In memory of Héctor Fix-Fierro
Nothing like a crisis to learn who we really are. Crises bring out the best and worst in people, governments and countries. I remember the spirit of solidarity that took hold after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. It had colossal political repercussions, becoming a nodal moment in the democratization that Mexico that occurred in the following years. This happened in good measure due to the government’s incapacity demonstrated to respond in the face of the tragedy, but particularly due to the Mexican society’s ability to organize itself and to contribute decisively to the country’s stabilization. The late Adolfo Aguilar Zinser could not have described it better when, a year after the earthquake, he published a book under titled: Still It Trembles. If an earthquake could change so many things, I ask myself how much can change in the country after months of lockdown, a serious recession and given the absence of political leadership?
Throughout these weeks, the first thing that was noteworthy for me was the solidarity that the Mexican population showed, a solidarity split in two. In a faithful reflection of the polarization that has characterized Mexican society -fed and exacerbated by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)- the country has been torn into two halves. But each of these halves has drawn closer to itself with little empathy for those who summarily lost their income in addition to their jobs. Despite this, there were notable efforts among businessmen as well as employees to find ways to protect jobs, both parties yielding in order to prevent a social catastrophe. Unfortunately, given the nature of the Mexico’s labor market –the majority comprised of informal employment and only a part of jobs being formal- those efforts helped hundreds of families but not the millions of persons who were suddenly left, as the old saying goes, standing in the lurch. More importantly, full solidarity is difficult in the absence of a government bent on explaining and wishing to unite the country.
The moment called for great leadership. In fact, it constituted a great opportunity to forge a new country, founded on a great appeal for solidarity, even for advancing the President’s so-called “Fourth Transformation.” However, the material at hand was insufficient. The President understands solidarity as loyalty to the government, as illustrated by statements by the government’s chosen spokesman for (un)health, the Mexican Tax Service (SAT) and, the jewel of them all the President’s document “Lessons on the Pandemic,” in which he lashes against the United States, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and everybody in between. By the time coronavirus pandemic arrived, theMexican government had already dismantled the health sector by divesting it of medicines and critical goods, as revealed by the tragedy experienced by children with cancer.
After much wavering, the Mexican government finally adopted a strategy to deal with the health crisis. It was evident that the obstacle to facing the challenge was the Presidential unwillingness to run the risk of a recession, which led to a strategy based on contagion (so called herd immunity), with all of experts voicing disapproval and saying it was inadequate. Along the way, one was able to see a “Supreme Government” which it is not required to offer any explanation, nor information concerning the number of infected persons or deaths:. This gave room to enormous under-registration of both -cases and deaths-, all designed to save face. The government is not there to respect the citizenry or, even, to try to convince it.
In frank contrast with the government caste, Mexico’s medical and health personnel did not back down an instant in giving their best, incurring under immense personal risk due to the absence of equipment up to task. Nonetheless, they abided by their vocation and their duty beyond what might be expected. The contrast is flagrant between them and their political leaders, whose motivations are perennially those of the low passions.
On the side of the Mexican society there were all sorts of things: from toilet paper hoarders and cleaning products to persons, organizations and companies looking for solutions instead of excuses. As soon as it was known that MIT had designed an effective and inexpensive ventilator, production lines were assembled to manufacture it. Other businessmen lent their hotels for use by hospital patients in less need of complex treatments, or by the families of those suffering from the virus.
From the substantive to the trivial, many Mexicans’ demonstration of adroitness, willingness, and dedication exerted an impact. Working from their homes, many Mexican workers raised their productivity, while others opted rather to behave as if they were on vacation. Some displayed great capacity for adaptation and discipline.
The worst part of the response -as evidenced in a thousand ways- was the dismal quality of the country’s infrastructure, in the broadest sense of the term. The priorities of many previous Mexican governments of recent decades have not been on what’s important, as was revealed in the current state of education, the digital gap and, obviously, the health system. Crises bring out the best and worst. Here, the Mexican government failed the test.
With respect to what the current Mexican government is responsible for, its only priority has been a political and electoral. The Mexican families tragedies evidenced by the crisis are irrelevant to this government. It is not solely the government’s reluctance to incur into a fiscal deficit -which arises from a legitimate concern- but instead its disdain even for the majority of Mexicans who voted for AMLO. Crises reveal what societies are really made of but they lay bare what governments are. As in 1985, Mexico embarks upon a new phase.
* 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