What Happened?

Luis Rubio

What happened in the past weeks that changed the whole panorama?  From a government perceived as exceptionally skillful it now conducts itself as if under siege. Is it possible for a single incident, horrific as it was, to transform so many things in so little time? It seems clear that the occurrences in Iguala were not the source of the new reality, but rather its trigger. The question is, why?

In its first year, the government exhibited singular skills for advancing its legislative agenda. Today no one can harbor the least doubt of its capacity for interaction and negotiation within the partisan and legislative context. Where it has foundered is on the plane of the everyday functioning of governing. The paradox, and perhaps this explains a good part of what suddenly changed, is that the promise of the PRIist government was that it knew how to govern.

The first signs of problems manifested themselves in the economic weakness throughout 2013. The difficulties piled up as various bids for public works were declared forsaken, benefiting some groups more than others. Total disdain ensued concerning the consequences of arbitrary decisions such as the card change for payment of highway tolls. Then the annulment of reforms such as the educative presented: all education workers’ contingents that threatened to protest achieved a governmental commitment to suspend the application of the law in their state. The last straw was the matter that most lacerated the population and on which the government had made the most generous promise: that of security.

The government set out from the principle that time was on its side and that its sole presence would solve the country’s problems. Its vision of the economy is that spending is what marks the direction and compels the private sector to act; in the daily operation of the government what’s important are the results and not the ways or the means to reach them; in terms of security, a government with presence creates a balance between the authority and organized crime, thus reestablishing peace and putting an end to the violence. That is, the formulas of the fifties and sixties.

The problem is that the circumstances of those times have nothing to do with those of the present. In the sixties the economy was closed and protected; the government controlled the information and there was explicit collusion among the elite: entrepreneurs didn’t have to compete and nor did they have to satisfy the consumer, union leaders got rich, politicians stole and criminals were regulated. A happy little world. All was not perfection but impunity protected the system’s beneficiaries.

The change took place when the economy was liberalized in the 1980s without modernizing the system of government. In an open economy it is no longer possible to unload defective, high-priced goods on the consumer or to sign leonine labor contracts. With the technological change no one controls the information and each fraud or abuse, of every ilk, is susceptible to appearing in the today’s multiplicity of media and network outlets. Corruption shows.

Even more important, in this era the government is no longer in command. The governor of yore was in control of all of the processes; today’s governor is required to explain and convince. The population has access to the same information as the government and key actors possess infinite options and compare some with others. That world plays under global rules that do not admit the opacity, threats, corruption and complicities typical of Mexican politics at the local level. That violent and corrupt Mexico, inured to remote governors living in impunity, was laid bare in Iguala for the entire world to see: the XX versus the XXI Century. The government will only be successful inasmuch as it creates conditions that make it attractive to invest in Mexico, the same ones for the corner variety store as for the biggest oil company in the world.

The great problem is that the Mexican government has not modernized itself: it’s the same one as fifty years ago; it’s not effective, it’s not institutional and it doesn’t solve problems, starting with the most elementary one, security. This is not the current government’s fault, but it is an unavoidable fact. The government has to be effective: convincing and functioning. Ours neither convinces nor functions.

The government’s great initial success resides in that it changed the terms of the debate over Mexico outside of the country. Its reforms, above all of communications and of energy, galvanized worldwide attention because they opened a new chapter of potential opportunities. The tragedy of Iguala demonstrated that nothing had changed, that it was, in the last analysis, a Potemkin-style montage. Violence doesn’t frighten off investors accustomed to working in Siberia, Angola or Nigeria; what scares investment off is the absence of a government capable of making the contracts complied with. The energy reform is inadequate in this, but what Iguala illustrated, in living color, is that the government doesn’t even have the capacity to make its own rules complied with.

To suppose that the insecurity is going to disappear without police, prosecutors and a judiciary, all of these competent (that is, an effective government), is the equivalent of defying gravity. The result of the lack of congruence between the proposal and the facts was disastrous, above all because of the enormous expectations that had been generated. It’s not by chance that the worst criticism comes from the most panegyric of before, above all in the international media.

Mexico has huge potential, but it requires the government to create the conditions that make it possible.