In the eyes of its governments, Mexican history has been one of progress and prosperity. However, ever since I can remember it has actually been in a sort of circular movement: appearing to move forward, but then regressing, in constant and puzzling swings. Unwanted realities, seemingly overcome by something new and better, reappear as ghosts who really never left.
Recent statistics say that half of the populace lives in poverty, with two million recently having joined their ranks, although extreme poverty has declined one tenth of one percent thanks to onerous programs to combat it that the government boasts about. Nothing has changed in 25 years, and the numerous agencies, programs and bureaucrats are of little use. Social inequality and marginalization have prevailed and even increased, with minimum social mobility.
The wealthiest one percent receives 21 percent of national income—more than any other country—while the richest 10 percent corral 64.4 percent of wealth. There are Mexican billionaires on Forbes list, with Carlos Slim the second-richest person in the world while almost 80 percent of the population is barely surviving. In the last 30 years, following the neoliberal economic policies promoted by Washington and the World Bank, the country’s assets have been privatized, concentrated in the hands of those now billionaires and other high-level businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats: the super rich.
In 2012, after a dubious campaign fraught with dirty tricks and excessive spending, Enrique Peña Nieto won the presidential election. Following 12 years of rule by the conservative National Action Party (PAN), the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had returned to power. Peña promised a new PRI, and successfully promoted an inter-party pact to get various constitutional reforms through Congress that would supposedly launch the country into the modern, developed world.
A dozen important structural reforms—such as a pledge to transparency as well as changes to electoral, communications and energy programs—were approved in less than a year, missing only the details to put them in place. There appeared to be a new Mexico in 2013. But soon, members of Congress allied with Peña enacted secondary laws—in other words, more specific laws—that diluted the key points of the reforms; they ignored the essence and voided the reforming substance of almost all of the legislation, using the tricks of the old PRI.
However, Peña and his ministers continued to promise a new Mexico with a growing economy, sustained without corruption nor concentrated wealth, with employment and opportunities for all without poverty. But these were empty promises. First, the price of petroleum came down, ruining Peña’s star energy reform, which now allows private exploration contracts with Pemex, the state oil company. Further, crude oil reserves diminished drastically. Then in September 2014, in Iguala, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers school disappeared. The police delivered them to a drug cartel for extermination. The deed shocked the world.
Then came the alleged corrupt acts of the president and his wife, when it was discovered that she had bought an $8 million house under suspiciously favorable conditions from her husband’s favorite contractor when Peña was governor of the state of Mexico. (The state of Mexico is one of the country’s 31 states.) After that scandal, a multimillion-dollar contract with China and a consortium involving that same contractor to build a high-speed train were suspended without explanation.
Earlier, news had come out about a confrontation with the army in Tlatlaya, in which soldiers executed 22 alleged criminals. At first, the government denied the whole thing, but then had to recognize the facts. The scandal, and the inability of the government to deal with it, began to dent Peña’s administration. The lack of recognition of these problems gave rise to the saying, “[Peña] doesn’t understand that he doesn’t understand.”
Finally, he named a prosecutor to investigate the matter of “la casa blanca,” the name for the property acquired by his wife in a suspicious manner. This prosecutor was obviously not going to investigate his own boss. Peña’s finance minister, Luis Videgaray, was also involved in an irregular purchase of a house from the same contractor. Other members of his government have been mentioned as being corrupt. The investigation outcome just came, indicating no conflict of interest nor anything illegal. Nobody believed it.
As if to further discredit the “World Statesman of 2014,” this past July the drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from the maximum-security prison, “El Altiplano,” through a mile-long tunnel dug from a house under construction. At the same time Peña Nieto was conducting a state visit to France with an entourage of 400 people. Guzman had been captured 14 months earlier in one of the major successes of Peña’s administration. The national shame could not have been worse, since the escape could not have happened without the complicity of prison officials and bureaucrats at all levels compromised by El Chapo.
The popularity of the President is much diminished after these events, and Mexico is going through a severe political, economic and social crisis, with criminality, violence, extra-judicial executions, insecurity, low economic growth, enormous international disrepute and a collective frustration that grows with each new crisis, as well as a disappointment and disbelief in politicians and officials, their irremediable lies, corruption and impunity.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico.