Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Ending corruption and poverty takes more than political theater

Did y’all ever get around to seeing that movie New Order? It’s a fairly recent Mexican film and, I’ll warn you, not at all for the faint of heart.

It’s bleak and disturbing and left me sleepless for several nights after I watched it. If you’re someone who cares deeply about economic justice, it begins as darkly satisfying entertainment. But once the blood starts spraying, shit gets serious and eyes get wide.

The movie opens with a wedding reception for two of Mexico’s young and beautiful members of the elite. One guest has given them a newly-constructed mansion as a wedding present. Many others have given them envelopes stuffed with the kind of cash most of us could only dream of earning, let alone receiving as a gift.

It’s the kind of party where none of the guests’ shoes could possibly cost any less than 4,000 pesos and where the help wear uniforms — though there’s no need if it’s for the purpose of distinction: the workers are all about five shades darker than any of the attendants. The contrast made me squirm.

The short-version summary of this film is that the wedding happens to fall on the day that a sizable number of poor and working-class people have decided that they’ve had enough and revolt. Most of the wedding guests are shocked when their barked demands to those they consider their lessers are ineffective once the domestic help turns on them, along with the invaders who’ve scaled the property’s high walls.

Soon we learn that it’s at least a citywide movement and that many of the city’s elites are being either slaughtered or jailed (and then slaughtered) in a planned attack.

The military immediately takes advantage of the chaos by declaring martial law; their goal is not to rid the country of the corruption that plagues it or to restore citizens’ freedom (not even eventually) but to simply take advantage of the situation by making a gruesome business of keeping the spoils, mostly in the form of ransoms for people they wind up killing anyway.

Part horror movie and part cautionary tale, it’s a scathing indictment of both Mexico’s elite class and the military, as well as anyone who thinks they’ll always have their hands on the reins of power. It paints corruption as an inevitable presence in the culture, automatically wielded by whoever is in charge.

Again, not for the faint of heart. It’s bleak, man. The movie made an impression on me, one I won’t quickly forget.

I immediately thought back to this movie when I read about the recent scandal of a lavish and expensive wedding between a high-ranking Morena official — the party that prides itself on “walking the walk” on austerity — and a National Electoral Institute councilor.

At least they made an effort to hide it?

The wedding of Santiago Nieto (the president’s so-called “anti-corruption czar”) and Carla Humphrey thankfully did not feature any revolts. What it did feature was the loss of US $35,000 in cash, which raised some justifiable questions at customs, and the job of the Mexico City tourism minister Paola Félix Díaz, who had flown to the wedding in a private jet. Nieto also ended up resigning.

There were some very good questions raised about where the money for such a lavish destination wedding came from considering that Nieto was an employee in a government that, again, proudly advertises itself on having brought about the end of corruption (ha!) and the dawn of government austerity. (I’m side-eying them on this one.)

Well. At least they care about the optics, which is more than I can say for past governments. Still, it’s just as disappointing as it is unsurprising.

This is why it’s so ironic to me that President López Obrador goes so far out of his way to criticize the middle class when the middle class is precisely where most of his government functionaries come from. What exactly does he think that “middle class” even means? Does he agree with INEGI’s assessment?

I truly do not get the message he’s going for. If a poor person whom he loves and admires precisely because of their poverty does well and moves into the middle class, does he think they automatically become evil? Is helping poor people not be poor anymore not his goal?

The fact that there has been zero COVID-related financial help given out to anyone during this never-ending pandemic that sent many Mexicans into poverty — rather than the other way around — more than answers that question.

At the start of his presidency, I was very hopeful. My own sympathy lies more heavily with those in need who have been kept down by systemic inequality and lack of opportunities. (For anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating, ask an Oxxo employee about their full-time wages and tell me what your own plan would be to “move up” in that situation.)

My only conclusion is that AMLO’s talking points are simply political theater. And while I’d love to still believe in the president’s convictions, I simply don’t anymore. He might have put on a good show for the United Nations, but we know that “ending poverty” starts at home. And we know that he knows that this is not what’s happening around here.

Again, I’m glad that they at least care about optics.

My heart also goes out to the newlyweds, whose memories of their wedding will forever be tainted — an unfortunate beginning to a marriage. While I don’t approve of their behavior, I also know that it doesn’t feel good to get caught, and I bet it especially doesn’t feel good to get caught for something that was supposed to be a happy, carefree event.

But being a public servant, and therefore in the public eye, is a trade-off. You get power (and apparently money that mysteriously appears in your bank account although it’s not part of your official salary), but you also get scrutinized.

The president made a show of being outraged, and he tries his best to carefully instruct the rest of us about what subjects should outrage us. For all of our sakes, I hope that this presidency is at least a genuine step in the direction of squeezing out corruption and the extreme inequality that results from it.

But I have my doubts, and I’m still squirming. So far, no New Order revolution seems to be afoot. But the scariest movies are frightening precisely because we could easily imagine them becoming reality.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, and her Patreon page.

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