Mexico: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Steve Fisher

Denise Dresser gives a talk at UC Berkeley.

Denise Dresser gives a talk at UC Berkeley.

At a time when Mexico is undergoing enormous changes, recently elected president Enrique Peña Nieto is pushing ahead some of the country’s most ambitious reforms in decades. Soon after taking office, Peña Nieto implemented a campaign to change the country’s image, and it seems to be working. His reforms have received glowing reviews from the New York Times and The Economist and, most recently, he was credited with “Saving Mexico” on the cover of Time Magazine.

But what has appeared in well-respected outlets may not reflect the true state of the country. Beneath the veneer of a burgeoning economy, glowing tourism ads and the recent passage of landmark reforms is a political system fraught with ever more entrenched corruption, according to Denise Dresser, a professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. Dresser spoke, recently, at an event for UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, in a talk titled “Mexico: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Members of the audience listen to Dresser speak.

Members of the audience listen to Dresser speak.

She said the recent fiscal, energy and telecoms reforms are, on their face, impressive. Indeed, the act of passing reforms in a divided congress is an extraordinary feat considering the deadlock that faced former president Felipe Calderón under the National Action Party (PAN.) But implementation is fraught with peril. The “good” consisted of only one page — the rest of the presentation would be on the bad and the ugly, Dresser noted wryly.

“It’s true, Mexico today does have a credible narrative for the future, but in order to actually write it the PRI would have to become what it has never been, a party capable of creating a new paradigm for economic growth and economic inclusiveness and political representation,” she said. “And at the helm of this, a president that sees the reforms beyond a mere celebration of their approval.”

According to Dresser, Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI,) is in a far more difficult position than the former National Action Party in part because elections hold more weight than in the past. Party members must, for example, now work with an ever more influential and independent supreme court. She said the PRI needs to take into account these unprecedented changes in governance. “It cannot simply assume that it will win the next presidential election,” she said. Yet, in order for any of the high profile reforms to be implemented, “the president and the PRI would have to unravel the interests that carried him into Los Pinos, the presidential residence,” she said. These include “the TV networks, the union gerontocracy, the business monopolies, the corporatist bases of the PRI — all of the accomplices of Mexico’s system of crony capitalism that the PRI engendered and is still benefiting from,” she said.

President Enrique Peña Nieto speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.)

President Enrique Peña Nieto speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.)

In her talk, Dresser focused primarily on the three major reforms that were recently passed in the fiscal, energy and telecoms departments. She called the fiscal reform a “band-aid” and said the president is only giving “CPR” to a corrupt system. “It constitutes just an effort to raise some taxes, not an effort to use them better,” Dresser said. Public spending will be unparalleled under Peña Nieto’s rule, but “we don´t know if the additional resources will line the pockets of the bureaucrats or go to the construction of highways and schools.”

With telecommunications reform, Dresser said the new regulatory body will be poised to impose hefty fines that could bring the major telecom giants under the rule of law, but, she added, “the television networks are poised to dilute, veto, block and use any weapon in their arsenal to make sure the reforms don’t touch them.” And they have already successfully averted changes.

Dresser had similar words for the energy reform bill. In a time when the “cost of falling behind” is so great, this reform is the one most sought after in the Mexican government. She said Mexico had the opportunity to learn form countries like Brazil, Norway, Cuba, and Canada, but instead it squandered the chance. She agrees it is important to privatize refinery operations and distribution of crude from Mexico’s nationalized oil company, Pemex. But the most important reform is to distribute the generated wealth to the Mexican people, rather than to a select few.  “What Mexico didn’t think through was how to modernize the energy sector without just passing on to private hands the wealth it produces,” Dresser said.

She acknowledged the importance of finding creative ways to promote the efficiency of Pemex and agrees that the reform has potential. But the danger lies in what was left out.

The government failed in its lack of “promotion of competition, the need for strong regulation, the protection for consumers, the imperative of the public interest regarding oil and its future,” Dresser said. “That’s why energy reform will not be a sign of progress until the regulatory conditions that accompany it improve.”

That was the bad, and now for the ugly, Dresser said. The violence in Mexico continues with little abatement, and while there is word of “The New Mexico,” this progress has not reached cities like Acapulco or states like Michoacán. “Violence and insecurity persist even though the conversation about them has changed,” Dresser said. The insecurity has become so entrenched that “instead of calling the police in search of protection, people prefer a cartel or a criminal group to do so.”

She said the government needs to change its focus from  arresting cartel leaders to confiscating their money, and reforming courts to deliver justice.

Dresser completed her presentation saying she has more courage than ever to fight for her country. She said the 2012 youth movement, known as “Yo Soy 132,” went to the source of the problem when they targeted the media giants, Televisa and TV Azteca. She also spoke of ever-growing political unrest among the Mexican people that she believes can help mobilize true reform. “Perhaps today I am being a bit of a romantic, but I think of Mexico, and I think of more than the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “I don’t believe we are unchangeable; I don’t believe we are unmovable; I don’t believe we are inferior to others or we deserve any less.”

Steve Fisher.

Steve Fisher.

Steve Fisher is the Univision News Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies and is currently studying at that university’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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