Hey, at least wave back. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

The Mexican Government's Image Problem

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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Mexicans don't seem to care for President Enrique Peña Nieto or his historic economic reforms. And to be fair, it's his fault.

Peña Nieto enacted the most transformational fiscal, energy and telecommunications reforms the country has seen in decades during his first year in office. But he failed to sell change to a nation unaccustomed to doing things differently.

The latest poll numbers are a sobering read. More than half of those surveyed last month by polling firm GEA-ISA disapproved of Peña Nieto's job performance. Almost two-thirds fall into one of two camps: those who think nothing will change and those who believe things will get worse under his mandate.

That seems unfair to a president who has opened up a broken energy sector to foreign capital after more than 70 years, and who aims to boost competition in telecom and television sectors controlled by monopolists. Peña Nieto's administration has overhauled taxes and revised banking laws to promote lending. Plus, his education reform seeks to make teachers more accountable.

The trouble is Mexicans are less concerned about a bright future than they are with their present woes. For starters the economy is in trouble. Last year Mexico's economy grew just 1.1 percent -- the slowest in four years -- which did little to create new jobs.

Mexicans are already feeling the pinch from higher value-added taxes, courtesy of Peña Nieto's tax reform. But they will have to wait years to get the "cheaper energy for all Mexican families" that Peña Nieto promised would come from private investment in the oil industry. It is no wonder few voters see long-term reform as an achievement.

Mexico's government has an image problem that won't be easy to repair. Most Mexicans believe corruption is still rampant under Peña Nieto, and almost half say the government benefits from graft. True, Pena Nieto's government did arrest the Hermes bag-loving, teachers' union leader Elba Esther Gordillo last year. But the corrupt public servants Mexicans encounter at lower levels are still there.

Runaway violence doesn't help either. Mexican citizens distrust Mexico's security forces and are dismayed by the weak rule of law. That helps explain why 58 percent of survey respondents said the government should back the vigilante groups that claim to fight the drug cartels.

The challenge for Peña Nieto's administration is to do a better job of convincing Mexicans that changing the country, no matter how uncomfortable at the moment, is needed. Short-term economic fixes and half-hearted efforts to fight crime won't work. More importantly, the government must help dispel Mexicans' expectations for easy fixes. And it must show them that the new laws will in fact be enforced.

In short Mexico's government must spend as much time educating the population as it does making changes happen.

Selling the benefits of key reforms after the fact is tricky. But change is worth little if the public isn't convinced of its value. More dangerous still, if Mexicans remain doubtful of Peña Nieto's policies, a future government might reverse course with the support of disillusioned voters.

Mexico risks learning the hard way that the only thing worse than failing to transform a rotten status quo is undoing reforms that took more than a generation to achieve, simply because people failed to understand what was at stake.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Raul Gallegos is a contributor to Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @raulgallegos.)

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net