It’s fair to say that Mexico has had its share of global headlines recently. But to think that this is all down to its fluctuating relationship with its northern neighbour would be misleading. There is a very different story to tell.
It’s a story of rising prosperity; a story of low unemployment and an economy which is the second largest in Latin America. A story of a growing middle class; a story of flourishing industries (automotive and electronics, for example) – all of which is allied to a rich culture and heritage. Sure, there remain challenges – crime and high petrol prices among them – but to view Mexico purely through the prism of the Trump presidency would be mistaken.
Raymundo Balboa firmly believes that there is much more progress still to come. As deputy chief of staff in the Office of the President, Enrique Peña Nieto, he does not lack for day-to-day responsibilities, but he is also keen to stress that he and his colleagues are thinking long term.
“Everything we are doing now is oriented to specific goals,” he explains. “A more inclusive, prosperous Mexico; a Mexico with better prepared young professionals; a Mexico which is more competitive in a complex international environment, capable of facing challenges we can’t imagine today. Everything changes very fast, but Mexico, I am sure, will be ready for what is coming.”
From talking to doing
Balboa has worked for President Nieto for 12 years, starting as an advisor on his election campaign for governor of the State of Mexico, and rising to his current role in the heart of the Mexican government. It’s a role which gives him robust oversight of the machinery of the Mexican state, in particular the technical units providing data, communications and other support that any head of state needs and requires.
“Since every area of the presidency is in close communication with each other, I give my opinion and advice on different matters when required,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the main objective is to better serve citizens by helping the president in the best way I can.”
President Nieto came to power in July 2012. Since his election, the government has focused on implementing the Pacto por México, a sweeping reform programme (backed by the three main political parties) targeting changes in 13 key areas – ranging from energy to telecommunications. “Few countries in the world, if any, have had so many deep, structural reforms and in such a short period of time,” says Balboa.
“Take education, for example. We made adjustments to provide a higher quality education to children and youth, to give them a future with more possibilities of success, to make them more competitive, and to give them the tools they need to face the challenges that maybe today we can’t even imagine. I think this reform is vital, but all of them are big transformations and all of them are very profound and complex.”
Breaking down, breaking through
Of course, many in government circles would say that coming up with the reforms is the easy bit – actually implementing them is far harder. Balboa agrees that it’s far from straightforward. “Every day we see challenges in the implementation of the structural reforms, which we are determined to overcome,” he says. “We are certain that the country needs these reforms. Moreover, they reflect the demands the population has made of successive Mexican governments over the last 15 to 20 years. This government had the vision and political capability to generate the necessary agreements to bring them to reality.”
He goes on to point out that any change to the status quo will provoke ripples of dissent. “I am talking about natural obstacles to every change,” he explains. “Any adjustment, any transformation faces resistance. During the first years in office, the President of Mexico carried out so many changes. They were 13 reforms; therefore, you have at least 13 types of resistance. When you affect particular interests and privileges, the resistance is very strong and deep-rooted. Accordingly, the president is investing time and political capital to enact each and every one of these reforms.”
There has been particularly intense hostility to the education reforms, but Balboa makes no apology for them. “There are some groups that feel that their interests and privileges have been affected,” he admits. “However, those privileges were hurting a lot of students, so we decided to cut them down. And we are willing to overcome those barriers so that all the kids and young people have a quality education. Additionally, we have established an objective and transparent ladder for teachers to progress in their career, through incentives to become better educators.”
It is important to note that the reforms are not limited to the policy environment. Take the fresh deployment of digital technology as a case in point. The National Digital Strategy has prompted a number of changes, including moving the Mexican Social Security Institute’s social security and medical services online, enabling thousands of people every day to save both time and money.
“Mexico is the leader in Latin America for online government services,” Balboa points out. “At a global level, we are ranked 19th. We want to move up and are working on it – in 2012 only one out of every 100 internet users in Mexico interacted with the government, but in 2015 this proportion was one in five. There is still some way to go – unfortunately not all digital benefits are available for all the population – but the digital strategy, which is based in the Office of the President, has the task of democratising these services and making them accessible to everyone.”
Such ambitions enjoy prevalence with governments worldwide, and Balboa makes no secret of his determination to learn from other administrations’ approaches to similar challenges. “Every government has its own success stories, and there are fields of improvement in all of them,” he says. “Regarding our objectives and national goals, South Korea is a good example of achievement and progress. It is a country that has invested in education, science, technology and innovation, and it is a country to look up to in these fields.”
He goes on to cite the education reform as key to spurring growth and addressing the divisions which continue to exist in society. “This is just the beginning of a long road of reaching higher levels of education and innovation, as well as greater levels of wealth and wellbeing,” he says. “Of all the reforms, I think this is the one with the greatest capacity to improve the quality of life of Mexicans in the future.”
So, too, will the government’s Special Economic Zones in the south of the country. “Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the north of Mexico has attracted significant investment, developed sufficient infrastructure to mobilise products and services to our northern neighbours, and created wealth and jobs. But the south seems to have been left behind. We want to turn these zones into economic development hubs. We want more jobs, more services, more education, and more development for Mexicans all over the country, especially in the southern states. South Korea and Panama are countries with successful Special Economic Zones, so there is a lot to learn from them.”
These zones are a good example of government responding to the diverse needs of the populace, but Balboa goes on to say that this is not easy, pointing out that policymakers face more challenges than certainties.
“Citizens are waiting for results, and public policies are designed to achieve them,” he reflects. “However, the design, operation, implementation and evaluation take longer than citizens would like. Nowadays, they have greater expectations and therefore make greater demands of government, and the next day those demands could be totally different. This is very challenging. It is very important that the Centre for Public Impact is carrying out its work on the Fundamentals of public impact, because it is a common challenge, especially for democratic governments.”
He goes on to say that there is often a gap between what policies do and what citizens are requesting. “When the Romans needed water in their villages, they built aqueducts and resolved the public problem related to water shortage,” he says. “Nowadays, there is a trend to demand specific, individual, tailor-made solutions from governments. Only if we reduce this gap will we be more effective in providing services. It is a dilemma and we must find answers soon.”
Balboa, though, remains an optimist. Fast forward 20 years and he envisions a country which has leapt forwards in numerous ways. “I foresee a country with less inequality and which is more inclusive,” he says. “I foresee a country where women and young people participate far more in politics and in decision-making. I also foresee a more prosperous Mexico, with more opportunities for a greater number of people nationwide.”
Such ambitions, he insists, are no pipedream but instead are rooted in reality. “I am optimistic because I know what we are doing – it is optimism with a solid base,” he says. “The way to reach this vision is through the platform we are constructing in this administration, and this platform consists of the transformative reforms approved in previous years. The challenge is that we have to see through the implementation of these reforms and do what is necessary for them to mature, so they can offer even more benefits and more results in future years. Nevertheless, the reforms are going down a good path, and I am sure that they will achieve their objectives.”
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