Things in Mexico were certainly not perfect two years ago. It had been some time since the promise of being part of the First World had vanished. However, reality was not black and white: Mexico had taken great strides forward, as shown by the boom in the country’s aerospace, automotive, and agricultural exports. Some Mexican states like Querétaro and Aguascalientes have not only maintained internal peace, but had also been growing at Asian rates. Nonetheless, there are other Mexican states that have not only stagnated and lagged behind but that also became migrants’ sending states. Anyone with a minimum of common sense and who does not see things through an ideological or partisan lens knows well that Mexico had undergone great advances and that still had enormous deficiencies. One can see the broad range of grays everywhere you look in today’s Mexico. The question is whether for the country to make decisive and generalized progress is it required destroying everything or if on the contrary, the ideal recipe is rather to correct course by building on what’s right and correct mistakes.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office exactly two years ago convinced of the first approach: everything in Mexico is inadequate and must be destroyed to go back to an era when things once worked. Next thing you know, Mexico has undergone under AMLO a whirlwind of changes including eliminating government programs, cancelling projects, and all kind of other policy actions, some justified and most of them arbitrary. Some in Mexico share the president’s urge to overhaul everything. But what is certain, two years hence, is that the sole plan guiding AMLO is to roll back everything and, on many occasions, due to the most deep-seated motivations: hate, the spirit of revenge and the lust for power.
There are two key factors on which AMLO’s narrative is based on: first, that Mexico’s reform process starting in the 1980s followed an ideological rationale; and, second, that things in Mexico were better before the reform process started.
If one analyzes the way how Mexico’s reform process was built in the 1980s, the first thing that jumps out is that there was no plan. The administration of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) inherited a bankrupt government and an unhinged Mexican economy. All of president de la Madrid’s actions during his first two years in office were directed towards attempting to rebuild the country’s economic stability of the 1960s: controlling government spending, lowering external debt, and restoring financial equilibrium. The great shift the de la Madrid’s administration undertook was to begin the liberalization of imports with the goal of attracting foreign investment and increasing the Mexican economy’s productivity.
That big swerve during the 1980s -conceptually huge for Mexico but very modest in its first implementation phase- did not respond to any ideological consideration but instead to a crucial recognition: the world had changed. First of all, the high economic growth rates that Mexico experienced in the 1970s were based on an exceptional circumstance: the discovery of extensive oil fields in Mexico’s Gulf Coast and the expectation of huge government revenues stemming from it. When at the beginning of the 1980s these revenues did not materialize, the Mexican economy collapsed. The key point here is to remember that it is not true that the economy was in very good shape before the reform process started in the 1980s. Those who like to believe that the Mexican economy was doing well in the 1970s are looking at the effects of the “oil mirage” and not at its real structure.
The true problem of Mexico’s reform process, which got more structured in the 1990s and was consolidated with the enactment of the NAFTA trade deal, lies on the fact that it was conceived to avoid political change. In contrast with other countries that also underwent change -Spain, Chile and South Korea-, the reform process in Mexico was being carried out not by a new government -emanated from democratic elections after the fall of a dictatorship- but by the very same party that had been in power for decades. The Mexican reform process can only be compared to that of the USSR which did not survive it. In consequence, the Mexican reform process was born incomplete because it pursued two contradictory goals: on one hand, liberalizing the economy and rendering it more efficient; and on the other, protecting the interests of the political establishment in companies, sectors and tasks. The result can be seen in things such as Mexico’s current education system which currently blocks progress in vast regions of the country. The education system is also what makes it almost impossible for Mexico to replace China as the source of many of US imports. In Mexico’s education system one can also attest to vast monopolies that survive to this day and all sorts of interests that keep southern Mexico poor.
There are many reasons for change in Mexico. President AMLO was uniquely positioned to carry out the changes Mexico required. Only someone like him who is knowledgeable of history, adept at political mobilization, and who was not linked to the original sponsors of the reform process of the 1980s could have made the changes Mexico needed. Unfortunately, AMLO chose a different path. He refused to acknowledge the circumstances that led the country where it is today and he allowed himself to be dominated by primitive motivations that are not compatible with the office of the Mexican presidency. The result is a president embarking on the systematic destruction of things that work in Mexico -at any cost- without creating anything that is able to decisively transform the country, with better economy, less corruption and more rule of law. In short, we can say that it has been two years of destruction. And what’s still left to do.
* 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