The day before the Mexican soccer team’s thrilling underdog tie with the World Cup favorite, Brazil, last week, the lead editorial of the news site SinEmbargo was titled, “Ready for your Clamato and Gatorade?” — common hangover remedies. “In about three weeks, when you wake from your World Cup dreams,” the editors wrote, “remember that when the soccer fest began, the country was on the verge of monumental decisions. If upon waking, you realize that the country’s energy reserves have been cheaply sold off or whatever else, don’t bother protesting because this is a chronicle foretold.”
To debate and pass laws that could open Pemex, the nationalized oil company, to foreign investment, the Mexican Congress scheduled legislative sessions from June 10 to 23, dates precisely coinciding with you know what. Final passage might be pushed back, but it originally looked like it was supposed to happen on Monday, when Mexico plays Croatia to decide which country advances to the elimination rounds.
For weeks, critics of President Enrique Peña Nieto and his political party, the PRI, have been denouncing this ploy to hide the historic reforms behind World Cup fever, it being taken for granted that almost no one will be paying attention to whatever happens in Congress.
The writer Juan Villoro — a commentator on both politics and soccer — says this is not the first time the party has tried this. In 1998, under a previous PRI government, Congress passed a $67 billion rescue of Mexican banks, to be paid by taxpayers, on Dec. 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the start of the Christmas holiday. This past Dec. 12, PRI legislators, joined by allies on the right, “fast track” approved, with almost no debate, the constitutional reform opening the way for the Pemex privatization.
Here is a sample of news stories from the last few days (to some of these, SinEmbargo has been affixing the slogan, “And while you go on enjoying the World Cup”): skyrocketing “disappearances”; crackdowns on the press; the corruption of the police, political parties and the justice system.
Mr. Peña Nieto seems to regard the plight of his citizenry as a public relations stain that needs to be kept out of sight. Yet it was only a few months ago that Time magazine heralded him on its cover as the savior of Mexico. Outside the country, he was seen as a modernizing reformer and a committed partner in the war against the narco cartels.
But as his dismal approval ratings make clear, many Mexicans see a different Peña Nieto, one who was elected with only 38 percent of the vote, in an election rife with allegations of vote buying and other irregularities. And they see a different PRI — not a new and improved party, but the same institution that ruled Mexico for 71 years of “perfect dictatorship,” before it was temporarily pushed out of power in 2000. The structures and culture of the party that built modern Mexico are still deeply entrenched. Over nearly a century, the PRI perfected nexuses of government, organized crime and corruption. In his new book “Campo de Guerra,” the Mexican essayist Sergio González Rodríguez describes the PRI’s Mexico as “a state that simulates legality and legitimacy, while at the same time it is an un-State: the lack and negation of itself.”
Who could blame those Mexicans who, when considering the proposed energy legislation, suspected a repeat of the privatizing reforms of the 1990s, which created fortunes for a small elite and PRI cronies, but did little or nothing for ordinary Mexicans but saddle them with what is considered to be the world’s most expensive and unreliable cellphone service? It’s easy to see how privatizing Pemex would benefit some foreign oil companies and create some new Mexican millionaires, without “trickling down” to anyone else.
The energy “debates” have a recent precedent in the government’s handling of telecommunications reforms. These were portrayed as measures that would democratize telecommunications and the media, and rein in apparent monopolies such as the TV monolith Televisa’s. But when scholars and a few honest senators were finally able to read and decipher the pending legislation, it turned out that the government and allied legislators were actually designing the laws to benefit Televisa, and to crack down on Internet freedoms and access to radio licenses for community and indigenous groups.
Even the capture this year of the drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo — a major public relations victory for the government — was a letdown for the Mexican public. As Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, commented, the capo’s capture “didn’t even minimally guarantee the dismantling of a criminal network.” He said: “El Chapo Guzmán and his people in Sinaloa had hundreds of Mexican politicians in their pockets. Let’s see if they arrest them now.”
The truth is that Mr. Peña Nieto is a politically insignificant figure, ruling at the service of established powers within the PRI and elsewhere. In fact, he seems so absent and unforceful a leader that in recent days some have speculated that he is gravely ill. Cuauhtémoc Gutiérrez de la Torre, the former president of the PRI in Mexico City, better embodies the Mafioso depravity of the PRI. In April, Mr. Gutiérrez was accused of running a prostitution ring with party funds. At conventions, he allegedly showed up with his army of women, making them available to other politicians. It wasn’t government investigators who finally exposed Mr. Gutiérrez, but a prominent female journalist, who immediately became the object of a vilification campaign.
There is a famous line from Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” which also served as the epigraph to Roberto Bolaño’s Mexico City masterpiece “The Savage Detectives”: “Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?”
“No,” is the answer.
Who will save Mexico? Not politicians, the police, corrupt functionaries or greedy elites.
There has been much talk lately about the way the style of soccer teams manifests national characters. I don’t know if that’s true. But when I look at the Mexican team which, after barely even qualifying for the World Cup, has been playing so well, I see a team without stars — a gritty, hard-working, pretty humble, resourceful, creative, disciplined, joyous, friendly-seeming group of players who seem to be learning to play the game as it is meant to be played.
These are values that we see enacted and re-enacted all over Mexico, and in Mexican communities elsewhere, every day. Someday Mexico will get another chance to vote the PRI away and to restart the long process of building the country from the ground up. It could do worse than take some inspiration from its national team.
Francisco Goldman is the author of the forthcoming book The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.