Webcast Recap

Mexico's democracy is in "systemic crisis;" nevertheless, "we are in a better position now than 20 years ago" because of gains in transparency and elections, noted Mexican democracy activist and academic Sergio Aguayo said. Speaking at the launch of two new books, Aguayo said that the quality of Mexican democracy is low because it serves vested interests: those of corporatist unions, self-interested political parties, and state governors, whose power has grown over the most recent presidential administrations but who face less public scrutiny than at the federal level.

Mexican society is also ambivalent on democracy. Majorities of poll respondents say they would pay a bribe if necessary, while at the same time majorities also assert respect for human rights. "We are a contradictory society," said Aguayo, who is a professor at El Colegio de México and a member of the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute advisory board. The two books launched were Vuelta en U, a diagnosis of Mexico's democracy today, and La Transición Mexicana: 1910-2010, a historical account of Mexico's democratic transition. Aguayo's talk was the latest installment of the Mexico Institute-sponsored speaker series Dialogos con México/Dialogues with Mexico.

In his presentation, Aguayo focused on the anti-democratic effects of fiscal policies that enable large transfers from the federal treasury to special interests, such as the wealthy through a regressive tax structure. The country's powerful teachers union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, which is one of the Latin America's largest, is another beneficiary of such policies, he said. Federal transfers to the union have aggrandized its power, increasing its clout with politicians who count on union member support at election times.

The presence of organized crime continues to be widespread in Mexico, Aguayo added, even despite the high numbers of arrests and casualties of cartel members during the current administration. Cartels are able to replenish their ranks, he said, because of the high profits to be gained from the sale of cocaine, citing a 100-fold markup of the drug between South America and the United States.

On Mexican civil society, Aguayo stressed the need for the Left and the Right to forge a common agenda, and he noted a recent advance. Civil society organization Alianza Cívica was chosen by the leading center-left and center-right parties to hold an unofficial referendum in the State of Mexico to determine the viability of a Left-Right coalition candidate for the upcoming gubernatorial election. This showed civil society's strength as a neutral broker between ideologically opposed parties. On a related note, discussant John Bailey, Professor, Department of Government and School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, suggested that an ongoing challenge facing Mexican democracy is the need for governmental institutions to keep pace with civil society, so that progressive impulses can be properly channeled. Also on a related note, discussant Todd Eisenstadt, Professor, Department of Government, American University, stressed that there is "room for improvement" within governmental institutions and he especially cited the country's regulatory agencies. Strengthened regulators combined with a vigorous civil society could lead to greater advances, he said.

Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088