Between riddles and frights, Mexico reached two years of the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), marked by the occurrences, poor results, and whims of a ruling majority that seems at the same time chaotic and fully subjected to the president. It is trying to weaken institutions and to consolidate a new form of absolute presidentialism. The Chamber of Deputies is one of the main scenarios of the struggle, where the opposition parties try to preserve the institutional balances that AMLO has placed under threat.
To understand what is happening in Mexico, I spoke with one of the key protagonists of that contest: Juan Carlos Romero Hicks, leader of the Parliamentary Group of the National Action Party (PAN) in the Chamber of Deputies. Here is a summary of the first part of our conversation:
In dealing with AMLO, one is always between riddles and a fear
Gerardo Garibay: What is it like to legislate in a Congress with a majority held by Morena? How are negotiations and daily work, compared to previous legislatures?
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks: This is the second time that I am a federal legislator, and this time is completely different, for several reasons:
- The first one is that in 2012 we had the Pact for Mexico, a roadmap with 5 major themes and 95 priorities that eventually were expanded. For example, I was chairman of the Education Committee, and the first structural reform was about education. Similarly, we had energy reform, telecommunications reform, etc. This time around, however, there was no roadmap.
- The second difference is that the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] knows how to honor agreements. It has a cadre and a better sense of strategy. In Morena [AMLO’s party], whims prevail, both those of the president and those of his representatives, so you are caught between riddles and fear.
- Third, in the Senate [in 2012], the PRI had a simple majority, but not a super majority, so everything had to be consulted, especially the initiatives to change the constitution. There were debates and dialogue. Conversely, in 2018, when we arrived at the Chamber of Deputies, they [Morena] did not have a super majority; they crafted it through huachicol [in Mexico, gasoline robbery, or by extension illicit activities] and diversions.
- A fourth difference is that in 2012 the PRI did not show off its overwhelming majority, as Morena does. That even though [in the 2018 elections] it did not receive a majority mandate in the Congress of the Union. AMLO got 53% of the vote, but the coalition Juntos Haremos Prehistoria, as I call them, got 43.58%. Through transfers and legal subterfuges, they reached a majority. The president did get a majority on the polls; they did not.
- The other big difference -and I say this with respect- is that many representatives did not campaign. They did not come in with a plan; they came filled with resentment, convinced that they’re there to serve a president, not a country.
In the design of the republic, the Chamber of Deputies is intended to represent the population, and the Senate is meant to represent the federal compact. However, most of Morena’s deputies do not understand this. They assume that they represent an individual [AMLO] who is neither head of government nor head of state, but the boss of a party.
It is very difficult because there is no dialogue, and it is very frustrating to win the debate -when there is one- and then lose the votes. There are exceptions, but many of them [pro-government deputies] tow the line. As Miguel Montes said, they see Congress as a “legislative will,” akin to a clerk’s office.
Gerardo Garibay: How is the opposition’s containment block doing? How much of a counterweight are you achieving?
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks: We are a counterweight, at least at winning the debates. We can no longer stop a constitutional reform in the Chamber of Deputies, because for this we would need 167 [Deputies]. However, in the Senate, we need 43 legislators to contain [Obrador], and there are about 47; so there is a containment dyke.
We have done some very valuable work: 1) on poverty and inequality; 2) in addressing violence and crime; 3) on the fight against corruption and impunity; 4) on issues of the economy and family income. In all of this, we have made proposals, although they are not always reflected in the votes.
Also, I do not believe in a systematic opposition. In a mature democracy, when someone heads a government, he/she must have humility and generosity to be inclusive; and when you don’t control the government, you have several options: the mature one is to support the government on the things you agree with it and generate alternatives in the areas where you disagree. If you reach a compromise, you support the initiative; and if you don’t get agreements, then everyone goes on their own.
Gerardo Garibay: What has been the opposition’s most outstanding achievement in Congress during these two years?
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks: There are many. The education reform is ours, save for the Mafia move to hand over to the teacher’s union the performance assessment of teachers. The rest is ours: beginning education, multicultural education, equality of rights, human rights perspective, access to higher education. At PAN we voted against it, and it hurt me a lot because 80% of the reform went through because of several of us.
Second, the National Guard. The design is ours. It is a civil guard by design, although, in reality, it has become a military guard.
Today [December 3rd], we had a significant achievement: the General Population Law was revised, focusing on the right to identity and the fact that there is no Mexican identity card for the population as a whole, only the voters’ I.D. They [the government deputies] brought their strange ideas with them, but we put safeguards in place so that the INE [National Electoral Institute] will not hand over voters’ data to the Ministry of the Interior. It was an achievement that we had today, and we built it together.
A budget without an ounce of Federalism
Gerardo Garibay: What do you think about the budget approved for 2021? Is it as dangerous as some people say, or is it tolerable?
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks: It is a great failure for Mexico, because the national government doesn’t understand that we need a budget for the country, not a budget for the president. It has several deficiencies:
One, it doesn’t address poverty and inequality. It generates clienteles, but it doesn’t have significant components on substantive issues, such as education, health, housing, water, and essential services.
Two, it does not take care of the economy, employment, and family income. It does not support workers in the countryside, nor micro, small, or medium entrepreneurs. And it doesn’t spur innovation.
Three, as for the issue of violence and crime, the security fund for the states and municipalities has disappeared, which makes us all losers.
Four, it does not have an ounce of Federalism. It contemplates only eight highways for the entire country. The budget focuses on presidential priorities, which are respectable, but demagogic and unviable: the three Pharaonic works that we already know: the airport [in Santa Lucia] which is a tragedy, the Mayan Train, and the refinery.
Also, there is a severe problem with public finances because there is no growth in the economy, and without it, there is no tax collection, no savings, no investment. It’s a budget that doesn’t take care of the basics. It does not address the pandemic crisis, nor the crisis ineducation, crime and corruption.