Fears and Political Paralysis

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Luis Rubio

After Wilson’s departure from the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles following World War I, Clemenceau, on his way to a meeting with Colonel House, Wilson’s adviser, was fired on by a young anarchist, Émile Cottin. As Clemenceau’s car sped away, Cottin fired seven (some say eight) more shots. One hit Clemenceau near the heart. Cottin was apprehended and the death penalty demanded. Clemenceau intervened: “We have just fought the most terrible war in history, yet here is a Frenchman who misses his target six times out of seven… Of course the fellow must be punished for the careless use of a dangerous weapon and for poor marksmanship.” He recommended eight years in prison “with intensive training in a shooting gallery.”              

This anecdote serves to introduce a matter that has been worrying me for some time. To what extent is the diagnosis of crucial issues such as the teachers’ uprisings through the CNTE Teachers’ Union or the protests of businessmen concerning the liberalization of the economy on target?

It is scarcely probable for a government to achieve its objectives if the premise that motivates its actions or responses is in error. In the case of the interminable demonstrations and protests of the CNTE for example, the government is actually dealing with the consequences of the former corporatist structures that during those times were functional in terms of political stability but that today are terribly disruptive. The current conflict, centered on the matter of teacher evaluation, can, and I believe should, be separated into two facets: on the one hand is found the enormous power base and structure that the organization of the teachers’ union has constructed from the control of basic instances of the educative system in places such as Oaxaca, where it even decides whether private schools are entitled to official recognition (without which a student cannot go on to university). That power base has become a monumental challenge, as tends to occur with quick fixes that appear to be easy but that are accompanied by dreadful consequences in the long term. That is why the federal government’s decision to take over the local education ministry in Oaxaca is so important.

But there is another facet in the specific case of the evaluation of teachers that seems to me widely ignored but not, for that reason, less simple and relevant: the teachers can support or can be contemptuous of their union leaders, but many, perhaps the majority, have a deep fear of failing the evaluation. The emphasis on the rhetoric of the CNTE leaders is precisely on that: on what will happen if they do not pass the examination on the third time at most, which the regulation states as cause for firing. Fear is a powerful ally of corruption.

The systematic rejection of the chambers of industry of any deregulation of liberalization of imports and, in general, of the economy, is equally suggestive. During these last decades there have been various attempts to rationalize the tariff structure for imports, to simplify the importation of merchandise that individual persons or small businesses wish to undertake, or, in straightforward fashion, to submit to competition the traditional industrial sector, that which employs many people but that subtracts productivity from the economy as a whole. The organized business response has been systematic, full of wrath and as visceral as that of the CNTE, although its means are distinct. Opposition to any change is absolute. The question is why.

Some businesses protect their game preserves, as would take place with any interest group in any society; however, it is obvious that the fear factor very much dominates the entrepreneurial response. The prototypical business is not a large business, well capitalized and headed by a person conversant with the international environment, but rather is, typically, a small or medium business owner who decides to do whatever possible to preserve his market niche and survive. Some are successful, others less so, but the majority navigate under circumstances whose rules were established decades ago under the yardstick of imports substitution or, more recently, within the context of the informal economy. Medium-sized businesses in the industrial ambit tend to be closer to the former description, and those of services to the latter. The point is that practically none of those enterprises has focused on specialization, raising its productivity or developing products liable to competing successfully in an open market. The few that have developed their own technological capacity tend to be sub-capitalized and confront tremendous barriers for access to credit or to the international markets.

In this scenario, the fear of generating any attempt to modify the rules of the game is evident. People customarily cling fast to what they know and do not want to change; fear of the unknown can be devastating. The same is true for those who enjoy some product privileged with subsidies or tariffs and fear losing it or those who, pure and simple, take note of the ambit of the most competitive economy and fear sailing an uncharted sea and one for which they have no preparation whatsoever.

The situation of teachers and businesses is, in the last analysis, similar. The majority of entrepreneurs, whether of small- or medium-sized businesses, would probably not imagine that they have something very powerful in common with those who support (or see themselves as overwhelmed by) the CNTE.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition in Myanmar, once affirmed that “it is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Fear is poor counsel because it impedes advancing, but it is essential for the government to comprehend that the motivation of those disputing a change often originates in factors much more easily grasped than immediately apparent.





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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).