Most businessmen would react with alarm upon hearing that tens of thousands of protesters are breaking into stores, looting merchandise and vandalizing property all over the city.
Just like his colleagues, Juan Pablo Castañon, president of the Business Coordinating Council, was shocked by the violent unrest set off by the gasolinazo, the exorbitant gas price hike put into effect on Jan 1, 2017 by Mexico’s government.
Rather than criticize the looters, however, Mr. Castañon blamed the government! “People are sick and tired of corruption,” he said. “They’re sick and tired of how their tax money is spent. There appears to be a clamor for real change”.
Castañon hopes that 2017 will be the start of a “true” national crusade to combat corruption and promote accountability, starting with efforts to consolidate the National Anti-Corruption System. “No more unresolved scandals or impunity for politicians,” he said. “Society can’t continue to bear the liabilities of corruption”.
This won’t be easy, as the majority of Mexicans don’t trust their national institutions (much less their politicians) including the court system, schools, police… even democracy itself. Many express distrust through apathy, while others are blatantly cynical.
The point is that the nation’s institutions are not (and never have been) strong.
A recent news story that appeared while the gasoline riots were taking place illustrates why.
Only 22 days after approving the gas tax increase, Mexican legislators – alarmed by the sharp hike in fuel prices – rushed through a bill to increase their own fuel allowances.
Given that their allotments already far exceeded what most of them needed (many received over $30 dollars per day for gas expenses), the timing seemed a bit odd. In the wake of riots, didn’t anybody think about public perception?
In the old days, few people would’ve cared. They were national leaders, entitled to everything they possibly could, including all their expenses, i.e., fuel, food, travel, education and health care. All covered by the State – on top of their salaries, on which they pay no tax.
A fuel allowance hike for the so-called masters of the universe – even right after a major tax hike – wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.
But now, social media reveals what Mexicans really think:
Fr. El Universal
Aside from vouchers for nearly all their daily expenses, each legislator is also given a personal slush fund (at their sole discretion), amounting in some cases to hundreds of dollars per day.
In Guanajuato, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Nuevo León and Sinaloa (among other states), legislators’ monthly salaries exceed 100,000 pesos, but they also receive an additional 100,000 pesos for “other items” which, in most jurisdictions, need not be declared.
Yet these everyday perks are minor compared with the ‘real enchilada’, i.e., exorbitant gifts they grant themselves during every legislative session, including year-end aguinaldos and end-of-term bonuses amounting to tens of thousands of dollars known as bonos de marcha.
These “extras” can triple or quadruple their salaries – and all are exempt from tax. Which makes Mexican politicians among the highest paid in the world.
Since it’s all above board, this is not called “corruption” – at least not technically. And when you add in pay-offs, kickbacks, offshore accounts, nepotism and other dodgy practices realized by Mexican leaders for decades (if not centuries), the winnings multiply exponentially.
Which helps explain why so many people got upset after gas prices jumped 20% overnight.
Riots reflect discontent
Although approval ratings for public institutions have recently plummeted in both the US and Europe, Mexicans draw from a much deeper well of discontent. This latest incident, for example, is not just about a tax on gas. Government abuse has been going on for generations.
Castañon called for a special fully autonomous anti-corruption prosecutor to investigate and file cases against public officials suspected of graft. He also insists on an autonomous court with the power to issue sanctions and adjudicate anti-corruption cases brought before it by other agencies.
Whether this will be implemented is improbable. But for now, it sounds good – although nobody really trusts the business community either. In fact, the whole idea of “transparency” – whether by politicians or businessmen – is almost unheard of in Mexico.
Uneasy road ahead
It’s been said that the quickest way for citizens anywhere to give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. If that’s true, then the Mexican ruling class has been brilliant – for centuries they’ve managed to run the country (and divvy up the winnings) completely behind closed doors.
But this bygone era seems to be wearing thin: the internet, free trade, globalization and travel have had a deep impact on Mexico’s young. Although politicos resist these forces fiercely, they must now deal with growing demands for accountability. How they manage this will be tricky, but for now, they continue to do what they’ve always done: game the system.
Like raise their own fuel allowances while the country grinds to a halt over an outrageous tax hike.
As Mr Castañon stated, “putting a stop to corruption… is the only true vaccine against threats from populism and social polarization”. For why not call things as they really are?
“There can be no economic stability without social stability,” said Castañon.
Gas riots, if things don’t change, may be just the start.