In 2000, then-Mexican President Vicente Fox had the opportunity to modify the structure of power that has kept the country subjugated, but he did not have the vision or the guts to do so. Today, the electorate has given Andres Manuel López Obrador a new—and final?—opportunity to carry it out and prevent the country from drifting. The key lies not in changing per se, but in what to change and, above all, what for.
AMLO has postulated three central priorities throughout his campaigns: economic growth, poverty, and inequality. If one adds the security problem that afflicts more and more Mexicans, that is the agenda that has to be addressed. The question is how, because these phenomena are not causes but symptoms and consequences of the evils that the country faces.
Since the 1970s, all governments have tried to raise the growth rate. Some tried it with debt, others with public investment, and others seeking to attract investment from abroad. With successes and mistakes, contrasting results were achieved but the central issue was not resolved, behind which lie the other two priorities of AMLO: poverty and inequality. The most accomplished and longest-lived project of all those that have been tried is the one that personifies NAFTA because it has had an inordinate success in some parts of the country, although almost no impact in others.
The incoming administration can have a decisive impact by breaking the status quo and creating an environment of equal opportunity for all Mexicans to be successful.
The diagnosis that the government-elect makes, now beyond the dynamics of the electoral season, will be crucial in determining what needs to be done. The evolution of the coming administration, and its probability of success, will largely depend on that diagnosis. As the saying goes, being a drunk is not the same as being the bar owner, so now it is no longer a rhetorical question but one of responsibility and opportunity.
The governments of the 1970s tried to solve these problems with spending and ended up creating the financial crisis that brought the government to virtual bankruptcy in 1982, resulting in the widespread impoverishment that followed. The so-reviled reforms that followed had two characteristics: one, they made it possible to foster the economic activity in some industries and regions; two, they were not fully implemented because there was always some political, bureaucratic, business, or union interest that prevented it. The reforms were made to reactivate the economy so long as they did not affect the political status quo. This is where the incoming administration can have a decisive impact: break the status quo and create an environment of equal opportunity for all Mexicans to be successful.
The reason why NAFTA is so important and has been so successful for Mexico is precisely that it created a space of economic activity that was isolated from all those interests and political conundrums. Thus, NAFTA is not only the engine of the Mexican economy, but a showcase of what is wrong in the country which has caused the permanence of poverty and inequality: what is associated with the institutional framework that characterizes NAFTA works; the rest live under the cacique interests that kill every opportunity.
The first course of action should be building trust with the population. This trust will need to be institutionalized in a new system of government developed from the bottom up.
Just to illustrate, it is no coincidence that Mexico has many fewer kilometers of pipelines—key for industrial development—than other countries with a similar level of development: because there was a monopoly of tanker trucks in the hands of a politician who had the power to prevent pipelines from being built. That condemned the south and west of the country to fewer growth opportunities. Poverty is not the byproduct of the reforms of the past decades but of the absence of political reforms that create a new system of government from the bottom up.
The post-revolutionary political system was based on the allocation of privileges, which have been preserved in the most creative ways. It is not only the appointments that create opportunities for corruption with full impunity or the usual contracts and concessions, but also the mechanisms for assigning senators and members of congress. These mechanisms allow the same people to remain permanently in the game and to dedicate themselves to their personal and partisan interests rather than caring for those of the citizenship.
If AMLO wants to change the country, the dilemma is very clear: either open the political system to take it away from the politicians and their cronies and transfer it instead to the citizens, or try to recreate the old political system with its imperial presidency. He will find that the latter is impossible because of the diversity of Mexico’s population today and the complexity of its economy.
The question is whether AMLO will use his skills to do away with existing obstacles to development while respecting citizens’ rights, or to rebuild the authoritarian system of old. Only the former would really be a revolution worth having.
The first course of action should be building trust with the population. This trust will need to be institutionalized in a new system of government developed from the bottom up. The alternative would be to destroy what exists without the least chance of success.
The problem in the south of Mexico is not that the north is doing well, but that the south is dominated by bosses, caciques, and entrenched political and trade union groups, thus impeding economic development. Therefore, the solution lies in confronting those bosses and interests in order to build a new system of government, not in recreating something that has long since died.
In contrast to Fox, AMLO has the political skills to carry out profound structural changes. The question is whether he will use those skills to do away with existing obstacles to development while respecting citizens’ rights, or to rebuild the authoritarian system of old. Only the former would really be a revolution worth having.
Luis Rubio is a Pacific Council member and president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI).
This article was originally published by COMEXI.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.