Why is Mexico Mexico and Iceland Iceland?

The differences are legion, but respect for
the rule of law may be the most telling 

     Whenever Stew and I travel to a so-called First World country, returning to Mexico, our home for almost 12 years, is invariably a shock.

The taxi ride from the Mexico City North bus station to the airport, or vice-versa, is an hour of hopping and bouncing, and high-speed weaving and zigzagging, with scenes of urban grit flashing past the windows like a fast-forward slideshow. The first time the experience is a bit exotic, even exciting. Lately, it grates.

The views from the bus that takes us to San Miguel are no less jarring. As we approach San Miguel, on the right-hand side—and a stone’s throw from the municipal building—we catch sight of the city’s ever-expanding garbage dump—with no fences or boundaries, along with busted road markers and other signs of dilapidation, indifferent government, or both.

That hackneyed expression crosses your mind: We’re not in Kansas any more, or Amsterdam, Lisbon or even San Antonio, Texas.  
     Definitely not Iceland, where Stew and I recently spent close to two weeks. It’s a spectacularly beautiful, Kentucky-size island, with just 320,000 residents, that seemed so orderly and peaceful it could have been Switzerland as interpreted by Walt Disney. 

Reykjavíc, not Mexico. 

The topic of comparative politics and economic development has always been fascinating to me. Why does tiny Costa Rica prosper placidly in the middle of the perpetually violent and impoverished Central America? How come Haiti is such a pit of poverty next to the not-nearly-as-bad Dominican Republic? Why is there such a difference in per capita incomes among Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which are next to one another? 

Certainly Mexico and Iceland are vastly different along every vector imaginable: size, history, natural resources, ethnicity, not to mention predatory neighbors and climate.

But for all their unfathomable differences, by all rights Mexico should be far more developed and prosperous than Iceland.
     Iceland brushes against the Arctic Circle and is kept from freezing solid by the Gulf Stream that comes up from Mexico, ironically enough. It straddles uneasily across two of the earth’s tectonic plates, the North American and the Euro-Asian, that constantly shift this way or that and sometimes announce their moves by belching magma along with ash, smoke and rocks the size of midsize sedans. The climate? On a merry Christmas Day Icelanders might get five hours or less of diffuse daylight, never mind sun, and it’ll take several months before the wintry penumbra dissipates and the night/day ratio is reversed. 

Unlike Mexico, Iceland doesn’t have many natural resources except cod fishing—an ancient and perilous occupation—and more recently, tourism. Early this century Iceland suddenly erupted as a international financial casino, with billions of dollars, yens and euros flying in and out, a free-for-all that ended just as quickly as it began when all its three banks went bankrupt, presaging the worldwide financial crisis of 2008. 

An economic depression followed that lifted, miraculously, a couple of years later when the country took all the “wrong” steps toward recovery. It let the banks collapse rather than bail them out, and the government guaranteed the accounts of Icelandic depositors but stiffed foreign speculators, in addition to a number of other unorthodox measures. Unlike their colleagues in London and New York, banking executives were sent to prison for their role in the economic catastrophe.
     That last point may be the most symbolic and significant to Iceland’s success: The country took the unusual step of sending crooked bankers to a remote prison, at the foot of a glacier and an extinct volcano, to work on their memoirs. That was gutsy move neither the U.S. nor Britain dared to take.

In you’ve lived in Mexico for a while you probably have gotten inured to top-to-bottom corruption and rampant disregard for the law.

There’s the quotidian grind of spectacular killings and gang wars alright, but more corrosive is the lack of transparency, an element of civic morality that leads businesses to deal confidently with the government and each other according to established rules, and citizens to trust the authorities. There are rules clearly enunciated and respected by all the players.

In the 2016 Corruption Perception Index conducted by Transparency International, Mexico scores a dismal 30 points out of a hundred, and ranks 123 out of 176 nations studied. Tiny Iceland scores 78 points out of 100, and ranks 14 out of 176 countries—not as high as the hyper-straight Danes but miles ahead of Mexico.

The connection between lack of a rule of law and poverty—and which comes first?—is hard to unravel but seems elemental.

