After 17 months in office, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's bubble has burst, but no one seems to have noticed. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry should use his visit to Mexico City this week to radically rethink policy toward this important southern neighbor.
President Obama has placed all his bets on Peña Nieto. In his recent visits to the country, the president has showered his Mexican counterpart with praise and extolled the virtues of his supposedly "modernizing" program. But today Peña Nieto has the lowest public approval rating of any president in recent Mexican history. Only 37% of the population approves of his performance, even according to pollsters close to the sitting government. In cosmopolitan Mexico City, his approval rating drops to 19%, according to independent surveys.
These numbers are particularly shocking because Mexican citizens are well known for their presidential reverence. One of the inheritances of almost a century of authoritarian one-party rule is that presidential approval ratings only rarely dip below 50%.
Mexican officials brush off Peña Nieto's numbers as a result of economic stagnation and drug war violence. Indeed, these have been two of his principal failures. The economy is stuck in the mud, with only 1.3% growth during 2013, the lowest minimum wage in Latin America and skyrocketing food prices. There were more than 18,000 violent killings and more than 2,500 kidnappings in 2013.
But the difficult economic and public security situations are not enough to explain the unprecedented drop in approval. Former President Felipe Calderon, who served from 2006 to 2012, for instance, never had numbers as low as Peña Nieto's. And Calderon presided over even more drug war carnage, as well as an economy in which Mexico lost 9.4% of its GDP over four quarters during the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
What is new is Peña Nieto's concerted attack on social rights, and his authoritarian politics. New labor legislation facilitates the summary firing of even unionized workers and encourages the growth of the informal sector. A new education law charts a path away from the country's long-held commitment to humanist, critical schooling and toward the unbridled reign of standardized testing. Peña Nieto has also pushed through constitutional reforms that will divert the flow of Mexico's vast oil profits from the national treasury to the coffers of international oil giants and create enormous opportunities for corrupt inside deals.
These reforms will inevitably deepen social inequality and increase malfeasance in a country that is already one of the most corrupt and unequal in the world. Widespread political unrest is the most likely outcome in the medium run.
Peña Nieto has also brought back old-style authoritarian politics. There has been an increase in violence against activists and journalists, and the disappearance of debate in the public sphere. For instance, in December it took Peña Nieto only 10 days — with little or no public or congressional debate — to push through the federal Congress and the majority of Mexico's 31 state legislatures a radical constitutional reform that promises to turn back the clock on the energy sector almost 80 years, and with which the vast majority of the population disagrees.
And last month, Peña Nieto presented a telecommunications bill to Congress that would enable his government to unilaterally control television content and censor Internet service, and that grossly favors the dominant national television monopoly, Televisa.
In areas beset by violence, like the state of Michoacan, Peña Nieto has followed the classic strategy typical of old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party governments and contemporary organized crime syndicates. Instead of working side by side with community police and local "self-defense" forces, which rose up to fill the vacuum left by the absence of the state, the authorities have preferred to jail, kill and co-opt the members of these forces.
Peña Nieto has also failed to live up to his campaign promise to create an independent anti-corruption agency and to make transparent and fair the distribution of government advertising in the media. Old-style power politics remains the name of the game.
In response to all this, new citizen organizations, political coalitions and protests have mushroomed. Last month, Alfonso Cuaron, the Oscar-winning director of the film "Gravity," wrote an open letter to Peña Nieto expressing his concerns about the lack of public debate and democratic deliberation.
The return of the old apparatchiks has created an enormous power vacuum that is being filled by corrupt ideologues who declare their allegiance to the United States but whose only real objective is to grab the bag and run. Meanwhile, the U.S. obsession with access to Mexican oil and gas, combined with panic over the possibility of drug war spillover, has created a dangerously blinkered foreign policy.
Peña Nieto will be eager to shake hands and take photographs with Kerry this week, but it would be a mistake for the U.S. to trust a man whose only interest appears to be his personal wealth and power. The real hope in Mexico will not come from the commanding heights of Mexico's government or oligarchs but from the actions of common people defending their rights.