Vox Duo Vox Nihilo

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I’d be tackling a little bit of politics and government, and this is that entry. I think it should be less pedantic than the last one. Time will tell.

Ecochavos got me thinking about both of these essays. Part of my group’s project, which is to clean up the river in Jalpan, includes the installation of twenty-five new trash cans along the riviera. This is crucial—and the only effective element of our endeavor—because there are no cans there. It’s the only place in town where you can walk fifty yards without hitting one. I mean, why bother; the river’s right there.

Signs are both the Sierra's only weapon for combating littering and the things most littered on

Signs are both the Sierra’s only weapon for combating littering and, except for the bodies of water they’re ‘protecting’, the things most littered on

A couple of months ago, my kids gave a presentation at the Día de Juventud. Looing back, I had no idea why they were doing it. Chava has me do a lot of stuff I don’t understand at the time. Explanation, it seems to be understood, can wait until afterward. Once they were done, Chava embroiled himself in conversation with a large guy I’d seen around town, and since nobody was telling me what was going on, I asked around. Turns out the big man was our diputado, our state legislator. When they get done, Chava tells me that he’s been talking with the diputado (always afterward) and that he’s going to take care of the trash cans for us. I’d been planning on going begging to the municipal government, and I wasn’t optimistic, so I was thrilled. I figured he had some kind of community service slush fund or a privy purse and he’d be buying them out of that.

Two weeks ago, Chava tells me that the botes are all lined up, and that the director of juventud, of youth programs, has them, this guy named Pablo. Again, thrilled. I don’t think I have the child labor to either paint or install them, but I imagine I can do it on my own, so bully. I’m still trying to run the guy down, since he’s never in his office, but still, great.

Janessa and I go for lunch one day and we talk about how I can never find this guy, and it occurs to me: Pablo works for the municipal government, not the state or the diputado. Why in the hell does he have my trash cans? Because they weren’t coming from the state or the city—they were coming from the party, from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Worth at least or exactly as much trust as the parties back home

Worth at least or exactly as much trust as the parties back home

Maybe that doesn’t sound all that strange to you, but it’s only that I’m in a foreign country. Consider it on our terms. I’m leading a kids group that is explicitly the territory of the federal government, run out of a national park office. An employee of the park calls in a favor from a state congressman and has it delivered through the personal auspices of, functionally, a mayor’s assistant. It’s screwy, and it began to line some things up for me.

We know and are taught at our trainings not to start big projects when an election’s on the horizon. From park directors on down, most of the positions with which we’re in contact are politically contingent. A change of government means massive turnover and possible abandonment of whatever we’re doing at the moment. It’s as though the high-level replacements that take place in our civil service (cabinet secretaries down to not-much-lower) were extended to the entire government. I’d known about it for a year, but I’d never puzzled out why, or even how—it’s an insane way to run a country.



The period before elections is a dead letter—neither party wants to continue a successful project begun by the other, in case the other could claim credit. Neither wants to leave a successful project that the other might continue and take credit for. You cannot govern effectively like this—but the total deadlock we’re seeing doesn’t square with the industrial and societal advances that Mexico’s made since the Revolution. So what gives?

The answer is that it used to work because there was only one party. Mexico’s running a one-party state with two parties. It’s almost a rule in authoritarian systems that the party, the communist party in the best examples, becomes a parallel entity to the state and sometimes supplants it. When we talk about the Politburo running Cuba or China or the USSR, that’s not an organ of the state but of the party. It runs all the way down; mayors are also the local party head, the guy in charge of youth for the municipality would also be the head of party youth.

So in the old days of PRI dominance, while all the civil service positions were still appointments, there was no reason to switch everyone out with every election, and no need to kill or refrain from starting projects. Nowadays, while the system might have been supposed to continue as-was, all those posts are still doled out as party patronage, and it brings local (and much higher, I imagine) government to a standstill. Not only does everything have to operate on a two-year timeline (with elections every three years), nobody can get the kind of ongoing experience or institutional memory that government needs to run.

There are a few positive aspects to the whole thing. Everyone knows that promotions come during the next round of appointments after their party makes it back into office (rather than at indeterminate times like in a more American system), so they’re desperate to beef up their resumes and are more than game to arrange any kind of event for us—they get to tout it later and move up the party hierarchy. But it leads to lack of training, mismanagement, and the kind of political deadlock that we’re beginning (or, really, are decades into) to experience in the States.

Reform in Mexico seems to be in the federal purview. Overhauls, sweeping changes that, when they’re filtered down through state and local governments and into thirty-seven wildly different states, seem to be universally ineffective. If the Mexican state wants to create the kind of legitimacy it needs for citizen faith and participation and to combat the authority-eroding effect of pseudo-government by narcos and the defense brigades that oppose them, they’ve got to start with the civil service and the most basic apparati of government.

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