First Year

Luis Rubio

Once when the Duke of Richelieu (1766‒1822), the French statesman, was planning a military campaign, an officer placed a finger on a map, saying: “We shall cross the river at this point.” Richelieu replied: “Excellent, sir, but your finger is not a bridge.” The difference between planning and achieving is enormous and is particularly notable when tensions are high, objectives are interlocked and the realities assert themselves.

The first year of the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto has been everything that his fellow party members and detractors expected. As the former foresaw, the government has been efficient, organized, ordered and disciplined. There is a clear objective, it has reconstructed and fortified the structures of control, the governors have drawn back, the opposition parties are playing ball with the government (which has generated charges of “collaborationism”, not necessarily mistaken), the legislative agenda advances and the cabinet carries on without questioning anything. As his detractors anticipated, order is not the equivalent of having a plan, inexperience has translated into a very poor economic performance, insecurity is on the rise, the government’s popularity is ebbing and promises to maintain financial stability and eliminate obstacles to the development of the country vanish into thin air.

Beyond the contrasting positions and opposite perspectives that denote these dissimilarities, two things are unquestionable. The first is that today there is a government with a sense of power and order, something that had disappeared from the map since the seventies. Many criticize the excessive formality of the group in power, but forms are also content: they are an expression of order and a call to respect the rules, although these are unwritten, those of the PRIist system of yesteryear. The other, also irrefutable, is the profound contradiction between the government plan presented in the campaign that vowed to stand guard over economic stability, eliminate the obstacles to economic growth and launch a “transformative” project, with a lack of coherence among the diverse reforms advanced, the spirit of not affecting the interests close to the heart of the governmental party and an economic agenda oriented more toward satisfying particular political and bureaucratic criteria than the pledged transformation.

After nearly two decades of paralysis in the matter of relevant reforms (there was much legislation, the majority more political and social in character than truly structural in nature), the first year of this government has been especially significant for its obsession with advancing an ambitious agenda of modifying substantive themes liable to affect interests and to create new realities above all economic. For many years, there was talk, but no movement, about key reforms associated with labor, education, telecommunications, energy and taxes. In all of these, the government has made a reform proposal, nearly all involving constitutional amendments, it has negotiated with the opposition parties and has achieved their approval. From a formal point of view, the result is impeccable: the entire agenda took the form of legislation. The only one missing, the implementing legislation in the matter of energy, is only a question of time because the governing coalition has sufficient votes for approving this itself.

The problem lies in the quality, in the content of the reforms. In addition to that, their implementation will deal with basic conflicts that, one expects, will be infinitely more complex than those that have plagued the streets of Mexico City and some others in months past. Concerning the content of the reforms, the government made its own the notion that the problem was the absence of reforms and not the content of these. What was important was to place a check mark on the list of required reforms and the reality, as if by magic, would be transformed. If one observes the content of several of the already approved reforms, not much can be expected from them, and this assuming that they’re implemented in an integral manner.

The labor reform does not entail radical change; instead of liberalizing the labor market it makes it more bureaucratic. The educational reform constitutes an advance, but not as deep as its supporters suggest and we have yet to see whether it can be implemented. The so-called tax reform ended up being a big fiscal miscellany without greater coherence than that of financing, with deficit and additional public debt, an exacerbated budget, nearly all oriented toward defraying more bureaucratic expenditure, contrary to what was promised and running the consequent risk of sparking a crisis. The telecoms reform appears to have ended with a new arrangement among de facto powers on the subject. The energy reform is inconclusive and, although it is by far the most promising, it is impossible to know at this time whether the content of the secondary laws will favor a real change. In any case, what’s evident is that there is no connection among the diverse reforms: what was important was not to remove obstacles to growth and increase productivity but rather to be able to check them off on the list.

After approval of the secondary laws in energy matters the implementation of that and of the rest of the reforms will come. That’s where the administration’s profound objectives as well as its capacity of political operation will be put to the test. Some matters are relatively simple to translate and shift from legal reform into concrete reality: the “real” labor market will continue to exist in a world of contrasts where, in the reality, the law is ignored; in telecommunications its own law is already the product of arrangements among the actors in the sector. The conflict will persist in educative matters, where the key lies in separating academic from the strictly labor issues. The great conflict edging nearer is that of the world of energy where the internal interests of bureaucratic monsters Pemex and CFE will lock horns –their bureaucracies, unions, contractors- who for decades have plundered and pillaged without bounds. The government has been concerned with the protests in the streets, but these will be nothing compared with what will materialize when attempts are made to modify the reality of the sector.

The year has been impressive in two senses: on the one hand, in the façade of achievements and advances. On the other, in the inexperience of the government and its devotion to trying to impose its view, turning a blind eye to the reality. I have no doubt in my mind that in the ensuing months we will witness a clash between these two vectors. All that is left is to trust that there will be the flexibility to adapt the objective to the reality and not the other way around.