O. M-R. – José Luis Álvarez is an economist and sociologist and a public policy expert. He was born in Mexico City in 1976. In the late 1990s, he travelled to the United States for the first time, and in the early 2000s he moved there to pursue a graduate degree, after which he moved to London to complete a PhD. Since then, he remains on this side of the Atlantic, and currently resides in France where he works for an international organization and has collaborated with the Mexican admininstration. I ask him about his experience of Mexico in the 1980s and 90s of great changes, about the violence, about his experience away from Mexico and about the presidential elections that will be held there in a few days. International media have been talking for weeks about the increasing possibility of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador winning, a result that would be unprecedented and that generates enormous enthusiasm in some sectors and fear in others.
You were a teenager when the hegemony of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or Institutional Revolutionary Party) began to crack in the late 1980s, following the economic crisis and the 1985 earthquake. How would you describe Mexican society at that time?
I remember that period in Mexico as one of deep frustration and disenchantment among the majority of the population. We have to remember that towards the end of the 1970s, Mexico discovered large oil deposits in its territory. The president at the time, José López Portillo, went as far as to say that “we should prepare to administer abundance”. We were told we were on the way of becoming something like today’s Norway. Just a few years later, poor macroeconomic management (excessive borrowing encouraged by high oil reserves) with an adverse international environment (falling oil prices) ended with the model of import substitution that had governed the Mexican economy for a long time. Times of austerity and poverty followed.
As usual, the crisis affected those who had less; rampant hyperinflation further weakened the incomes of the poorest and the terrible earthquake of 1985 took the lives of thousands of people and the housing of many more. But there were not enough resources for reconstruction. And so, in those years we went from living in a dream of prosperity to the need to survive every day with almost nothing in our pockets. Even so, the government and some businessmen managed to organize the 1986 World Cup, perhaps with the intention of relieving social discontent with a familiar and popular distraction.
Where would you situate the turning point in which a new period in Mexican politics begins?
Obviously, it is very difficult to choose a specific point in time, but I would say it was the 1988 presidential elections. By then, the ruling party, the famous PRI, was deeply questioned among the population because of the effects of the crisis. It was also fractured as a group of historical party militants, led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (son of President Lázaro Cárdenas), separated from the party, postulating Cárdenas Jr as a presidential candidate from the opposition. The official result of the elections was also severely questioned and we may never have an actual answer about the real result. All the ballots were stored and years later they were burned. In any case, it was from that date that the political opposition in Mexico began to grow very visibly and to occupy legislative spaces in other areas of government and at the federal and local levels. From my point of view, Mexican society began to change more rapidly from that moment on.
How do you explain the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994?
The Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico represents for many the pinnacle of the PRI’s efforts to reinvent itself and give an economic response to the political crisis that the 1988 elections generated. That is, the old bureaucracy was replaced by an army of technocrats who, beyond their partisan affiliation, knew, supposedly, how to govern the country, modernize it, make it less self-absorbed, and orientate it towards the foreign market through a model of aggressive commercial opening, attraction of foreign investment and dismantling of public companies. As an accounting project, it was perhaps successful since inflation was controlled (through wage controls, among other measures) as well as the public deficit (due to huge sales of state assets), but from the social point of view, it still did not yield any results.
The same day we woke up to the modernity of the NAFTA on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas also rose to remind us that there was another, very large Mexico that continued to live in 19th-century conditions of misery and exploitation.
What impact did the Treaty have on Mexico?
The Treaty generated an exciting and important debate within Mexican society, one that still continues today with the reopening of negotiations initiated by the Trump administration. On the one hand, we were told that free trade and, therefore, free competition, was the best possible policy to raise the levels of competitiveness of the Mexican economy. This would be a mechanism that would erase the inefficiencies of our economy and enhance the success of the most capable. It would give privileged entry to Mexican products to the largest market in the world (United States) and make foreign quality products available in Mexico. On the other hand, there were critical voices that warned about the dangers of opening up immature industries to competition; industries which were perhaps inefficient but employed many Mexicans.
I had just got into university to study economics, and I was able to follow those debates very closely. I remember a metaphor that occurred to me at the time: Imagine that you are invited into a boxing ring; you are told that your opponent will wear the same gloves as you, that the judges on each corner will be absolutely neutral and that no one will be cheated. The problem is that you are an ordinary human being physically, and the boxer in front of you is Mike Tyson… you cannot apply the same rules to unequal competitors.
How was your first experience in the United States in the late 1990s?
My experience in the United States was fantastic. As a Mexican, we always have this love-hate relationship towards our neighbour to the north. But I must say that what I experienced in the United States is something that I carry in my heart. On my first trip abroad I went to New York, I fell in love with the city and from that moment I visited it year after year. Shortly after, I went to study in Boston and I have great friends from that time who I see as often as I can, on this or the other side of the Atlantic. That is why I am so worried about what is happening with the current administration, not only for Mexico, but also for many people in the United States.
What caught your attention the most about Europe when you first arrived?
Without hesitation, I would say the principle, or sense, of equality that you can almost feel in the air. People may think that I exaggerate, but they ought to remember that I come from Mexico, a very unequal country, and then passed through the United States, where levels of inequality are also very high. Europe is, or was at least until recently, in my opinion, the most advanced and progressive social experiment people ever created. The principles of equality that are promoted and supported by public policies and institutions here in Europe do not have many replicas in other parts of the world. The general level of well-being is the highest I have seen in any other part of the world in a context of significant cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. But I insist, this is my opinion as a Mexican, who comes from a more homogenous, and curiously, more unequal country.
