In late January, when Mexican cabinet ministers were about to depart for Washington, D.C. to meet with a group from the Trump administration, a curious thing happened.
Politicians from the two main opposition parties — ordinarily the government’s bitterest critics — met with the officials to publicly offer their support. A day later, Trump tweeted that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto shouldn’t attend the meeting if he wasn’t willing to pay for a border wall. Peña Nieto countered that he would therefore not be attending. The Mexican political class rushed to support him — the same president many had been attacking since he took office more than four years ago.
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A later humiliating phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto hardened the support of Mexico’s politicians behind their embattled president, as Trump’s wall-and-deportation rhetoric grew more strident.
On Twitter, Javier Lozano, a senator from the opposition center-right National Action Party (PAN), wrote “without ambiguity nor pettiness we close ranks behind [President Peña Nieto]. Let @realdonaldtrump know that our country is called the United Mexican States.” Alejandra Barrales, president of the opposition center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), tweeted “Mexico needs all sectors of the country, with a spirit of solidarity and cooperation.”
All this was a rare show of unity among Mexico’s political class.
In the almost 17 years since Mexico shrugged off its system of one-party rule, the country’s political class has shown itself only haltingly interested in addressing the knottiest problems stifling development.
In the almost 17 years since Mexico shrugged off its system of one-party rule, the country’s political class has shown itself only haltingly interested in addressing the knottiest problems stifling development. Apart from some exceptional moments, they have frittered away time on petty squabbles.
Meanwhile, corruption continues to plague Mexico. The economy has been run mostly to the benefit of the rich and well-connected, even as employment expands in certain sectors, notably the automotive industry. Above all, the rule of law has languished; only a few states, for example, have fully implemented national judicial reforms, approved in 2008, calling for open trials modeled after U.S. courts, with proceedings open to the public and witnesses subject to cross examination.
“Sooner or later, Mexico will confront the dilemma of whether to preserve its nature as an informal, un-institutionalized country or fully embrace the rule of law,” wrote political scientist Luis Rubio.
Doing that has been enormously difficult. Some have thought a push from outside the system is needed — which is why the inauguration of Donald Trump should be welcomed by those interested in Mexico’s equitable development.
The despised American president’s brash style conjures up all the worst Yankee stereotypes that have lived in the Mexican mind since the beginning of the country. Within Mexico, Trump’s acidic approach has burned away the gunk of domestic politics and formed alliances, at least for the moment, that seemed unthinkable a few weeks before. His threatening presidency thus offers a chance for Mexico to put behind it battles over minutiae, see beyond parochial interests, unify in the face of a common enemy, and, maybe, find the urgency to attack what has made it a country that people have risked death to leave.
Mexico’s experiment with democracy certainly could use a jolt.
For more than 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) monopolized the gears of Mexican government. A national Tammany Hall, it had no ideology beyond its own survival, and used corruption to buy member loyalty. In 2000, the PAN’s Vicente Fox won the presidency and ended the PRI monopoly, ebbing for more than a decade by then.
Yet instead of participating in change, the PRI, which still held a sizable bloc in the Mexican Congress, believed that any Fox success would make it harder for the party to return to power. It threw a six-year tantrum. The PRI stifled change. An energy reform that was most necessary, for example, was shelved without an airing as soon as Fox proposed it, largely because it was the president’s idea. Only when the PRI returned to power, with Peña Nieto’s presidency, was an energy reform enacted.
Peña Nieto accomplished several reforms early in his term. Among the most important was to allow reelection of congressmen, increasing their accountability to constituents while forcing them over time to become expert in the complicated issues on which they legislate. But that reform momentum was brief. Regions of the country are still run according to the whims of whoever is in power. Governors and other regional power bosses have emerged as political princes. (Several ex-governors are…