01/22/2015 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Democracy and the Mexican Disease

Image Source: Tomas Bravo/Reuters

2015 marks an important anniversary in the Western world: it has been 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta, one of the most important legal documents in history and which laid the foundations for the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberal democracy. In Latin America, however, democracy has been a relatively new feature of political life. To those Latin Americans who grew up under the shadow of authoritarian or one-party rule during the dying years of the Cold War, nothing symbolized democracy better than the ballot box. Bad governments would be kicked from power by dissatisfied voters. Good governance and the rule of law would naturally follow. Liberal democracy would be permanently established.

Unfortunately it did not take long to realize that elections alone would not suffice for true democracy to exist. Mexico enjoyed a jubilant transition in 2000 following the victory of Vicente Fox, a Coca-Cola salesman who rose through the ranks and then jumped into politics, campaigning on a platform of kicking out the "scorpions, vermin and snakes" of the PRI out of power. However, the mood quickly soured when it became apparent that the existence of a democratically elected government would not automatically destroy the pillars of political power that the PRI had created (the unions, big businesses, local governments); in fact, it ended up reinforcing them as a result of the vacuum of power left over from a weak presidency. The struggle to consolidate liberal democracy in Mexico has been an uphill one since then: whenever the institutions of good governance have faced up against the opposing force of corruption, the latter has almost always won.

A uniquely Mexican problem?

It is tempting to draw the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with Mexican culture that makes corruption so widespread. It is certainly impossible to deny that cultural factors play some role: Mexicans from a young age are brought up in an environment where family connections and special favors play a key role in guaranteeing success in life. For those born under more advantageous socio-economic conditions, these connections practically ensure that merit ceases to be a factor altogether in success. Unsurprisingly, Mexico has dismal outcomes when it comes to social mobility at the upper and lower ends, which is further hampered by a class system that is strongly reinforced across racial lines. Mexican slang is richly infused with countless phrases that suggest corruption is a cultural construct, such as el que no tranza no avanza ("those who doesn't cheat don't get far"), un politico pobre es un pobre politico ("a poor politician is a bad one"), and más vale tener dinero que tener la razón ("better to be rich than to be right").

But are these problems uniquely Mexican? I do not believe they are, since most Latin American countries suffer from severe levels of corruption too. However, Mexico does seem to be a special case with regards to the meagerness of the efforts taken to address them. For example, no Mexican president or minister of state has been convicted of corruption. No special prosecutions or tribunals have been established towards particularly grave cases of corruption either. In the face of the most severe political crisis and corruption scandal affecting a Mexican president in recent memory, Enrique Peña Nieto has not bothered to change so much as a single person in his cabinet which sends the unnerving signal that his government believes (or is trying to make Mexicans believe) that no wrongdoing took place at all. By and large, it is a safe bet that corrupt Mexican politicians will serve out their terms in office without any credible threat of removal or conviction. In the rare case where this does occur, it is almost always politically motivated as opposed to being driven by the actions of independent courts.

Ultimately, the lack of "political competition" may be an important reason why so little has been done about corruption. Mexico since 1989 has been dominated by a triumvirate of parties, the PRI, PAN and PRD which have been quite adept at competing at the margins but not at fundamentally altering the political culture of the country. This is not to say that there has been no will to do so: the coalition of leftist parties that later became the PRD probably would have attempted such if they had won the 1988 elections, and Vicente Fox may have succeeded if he had pinned more faith in the power of the presidency rather than Congress. Unfortunately, even in defeat the PRI's influence in keeping the political machine intact has been ever present as evidenced by its eagerness in shooting down many of the PAN's structural reforms when the latter was in power; many of which were not significantly dissimilar to the ones Peña Nieto proposed in 2013-14. Ironically, the PRI's ability to obstruct progress under opposition governments and then take credit promoting those very same things while in office is then taken as "proof" of being the only party that gets things done.

The final element in Mexico's special case is the drug cartels. The presence of powerful armed groups with almost unlimited financing puts them in a supreme position of influence, particularly with respect to local and state governments with severe resource and capability constraints. It is likely that many cases of government collusion with the drug cartels is born out of pressure from the latter rather than willingness, but the ease in which a symbiotic relationship between the politicos and the cartels can be established is frightening: the cartels can easily do the dirty work that would otherwise have to be undertaken by security agencies in a terror state (the Ayotzinapa incident being a case in point). Insofar as these governments appear committed to the drug war while secretly on the cartel's payroll, they can still present themselves as victims of powers beyond their control and all the while leeching federal money into the black holes of opacity known as state and municipal budgets.

The Mexican disease

Corruption is and will remain the Mexican disease until effective institutions can guarantee that rent-seeking activities are brought down to a level in which they are no longer detrimental towards establishing a true liberal democracy and achieving socio-economic prosperity. No effort and no expense should be spared in this task, which now that the structural reform agenda is done for should emerge as the national priority (one can even argue that it is more vital than the reforms, since ultimately these will be corroded by corruption too). One must, however, remain skeptical of the willingness of the Mexican political establishment to do so for the simple reason that expecting it to make the necessary institutional changes to eliminate corruption is a conflict of interest in itself. This all but guarantees that the new anti-corruption system proposed late last year and likely to be approved once Congress is back in session will be a far cry from what's needed to end these corrosive habits.

A solution would be for the political establishment to allow civil society to draft how this system would operate and approve it outright, without reservations. After all, a consensus on such a system already exists thanks to the work of numerous think tanks and NGOs. A more enlightened attitude by the opposition (which has been shamefully passive) would do wonders to prevent the PRI having the last word and watering it down into insignificance: at one point it must dawn on the leaders of the PAN and the PRD that their electoral outlook is grim insofar as they do not present credible alternatives to the "PRI style" of governing, even if this necessitates a major cleanup of their own houses. If more severe political turbulence is to be averted over the next few years, the Mexican disease needs to be eradicated without further delay.