At first sight, everything appears to be normal: people coming and going on foot, in cars, buses, motorcycles or bicycles, a grand bustle in the stores, shopping centers, markets and restaurants, wanderers in the city center, parks, churches, museums and other places of interest. All packed into the great spiral of the December holidays, with native and foreign ornaments, lights, trees, piñatas, manger scenes, Santa Clauses, the Magi and Christmas and New Year’s dinners. And then in January, the toys for kids on the Day of Kings and the cutting of the special ring-shaped cake called Rosca de Reyes.
However, on closer observation, through talking to people and checking Mexican politics and the official annual reports on the economy, my conclusions are not so rosy. In the supermarket lines and the bags of buyers, the number of products is reduced. Salaries are also down: almost 80 percent of employees make just one to four times the minimum wage of $6 a day, and the economy only grew by 1 percent in 2013.
A good average salary among employees considered to be middle class is about 9,000 pesos a month, a bit more than $700. Of course, products and services are relatively cheaper than in this country. There are those who make much more, such as some professionals, heads and executives of businesses, top bureaucrats and those elected to legislate and rule, who pull down salaries equal to or higher than their colleagues in the United States. Given that goods and services generally cost less in Mexico, they actually make more proportionally.
There are many stories about unemployment and under-employment and of those who wait months for payment for services or work they have performed. Sixty percent of workers are involved in informal work—without registration, insurance or taxation. This includes the sale of Chinese products, stolen or pirated, at extremely low prices. This enables people who would ordinarily not be able to afford these products to buy them. Things promoted on television and other media are almost solely for the few who can afford to buy them, while the remaining majority can only acquire them at great sacrifice, if at all. They must rely on repaired, rebuilt or illegal copies thereof.
The political year was intense. On December 1, 2012, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (P.R.I.) reclaimed the presidency, after having lost power in 2000. That election brought to a close 71 years of false democracy, with dependent institutions and corporations that were created for the party’s support. Fox and Calderón, the presidents of the National Action Party (PAN) were elected in 2000 and 2006, respectively, a period Mexicans believed would bring the advent of true democracy. However, these men failed to dismantle the corporate and institutional structure supporting the P.R.I. and its web of corruption—indeed, they strengthened it, and at the same time failed to control it, as had the absolutist presidents of the P.R.I.
That party’s Enrique Peña Nieto governed in 2013, promising grand changes. His PAN predecessors had tried to pass the structural reforms that experts agreed were necessary for the country to advance, but without majority representation in Congress, and with the P.R.I. voting against them, their initiatives came to nothing. Now, ironically, Peña Nieto advanced these same reforms, taking advantage of the weakness of his principal opposition, the rightist PAN and the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (P.R.D.). With these he formed an alliance, preventing their congressmen from opposing the reforms as revenge for the previous policy of the P.R.I.
The result might appear significant, because they proposed and approved various high-level political, economic and social reforms, including seven major efforts—more than in the last 25 years!—that, in theory, could change the Mexican economic reality. The haste produced some poor legislation that requires the passage of secondary laws that could improve them but also render them useless. In the end Congress approved the most important reform, on energy, that included important constitutional changes. (It was totally opposed by the P.R.D., which disavowed the tripartisan alliance.)
Also passed were educational, labor, fiscal, tax policy, government transparency, communications and financial reforms. These developments promise a different and modern Mexico, albeit in the medium and long term. Critics believe that if corruption persists, and existing laws are not enforced, the beneficiaries will be, as always, the same powerful groups, and poverty and criminality will continue. But after a dramatic decline in the economy in 2013, this year is expected to be an improvement—both because of these reforms and increased public expenditure and foreign investment in state-owned petroleum giant, PEMEX, and electric and gas companies that are open for the first time to private groups.
Still, pessimism continues to grow, and Peña’s approval ratings are sinking. Violence continues, with drug cartels strengthening activities such as robbery, extortion, blackmail, kidnapping and human trafficking (including of migrants), along with growing corruption and control of important segments of the economy and the government, including the police and parts of the army and navy. Happy 2014!
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and writer. The Spanish version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.