Does the world look different from America than Europe?
I think so. It’s normal, everything is relative and there is constant change. I’ll tell you something, when I was a teenager in Mexico City I was assaulted on the street three times. One time, they put a revolver in my head, I spent days paralyzed by fear at home after this, but, suddenly, I understood that this was the reality of my society, and that I had to get used to it because you cannot stay locked up at home your whole life. When I started living in Europe, I realized that it is perfectly legitimate to aspire to have a calm life without feeling threatened by violence. Of course, something can always happen to you, but at least you don’t have the sense that it is something that you should get used to…
Violence often takes up the news coming from Mexico. Is Mexico an exceptionally dangerous country?
This is a question that generates division among many Mexicans. If you look at the figures coldly you will find that in relative terms (the number of murders per capita) Mexico is not the most violent country in Latin America. But being such a large and populated country, the absolute numbers are astounding. In any case, beyond the “technical” discussion of numbers, what many of us find frightening is the “quality” of the violence.
When I was a boy, we had the impression that violence was only a means to deprive others, now you have the feeling that exerting violence is an end in itself.
Some of the violent events that appear in the press interpellate us about how easy it seems to annihilate the human dignity of the weakest. In Mexico, many of the murdered people are poor; they are women, they are children.
How do you feel here in Europe as a Mexican? Are there differences between countries?
That is an excellent question. So far, I have had the fortune of not experiencing any type of discrimination because of the colour of my skin or my passport. Even in the United States I was always fortunate to be treated with respect. But I know it is not a general rule, regrettably. In the United Kingdom I felt somehow more invisible, as it happens to me in France, because, despite being very cosmopolitan places, Mexicans are still seen as something exotic rather than a migration problem. Obviously, in Spain, Mexicans are known more than in other parts of Europe. And I feel a very special devotion and affection for Spain. I have always been treated very well there; I have friends and now a family that I love very much. There is no doubt that language unites us a lot.
Sometimes I think that, despite all its problems, the word that comes to my mind when I think of Europe is “sanctuary”. It is a place to which one comes in search of refuge and peace.
Of course, I insist, I speak from a very sentimental position.
Do you ever feel exiled from your country?
At times, yes, because the country of origin changes and one also does. I left Mexico not to settle down in another country, but to start a journey that has led me to live in four other countries to date. The challenge for me is that, with each passing year, I feel that I disconnect a bit more from my Mexican cultural patterns, but, at the same time, I do not replace them completely by those of the countries in which I have lived. In other words, I sometimes feel that I am an exile from Mexico and the whole world. It’s funny, but sometimes I feel like living in the third person, because since I left Mexico I do not really recognize myself, not even when I return there to visit …
Let’s go back to current Mexican politics. Why are the presidential elections on July 1 important?
They are important because, for the first time, a candidate identified with the left has very real possibilities of winning the election. But, well, clearly identifying López Obrador as a plainly leftist option is very imprecise at the moment. The constellation of political groupings that support him by now represents political flags that cover practically the whole ideological spectrum. This is how strong and broad the social discontent with the last administration seems to be in Mexico. In any case, whoever becomes the president, the country’s challenges are enormous and it will take a lot of time and effort to solve them.
What will the impact be for Mexico and the neighbouring countries if López Obrador wins?
Frankly, I do not think there will be a very big impact. I mean,
[To] the relief of his critics, it will be very difficult for López Obrador to carry out any profound social changes within a single six-year term that make those who have more share their wealth.
And, similarly, I think that for many people it will be disappointing that the problems of inequality are not solved more quickly. We should also keep in mind that López Obrador is not, far from it, an improvised politician or ruler. From 2000 to 2006 he governed Mexico City in a term that is remembered, not only without major upheavals, but also of open collaboration with big businessmen. Likewise, he implemented several measures of social provision not seen until then without making tremendous holes in the public treasury, at least as far as I know. In any case, if he becomes the president of Mexico, I wish him all the luck in the world, especially for all those millions of Mexicans who need a better life, especially the most vulnerable, who are children, women, the elderly and the indigenous communities.
I think it is essential that Mexicans understand two things: the first is that social change aimed at reducing inequality takes time, much longer than people with urgent needs can endure in their despair; and the second is that such change or transformation requires everyone’s efforts coming together. Rich people have to understand that inequality is not just a moral problem, technically it is also very inefficient. A less unequal society is not only more prosperous, but also safer and more efficient to face other important challenges such as climate change.
If, as you say, the real room for manoeuvre of a president like López Obrador is small, why are there sectors that see him as a threat?
It seems to me that, beyond the purely technical discussions about the economic model – I mean to choose between free market or regulated market – much of the fear for López Obrador feeds on the vilest aspects of our wrongly called racism and accurately called classism.
Many Mexicans find it uncomfortable to have a president who does not speak English, who has not studied abroad, who does not have at least some surname of ancestry, well, someone who cannot be clearly identified with the socio-economic elite of the country.
To me, personally, several of the things that López Obrador says and proposes may not only not convince me, but also seem very wrong from the point of view of the public policy expert I claim to be; but something that seems refreshing and healthy to me is to have a candidate who puts the welfare of people first and above any technocratic metrics of government and economic management: that should be a basic principle for public policies! But, as I suggested a moment ago, there may be sectors that feel that the well-being of the majority can mean losses in their own well-being and personal wealth and that is very alarming for them. Very few accept to lose individual privileges in pursuit of a greater social welfare.
Interview by Olivia Muñoz-Rojas. Translated from Spanish.
A shorter version of this interview in Spanish was published in El Huffington Post on 1 July 2018.