QUERETARO, Mexico, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- "Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my gun," Hermann Goering, Hitler's designated successor, is said to have said. That told us more about Goering than about culture. For this writer, "new paradigm" is the phrase that has me reaching for my gun. Mexico seems to be flirting with one. And no wonder. It's called the Spanish model.
What would a Spanish model have to do with poor Mexico? Not very much, one might think. But no, she has at least one tie from her less-than-glamorous past. For Spain was poor not so long ago. It trailed a long way behind its northern European neighbors.
Gabriel Tortella, professor of economic history at the Universidad Alcalá de Henares in Madrid, helps to explain why in his book, "The Economic History of Contemporary Spain." According to Tortella, Spain, Italy and Portugal all tended to lag behind northern Europe in the 19th century through a failure to increase agricultural production, which in turn reflected a lack of human capital: an ill-educated workforce.
In the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War of 1936 was destructive. It was followed by the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. In the dictator's first 20 years, until 1958, Franco's autarchic policies and state intervention held the economy back. While other European countries advanced rapidly after World War II, Spain fell further behind. From 1958 till Franco's death in 1975, there was some improvement. Franco turned economic policy over to technocrats. But Spain, in 1975, was poor by western European standards.
Democracy brought progress in Spain -- but slowly. It was not until Spain joined the European Union in 1986, more than 10 years after Franco's death, that the economy boomed and the standard of living soared.
What bearing does this have on Mexico? The reasons for the parallel are that Mexico, too, has just emerged from authoritarian government. For seven decades in what the great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa astutely called the "world's most perfect dictatorship," the Partido Revolucionario Institucional changed the president every six years but never relinquished power. What did this lead to? Christopher Abel of University College, London, sums it up thus: "For all its talk of a revolutionary commitment and democratic practices, the PRI is dominated by an exclusive circle of perhaps 30 men. This is a system characterized by controlled participation, central manipulation and general apathy."
It was only in 2000 that the PRI lost power. Change cannot be expected overnight, can it?
Of course not. And that, indeed, is what is beginning to be said.
In Thursday's edition of Reforma, a major national newspaper, columnist Enrique Quintana reports that the home secretary, Santiago Creel, said this week that the changes that took place in Spain did not occur in two or even in five years. And, according to Quintana, other Cabinet ministers have made the same comments in recent days.
This, then, is the new belief -- the new paradigm, if you like -- that Mexico, emerging from the 70 years of semidictatorship by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional in 2000, will, like Spain, struggle to move forward for a time but then leap ahead. Slowly at first, but inexorably, Mexico will advance. And Mexico even has an advantage over Spain. It does not need to wait for new trade ties to richer northern neighbors. They are already in place via the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. So democratization will eventually blossom. Mexico should get rich, just like Spain. But will it?
How well does the Spanish model work in Mexico?
Spain was once the world's leading power, controlling an empire that stretched from Latin America to Asia. Mexico was a colony of Spain and has never been an advanced or powerful country.
After achieving independence -- the new paradigm of its day --- Mexico has advanced much more slowly than its northern neighbor, the United States. Once the Mexicans' standard of living was not so far behind that of Americans. Now the gap is immense.
There are, moreover, more recent examples of democratization at which Mexico might look. Brazil achieved democracy in 1984, after 20 years of military dictatorship, and has certainly advanced since then. But the vast majority of Brazil's population is poor and looks like remaining so. Brazil's economy is staggering under the weight of debt built up by a government that runs a constant budget deficit. Crisis is very probable in coming years. And crisis has already struck in Argentina, at the end of last year, 19 years on from its promising achievement of democracy. New paradigms have come and gone. Perón was shaken off. The military, too. But Argentina, from being one of the world's wealthiest countries a century ago, has kept going backward.
There is no certainty that democratization will lead Mexico steadily forward. Believing so might be part of that "general apathy" mentioned by Abel.
Half of Mexico's population of 100 million is poor. State education is a disaster. The state still controls the vital energy sector. Some of the privatizations that have been carried out granted private monopolies, for example, to Telmex, the telephone company.
Mexico has the worst of socialism and capitalism: a state sector that is still dominant in key industries and a private sector that is less than competitive and tends to pay its workers poorly. Yet, worryingly, many prominent Mexicans defend the status quo. Franco had his autarky; Mexico has its nationalism, its fear that if foreign investors are let in, above all into the energy sector, Mexico will be robbed. Better, then, to keep things as they are: state-run, inefficient, corrupt, stagnant, poor.
And there is still the legacy in Mexico of that other Spanish model, the empire, which, through bureaucracy and regulation, sought to keep the conquered colonies under control. Almost two centuries after liberating itself from Spain, Mexico has not yet rid itself of Spanish bureaucracy. What happened to the new paradigm of independence?
There is nothing inevitable about success. It has to be worked for. It only comes if good decisions are taken and implemented.
Yes, change will take time. But do not be distracted by an alluring Spanish model, a vague sense that all will be well because some new paradigm is in operation, silently taking Mexico toward success. It's dangerous thinking. Mexico's problems are vast. It needs a sense of urgency. Nothing will advance without it.
Inside Mexico is a weekly column in which our international economics correspondent reflects on the country in which he lives much of the time. Comments to email@example.com.