José Ugaz, chairman of Transparently International neatly described the problem: “In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.” Amen, José.

Mexico however might take a some solace in one regard: Icelanders seem to have discovered Mexican food. One restaurant we visited had a large section of the menu devoted to enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican delicacies and another offered tortilla chips and guacamole to nibble on before the main course. The guacamole—how far did those avocados have to travel?—tasted realistic enough.


A slideshow of my photos of Iceland is available at

11 thoughts on “Why is Mexico Mexico and Iceland Iceland?

  1. I thought perhaps that the differences between Iceland and Mexico might be explained by a colonial history, but Iceland too was a colony or territory of Norway and then the Danes for many centuries. Perhaps Norway and Denmark were less rapacious rulers than Spain.The photos are wonderful! If you like that scenery and cooler weather, come to Newfoundland next summer. Whales, lighthouses, cod, and REALLY nice people!


  2. Felipe: I've entered all sorts of factors into my head and whenever I think I have an answer, counterarguments come up. What do you mean “multicultural”? Multilingual, multiracial or all of the above. The Icelanders are as homogeneous as they come: same weird language, culture and history, and all so white and blond your eyes hurt. All Lutherans too, to the extent they believe in any organized religion. Lutheranism is even the official religion and churches and ministers are supported by the government. But there are other countries like that too. Egypt (like other Muslim countries) is pretty mono-cultural and -lingual and -religious (except for a Christian minority) country and right now they can't get it together to watch a fire. And it's not because of Islam–don't start on that–because many Muslim countries in the past have created tremendous cultures. But in Switzerland, where folks speak German, French and Italian, depending at which end of the country you're at, seems to work just fine. Spain also has all sorts of cultures and languages going and they do OK. I keep coming back to the rule of law, but the problem is whether the rule of law leads to development or the other way around.Iceland is beautiful–and the most expensive place we've ever been too. If you like $27 hamburgers and $45 pork chops. this is the place. Glad you liked the pictures.Al


  3. I think we're getting warm. The Spanish conquest–with the Catholic Church singing harmony–was so brutal and predatory, it certainly didn't help the long-term development of Mexico. When you think of the Protestant pilgrims, you figure they didn't bring the rape-pillage-and-plunder mentality of the Spaniards (though the Indians didn't fare so well) and they came to America to stay and build a home. At least at the beginning the Spaniards came to steal everything that wasn't nailed to the ground, and created racist and class structures that remain to this day.I've heard rumors about those Newfies and how beautiful the place is–and how weird they talk (some kind of Gaelic brogue?) It's definitely on our travel list. Thanks for your comments.


  4. Not entirely monocultural: “93% of the residents of Iceland are Icelandic citizens, with one tenth of the population being foreign-born. Most Icelanders are descendants of Norwegian settlers and Gaels from Ireland and Scotland who were brought over as thralls or slaves during the age of settlement. Recent DNA analysis suggests that around 66 percent of the male settler-era population was of Norse ancestry, where as the female population was 60 percent Celtic.” And conversion to Lutheranism was forced upon them by the Danes.


  5. Thank you for the fact-checking. Talking to service people–restaurant servers, hotel workers etc–we did indeed run into Spaniards, Czechs, Poles, Italians and one Roumanian. People who had come to look for work, but overall it was about a visually homogeneous population. We didn't run into a non-white, except for a couple of tourists. I was told there is a tiny mosque in the capital. Somebody mentioned that the original Icelanders started out as Pagans who worshipped Nordic deities and later (were) converted to Catholicism, but that the further conversion to Lutheranism came courtesy of the Norwegians, who decapitated a Roman Catholic bishop in Iceland to underline the point. Thanks for the information.Al


  6. We read about it in a travel magazine and it sounded interesting, and not too touristy. It was both of those. Wish they had mentioned about the cost, which was pretty astronomical…al


  7. Anonymous

    The rule of law is key in any place on earth for prosperity to rule. For without recourse to the law, the powerful take what they want with no recourse. How can any but the few get ahead when it is a free-for-all with no real rules. Comparative politics and economic development : a grand subject indeed. Nice essay today.


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