In memory of Luis Alberto Vargas
Governments come and governments go, but one thing always stays: corruption. The actors change, but the phenomenon is perennial. And Mexico is not the exception to this: in his 1976 book on Russia, Hedrick Smith* writes “I think”, Ivan says to Volodya, “that we have the richest country in the world.” “Why” asks Volodya. “Because for years everyone has been stealing from the State and there is still something left to steal.” In his work on the Soviet collapse, Stephen Kotkin** explains how corruption was consuming everything, but that it was impossible to live without it. The phenomenon is as Russian as it is Mexican and no government is safe from it, including that of the “other” data.
Corruption, first cousin of impunity, has formed part of Mexican national life for centuries, but not necessarily because of that must it persist. The great question here is what makes corruption part of the national being instead of its being a blight that should be wiped out. Part of the explanation derives from the nature of the political system that emerged at the end of the revolutionary era (1910-1917): the system rewarded loyalty with access to power and/or corruption; corruption was (and is) a central component, inherent in fact, to the exercise of power. The old system rewarded with access to corruption, the “new” system purifies it: same song, different tune.
What has changed is the context within which corruption is generated today. In these times of instant communication and social networks, corruption is not only obvious, but also visible, thus ubiquitous. While for the average Mexican corruption is an inevitable tool of daily life (individuals offering places to park in the street as if it were theirs, official procedures and red tape, inspectors, the police) that involves exchanges with public functionaries as well as with private actors, one the greatest achievements of recent decades being the consecration of a set of reliable rules for the functioning of large enterprises, especially for that related with foreign trade. But the most visible and relevant species of corruption in political terms and in the legitimacy of governments, is the highway robbery taking place in and around the government, much of which is linked with private actors, though not always.
There are two factors that make corruption possible in Mexico and that differentiates it from countries such as Denmark and the like: one is that the Mexican government was built to control the population and not for, well, to govern, and that difference entails fundamental consequences. When the objective function is to render development and well-being possible, the government becomes a problem-solving factor; when its objective is that of control, what is relevant is that no one flies the coop. The promoter government procures high growth rates and devotes itself to skirting obstacles to achieve its mission; the controller government submits the population and creates spaces of privilege, opening interminable opportunities for corruption. Concurrently, in a control-oriented government, impunity becomes a categorical imperative: if corruption were punished it would disappear, wiping out impunity.
The other factor that makes corruption possible derives from the latter: Mexican legislation is distinguished from that of countries dedicated to development in that they procure general rules, known by all and applied in systematic fashion. While governments always maintain discretionary margins, in Mexico the laws nearly always border on arbitrariness because they confer such broad-ranging faculties on the authorities -from the most modest inspector to the president- all of which end up making the rules irrelevant. The present government, that which was to put an end to corruption, has widened that margin in irrepressible fashion, to the degree that everything that before involved general rules is now negotiated directly with the president, morphing these into favors that are granted and that, therefore, can be taken away. Suffice to observe the way that cases such as those of the gas pipelines, the airport and the electricity generators were “resolved” to appreciate the dimensions of the change that has occurred, thus the potential for corruption that opened, in areas where the latter practically had been wiped out.
Could corruption be eliminated? The arbitrariness with which the current government has conducted itself implies the very grave possibility that the country could return to its most fateful moments. Suffice it is to see Russia to appreciate this: Misha Friedman, of the NYT, says that “Corruption is so pervasive that the whole society accepts the unacceptable as normal, as the only way of survival, as the way things ‘just areʻ.” Mexico is not very different.
Not the least doubt exists that corruption can be eliminated, but that would require going through the elimination of the discretionary faculties enjoyed by those in charge of “governing.” Without that, impunity will continue to reign…
There are no bargains in this world: progress requires a trustworthy footing of certainty in terms of security for families as well as for their patrimony and that, paradoxically, is much more transcendent for the least favored population. International treaties help, but the solutions must be internal. There are no bargains: a government is required that indeed does understand what its nodal function is.
*The Russians **Armageddon Averted