Is Something Good about to happen in Mexico?

October 18, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

First of two reflections on last week’s visit to Mexico.

Omar Cabezas’ wonderful account of the Sandinista Revolution, Fire from the Mountain, ends with the victorious guerrillas arriving in Managua’s main square, where wild celebrations break out at the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. On the margins of the fiesta, a group of comandantes gather and look at each other.  One asks plaintively ‘now what do we do?’

Mexico’s civil society feels a bit like that at the moment. Following the overwhelming victory of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his Morena party, confusion is great, but so are expectations (though always tempered with Mexicans’ deep strain of pessimism).

The sources of confusion are several. AMLO is a complex character, both authoritarian and deeply connected to ‘el pueblo’. His party includes both progressive technocrats and populists. And his attitude to civil society organizations is at best, ambivalent.

If you want to know more, while in Mexico I interviewed Oxfam Mexico’s boss, Ricardo Fuentes, for the first ever FP2P podcast (25 minutes). First of many, I hope. Please tell me what you think:

Soon after the election in July (AMLO takes office on 1st December), his team could be heard dismissing CSOs as ‘fifi’ (posh). With a landslide election victory, AMLO was the authentic voice of the people, not these middle class do gooders.

Since then the tone has moderated somewhat, but CSOs are anxious, excited and uncertain. What should be their role in what AMLO calls Mexico’s ‘fourth transformation’? They face big existential questions: is the role of CSOs to speak truth to the new power, to act as a loyal opposition, or to act as change agents with their own agenda, which may include cooperating with the state?

Not surprisingly, the subject dominated the conversations at various events to launch ‘Como Ocurren los Cambios’ last week. We all ended up combing through the book’s arguments to see what ideas they prompted. Some of the main topics included:

Dancing with the System: the confusion includes which of the many currents within Morena will dominate, who gets what position, and how the priorities announced by AMLO will be turned into specifics. At such a time, CSOs need acute political antennae. After watching Oxfam Mexico’s Ricardo Fuentes schmoozing the incoming economic team in their favourite cantina, I’m pretty confident that at least some people are on it.

The fog: but for a while, things will be uncertain. CSOs face a tough choice. If they wait until everything is clear before deciding how to engage with the new government, they may reduce the risks of backing the wrong horse, or alienating leaders early on, but will miss the chance to shape what emerges from the fog.

Seeing the government as a system, not a monolith: That intel should inform CSOs’ understanding of the system – the currents, the potential allies, the likely enemies. Weakening the bad guys, and working to strengthen the hand of the progressive voices in government, could be a real contribution to Mexico’s prospects.

Their agenda or ours? The new government already has a packed agenda, including lots of reforms to the apparatus of the state, a focus on security, infrastructure, youth and anti-corruption. There is plenty CSOs could be doing to promote social justice within that list, but other things dear to their heart (eg gender rights) are not on it. Is it better to work with Morena’s feminist leadership in Congress to change that, or stick to the existing script?

Seeing through their eyes: CSOs need to think how the current situation looks through the eyes of AMLO and the new leadership. What do they want and need in the early months? Any government wants some quick wins to build momentum and morale – could CSOs help with that and buy themselves some political space into the bargain? One option that Oxfam Mexico is clearly interested in is tax collection. Mexico has one of the lowest rates of tax collection in the OECD – could we do something to improve that, eg by a league table of which municipalities are failing  as to collect the local taxes that are owing? If the new government does do some good things, will CSOs be able to celebrate them without adding the inevitable ‘but’?

Feedback: Once he enters the presidential palace, AMLO, like any leader, will be surrounded by sycophants. Officials and political hacks will be reluctant to bring him news of failures and screw-ups. Is there a way that CSOs can do so, without being branded as enemies? Mexican governments have long struggled to give a proper role to opposition and criticism, but maybe this time is different. A lot depends on the tone and relationships CSOs can bring to bear on the conversation.

Stopping bad stuff: there will be some dumb things that need to be stopped. An early candidate appears to be the ‘Maya Train’ infrastructure project in the South of the Country. How to do that without being branded as an enemy of the people?

Although some CSOs may stick to ‘denuncia as usual’, those that decide to engage will need to review their tactics and alliances. If they are being denounced as fifi, then a big CSO coalition may be less useful than pulling in some ‘unusual suspects’, such as academics, faith leaders and the like. More broadly, CSOs are reflecting on their legitimacy – have they indeed become too divorced from the grassroots movements they seek to support?

Finally, this will be a big challenge to CSOs as a movement. Moments of victory are always dangerous for campaigners – the gains are always partial, triggering disputes between reformists and hardliners. Will Mexican civil society have the maturity to create spaces where people can talk and manage the inevitable tensions?

I really hope so. This moment may not come again for Mexico. A lot is at stake.

October 18, 2018
Duncan Green