It was a big weekend in Mexican history, one that I spent in blissful, disconnected ignorance with some friends in the mountainous jungle that surrounds Xalapa. Meanwhile, back in Mexico City some self-proclaimed anarchists were partying like it was 1999 — at the WTO protests in Seattle, that is.
On the day that Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took power, they bashed in the windows of banks and multinationals and painted graffiti on public monuments. Predictably, the police responded with more force than necessary and the Internet was flooded with pictures of what appears to be police brutality.
Why all the fuss? No one really seems to know. Originally there were rumors that peaceful protests were infiltrated by paid agents, though no one knows who would pay them and how they would benefit. There were also rumors that one of the protesters was killed by police; that too was later proven wrong. The economists and private sector insist that youth unemployment is high and, hence, the kids have nothing more to do than cause trouble.
Context is important. The PRI ruled Mexico for 70 straight years of “perfect dictatorship” after the Mexican Revolution. True electoral democracy finally arrived to Mexico in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party. In the ensuing 12 years of PAN rule, the economy grew and inflation settled but outgoing president Felipe Calderón’s security strategy was a disaster and his administration couldn’t forge a consensus with other parties in order to pass the reforms that he promised during his campaign.
That widespread dissatisfaction combined with a poor casting of opposition candidates and Peña Nieto’s cozy relationship with the influential media monopolies was enough to guarantee his election. On the campaign trail, Peña Nieto was just about laughed out of the country when he was incapable of accurately naming the titles of three books that had an influence on his life. But even his greatest detractors have since had to recognize that he is much more savvy in the political arena than at a literature festival.
Having witnessed the political gridlock that kept Calderón from passing the reforms he sought, Peña Nieto decided to begin his administration by signing a pact with leaders of the two principal opposition parties to formalize their willingness to work together to achieve 95 fairly specific, laudable commitments that are divided into five categories: rights, economy, security, accountability, and democratic governance. Spanish speakers can review the specific commitments at the Pacto por Mexico website, or review the full 19-page document. English speakers can get an overview from the Financial Times. I have yet to dig into the details and historical context of each commitment, but at first glance, this seems like an excellent to-do list for any new government to begin its administration. Indeed, President Obama could take a note from Peña Nieto’s playbook and forge a similar pact with the Republican Party before next month’s inauguration in DC.
While I’m optimistic that the new government will be able to achieve their commitments — including the important possibility of implementing re-election in the congress — there are some serious challenges to underline. First, the leftist PRD party is far from unanimous in its support of the pact. Party members say that their leader, Jesus Zembrano, acted as an individual, not a representative of the party. Second, no one knows how the PRI plans to pay for all the commitments they say they will pass. A study by the Center for Economic Studies of the Private Sector (CEESP) says that the government will have to increase its GDP by six points to cover all the costs of Peña Nieto’s campaign promises. The new administration has until December 15th to explain how it will manage to cover the costs — apparently without raising taxes.
To appreciate Peña Nieto’s first actions as president, we should compare them to Calderón’s first moves after his inauguration six years ago. Having just narrowly won a bitterly contested election, Calderón sought legitimacy by donning a military uniform, declaring a war on drug cartels and sending in the military to his home state of Michoacán. In his six years as president, his “war on drug cartels” caused more than 60,000 homicides, the vast majority of them unsolved and not even investigated.
Peña Nieto, on the other hand, is starting with sensible commitments and reaching out to the opposition parties. I admit that I am increasingly impressed and intrigued by his efficiency (especially in a country where so much is defined by inefficiency). But I continue to be
skeptical distrustful of the PRI, as they are still a party without an ideology that goes beyond winning the next election. So far it seems that Mexico has elected a man that can get things done, but we have yet to see a vision of what the country should become.