The year 2017 appears to Mexicans as dark and unpredictable. Not only because of the anti-Mexican declarations and actions of Donald Trump, the new and unusual United States President, but also because of the economic and political debacle that, since 2014, has made life more and more difficult in Mexico.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has failed in his attempts to cope with or overcome these problems. His initial honeymoon, with Congress approving major reforms and the apparent success of those reforms, soon turned into a nightmare, owing mainly to the massive corruption of politicians of all parties, but especially of the governors of the ruling PRI and businessmen linked to them.
The reform calling for transparency and anti-corruption was practically dismantled when put on paper, and the attempts of civil groups to establish the so-called “three-by-three” law, which proposed that anyone aspiring to a political or administrative governmental position declare his or her assets, economic interests and tax returns, was never approved. Only a few candidates did so voluntarily, and those declarations were, in most cases, only partially truthful. The upshot was a virtual green light for governmental corruption, from the president down to the lowest policeman.
The major problem, however, is the economy. The fall of prices and the drop in production of oil, the principal source of government income from state-owned PEMEX, made a failure of the bonanza promised by proposed energy reform. To make matters worse, the government stopped subsidizing the price of gasoline in order to conform to the international price on Jan. 1 of this year, a year earlier than planned.
This surprising policy change triggered angry protests and criticism, which the government had not foreseen. The protests were followed by several days of looting in various cities—including Puebla, where I wrote this—although it soon became clear that much of this was carried out by goon squads affiliated with political parties and the government. The general reaction was panic.
Before the calamitous events of the last few years, the Mexican peso had been relatively stable since 1997, when the macro-economy strengthened and the peso was allowed to float against the dollar. By 2006 the exchange rate was 10.88 pesos per dollar; in 2012, it was 12.96 pesos per dollar. In June 2016, it was 15 pesos per dollar, but with Trump’s election and the uncertain economy, it has fallen to 22. Though almost everything is much cheaper for me, for Mexicans, prices are high. And with the rise of gas prices, upon which many other prices depend, the situation is becoming more difficult every day. Poverty, and therefore violent crime, are growing.
After the first protests, the government’s reactions were demagogic, with much discourse on television trying to explain the rising prices in a technical manner and blaming the world economy. But Peña’s lack of public credibility and political intelligence just made matters worse, resulting in more protests and outbreaks of violence and repression.
With the election of Trump and his promise to build a border wall, deport masses of Mexicans and to return Ford and other manufacturing factories and jobs to the United States, Peña brought back his former finance minister, Luis Videgaray, who was pushed out of the presidential cabinet after masterminding Trump’s disastrous visit during his campaign.
Now Videgaray returns as minister of foreign relations because it is thought that since he knows Trump’s team, he will be the one to best deal with the new and anti-Mexican U.S. president, though there is no indication that he will be able to save Mexico from the coming debacle.
It’s a little strange to be in Mexico now. On the one hand, I am satisfying 1,001 whims, from foods to picturesque places, family and friends. I talk at length with people about their daily lives and this new, uncertain existence. The truth is, the uncertainty is not new. Unfortunately for this beautiful country and its people, economic debacles are recurrent.
I remember various economic crises (under the quasi-dictatorial PRI) in 1972, 1976 and 1982, when I still lived here. There were others in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1994 and 1995, and some less severe crises in the 2000s, during the period of violence resulting from President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs in 2006.
So in spite of the billions spent on security groups, police, the military and the structural reforms once thought to be great, things are just as uncertain as ever. Mexico: a rich country where poverty, corruption and violence abound. What a pity!
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and native of Puebla, Mexico.