A New Era for Mexico
Carlos Fuentes is Mexico’s foremost novelist and essayist. On December 1, Felipe Calderón was inaugurated as Mexico’s new president after the most contested election in Mexican history. This piece was translated from the Spanish by Margarita Nieto.
Mexico City — Felipe Calderón is Mexico’s new president. His candidacy resembled the title of the British film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. He was not well viewed by former President Vicente Fox. The Paleolithic right wing of his own party, the National Action Party (PAN), didn’t view him with much sympathy, either.
But now, of course, the Aznarist right (the ideological right named after Spain’s former conservative prime minister Jose Maria Aznar), the Businessmen’s Confederation and the church hierarchy all want to draw close to the new presidential sun so that their interests can thrive in his powerful light.
The next president knows very well, however, that he must be president of all the people who voted for him, not of this or that special interest within his own party—especially since the 0.5 percent margin of his victory, though legitimate, is very slim indeed. In this sense, he must be like Angela Merkel in Germany or Romano Prodi in Italy, who also won very close elections.
As the new president, Calderón will confront a mountain of problems. He will have to establish a new relationship with a pluralistic and difficult, though I hope not idiotic, Congress. With his small room for maneuver, Calderón cannot afford the luxury of failing with the Congress as Fox did. He needs to be a first-class negotiator dedicated to working with the two houses in order to pass urgent reforms on public safety, water resources and electricity. He also needs to restructure Pemex, the state oil company; pursue tax reform; and address the issues of the re-election of legislators and a second term for presidents.
He also has to confront the gigantic problems of poverty (which thanks to his opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who still insists he is Mexico’s legitimate president, will be kept at the forefront of the national agenda), narcotrafficking with its related violence and rural isolation.
Beyond all this, Calderón cannot escape dealing with the arrogant, blind and arbitrary United States decision to begin closing down the border with Mexico. This will be the first big headache for President Calderón. Within two years, there will be a change at the White House. At last, the ultra-rightist junta that has lost all prestige in the world will leave and a more clearheaded administration will probably come in—possibly led by John McCain, currently a Republican senator from Arizona, who knows the border.
In the coming two years, and even when a new US president is elected, Calderón will have to do battle with a two-bladed sword. Internationally, he will have to negotiate labor rights and decent treatment for Mexican immigrants in the US; domestically, if the closure of the border tightens and things get hot, he will have to deal with finding work for 500,000 laborers each year, imprisoned behind the cactus curtain in Mexico.
This relationship with the US promises to be one of the most difficult in our history because it now depends more on what we do in Mexico than what the gringos do in the US. In this, Calderón must heed a fundamental lesson of our history: only negotiate with Washington standing upright, looking at the US straight in the eye. Any genuflection only invites, and deserves, rejection and failure.
The Spectre of Poverty | Mexico’s part of the bargain with the US is finding a solution to its poverty. The country is indebted to López Obrador for having placed the issue at the top of the national agenda. Poverty is the phantom that runs throughout Mexico’s history, at least since the explorer Alexander von Humboldt described us at the beginning of the 19th century as the country of inequality.
The phantom of poverty frightens us at night, but we forget about it upon awakening. Yet, the clarions have sounded many times. During the Mexican Age of Reason (1858–1872), the liberal reformer Ignacio Ramírez asked, “What shall we do with the poor?” and Julieta Campos picked up the theme a century later in a book about the “invisible Mexico.”
For Campos, it was necessary to emphasize solutions from below: addressing the economic health of tenant farmers, collective farmers, peasants, small-business persons, mid-level executives, medium and small property owners, factory workers and residents of poor neighborhoods; the weakness of local credit systems; and basic investments in education, health and communication. Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, says no less in supporting a policy of economic growth and a healthy market economy: “Poverty doesn’t create markets.”
As Mexico seeks to cope with poverty under its new president, there are some examples elsewhere in Latin America, good and bad, worth looking at:
By putting good ideas into practice, Chile has succeeded in developing rapid economic growth with labor and distribution policies that have brought down its level of poverty in accord with one of the principles of its former socialist president Ricardo Lagos: Don’t impoverish the rich, enrich the poor. And Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has presided over a decline in the poverty level in Brazil from 28 percent in 2003 to 23 percent in 2005. The real income of the poorest Brazilian households rose nearly 30 percent between 2004 and 2005, the minimum wage was raised, and investment in education was increased—without a rise in inflation or in the deficit.
To be sure, Brazil has its share of problems under Lula, including crime and corruption. But overall, his policies have been correct, especially if we compare them to the spending excesses and demagoguery of his Venezuelan neighbor, the ineffable Clown of Caracas, Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan president spends fistfuls of oil income in doubtful gifts to other nations in order to buy himself a kind of laughable international prestige; at home, he bestows blessings among the military and his relatives, all the while permitting the crumbling of the infrastructure. In the manner of Juan and Eva Peron, he hands out token offerings: charity today, poverty tomorrow. And with aggravating hypocrisy, Chávez attacks the US but still depends on it to be Venezuela’s best oil client!
In light of these advances and setbacks elsewhere, it is time for López Obrador in Mexico to stop plucking out anti-poverty tunes on his rubber band and offer some practical policies about reducing poverty.
The Lopezobradorist radicals continue to cry fraud, a good part of the left speaks about social discontent, and the entire left confronts a decision: Should it continue to threaten Calderón in the streets with the slogan “Thou shall not pass” or organize a permanent, effective force of opposition on issues beyond the conduct of the election? Isn’t it time to convert what’s been won in the street to what can be won in the forum? Street protests, endless meetings and invoking “the people” are tactics that will finally wither away.
López Obrador is a respected leftist, but he does not represent the entire left. The Mexican left, condemned so many times to be political carnival confetti, has been able to fashion a responsible alternative politics since the 1980s under such leaders as Heberto Castillo, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo.The first part of being a responsible alternative today consists in adhering to the results of the election: Was there fraud on July 2? Did it only occur in the presidential election, not in the votes that elected senators and deputies, or in municipalities loyal to the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)? Is the Electoral Tribunal fraudulent, or has it demonstrated impartiality time after time in local and state elections? Would the Electoral Tribunal have been derided as corrupt if López Obrador had won another 0.5 percent of the vote?
These questions pale in front of the facts. The reality is that the Mexican left has today a political presence even greater than at the time of the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, who nationalized Mexico’s oil resources. Outside the presidential fight, the left has gained a great deal of power in the Congress, locally and regionally. I don’t see its senators, deputies and mayors resigning their posts to take on a permanent campaign to López Obrador’s cry of “to hell with all the institutions.”
Despite our imperfections, the inclusive and democratic Mexico we have today requires another language and another attitude. The left has to see itself and organize itself as a permanent political movement, not as a circumstantial outburst. The Mexican left has to fashion itself into an authentic alternative in the manner of Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, overcoming the political boss personality of the likes of López Obrador.
A long road lies ahead for Mexico’s left. It took time, patience and organization for Lula, Lagos and Bachelet as well as Bolivia’s Evo Morales to gain power. They represent a Latin American left that is very diverse, not at all monolithic. I hope Mexico one day joins their ranks.