As the world reels from COVID-19, established routines and status quos have descended into turmoil, while uncertainty and panic have spread with the virus. The question on everyone's mind is: "What do we do?" Nowhere is this lack of direction more apparent than in Latin America, which is where outbreaks of the disease have yet to peak. COVID-19 came relatively late to Latin America, whereas most countries saw cases emerge in early March. The region thus had more time than other parts of the world to prepare; Asia and European countries, plus the United States, all reported cases in January and February. One might assume that Latin American governments used this extra time to institute the safeguards necessary to prevent a public health crisis. They did not.
COVID-19 intersects with and exacerbates other, more hidden, societal crises in Latin America. In the case of Mexico, this intersection offers crucial insight into the government's erratic response to the virus. Mexico is currently dealing with three societal challenges--a political crisis, a public safety crisis, and a public health crisis--and its established social context has set the stage for a poor response to COVID-19.
Mexico's Political Crisis: Polarization
Political theorists often characterize Mexico's political institutions during the 20th century as being, to use Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa's phrase, the "perfect dictatorship." During this time, the nation had a one-party system controlled by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) that oversaw a state-dominated economy. These same theorists gush at how Mexico democratized in 2000. They miss the point.
Mexico underwent a profound ideological transition in the 1980s when an economic slowdown triggered discontent with the ruling party and prompted a wave of electoral liberalization. This liberalization saw the creation of NAFTA under PRI President Salinas de Gortari and the privatization of many state industries. The resulting rise in economic inequality, already a source of frustration for many Mexicans, initiated a prolonged backlash against the PRI, culminating in the historic election of Vincente Fox of the PAN (National Action Party) in 2000.
Yet, despite the change in party, Fox's administration was a continuation of the status quo. The PAN historically championed many of the neoliberal policies that the PRI had adopted. In other words, the PRI had moved to the economic right, into the PAN's ideological sphere. In 2012, the PRI was voted back into power after frustration with the PAN's corruption. Yet, by mid-2017, approval ratings for the PRI were as low as 28 percent due to the same problems of systemic corruption and inequality
The 2018 election presented a turning point in Mexican history. It was seen as a moment of reckoning, in which the future of the country hung in the balance. Such a climate heightens existing polarization.
Mexican polarization, however, is not traditional: it is not based on differences between political ideologies or parties.
Rather, it is rooted in divisions over the identity of the government, setting those who are pro-status quo against those who are anti-establishment. It is in this...