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Geopolitics

Mexico Malaise: Democracy Lessons For Pena Nieto From Brazil And Chile

The government's failure to address crime, corruption and declining living standards risks true social upheaval. But Enrique Pena Nieto just sits on the ball.

Rally against Pena Nieto in Mexico City
Rally against Pena Nieto in Mexico City
Luis Rubio

-OpEd-

MEXICO CITY — In politics, as in life, timing is everything. As Saint Augustine reflected in the fifth century, time is present with us in three ways: It's the present that's being lived, the past now being remembered, and the future for which we currently have expectations. The problem these days is that present, past and future have become compressed into a much shorter time period, giving rise to that most modern concept — timing — which is now a critical factor in decision making and money management.

Time was previously an absent variable in economic decision-making. The International Monetary Fund and economists would advise governments to follow a particular recipe, and governments would then patiently wait for it to yield results. Time effectively seemed irrelevant.

Those days are over, though it seems that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's government hasn't gotten the memo.

Amid the globalized world's rising expectations, time is not just important; it's all that matters. Living standards are worsening while expectations are simultaneously rising. And all of this has considerable political implications. It is a dichotomy that may go a long way toward explaining the present state of Mexico's acute disenchantment.

This past weekend's election in Mexico does little to change the fact that Peña Nieto is disconnected from rising public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. Though Institutional Revolutionary Party barely retained control of Congress in national voting, outbreaks of violence at polling stations is a reminder that the political leaders are out of touch.

In terms of political reality, it's naive to think that people will continue to wait for results when there are no signs of progress. It's not just about the economy, but as Argentina's Juan Perón once said, it's about what is arguably our most sensitive area — our pocketbooks. In today's world, the only way to close the gap between rapidly rising expectations and daily reality is to exercise enough leadership to keep people's hopes alive.

Only at your peril could you believe that time is infinite. Time abandoned by one side gives rise to disruptive alternatives — call it populism — that promise miraculous solutions they can never provide. Another problem today is how quickly people inform themselves, often in real time. A combination of ubiquitous information, a plodding economy and high unemployment are making people angry, and exacerbating other problems.

Graft as protest

Corruption, for example, has almost become a means of revolt and may be dealing some lethal blows to Mexico's traditional political class. We only have to compare Mexico with Brazil and Chile. Regardless of whether they have acted correctly, their governments were at least forced to respond. Here the government believes it's off the hook as long as it obtains reasonably good results in parliamentary elections.

Pena Nieto (left) at the opening of a Honda plant in Celaya, Mexico

Paradoxically, while the political class could meet some of the people's demands on education, transport or health care, it would find it practically impossible to eliminate corruption, which is the oxygen of its activity. Meanwhile, the pressure that's being exerted, especially through social networking sites, is rising exponentially, as are pressures to resolve the majority's bread-and-butter issues. It would be delusional to expect these to subside by themselves, and the government's challenge is to respond to reality as it stands today.Â

On the other hand, the one great advantage — if that's the word — that Mexican politicians have over their Chilean and Brazilian peers is that Mexico is infinitely less democratic. And that could strangely give them more leeway to transform the country. Mexican institutions have yet to be pushed into a corner and forced to make decisions the way Chile and Brazil have. They therefore have the chance to anticipate and preclude such extreme pressure.Â

The government became paralyzed over the September 2014 massacre of students in Guerrero. Here, evidently, no amount of free elections and vote counting and recounting can bridge the enormous distance between society and government. Put another way, politicians are so distant from the public — and accountability — that it's practically impossible for them to lose their jobs for corruption.

Time will end this privileged situation, but before it does politicians have an enormous opportunity to anticipate the inevitable. Unless there is a sudden economic upswing, the government cannot imagine it will always be protected from social pressure. Leadership and hope have never been this important in Mexico.

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Child sitting on a bench

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-OpEd-

BOGOTA — Recently a sound recording from Bogotá of a 10-year-old girl crying and pleading not to be made to live with her father went viral online. The father had faced two sets of charges relating to domestic violence and sexual abuse of the girl, who had earlier described to court doctors his inappropriate physical contact.

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