Which comes first, the person or the structure, the leader or the institution? The dilemma is debated in academic ambits and is not distinct from the old riddle of the chicken and the egg. There are times in which a specific individual can make an enormous difference, others in which the circumstances make it practically impossible for this to occur.
At the beginning of the millennium, a singular circumstance arose in Mexico that made possible –perhaps necessary- the emergence of a leader capable of transforming the political structure of the country. Fox held in his hands the opportunity to modify the political regime, construct a new institutional framework and transform Mexican society once and for all. Unfortunately Fox was not a person capable of comprehending the opportunity nor did he have the prowess to assemble a team inclined to seize it. In the end, the opportunity faded into a sea of superficiality and frivolities.
When the political transition arrived in 2000, Mexico had already been engaged for decades in deep and wide-ranging discussion as well as in a great diversity of action proposals ranging from those that argued for submitting the old regime to a judicial process through the establishment of “truth commissions” to those that held out for a great national pact. The point is that there was no lack of ideas at that moment.
In contrast with that time, the end of the Cold War was not anticipated by practically anyone. After decades of tension and fear in the face of a possible nuclear exchange, what impacted at the conclusion of the Cold War was the smoothness and crispness with which it ended. For those of us who lived through the anguish represented by the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, the Cold War seems to be, in retrospect, no more than a mere fleeting accident.
The appearance of the excellent book The Triumph of Improvisation* about that moment in history makes it understood that the success of the end of the Cold War did not lie in its having been a “mere fleeting accident”, which clearly it was not, but that it resided in the extraordinary skill of a clutch of leaders with the capacity to respond when faced with surprising, exceptional circumstances. While in retrospect it might appear evident that there were insurmountable structural problems in the Soviet Union, no one foresaw its sudden collapse.
The circumstances created a moment that figures such as Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, Reagan, Bush, Kohl, Thatcher, Baker and Shultz knew how to turn into an opportunity. Above all, they possessed the capacity of acting deliberately without a preconceived “master” plan but with extraordinary strategic clarity. Perhaps most remarkable about the plot that James Graham Wilson, the author of the book, relates is the skill with which these personages understood the circumstances, constructed alliances and created a climate of trust that, with firmness and determination, guided to fruition a process that could have been chaotic and uncertain. It was an extraordinary exercise of leadership. From it there arose not only a climate of peace, but also massive reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal as well as in that of the ex-USSR, to the benefit of all mankind.
In contrast with the moment that Fox was fated to live through, one not created by him, today a circumstance has arisen that no one had anticipated and that, in fact, was created by the extraordinary capacity to run a political operation that the current government has deployed. For two decades the conviction existed in countless political, media, and academic instances that the country would only have a future by carrying out a set of fundamental structural reforms. Those reforms have now come into being thanks to the political strategy that President Peña-Nieto orchestrated.
As we surely will soon see, the reforms are necessary, but they are not all that‘s necessary to get the country moving. In order for the reforms to exert an effect, it will be indispensable, before anything else, to implement them. This is easy to say but their implementation will require an infinitely superior dedication and complexity than that involved in the legislative process. Now come two stages or, in reality, two crucial processes, that will command the entire capacity at the government’s disposal.
On the one hand, while sparks flew many times during the legislative negotiation, implementation will whip up flames. Many have underestimated the complexity of transforming entities that have historically devoted themselves to plunder, such as Pemex and the CFE, but that’s what will have to happen if the potential benefits inherent in the new legislation are to be achieved. Neither of these entities was constructed to serve the consumer, compete, render accounts, produce profits or comply with the law. Their business function (exploiting subsoil resources and generating electricity, respectively) was nearly incidental. Viewed in retrospect, their true function was that of generating wealth for members of the revolutionary family (and allies), and a source of monies for politicians and the government. For the reform to work, those vectors will have to be reversed: the new law comprises the context but the reality depends on what is done in these entities and that will necessitate a titanic political opus.
On the other hand, a reform does not occur in a vacuum. To be successful, the reforms would require the support and trust of the population and that is a task for leadership. To date, the president has disparaged the immense capital that a population that has confidence in its government can embody, and has done nothing to cultivate it. Today’s set of circumstances presses for that leadership and has created the opportunity for it to prosper. Will this be a replay of 2000 or something different?
*James Graham Wilson: The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War, Cornell.