On repeated occasions in recent months, Felipe Calderón has urged Mexicans to avoid speaking ill of their country. The latest example came in a speech in late March, but perhaps the clearest iteration of the president’s frustration came in a January speech:
“Unfortunately, Mexicans frequently judge our country with as much severity as we can, much more severely even than on other issues,” Calderón said.
As he often has while addressing this topic, Calderón compared his nation to its traditional Latin American measuring stick, Brazil. “The international perception is that Mexico is in chaos…And nevertheless, Brazil is a sort of paradise. What’s more, they scored the Olympics Games and the World Cup.” The president continued, “I, neither as a politician nor as the president…have never heard a Brazilian speak badly about Brazil.”
There is more than a small kernel of truth to Calderón’s complaints (though one suspects if he has literally never heard a Brazilian complain about his country, Calderón’s interactions with normal Brazilians are quite limited). Brazil is the clearest example, what with Lula enjoying rock star status while Calderón is widely seen as a president under siege (though the South American nation’s weathering of the economic crisis has a lot to do with that). But other countries provide a similarly striking comparison. As with Brazil, most of Central America aside copes with murder rates that far exceed Mexico’s. Colombia, which by most lights has enjoyed something of a security miracle under Álvaro Uribe, remains far more dangerous than Mexico.
Of course, the murder rate isn’t the only way to measure the security of a nation, and, relative even to other more dangerous countries, Mexico has very serious problems in the size and strength of its criminal groups. But there undeniably is a case to be made that Mexico’s security problems are as much a matter of perception as they are a reality.
However, President Calderón is the last person in Mexico who should be making said argument (at least, not in the way that he is doing so). One reason is that it is just bad form for a president to attack people for being critical, especially in a nation less than a generation removed from authoritarian rule. By all means, he should push back against misleading narratives, but to criticize regular Mexicans as somehow bad citizens for exaggerating the scale of insecurity is inappropriate for a democratic president.
Calderón also forgets that no one in the nation is more responsible for the attention to security matters than the president himself. His team made security the centerpiece of the administration’s agenda from virtually the moment he arrived in office in December 2006, sending the army to root out drug traffickers in Michoacán less than two weeks after his term began. Calderón has repeatedly hailed his aggressive combat of organized crime as the foremost characteristic of his government, and security was virtually the only issue his party used in last year’s mid-term election campaigns.
It wasn’t until the aftermath of miserable defeat in those very elections that Calderón decided to place security on the rhetorical backburner. Unfortunately for Calderón, the attention of 100 million citizens is not so easy to manipulate; the nation’s gaze, honed by years of practice, remain fixed on the daily reports of decapitations and kidnappings regardless of what is on the president’s agenda in a given day.
Lastly, Calderón’s criticism is counterproductive. As with the “don’t think of an elephant” paradox, Calderón’s admonitions against speaking ill of Mexico stirred up a nest of commentary about his remarks and the surrounding security situation. Such discussions quite naturally focus on Mexico’s struggles with insecurity and the government’s failure to put a damper on drug violence, precisely the sort of thing Calderón wants to avoid.
The fact is, there’s really not a whole lot Calderón can do to make Mexicans speak well of Mexico. As powerful as the president is, he can’t bring about a change in the national character or in the country’s favorite pastimes by force of his will. Instead, Calderón should set his sights on more modest targets that are under his control: improving the Federal Police, raising employment levels, and speedily implementing the judicial reform passed in 2008. Aside from being more reachable goals, if he succeeds on those issues, security will eventually cease to be such a pressing problem.