A Nation of Individuals

When Plutarco Elías-Calles proposed the need to “cease being a country of political bosses or caudillos so as to become a country of institutions”, he proposed the rough draft of the central problematic of the country. Unfortunately, viewed in retrospect, the solution that he found on constructing what ended up becoming the “Mexican political system”, and the party as its central figure, did not constitute a lasting solution, and we are now paying the price.


Decades of political peace and economic growth cannot be denied with a pithy affirmation such as that of the previous paragraph, but if we analyze the coming-into-being of the country throughout the post-revolutionary period, the result is not as benign as it would appear at first glance. It is indubitable that between the end of the 1920s and the 1960s, the result is spectacular by any skimmer. However, the economic as well as the political performance of the country from the mid-60s onward has been pathetic. The economy has grown barely a little over 1% on average per capita in this period, and the crises to which we have been witness -electoral, currency exchange, legitimacy, guerrillas, political assassinations, kidnappings, narcosis- reveal a much less kindly and promissory reality.


The point is not to blame or to accuse, but rather, to analyze the ills that beset us. The system that was constructed from 1929 on (and that, for all practical purposes, continues to be the same one) emphasized loyalty and discipline, but not by way of the development of strong and transcendental institutions, but instead, by means of the development of a cultural hegemony based on the revolutionary myth, and, above all, on the exchange of loyalty and discipline for benefits in the form of appointments and access to corruption. The system achieved control of the country and of the population by means that were as benign (e.g., economic growth) as they were authoritarian. But it did not procure, nor even attempt, the assembly of an institutionalized system of government.


While the Callistic system was able to eradicate caudillismo, at least at the presidential level (and those who tried to restore it were crucified, in manner of speaking), it was unsuccessful in achieving that the country cease being one of people rather than institutions. The system was supremely successful in creating a class of competent political operators, responsible and capable, experts at problem-solving, at avoiding crises, and emerging, time and again, from the mire, but it did not generate a capacity for building a developed nation. The contrast between feeble institutionality and the fortitude of individuals with political skills is noteworthy: it is two sides of the same coin.


Of course, all countries generate competent public officials and politicians, but the exceptional feature in Mexico comprises the petty institutionality that characterizes them. The system generates absolute but impermanent allegiances, and all have their counterpart in the guise of personal perquisites; however, as soon as the six-year term dematerializes, loyalty recedes from view. The king is dead, and, as with the British Crown, long live the king. But the king in Mexico is the person: the individual politician who lives from post to post, surviving and attempting to become rich and powerful along the way. Here there are no institutions -no loyalties- that survive the presidential term. The problematic has persisted in the post-PRI era. Entities such as the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), Transparencia, and other like bodies were generally constructed with nary a care for protecting their institutionality and are vulnerable in the extreme to the pummeling of personal political interests.


The cost of this reality can be appreciated in all circuits, and more so when they are in contrast with other nations that, little by little, have come to break with being condemned to underdevelopment. We can see this in everything: in the nonsense to change all public policies -such as taxes- at every juncture; in a business community that, with few exceptions, has no long-term view; in an infrastructure fabricated to breach the gap (for example, Ciudad Juárez was the locus of the greatest economic growth and employment in the Mexican Republic between 1980 and 2008, but investment in infrastructure has been infinitesimal); in the paucity of attention to the obvious problem of oil production; in an education policy intent on satisfying the teachers union and not to preparing the country, beginning with the children, for the world of competition based on the creative capacity of people. Examples abound.


There are so-called “de facto powers” because there are no institutions with effective counterweights obliging them to contributing and adhering, instead of plundering. The networks of interests and privileges -economic and political- hold fast and multiply because there are no institutional mechanisms –checks and balances- that limit and obligate these to abide by the law. The “real” rules of the game are not the same as the written laws, and as long as there is a cleft between them, institutionality is impossible: everything depends on people, with their fallibilities, interests, and preferences. The Mexican political system continues to be hierarchical, virtually monarchal, and has never developed effective counterweights or institutional devices that confer upon it the necessary flexibility for adapting itself and responding to growing challenges. In a word, the incentives that engender our reality induce political operators into blackmail and wounding the institutions. The question is how can we break this vicious cycle and get ahead.


Today’s problem is not, in essence, distinct from that faced by Calles. The country depends on people whose interests and objectives are not (nor can they be) those of the country. What we require is an institutional framework that allows for the capacity and ability of all of these individuals in all spheres of life to flourish: businesses; the countryside; politics; professions, and all the others. That is, what we need is an arrangement among all the forces and political forces and groups so that the issues of power and monies are defined, thus permitting the remainder of society to develop. The theme is not one of the law or of public policies that no one respects, but is, rather, one of the essence of power: how it will legitimize and institutionalize the system of government so that it can be effective.


Agreements of this nature arise under three types of circumstances: a consensus that translates into a pact (as in Spain); a crisis that makes a response inevitable (as in Germany and Japan after WWII), or great leadership that forges a transformation (as in South Africa, Brazil, or Singapore). There are no perfect models, but what is for sure is that the train conveying the Spanish-style pact never arrived at the Mexican station. It will have to be one of the other two types.