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When Citizens Disagree on Even the Time of Day

Mexico: Once, all were forced into consensus; now, debate has given way to inflamed division.

May 10, 1999|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist and writer in Mexico City

The only way to reconcile two contradictory perceptions about Mexico's current and future prospects is to understand how deeply the country has been disjoined by the process of change over the past decade and a half. The cleavages sundering Mexico have created not only two countries but two increasingly alienated societies.

A booming export sector, concentrated in and looking to the north, has taken off. It is competitive, efficient, dynamic and outward-looking. Its inputs, credit, output and standards are all U.S.-based. The rest of Mexico--where more than 80% of the nation's 100 million inhabitants live and work--finds itself sinking into political fragmentation, economic stagnation and social dissolution.

These images and assessments are accurate. However, the pessimism and chaos pervading the non-export sector reflect the growing intractability of Mexico's underlying problems. The most worrisome among them is the virtual impossibility of reaching agreements on just about anything.

For decades, if not for centuries, Mexico lived under a regime of consensus, mostly imposed through authoritarian means, on occasions freely consented. But gridlock, as well as regional, political, ideological and social impasses were infrequent. Mexicans agreed, or were forced to agree, on most issues facing the country. As recently as the Salinas de Gortari administration, Mexico carried out dramatic changes in its development model and policies without serious dissent, or, in any case, without experiencing severe consequences when silencing it through governmental heavy-handedness.

This trend, which allowed the country to experience half a century of political stability, economic growth and social modernization, has obviously ended. As it enters the first truly uncertain presidential election in its history, the country seems singularly devoid of any capacity or propensity to agree on any question, important or meaningless.

The countless examples range from the truly substantive to the symbolic. Among the latter, the most symptomatic are perhaps those related to the power- and light-privatization project submitted to the Congress a couple of months ago, and the proposal to charge modest tuition fees at the National University to those students able to pay them.

The proposals are both arguable and reasonable. But instead of arousing a serious debate and negotiation from which a long-term national consensus would emerge, the two initiatives have awakened passions and fanned the flames of social discontent. The May Day demonstrations were the most anti-governmental, intense and well-attended in years.

Divisiveness also has affected apparently minor affairs. One example involves the time zones in the country and the absurd debate that took place in March as to who would adopt daylight saving time. Some states have adopted the hour change, others have not. Some are on U.S. Central time, some on Mountain time and some on Pacific time, while the one that used to go by Eastern time--Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located--decided to go back to Central time.

While Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas wisely desisted from heeding his rank and file and accepted the federal government's decision to move clocks forward on April 1, it was touch and go for several days. The country cannot even agree, literally, on the time of day.

Nor can it figure out what to do with the more than 2 million imported used cars circulating without valid license plates, registration cards, insurance or inspection controls. They were brought in over the years by migrants returning from the U.S. or by border state inhabitants. These mostly dilapidated vehicles entered with temporary importation permits; they paid no taxes on entry or any property levies that all other cars and trucks pay in Mexico. They have outstayed their authorizations. The local automobile industry is up in arms over the prospect of making these permits permanent; the inhabitants of the northern cities, where they are largely concentrated, want some sort of amnesty and after-the-fact legalization. The government is caught in a cross-fire between hundreds of thousands of owners who cannot afford the much more expensive used cars available in Mexico, and others who feel punished for having purchased their vehicles in Mexico and obeying the law.

Mexico's surprising macro-economic numbers are not imaginary or artificial. But they cannot blot out the collapsing national consensus on any issue of substance in a country where centrifugal forces have always threatened cohesion. More than lower interest rates, higher exports or more foreign investment--all necessary and desirable--Mexico today needs to craft the instruments for constructing new broad-based agreements on at least basic matters.

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