Pettiness or Greatness

Luis Rubio

The dearth of statesmen in the world, argued Napoleon, is due to the complexity inherent in the function: “to get power you need to display absolute pettiness. To exercise power, you need to show true greatness.” Nearly three years after he assumed the presidency, it is evident that Andrés Manuel López Obrador does not understand (or does not accept) the difference: he stayed on the side of pettiness.

Rather than governing, which the President considers “very easy,” he has devoted himself to dividing the Mexican people, while simultaneously advancing an agenda whose essence is the elimination of everything that existed during the past four decades. His mode of acting is perfectly explainable, in that it includes two projects that are incompatible and at odds with each other. The presidential project point of departure is that the institutional development that took place in the past decades was a total failure.

The president is dedicated to the construction of his vision of how the country should work. In truth, it consists of the recreation of his historical memory: the presidency of the seventies, the Mexican nation’s golden era as conceived of by López Obrador. During that epoch, the presidency was, in that cartoonish view, almighty: the president could impose his will, which guaranteed the functioning of the country, the economy would grow and there would be order. Those of us who lived through the seventies know that the presidency of those times -Echeverría and López Portillo- was a source of infinite frivolity, the economy was running amok (actually, both presidents inaugurated the era of financial crises that later became an almost everyday occurrence) and it was precisely they who initiated the era of disorder that later turned uncontrollable.

A book on the Palace of Versailles affirms that “Louis XIV built Versailles, Louis XV enjoyed Versailles and Louis XVI paid for Versailles.” Something like that happened to Mexico in the mid-XX century: the era of “stabilizer development” allowed the economy to grow; the two previously mentioned presidents, known as those of the tragic dozen (two six-year terms of office), enjoyed what their predecessors had built; and the eighties was the decade during which Mexicans had to pay for the licentiousness and frivolousness (personal, political and economic) of those personages.

The eighties were a convulsive period: economic crisis, nearly hyperinflation, exacerbated debt, tremendous anger, mistrust, and repeated attempts to reestablish some semblance of order and stability in all spheres of national life. After several failed efforts to return to the era of stabilizer development, the government of the time ended with the understanding and recognition that such course of action was impossible and that the world -and Mexico- had changed in the interim. That which followed -the era of economic as well as political reforms- was unequal and partial, but without doubt reinstituted a veneer of economic and political order, although along the way control of territory and organized crime were lost.

Key in that process was the erection of institutions whose objective was to confer trust on the population (such as the Federal Electoral Institute [IFE], a new Supreme Court, the   National Institute for Transparency [INAI], the National Human Rights Commission [CNDH]); on the economy (such as the Federal Economic Competition Commission [COFECE]); and on specific sectors (such as the Energy Regulatory Commission [CRE], the National Hydrocarbons Commission [CNH], and the Federal Telecommunications Institute [IFT]). Some of these institutions achieved constitutional rank, others autonomy, some were more effective than others, but all pursued a common rationale: to confer trust and become checks to the power of the almighty Executive branch of yesteryear. It was about (or tried to be about) giving shape to a modern economy and a democratic society.

The project of López Obrador is exactly the opposite: his objective is to centralize and concentrate the power, impose the presidential vision, and eliminate every vestige of independence, democracy, and competition, as these are incompatible with his model for the country.  Consequently, it becomes clear why he would need to abolish, neutralize, or eliminate all these institutions, many of which, unfortunately, proved too flimsy to bear up under the presidential siege. In attack mode, López Obrador and Trump are remarkably similar, but the U.S. institutions, in contrast with Mexico’s, proved strong enough to withstand the onslaught.

The problem for López Obrador, but above all for Mexico, is that his model jars with today’s world and with the daily reality of a populace with aspirations and expectations proper to the XXI century. Many of those people voted for López Obrador due to their believing in him or being fed up with the past, but what he has attempted to advance is not only a reactionary adventure; rather, it is nothing more than a chimera and an unrealizable whim of fancy. This, more than anything else, better spells out the electoral hecatomb that the President underwent.

“The essence of democracy,” wrote Deng Yuwen, editor of a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, “is how to restrict government power: this is the most important reason why China so badly needs democracy. The overconcentration of government power without checks and balances is the root cause of so many social problems.” López Obrador is beginning to experience these same twinges.