“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world”, said Albert Camus during his 1957 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. That is the spirit that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) appears to have undertaken to conduct his government: change everything. There were good reasons to change what did not work, thus opening an opportunity towards the comprehensive development of Mexico. But instead of following that route, President AMLO has devoted to destroy what currently exists, something that entails profound and serious consequences for the future.
There is no doubt that the President inherited a myriad of problems and imbalances, but also some very successful and useful assets. However, his logic has been to deny any value whatsoever to what currently exists without even offering an alternative. It may be that political distraction can be a potentially effective tactic for President AMLO but only in the short run. With four long years still left in his six-year term, the country needs more than mere distracting.
First, let’s talk first about distraction. President AMLO, by his very nature, opts to confront and stigmatize. He does this when talking about the economy, former Mexican Presidents, the business community, and the entire range of people he labels as his “adversaries”, one of his favorite words. As a governing strategy, distraction is a useful tool as long as the core things in the country work, that is: that the economy runs in reasonable fashion, that the minimum jobs required are being created and that citizens have access to basic needs in their daily life.
The problem is that the core things are not going well in Mexico and, in fact, have begun to take water not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic but also due to the lack of investment. Given the way it is spending money by prioritizing clientelistic programs and projects with little or null multiplier effects, the AMLO government has not ability to invest. And given the way the government is creating fears among investors nor there is private investment. One must question oneself what is the benefit of such a confrontation with the private sector.
Second, let us say that the President’s rhetoric does indeed matter. The way leaders of countries communicate creates political facts especially in a country like Mexico where institutions are so weak that the President has summarily thrust them aside. The President’s language is alienating vast sectors of the population something that has turned into criticism of him and also a lack of opportunities to achieve economic projects. Expectations about Mexico are highly adverse and overcoming them will become increasingly difficult. In a country with the demographic profile of Mexico -with so many young people- a six-year presidential term without job creation represents an enormous socio-political risk. So big is this risk that one of the targets of the President’s clientelistic programs are unemployed young Mexicans. But if economic trends continue as they are, the Mexican government will soon have not enough resources for so many unemployed, young or old.
Third, the President’s popularity among Mexicans is not fake, but it is also not fixed. Everything shoes that his approval is anchored in two pillars. First of all, the President’s own credibility and his history in denouncing Mexico’s problems such as poverty and corruption. Many Mexicans not only believe him, but also abhor the traditional political alternatives in front of them. This is forcing Mexicans to stay where they are politically even while many have severe doubts about the viability of AMLO’s government project. On the other hand, the President’s strategy of cash transfers to specific groups -like the elderly and young people- is not innocent: it follows a strictly political and electoral rationale. It is very likely that these cash transfers will not reduce poverty nor will they avoid the recruitment of young people by drug trafficking organizations. But in terms of support at the voting booth, these cash transfer programs are potentially infallible.
Finally, an economic rebound should not be confused with a recovery of the Mexican economy. The size of the collapse is such that it is natural to expect just by simple logic an economic rebound during the present and the upcoming months. However, a rebound does not imply an economic recovery, which is always accompanied by investment, employment growth and a rise in consumption. None of this is possible to foresee at present and it is also the reason why even the most optimistic and kind forecasts are horrible. Without a change in political strategy, the Mexican economy will not be able to recover in the ensuing years.
I go back to where I started: no one can doubt that President AMLO inherited huge problems. He himself summed them up as poverty, inequality, corruption and low growth. All of these are real problems that merit a comprehensive strategy not only to overcome them but also to eradicate them. However instead of building such strategy, the President has devoted himself to destroying everything, much of which is not only functional but also highly positive. Step by step, the destruction has increased to the extent that at some point it will not be reversible. As the anecdote goes about the pilgrim who wanted to go to Rome: if President AMLO wants to build a country according to his vision, he cannot continue walking on the road he is on.
Albert Camus’ 1957 Nobel speech went on to say: “(My generation) knows that it will not reform (the world) but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself”. We have witnessed two years of systematic destruction in Mexico. Isn’t it time to start building?
* 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