Mexico’s economy has for at least a century functioned according to the mordida system, often described simply as “the way of getting things done.” The word “mordida” literally means “bite,” but as part of a functioning system, it simply means “bribe.” In some ways, it’s closer to the practice of tipping in restaurants in the US than to political corruption. Tourists driving in Mexico may discover its reality when a policeman stops them for a citation, sometimes without their having violated any law. Mordida will cost a few pesos but has the merit of cutting the conversation short and saving a lot of administrative hassle. It’s the way Mexico has of ensuring its underpaid policemen and other authorities a living income.
The same principle applies at many other levels of the economy, most spectacularly in the political realm. Because of the competitive nature of the global economy and the greater availability of information thanks to digital media, the Mexican public’s awareness of the damage caused by a culture of corruption has grown in recent decades. Mexico’s recently elected left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, like his predecessors, coasted to victory in 2018 on the promise of combating the evident corruption of the previous regime.
Though no one expects the mordida culture to disappear overnight, things have already begun to change. The former chief auditor of the Mexican government, Juan Manuel Portal, has provided testimony that sums up how the system has worked in the past, calling into question the action of the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto. “Asked whether Peña Nieto took any action, Portal responded: ‘No, there was the intention, but he didn’t do anything,’” Mexico News Daily reports.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The commitment politicians make to talking about something worthwhile that they know will never be done
Uncovered by a digital publication and an anti-corruption association, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, the operation they have dubbed “The Master Fraud,” involved more than 50 government officials. One of the originalities of the scheme that worked through invoicing by 128 designated companies — many of which didn’t even exist — was to initially divert the funds through universities, their academic status rendering them exempt from the requirement of competitive tendering. The role of the universities consisted of nothing more than channeling public money straight to the phantom companies. For their service, the universities ended up retaining more than a billion pesos (nearly $60 million) for themselves (or their directors).
Lest we assume that Mexico is alone in North America to practice corruption at this level, a glance at what is happening in that most upright of North American democracies, Canada, could be instructive. Will there be an AMLO to replace Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the SNC-Lavalin affair prevents his reelection, as one journalist predicts? And although no direct scandal has yet made the headlines in the US, does anyone believe that President Donald Trump’s sense of the “art of the deal” doesn’t include practices that many would call corruption? What may his tax returns reveal, if they are ever made public? And what will historians make of some of his erratic foreign policy decisions that could possibly be explained by his real estate investment strategies?
Rosario Robles, President Peña Nieto’s secretary of social development, is now in prison. AMLO has followed up on the testimony of Portal and has declared that Peña Nieto knew exactly what was going on, hinting that legal action may be taken against a Mexican president for the first time. Although eventually convicting a former president for corruption will not in itself eliminate future graft, the fact that an ex-president may be understood by the public to be even potentially accountable could send a much-needed shockwave into Mexico’s persistent culture of corruption.
Portal has his own prescription for reform: “[T]he law needs to be changed to ensure that the heads of government secretariats and other agencies such as Pemex are required to sign off on the expenditure of large amounts of funds. Without that change, officials will continue to say ‘I didn’t sign anything.’”
Mexicans are so used to the mordida system that they tend to see it as a feature of the natural world. For most of the 20th century, following the celebrated revolution led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata that overturned Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship, Mexico’s unique ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), put in place one of the most sophisticated systems and cultures of corruption in human history. The reign of the PRI finally ended in 2000 when an opposition candidate won the presidential election.
The United States greeted the victory of Vicente Fox as a historical breakthrough, which Americans assumed would consolidate the neoliberal ideology that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush adhered to. But the PRI had already been seduced by neoliberal policies and, once in office, Fox accomplished very little in the way of reform. In the meantime, and despite the campaign promises of subsequent presidents, corruption remained the norm for the political class.
AMLO is seen as the first true left-wing president of Mexico since Lázaro Cárdenas (from 1934 to 1940), a politician who distinguished himself during chaotic times by nationalizing the oil industry and forcing through numerous socialistic reforms. He was also the only president of the PRI who did not leave the presidency a wealthy man. Nevertheless, Cardenas didn’t manage to change the underlying system through which money and influence flowed. He failed to institute certain reforms that the US threateningly opposed, such as legalizing drugs and treating the consequences of drug use as a health problem. That reform would have undercut the logic of the drug trafficking that has grown into the plague we now know and permanently scarred the social landscape of both Mexico and the United States.
It’s too early to judge whether AMLO will be successful or fail in his combat against corruption or his even bigger struggle against the criminality associated with drugs. So long as demand in the US remains high, no amount of policing or border control will have a serious effect. And having to carry out his policies in the company of Donald Trump doesn’t make things easier. Nevertheless, the world may be witnessing an important moment of Mexico’s history. Mexicans have a reason to hope.
AMLO’s critics point out that “his plans are opaque and lack serious evaluation processes, and are aimed at creating a new clientele of voters for AMLO’s party,” a tactic that worked well for Mexico’s last dictator, Porfirio Diaz. But it is important to remember that history changes not because a single dramatic event upsets the existing order, but rather because a cultural paradigm shift begins taking place.
President López Obrador has radically innovated in a fairly inconspicuous way by instituting a daily press conference. His critics see it as a symptom of his authoritarian personality trait, providing him with a permanent bully pulpit. But as Genaro Lozano observes in Americas Quarterly, the daily press conferences have “quickly made Mexico a more political and civically engaged society.” The traditional image of the powerful leader making decisions in a state of aloof isolation from the public has long comforted the belief — common to Latin cultures with their respect for hierarchy — that only an elite group of people has the capacity to govern a complex society. A president who deigns to explain the logic behind his administration’s policies challenges the traditional political culture. “Mexicans can now see every day how their leaders make decisions.”
Lozano remarks that AMLO is helping to “build a conception of democracy that is more robust and offers more tools with which the public can get involved in decision-making … he has transformed people’s perception of what power is and how it should look.” But what power looks like may be simply an illusion. Is it just the veneer of hyperreality that has become the accepted norm in the rest of the Western world? Or can it represent an authentic breakthrough for a nation and a culture that are condemned geographically to live in the shadow of the United States?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.