On the night of September 15th in 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico’s national hero, rang the bell of the church in the town of Dolores and called for the people to oppose the colonial government and demand a change. It was the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence.
This history, taught to every Mexican child, is today the basis for a yearly independence day festivities as Mexicans gather and shout the exact same words uttered in Hidalgo’s “cry of independence,” while waving flags celebrating their country.
But it’s also a time for retrospection and analysis. Two centuries later, Mexico is facing some of the most serious instability in our history.
As a Mexican journalist who about to relocate to Seattle, here’s what I see as the most pressing challenges facing my home country:
In February 2014 the Time Magazine published a cover showing President Enrique Peña Nieto over a headline that read “Saving Mexico.” The image inspired spoofs, blogs and memes and has turned into source of entertainment for millions of Mexicans.
Peña Nieto gained wide recognition among the international press for a series of structural reforms that his government has promoted since it came to power in late 2012. The fields of telecommunications, energy, education, labor, politics and elections, economic competition and taxes, among others, have been shaken up by serious constitutional amendments meant to jumpstart a new era of modernization.
Although these reforms were certainly necessary, it is still too early to determine whether they are going to drive real progress, or just represent some kind of political showcase.
If one problem has haunted Mexico since its origins, it’s the huge socioeconomic gap dividing the population. While one of the richest men on earth, Carlos Slim, has built its empire in the country, there are also more than 50 million people living in moderate and extreme poverty. Currently, the country’s Gini Index – which reflects income inequality – is among the highest in the world.
Today inequality is a common cause for demonstrations, social unrest and driving factor pushing migration north to the U.S.
According to Transparency International, in 2014 Mexico was 103rd among 175 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index with a score of 35 out of 100 points. The high levels of corruption in Mexico, in combination with the lack of substantive results from political parties over the years have led to generalized disappointment and lack of trust between the citizens and the government.
For 70 years there was a one-party-rule in Mexico. It finally came to an end in 2000, and lasted for two presidential terms before the PRI got back into power in the last election. Even though there is a wider range of viable political parties and candidates than ever before, there is still no political harmony or trustworthy options for voters.
As a consequence, several different social movements and demonstrations – from the “Yo Soy 132” student demands or the huge demonstrations following the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa — have been organized during the last few years demanding a more transparent and honest government.
A couple of years ago, amendments to the constitution related to education declared that, among other things, professors had to be periodically evaluated in order to keep their jobs, and that senior high school was to be compulsory for the entire population. Nevertheless, actually implementing these goals is a really difficult task due to the enormous number of students and a historical backwardness in the Mexican education system.
For decades the National Education Workers Union, under the leadership of Elba Esther Gordillo (famous for stealing enormous amounts of money to fund her own lavish lifestyle) helped to stymie any sort of development in education. The union had enormous power and made it impossible for the government to negotiate any changes on educational policies.
Now the scenario has changed and the government has taken control, but the country is still far from achieving an adequate educational levels.
According to the OCDE, young Mexican students are substantially behind the average level of mathematical skills in comparison with other countries and there is a tendency to drop out of school prematurely. Only 37% of Mexicans have managed to achieve higher secondary education — second lowest average among OECD countries.
These lowered educational standards prevent the country from developing and make it impossible to achieve equal opportunity among the population, thus exacerbating problems like poverty and inequality.
Mexico’s security problems became startlingly severe under the presidency of Felipe Calderon. During this period from 2006 to 2012, the country adopted a strategy based on direct confrontation of the drug cartels, which had long coexisted with the government. This created a wave of violence that eventually attracted the horrified attention of the entire the world.
At the moment, all of this gossip seems to be quieter, but this is only due to the fact that the current government has adopted a “silence policy,” limiting media coverage and government communication on security topics.
Mexico continues to suffer from cartel violence, especially in the northern part of the country and specific locations like Acapulco or Michoacán. Cities that used to be famous tourist destinations lost their appeal due to the high levels of violence and are suffering tough economic consequences.
Mexico and the U.S. are undeniably connected by proximity, history and geopolitical status.
Living in such a nice place as Seattle it is sometimes tempting to forget the problems back in our country.
But the challenges facing Mexico will inevitably be felt here, in the influxes of people and resources across the border, as well as in the progress and adaptation of multilateral foreign policy.
For now, it is enough to say “happy Independence Day” to my fellow Mexicans living abroad and to invite them to share their views on these issues from our new home in Seattle.
Mexican Independence Day celebrations will be held this Saturday in South Park and all weekend at Seattle Center. Details on both events here.