John Lennon once said about the early years of rock and roll, “Before Elvis there was nothing”. The government of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador bodes the same. For a year and a half, it embraced an enormous latitude, unknown since the 1970’s, for developing its programs and advancing its priorities. But, as for all presidents worldwide, something unexpected called this to a halt, changing everything thenceforth. What was, was; now begins the reality.
Perhaps the greatest change that the coronavirus brought with it, of necessity, was the strengthening of society vis-à-vis the government, something unavoidably exacerbated due to the clumsy manner in which the government failed in its responsibility to protect the population. The consequences of this change will be discerned in the months and years to come, the greatest of these possibly being, in the last analysis, that Mexican society would free itself from an oppressive political system that has thwarted the rise of a true democracy. Time will tell.
The action of society was not concerted nor organized and, because the isolation (the nodal characteristic of the circumstances) each company, organization, union, family or person made their own decisions. A new era that will doubtlessly change the future came into being.
The preeminent immediate challenge continues to be how to deal with the sudden impoverishment of the majority of Mexicans, the product of the disappearance of jobs and income. This comprises the greatest intellectual and practical challenge for government and for society because whatever emerges from this will determine the nature of the recovery that takes place afterwards. That is why the various initiatives coming out of society are so relevant -those having to do with financing the stalled economy as well as those in the Mexican Congress that succeeded in stopping yet another attempt at authoritarian control-, though only time will tell whether they were sufficient. Many governments the world over anticipated these impacts, for which they developed assorted responses whose results will be seen by experience, but in this regard the contrast with Mexico’s government is plain: the government not only denied the existence of a crisis, but its actions intensified, deepened and prolonged it, without doing anything to mitigate those effects. Pathetic for a government which claims to be concerned for the poor.
The sum of a governmental strategy that was erroneous from the beginning of the administration –oriented toward imposing decisions on national and international economic actors- and the lack of foresight and capacity of response in the face of the crisis, will inexorably translate into an acute economic contraction and, much worse, an incapacity for achieving an accelerated recovery. To the errors in vision of the current administration, we must append the intrinsic weaknesses of the political system, whose historical feature is impunity. In a context such as this, a rapid recovery is inconceivable.
A scenario typified by severe recession, unemployment, political crisis and a total absence of credibility and trust in the government will result in political consequences that could feasibly be benign –the consolidation of a democratic system-, but that could also lead in the opposite direction: the fortifying of the most hard-core and radical elements of the Morena party; the dying out of any vestige of order; the growth of criminality, acting without distinction or consideration; the radicalization of the government in economic as well as in political and judicial matters; social and political decomposition that generates massive emigration. There is no limit to the possibilities of deterioration.
What can be done in this respect? The first question that all of us citizens should ask ourselves is whether the President is going to adapt to the new reality or whether he will continue attempting to adapt the reality to his preconceived blueprints. The cost of that way of conducting himself will be measured in the number of lives lost, jobs that vanished, and the speed of an eventual recovery. To this one must add the natural propensity of criminal, political, partisan, military or paramilitary forces to take over governmental functions, which should be a sufficiently strong prod for the President to reconsider his original vision, because the country requires a way out of the hole into which it has fallen. Every Mexican would benefit from a pathway out of this crisis by effective, institutional, leadership, one that is tuned to today’s circumstances.
Unfortunately, the signals emerging from the government have been contrariwise: instead of applauding the society’s activism, the President has criticized and gone against it. His hostility to the private sector is known and has historical roots, but it begs the question: how does he expect to improve the lives of the 70% of Mexicans he claims to care for in the era of globalization without private sector investment, whether domestic or foreign. His way of acting reveals a preference for inciting social conflict, ignoring the potential consequences in terms of recession of poverty. It is clearly not growth that is important, nor the poor, nor ending corruption or nor contributing to the development of the country. The question is what‘s next.
To date, the President and his government have basked in the support of a broad segment of the electorate, allowing them not to pay for the huge mistakes they have made. But the coronavirus changes those conditions: when these times of governmental absence are over, the time of reckoning and rendering of accounts will come to pass, the real one. This would be a great opportunity to set things straight before it is too late.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof