People are increasingly disgusted with crime and shoddy government in Mexico. Whatever happened to President Pena Nieto's promises to take on the country's vested interests?
MEXICO CITY — Four years is not a lot of time, but it's enough to allow a country to lay down transformative foundations for its development, or to destroy the achievements of recent past.
The difference can often come down to the presence, or absence, of the right political and economic strategy — and that kind of singular leadership that can bring the right solutions to fruition. As Martin Luther King said, only light, not darkness, can banish darkness.
For Mexico, where is that light going to come from?
The six-year term of President Enrique Peña Nieto began in December 2012 with a rambunctious resolve to implement reforms and with the creation of a political mechanism to do so, the Pact for Mexico, together with the main opposition parties.
Yet the glitches were not long in coming. They began with proposed constitutional reforms that affected particular sectors and interests — reforms always do — combined with the government's reluctance to confront them. Some reforms were frozen, others diluted and others effectively renegotiated. The result was many small changes but little probability of winning tangible benefits, beside a new and dangerous tendency to destroy the (bit of) institutional life we already had.
It became evident within months that the criteria used to implement reforms had less to do with their success and more to do with avoiding ruffling specific interests. Take education reforms: Each and every one of the trade union sectors that rose up against them has extracted some concession or exception clause. It is to some extent natural and commendable for a government to give precedence to social peace and stability by making occasional concessions. But these are only useful if they buy time and allow the later, full implementation of reforms. Otherwise, they become political faits accomplis that curb the government's ability to attain objectives in the long run.
The 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville qualified reforms as the most dangerous phase for a government, and in this case the danger facing Peña is that he has shaken the bases of the old constitutional order but has nothing to show in their place. He has undermined interests and groups (like the massive teachers union) that used to back the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) without replacing them with a new coalition of supporters.
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Peña Nieto and Barack Obama — Photo: White House
A tragic milestone
Even before the massacre of 43 schoolchildren in Iguala, the government was in trouble. Iguala had the effect of uniting all those who felt threatened and aggrieved in the country, many of them otherwise having little in common and few mutual sympathies. The government's failure to respond to the violence amplified the event, which was obviously dramatic and tragic, though not exceptional in a country that has seen 100,000 violent deaths in just under a decade. It also altered the political equation. What didn't change was the government's vision, as it has doggedly followed a script and a conceptual framework that no longer work in Mexico.
What next? Those countries with solid structures, that don't depend on the dexterity or state of mind of individuals, can wade through difficult periods for a long time without falling apart, like our northern neighbor the United States. That can't happen in Mexico, where the absence of institutions gives so much power and responsibility to the person in charge.
Simply put, the country can't keep drifting as it has for another four years. The government must act, and act differently. The strategy of avoiding conflict at all costs leads to anarchy.
Paradoxically, this government does have the characteristics necessary to lead the process of political transformation, but it appears reluctant to touch interests close to the president himself, not to mention join with its natural allies and beneficiaries — the citizenry.
Successful reformers tend to give their political goals priority over friendships. In their book In Praise of Treason, Denis Jeambar and Yves Roucaute observe that honoring your word and being honest are praiseworthy in principle, but this was not a notion scrupulously embraced by great rulers of the past. President Peña should reflect on whether he wishes to take the ship of state to a new destination or let it sink under the weight of corruption, the resistance of incumbent interests and an economy that shows no sign of real growth.
Argentina's General Juan Perón used to say that the most sensitive part of the body was the wallet, and that applies to both workers and the rich. The current uncertainty must be tackled with credible and enduring rules, clear policies and a functioning economy.
A destructive wave could overwhelm us, and it is for the president to stop it by changing the rules of the game. A determination to impose the rule of law would be a great start.