Despite boasting the second largest economy in Latin America, a noteworthy record of fiscal and economic management in the midst of global turmoil, and envious commercial ties to the United States, Mexico has failed to take its rightful place as a global powerhouse. Many observers wonder why Mexico has not achieved its true potential. What, for instance, has prevented Mexico from joining the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and—now—South Africa)?
In El país de uno: Reflexiones para entender y cambiar a México (My Country: Insights to Understand and Change Mexico), Denise Dresser concludes that Mexico has no one to blame but itself for its lackluster performance. Dresser, a distinguished professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, columnist at Proceso magazine and editorial writer at Reforma, offers a sharp, unflinching and penetrating analysis of today’s Mexico that traces much of the problem to the failure to live up to expectations raised by the 2000 electoral defeat of the single-party state led by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) for most of the previous century.
Dresser uses each chapter to slowly (and at times painfully) peel back the layers of self-deception, hypocrisy and even cynicism that have betrayed the hopes of Mexicans. Her book employs some of the razor-sharp cadence of her opinion columns—for which she received the 2010 National Journalism Award for a February 2009 article about Carlos Slim—to puncture Mexico’s pretentious and corrupt elite. Her precise one-liners embellish every paragraph. One tart example: “[Mexico] is a country of goats grazing through the hallways of power, devouring everything in their path.”
Dresser’s critique—some may call it a screed—spares neither the political nor the economic elite. “Party doesn’t matter; political affiliation doesn’t matter; and neither does ideological affinity,” she writes. “Whoever reaches power in Mexico—either PAN [Partido Acción Nacional], PRI, PRD [Partido de la Revolución Democrática], Green Party or PANAL [Partido Nueva Alianza]—they all seem to think the same way: how, when and for whom do we obtain something.”
Dresser traces the origins of such selfishness to the bad habits developed over decades of one-party rule. Her analysis of the old guard of the PRI—sometimes referred to as the “dinosaurs”—settles on the group of political operators who paved the way for one of Mexico’s most controversial modern presidents, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1998–1994). Although a reformer and innovator in economic policy, Salinas failed to see the need for political reform to sustain his free-market agenda and build a transparent and accountable government. “[Salinas] was an enlightened despot, but a despot nonetheless,” writes Dresser in a section titled La Famiglia Salinas. Perhaps more disturbing is her suggestion that the architects of the Salinas era—and maybe Salinas himself—are now working behind the scenes in support of the frontrunner in the 2012 presidential election, former PRI Governor Enrique Peña Nieto. For what it’s worth, the governor has denied this repeatedly.
Her disappointment is especially apparent when she turns her scalpel on the PAN and PRD—opposition parties once viewed as the wedge that would pry open Mexico’s political system. Dresser believes they have done little to change the underlying forces that have rendered Mexico’s democracy weak and economic potential limited: “Party rotation in power does not combat corruption, it merely expands [corruption’s] ideological spectrum.”
Dresser finds the economic elite equally irresponsible, accusing them of undermining the nation’s potential and future for their own gain. She describes “buddy capitalism” (capitalism de cuates) in which the lines between the entrepreneurial and political class are blurred by favoritism and protectionism under the thinnest veneer of the market. Consumers, as a result, have been left vulnerable.
The plundering of the nation’s riches, the sacking of its resources and the hollowing out of institutions to serve personal interests have, according to Dresser, left Mexico a “slumbering,” “poorly educated,” “conformist,” and “corrupt” country where petro-riches have lulled politicians into making consistently bad decisions.
The final chapter turns to the challenges of rebuilding her country. “The only hope, given the diagnosis contained in this book, is found in those Mexicans—dedicated, brave, and combative—who refuse to participate in the moral collapse of their country,” she writes—and then proceeds to list a “citizenship agenda” that would restore citizens to their rightful place at the center of the democracy and bring about a more transparent and accountable government and economy.
The agenda would be aimed at developing an informed citizenry who can demand accountability from elected officials and the entrepreneurial class. Dresser believes this is a practical goal, involving fundamental changes in attitudes and outlooks that will lead to a truly democratic and more equitable society. The agenda lists 10 critical points, each beginning with the refrain, “beginning today….” For example, “Beginning today, I will understand that voting is an essential, crucial and fundamental right,” and that this right should be exercised with great forethought and responsibility.
This is not a book for those uninitiated in the intricacies of Mexican society and politics, nor for those who are defensive about Mexico and its place in the world. And it will disappoint those looking for a good news story to counterbalance the steady stream of bad news about crime and violence. But it is a message of hope, and as such it will be invaluable to those honestly wrestling with the complexities of Mexico and to those rooting for this great nation to succeed and take its rightful place on the global stage. There are no sugar-coated magic pills offered by Dr. Dresser; instead she offers the hard truths that must be confronted before any recovery program is possible.
The translation of the title (My Country) gives insight into Dresser’s deeper purpose in writing the book. She sees the citizen as critical for the future of the country; Mexicans must assume their civic responsibility and work to change current reality. While the book does not pull punches about the corruption and mediocrity of Mexican leadership, it takes ordinary citizens to task for allowing their country to be overrun by “kleptocrats.” Dresser believes Mexicans must take ownership of their country, and, through her 10-point roadmap, throw off the shackles that have held the country back.
Dresser outlines an important agenda that is post-partisan at its core and returns to the foundational notions of citizenship and responsibility as the source of strength in society—that same source of strength that inspired the change of power in 2000. It is a tough message, to be sure, but one that may just save Mexico from its own worst instincts.