful, since it had instruments at its disposal, beginning with the PRI itself, which conferred upon it a structure of political control that facilitated the effective implementation of governmental decisions. But the PRI was not a mere malleable mechanism that simply responded to the president: it was a bargaining apparatus that, in some sense, could limit the worst excesses of the presidents. There is no such mechanism today and the president acts as if there is no limit to his power. Of course, reality is an inescapable counterweight, but its impact is often delayed. The question is how serious the damage inflicted by a hyperactive president will be, particularly as he believes that he can dismantle what has been built by an entire society over time without consequence.

The group of nostalgic people about the near past is scattered and shapeless. Although some of those who seek to organize the political parties and groups opposing the current government to form a common front raise the notion that all that has to happen is a return to 2018, there are many who long for that idea and harbor the hope that on June 6, election day, the return to the much-desired stadium will begin. Among these are activists from the various opposition parties, businessmen, and not a few opinion-makers. The problem is that there is nowhere to return to: first of all, that past was not as commendable as these advocates now want Mexicans to believe; and second, the mere pretense of returning entails contempt for the millions of voters who spoke out clearly against the status quo ante. For me there is not the slightest doubt that the vote that elevated López Obrador to the presidency was much more a rejection of what already existed than an endorsement of a person or a project that had no structure or plan beyond the nostalgia and its rhetoric.

The country was clearly not going well. The two moments of great expectations -first with Fox and then with Peña- ended in a huge disappointment and disenchantment that translated into frustration and discouragement. Precisely the values that López Obrador knew how to capitalize with enormous skill, partly because of his own biography, but much because he managed to convince an electorate fed up with promises without positive results that the problem was the person: he would be different because he was not corrupt, not because he had a better plan to move ahead.

There is nowhere to return to but, as of yet, there is no alternative project that is positive, hopeful and viable in the current Mexican scene for the electorate to envision a better future. The greatest cost of the failures of the reforms in recent decades and, especially, of the unfulfilled promises so far this century, is that the willingness to visualize opportunities, debate proposals and reach solutions without attacking and disqualifying other people or views has disappeared.

It remains to be seen how the current government will end. As in all administrations, the first couple of years fly without too many setbacks because the hope persists that their plans and decisions will translate into positive results. Soon, however, things change, as it is already beginning to happen to the current government. Hopefully, the damage that this government will cause will not be worse than what has already been, but there is no way of knowing, since the destructive capacity of the president and his activist groups is vast.

After the 1982 debacle, in which another failed president tried to repair (or hide) his mistakes by expropriating the banks, it took more than a decade for the country to return to the path of growth and trust. This was achieved thanks to some reforms, but above all to the willingness of the Americans to support the Mexican process of change through NAFTA. That option no longer exists today because it was exhausted due to the lack of deep reforms and results, the very same that discouraged the electorate and led to today’s government.

The future lies looking ahead, not in the past. The coming election of June 6 is key for there to be a future, because without counterweights Mexico will end up in the doldrums. But a promising future will only result from a hopeful and realistic new vision, the opposite of the nostalgia that today reigns in the government and the opposition. The “nostalgia trap,” García Márquez wrote, takes away the bitter moments and paints them in another color. But it is still a trap.