Navigating Mexico: Ask and You Might Get an Answer
By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
Mexico’s National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and the Protection of Personal Data (INAI), the country’s official autonomous organism for public access to government info and data, has been in the news plenty recently due to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s incendiary comments that it is a waste of money and that is should be absorbed into other non-autonomous federal offices or be closed down completely.
Ordinary citizens and the press having access to information and source documents can be a both dangerous and nuisance for the powers that be when the narrative of the party line is the opposite of what the raw info indicates.
While this organism only came into existence in 2003 after changes were made to Article 6 of the Mexican Constitution, the concept of a government that must render accounts to its citizens goes back to Mexico’s independence from Spain. If Mexico would not be ruled by Spain, who would govern it?
The bold theory was the country would be governed by its people. Citizens would elect leaders and those leaders would hire professionals and public servants to fulfill the will of the people, creating a democratic society.
Long before an organism such as INAI came into place, Article 8 was already in place in the Mexican Constitution of 1857.
That article was revolutionary for its time and would still be revolutionary were ordinary people to actually use it.
It’s old-fashioned language sounds like something out of 1858 when people still wrote things with pen and paper, but basically it states that if done peacefully and respectfully, but in writing, ordinary folks can petition their government with questions and the specific government official being addressed must respond in writing within a reasonable amount of time.
Like in many countries, most ordinary Mexican citizens have given up on their government, assuming accountability or even an answer is impossible to get.
Rather than governments existing to do the work of the people in public or existing to carry out the people’s collective will, most Mexicans believe that the tables have turned.
There must have been plenty of foreigners living in Mexico when the Constitution of 1857 was written because it also gives this right of petition to foreigners. The only type of petitioning reserved exclusively to Mexicans are on political matters.
Many foreigners in Mexico today feel that they are second-class citizens. But they are residents of Mexico, and the Mexican government is their government, too.
Many foreigners see challenging, questioning or complaining about laws in Mexico as political involvement.
Asking authorities why the building going up in front of my house has more than the number of levels permitted, or who authorized school to be arbitrarily cancelled are not political petitions, but part of ordinary life.
Citizens in so many countries of the world, Mexico included, have opted out of political life.
The philosophy of “politics and religion are not polite topics for discussion” has really just led to a populace not knowing how to have civil conversations about difficult topics.
The body we pay and elect to have those conversations, the lower and upper houses of the Mexican Congress often display some of the worst offending behaviors.
But while some foreigners understandably feel like second class-citizens, many Mexicans feel so as well as our “representatives” look to represent their parties, only in touch when citizens need to vote.
“It doesn’t matter who wins. They all lie and steal. So why bother voting?” is heard over and over in Mexico.
Citizenship is more than voting every six years for one individual who can do very little to change the political culture of a nation.
The problem is not entirely the fault of government. Citizens have rights, but rarely know them and subsequently never exercise them.
Exercising rights in the past 20 or so years has sadly been whittled down to protest marches to block traffic to try to obtain the promise of some scraps of spoiled food from the banquet table.
Maybe part of the answer is to challenge, in writing, the more mundane oddities of daily life with our public servants.
What if citizens actually started to ask for accountability on some of the small stuff.
Maybe Mexico could move forward with less pie-in-the-sky visions of grandeur and more demands by ordinary folks on better quality of everyday life: potholes, horrible infrastructure in public schools, police officers who stand on a corner for hours on a cell phone, endless red tape to open a business, parks filled with trash, government offices that do not know their own business hours and all of the other mundane things that touch our daily life.
Any ordinary person, without specialized training, can see the little stuff. It’s right there in plain sight, each and every day.
There are no guarantees that writing to a government official — especially under the current administration — is going to get you a response, but at least it is worth a try.
I did once and I got a positive response to my problem. (But that is a whole different column.)
And if enough people start using their right to demand answers, the country (and the world) could turn out to be a better, more egalitarian and democratic place.