Reform and Reaction

                                                                                                             Luis Rubio

The notion of reforming acquired singular –in fact monumental- relevance in recent decades to a good degree because the first stage of structural modifications, at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, was cut short. Ever since then, the mantra was that a set of reforms was lacking and that as soon as these were consummated, the country would enter into, at that precise moment of course, Nirvana. Now that the reformist dynamic has picked up speed, it’s a good time to reflect upon what it means to reform and the risks and opportunities that the country is facing.

The country has been stagnating for nearly a half century and, save for small instants of light, and circumstances that led to these, it has not found its way to development. The policy of “Stabilizing Development” died in the sixties because it didn’t have the gas to keep it going: the schema worked while the country exported sufficient grains and minerals to finance the importing of machinery and inputs for a closed and protected industry; when grain exports declined (the consequence of a failed agrarian policy), the whole model collapsed. The governments of the so-called “Tragic Dozen” (1970 to 1982) tried everything available to sustain that model and their sole legacy was a country in crisis, an enormous foreign debt and a society at odds with itself and with its government. It is not obvious to me why anyone would wish to return to that paradisiacal moment.

By the eighties Mexico was one decade behind: in that lapse fundamental economic and political changes were undergone in the world (economic ones in Asia, political ones in the South of Europe) from which Mexicans were distant, as if nothing could affect them. At the mid-eighties, the country finally started to take the bull by the horns: the era of the reforms begins and some sectors experienced the urgency to transform themselves and to breathe the breath of fresh air that this inevitably produces. The great merit of Salinas was that he changed the reigning vision: instead of looking back, he forced Mexicans to look forward: instead of looking inward, he obliged the country to focus on looking outward. It may seem minor, but his great legacy was strategic vision. There was none of that in the years before his term and it’s still absent today.

“Experience teaches that the most hazardous moment for a bad government is when it is just beginning to reform. Only a great genius can save a ruler who is setting out to relieve his subjects’ suffering after a long period of oppression”. Although this refers to pre-revolutionary France, it would appear that de Tocqueville paid a recent visit to Mexico. His argument is very clear: “As the prosperity in France developed as I have just described, men’s minds appeared meanwhile more anxious and unsettled. Public disquiet sharpened; the loathing of all ancient institutions was on the increase. The nation was obviously marching towards a revolution”.

Reforming implies altering the established order because it entails the affectation of interests and exacts adaptation to new realities. In this sense, each and every reform represents a challenge for enterprises, institutions, and government. Those who lose revolt and attempt to hold onto the past or to deploy landmines along the road to change; pitchmen seek the opportunity to lay hold of clienteles and head up a march, to wherever, usually the past. Political administration becomes crucial but generally does not fathom that demand and it is within that context that crises arise.

The 1994–1995 crisis was due to a financial strategy of fiscal deficit and debt but also to the shock that the reforms produced, including the loss of the PRI’s most basic asset: authoritarian and centralized control. The chaos of 1994 –assassinations, rebellions, devaluation- heralded a restructuring of the society’s power relationships that, through and through, has not been solved to date. Perhaps this might not be the magnitude of the gale-force winds that led to the French Revolution, but the results in Mexico have been pathetic.

Twenty years later we still have not finished abandoning the past and there’s no vision of the future. Last year’s reforms are important but what happens is going to depend to a much greater extent on the quality of the leadership and the vision with which the population is convinced of its importance than on its immediate contents. In a country whose institutions possess neither prestige nor capacity, the letter of the law is always relative.

At the same time, it is not possible to minimize the risks that the process itself generates. The complexity of the interests and potentials affected that lurk behind the holdups in matters of secondary laws cannot be underestimated. In his comparative analysis of the diverse reform processes, Samuel Huntington concluded that there is a severe risk of causing the fusion of the opposition parties in diverse reforms. “Instead of attempting to solve all these problems simultaneously… (they need to be) separated one from the other, win acquiescence or even support for one reform from those who would have opposed… other reforms… Economic growth, in short, required cultural modernization; cultural modernization requited effective authority; effective authority had to be rooted…”.

The reforms of the past era made headway within an authoritarian context that no longer exists, no matter how great the concentration of power. The great challenge is to construct forward or run the risk of encountering an explosive backdraft against it. Or, worse, another lost opportunity.


a quick-translation of this article can be found at