Autocracy is a government where one person, without limitations or restraints, can enact or modify laws at will. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration increasingly deserves that term. The approval in Mexico’s Congress of a bill to reform the Electricity Industry Law to discriminate in favor of highly-polluting state-run utility CFE proves it. López Obrador ordered his legislative majority to pass the bill “without changing a single comma” and they complied. The debate in Congress -a process normally designed to improve a bill by listening to other voices- became an encumbrance, an irksome process that should be avoided with the unique goal to please the autocrat. Pushed through untouched, the electricity bill will have dire consequences on the environment and on Mexicans’ health, on business productivity and job creation, and on the well-being and living standards of families. But the autocrat knows best and does not accept a different point of view.
For Mexico’s autocrat, facts are irrelevant. State-owned CFE posted a loss for the equivalent of US $3.7 billion last year despite the fact that, according to the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), it saved the equivalent of US $9.8 billion by buying 56 percent of its power from private companies. Lacking these, the losses will multiply, as will the blackouts. The new law to favor the state-run utility will detonate lawsuits for breaching contracts with domestic and foreign private sector partners, that could cost Mexico the equivalent of US $18.7 billion. Let’s not forget that the new law is unconstitutional.
State-owned oil company PEMEX, the autocrat’s other whim, racked up a loss for the equivalent of US $22.6 billion last year. Those resources would be enough to vaccinate all Mexicans against Covid-19 ten times. Oil production has fallen to 1.67 million barrels per day. PEMEX is a tragedy that will prove costlier every year. But that is irrelevant. The autocrat’s priority is to consolidate his own power. Enough of the inconveniences caused by an untimely pandemic! It’s bad form to report the Covid-19 death toll! Enough of Mexican women who complain of being discriminated, abused and murdered. Mexico is in the process of trivializing evil, as posited by the brilliant political theorist Hannah Arendt, where those in power become indifferent to the suffering of those affected by their decisions.
In Surviving Autocracy, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen says that autocracy has three phases. During the first phase (the “autocratic attempt”), society can prevent autocracy by democratic means. In this phase, the budding autocrat seeks to generate favorable conditions for his project in the courts, the media, and the legislative branch. The autocrat proceeds to attack the credibility of the media and his critics, lies incessantly, and generates informational havoc. Then comes the second phase (the “autocratic breakthrough”) in which it is impossible to prevent it through the democratic path, as the electoral system is weakened, after the autocrat undermined its credibility in order to encourage citizens to abstain from voting, enabling electoral fraud. Finally, the “autocratic consolidation” phase arrives, in which the autocrat and his supporters accumulate power and wealth.
In the case of Mexico and López Obrador, the first phase of autocracy could end on June 6 when the country faces a crucial midterm election. If López Obrador’s coalition of parties takes hold and retains its majority in the Mexican Lower House, the transition to the “autocratic breakthrough” phase will be inevitable. We already see a ruthless attack by the government on Mexican independent media outlets through a glaring harassment against advertisers.
López Obrador’s self-proclaimed “Fourth Transformation” movement has been successful in polarizing and dividing Mexicans. While we are busy discussing the tomfoolery of the president’s daily press conferences, the institutional, financial, and reputational destruction of Mexico continues. As US historian Tim Snyder says, human society has gone from being one based on trust to one that is based on belief. We once were a society in which we trusted that others shared our same interests like patriotism, or the pursuit of the well-being of our families; where we trusted that every citizen had access to the same information, even though we sometimes held different points of view. Now, people only trust those who believe in what they do. With disturbing frequency you hear: “You’re either with me or against me.” People only believe in media that reflect reality as they see it, or in social media where their prejudices end up becoming certainties, making it easier for them to distrust those who question them.
If Mexicans don’t open our eyes soon, it will be too late and López Obrador’s autocracy will be irreversible.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv