Mexico: Land of the Recurring Crises

Armando Palacios-Sommer

AyotiznapaSeptember 2014 changed Mexico. The consolidation of a stronger nation, where democracy, the rule of law and human rights are respected suddenly became a distant dream. Mexico today is racked by economic instability, unemployment, states effectively at war (Guerrero, Michoacán and Tamaulipas), others where rights and freedoms are suppressed (Mexico State and Veracruz), and a general contempt for the rule of law and respect for human rights (Iguala and Tlatlaya). What can explain the current situation? The general assumption is that the source of Mexico’s current problems is its government. Is this true, or is there a deeper problem?

The evidence suggests that the government certainly is part of the problem. In less than a year, we’ve seen the resurgence of a Mexico that was supposed to have disappeared in 2000, with the end of the single-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known for its initials in Spanish, PRI). The victory of the new PRI in the 2012 presidential elections brought the return of the old guard. The country has returned to the instability, abuse of power, political nepotism and contempt for the law that characterized the Mexico of the late 1960s, and this return coincided with the return of the PRI to power. It is also worth recalling that the PRI promised a better Mexico in 2012. Only a year ago, there was talk of a “Mexican moment”. President Enrique Peña Nieto was praised for his work in implementing the Pacto por México agreement to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions, and his Treasury Secretary Luis Viedegaray was applauded for his stabilizing influence over the country’s economy. There was enthusiastic talk of the reforms being passed by the Congress, particularly the financial and energy sector reforms. The energy reform in particular became a powerful symbol of the winds of change, as it broke the long-lasting taboo against foreign investment in Mexico’s oil industry.

Casa Blanca

Peña Nieto’s mansion in Lomas de Chapultepec, source of the “Casa Blanca” scandal

It is all the more understandable, then, that there should be anger and disillusionment over the sudden evaporation of this promising future. Mexico’s political class is divorced from the reality of the majority and can control the “rule of law” to suit its whims. When you’ve got the right connections and enough money, the law is always on your side. Last year’s “Casa Blanca” scandal over the origin of the president’s family home is a good example of this. For Peña Nieto, there is no conflict of interest because it is perfectly legal that a construction company that has benefited from government contracts should donate property to the nation’s chief executive. To prove it, he commissioned an investigation to be conducted by one of his close friends at the Secretariat of the Civil Service, a government department with no legal capacity to investigate the scandal, and no authority to prosecute him. For the PRI, this is how “justice is done”.

But such behaviour is not exclusive to the ruling party. All three major political parties are guilty of it to varying degrees. The result is that the rule of law in Mexico is essentially illusory, as corruption and cynicism have reached unprecedented levels. It is all the more ironic that 2015 is another electoral year, with Congressional elections coming up in June. The fact that voters will have the chance to punish the governing party is meaningless, because all the parties suffer from the same malaise. While the PRI may be the epitome of corruption of ineptitude, neither its rivals to the left (the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD) or to the right (the National Action Party, or PAN) can defend themselves against the same accusations. The voting options are thus reduced to voting for three different versions of the PRI, or to try out the old wine in new wineskins represented by the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), an alternative party created by the former presidential candidate for the PRD, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Many Mexicans feel that the country is in a very bad way and that things are not going to get any better. Many have decided to vote with their feet, leaving the country for the United States, Canada or Europe. But many have remained, and are expressing increasing discontent with the situation. Nevertheless, the public debate is silent on two fundamental issues: the need to change the political system and the need to enforce the law, i.e., to go further than governments and political parties.

There is a whole industry of renowned analysts and critics calling for modifications to the existing political system to ensure respect for the law and the proper functioning of the weights and counterbalances. The reforms have done nothing change the abuses. Why? Because it is so easy to change Mexico’s Constitution, the document that defines the government and establishes the weights and counterbalances, and that also gives stability to the country’s laws. It is easy to adapt the nation’s foundational law to the needs of the ruling party. If the law gets in the way, it is changed or ignored. For example, Article 1 of the Constitution affirms the importance of human rights in government activity. Based on this affirmation, a complex framework of laws and regulations has been created to promote human rights. There is even a National Human Rights Program and a National Human Rights Commission. Every state has its own human rights commission, and some, like the Federal District of Mexico City, have human rights programs too. With all this infrastructure, why are human rights so constantly violated in Mexico?

The existing political system already reached its peak many years ago. It is no longer possible to reform the existing system. It needs to be changed, and that means changing the Constitution. Surprisingly, however, these issues are not discussed. They are quite simply not on the public agenda, and anyone who raises them is ignored. Deafness and blindness are the prevailing strategies in political debate and political action. And it is this fact that reveals that the problem goes further than the government.

One of the big problems in Mexico is the lack of respect for the law. There is a perverse similarity between the political class and the general public: both look for ways to get around the law. This doesn’t mean that life in Mexico is utterly lawless. Many societal conventions are respected, and there are even large numbers of people who abide by the law. But as soon as a law becomes an impediment to an individual’s activity – and Mexico is a nation of individualists, contrary to the popular perception – it is seen as better to ignore that law or find a loophole in it, at least one that could apply to the person affected. This attitude goes hand in hand with the view of the Constitution as a document that should be adjusted to the suit the purposes of the government in power.

It is hardly surprising that the anger and outrage that Mexicans have felt since last September has gone no further than marches and opinion columns. At the end of the day, however perverse the system may be, it offers certain benefits that undermine our will to change it. Many people who criticize the system are beneficiaries of that system, including academics, journalists and business leaders. These people are outraged by the current situation, but they are not prepared to change a fundamental element that underlies the recurring problems that afflict the country.

We are heirs to a revolution that gave rise to the country’s Magna Carta, the constitution that is given so little respect. It seems that much of what we are suffering at this time is the product of a flagrant violation of the Revolution’s ideals, which never really mattered anyway. This apparent paradox would perhaps not seem so contradictory if we look at it from a different perspective: there was no revolution, but merely an uprising of opportunists who adopted the most convenient rhetorical weapons, knowing that the promises they made would not be kept once they had seized power, and that the laws would be tinkered with to make it look like they weren’t being violated. From the beginning they knew that these ideals would not be fulfilled because merely affirming them was enough. Isn’t Mexico today identical to the country that was born in 1910, based on the prospect that, as Lampedusa put it, everything needed to change so that everything could stay the same?

Many people acknowledge that the government has gone wrong, and they sense that the problem goes beyond the government itself, because they cannot deny that much of their own behaviour is similar to that of the political class they criticize. Faced with the choice of seeking change or leaving things as they are they choose the second, even while knowing the situation is unsustainable.

Could it be that deep down we fear change? Perhaps. Or could it be because the corruption and moral decay benefits some of us here and now? It obviously does, and nobody wants to risk losing the benefits the existing system offers them, their family or their “clan”. Could it be, then, that the anger with the political class is really anger with ourselves for lacking the gall to be like them? Could it be that we simply cannot see further than the here and now, and that an even more shocking surprise is lurking just around the corner?

Translated by Martin Boyd

Originally from Mexico City, Armando Palacios-Sommer studied social sciences at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and a master’s and doctorate in political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the United States. He is a doctoral candidate specializing in politics in the Americas (presidency, bureaucracy and public policy) and in political theory and philosophy. He received a scholarship from the Brookings Institution (Center for Public Management). He lived in Madison for 13 years. He has taught classes at graduate, undergraduate and high school levels, and has worked for a research centre and for both the Mexican federal and Mexico City governments. To visit his political science blog (in Spanish), click here.

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