According to a long-standing joke in Mexican politics, the outgoing president leaves three envelopes for his successor to open when things go bad.
Once things get stuck and he is in need of some help, the new president remembers the envelopes and opens the first one. The note inside reads, “Blame me!”. Current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador opened the first envelope prior to his inauguration in December 2018 and has been trying to extract the most from it. López Obrador gained some momentum after the former head of Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Emilio Lozoya, raised some allegations of corruption against his boss, former president Enrique Peña Nieto. However, president López Obrador’s momentum was slowed down after the surfacing of his own brother’s corruption. There is no doubt that López Obrador will continue exploiting the issue as much as possible without regrettably addressing the root of the problem: impunity, an issue that lies at the heart of the Mexican political system. Sooner or later this distraction will cease to be effective.
Following the “Mexican envelope theory”, the second envelope has a note inside that says: “Reorganize your Cabinet!”. This second advice will have a lesser impact today. The problem for a president wearing so many hats like López Obrador is that no one has even noticed that he has already made changes to his team. López Obrador decides things without the help of his aides and confers zero space and responsibilities to members of his Cabinet other than the occasional exception. In the case of López Obrador, the second envelope has ended up null and void of value. Soon he will have to open the third envelope. Unfortunately for him, the third advice is: “Prepare three new envelopes (for your successor!)”.
Resorting to governing advice hidden inside envelopes is only relevant for governments that entertain no greater aspiration than keeping the ship afloat (something common to many governments throughout the world). These are the kind of governments that only aim to improve the functioning of a program here, correct errors of some policy there, and address the problems of certain communities and regions. These are without a doubt valid and very common goals in public life.
But once in a while a government comes on the scene with enormous aspirations to carry out a major transformation. Some of these governments arrive in power heralding grand ideas, initiatives and projects. Others have nothing more to show the strength of their will and the expectation that their mere force of wishing will lead to the coveted transformation. When reality exceeds expectations and the absence of a plan begins to be evident, resorting to governing advice hidden in paper envelopes becomes indispensable. What happens however when the president has no more envelopes to open? What if he has not even reached his first two years in office (of a total of six) and before reaching the midterm elections?
The political noise around past corruption cases in Mexico will no doubt turn deafening. The noise could become endless if president López Obrador moves ahead with the criminal persecution against one of his predecessors. In addition to the dubious legality of such an enterprise, one should ask oneself however whether it would be enough to hide the massive crater created by Mexico’s economic recession and unemployment. Both phenomena are already here but have not yet revealed in their entire depth and social consequences.
The problem of political noise as a strategy is that it is only lasting and truly transformative when serves more than an immediate political use. In politics, of course, thinking of the political utility of things is always pertinent and (as Mexico’s envelopes theory suggests) diverting attention is a natural and logical part of the art of governing. The question is: generating political noise for what purpose? If political noise serves to appease the public’s mood while other government programs are underway -even when they have not yet borne fruit- creating a political circus is not only logical, but also highly valuable. Nevertheless, if the aim of generating political noise just for the sake of buying time -trusting that the tides will return to their normal levels- the risk grows. It is unlikely that things will improve within a reasonable span of time, given the depth of the recession and the absence of ready private investment to curtail it. The issue becomes even more complicated if what is behind the idea of generating political noise has not even an immediate utilitarian motivation but rather a revengeful purpose, the result of personal hatred rather than state reasons.
The great advantage that president López Obrador has lies in the fact that an important part of the Mexican electorate continues to be angry with the status quo and is convinced that launching attacks against the past is necessary. In a country like Mexico where corruption has reigned supreme as part of the exercise of power -as exemplified in all its splendor by the previous administration- generating a media circus remains a hugely effective tool. It responds to the visceral resentment prevailing among the Mexican public and given the absence of a political alternative to López Obrador, something that does not exist to date. Although the López Obrador government’s performance is mediocre, in the best of cases, wide swaths of the Mexican electorate continue to be emboldened more by anger than by the hope or the expectation that something better will come. This is not a minor advantage for president López Obrador and is also a source of political fuel, of a more effective and powerful kind than it might appear.
However, anger does not fix the quintessential problems of many Mexicans beginning with putting food on the table and surviving. The president can score some “media victories” in the form of major judicial persecutions. But if these do not address the roots of Mexico’s corruption, citizens will end up realizing that everything is just a circus but without the bread. Decades of political spectacles (large or small) have cemented in Mexico a culture of cynicism that transcends any individual leader, however powerful.
In the absence of a fourth envelope where to look for advice, López Obrador will soon face the results of a national project that does not address the country’s needs and circumstance, and well ahead the formal end of his term. The opportunity for a transformation, a real transformation, is still there.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof