Last year, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known popularly as “AMLO,” became the first left-wing president of Mexico since the 1930s. He won the presidency of Latin America’s second-largest economy with populist rhetoric of “Por el bien de todos, primero los pobres,” or, “For the good of all, first the poor.” AMLO matched this with scathing attacks on the elite and political class that for decades has forced the Mexican worker into the factories of foreign capital to become just another replaceable cog in the wheel of the global supply chains.
AMLO, with his recently founded party, National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), achieved a monumental victory in the elections of July 2018, winning 53 percent of the vote while losing only one state in the entire country. MORENA, for its part, through its alliances with other parties, picked up majorities in both houses of federal congress and won five of the nine governorships up for election. These virtually unprecedented results, combined with his personalistic control of the party, makes AMLO Mexico’s most powerful president in a very long time.
AMLO is a man with ambition. In 2018, after finally winning the keys to the presidential residence, Los Pinos, he refused to live in the luxurious mansion and instead opened it up to the public for free. When it comes to these symbolic acts, the man is a master. He is selling the presidential jet and only flies coach. His simple reasoning being that a poor country cannot have a rich president.
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His recent austerity laws have been generally taken as a strong sign of his commitment to anti-corruption. To be clear, AMLO’s austerity is not traditional austerity. The changes aim to strip the privileges of the political class and make budgets more efficient for various agencies and programs that end up wasted or filling the coffers of the corrupt.
When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded Mexico’s growth forecasts for this year and next year, the president was combative and on the front foot. He aggressively accused the organization of being responsible for decades of forcing failed economic policies on poor countries like Mexico and demanded that the IMF apologize. Any time he is questioned about Mexico’s slowing economy since he has taken office, he simply rejects the notion that economic growth is more important than development.
While all of this shows how AMLO understands the people’s desire to finally see a president who refuses to bask in the glories of the state, it is hardly what his populist campaign promised. During his campaign, AMLO claimed that he would lead the “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico, referring to his vision for the country’s future. He only has himself to blame if expectations are not meeting reality. The previous three transformations refer to the independence of Mexico from Spanish colonial rule in the early 19th century; the Reform War of the 1850s, which ushered in a new period of liberalism; and the Revolution, which resulted in the famous 1917 Constitution, at the time one of the most progressive in the entire world.
However, not everyone in Mexico is mesmerized by the president’s spell. The Zapatistas, after 25 years of armed Indigenous rebellion in the country’s poorest state of Chiapas, have been a strong voice in dispelling the myth of AMLO’s pseudo-progressiveness by refusing to support him. Just like the man they named themselves after, revolutionary peasant leader Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatistas are not being co-opted into the state machine by either force or fraud. When asked why the group did not support one of his key infrastructure projects, the president responded that it was because they did not have all the information.
There is something very telling about this response. It was a clear deflection away from an uncomfortable topic. AMLO, by his own standards, should not have to answer the question, “Why don’t the Zapatistas support you?” In his world, these are the people that his presidency is all about, los pobres (the poor). He was caught in an awkward situation where he had to tread carefully. Criticism of the Zapatistas was never an option. Instead, AMLO avoided making a serious statement and found a non-combative soft excuse. His refusal to criticize the Zapatistas and then simply shrug off their criticisms as a result of their supposed lack of information is a clear example that he understands perfectly well who he claims to represent but does not represent.
After less than a year in office, it is hard to get a complete picture of the López Obrador presidency. It would appear that there is an extremely modest degree of redistribution through social programs such as Jovenes Construyendo el Futuro (Youth Building the Future) which grants scholarships and apprenticeships to young Mexicans (although 70 percent of the apprenticeships are with private companies).
After 10 months in office, the president remains popular. His approval ratings hover between 60 and 70 percent. For Oscar Ramírez, a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who voted for AMLO, the country needs to be patient with him. AMLO “is taking on the establishment, he has everyone against him, the media, the elites, the business community,” says Ramírez, who recognizes the president is “not a clean break with the old,” but still supports him.
However, when it comes to breaking with the old and posing a true challenge to the existing structures that for decades have characterized Mexico as a rich nation full of poor people, the president has a problematic past.
AMLO’s Uncomfortable Past
AMLO served as mayor of Mexico City from 2000-2005, and this mayorship was then used as a launch pad for his first presidential attempt in 2006. After losing this election by the narrowest of margins, AMLO claimed electoral fraud and went on to shut down large parts of the country’s capital for well over a month. Still today, he claims he was robbed of an election. During this period, AMLO’s true colors were revealed.
Mexico City in the early 2000s was plagued with high crime levels, not unlike New York City in the 1990s. This made it perfect for former New York City Mayor and President Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to land his security consulting firm’s first international contract with then-mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador. AMLO decided that Giuliani’s “tough-on-crime” approach could be effective in Mexico City, despite the fact that it was rife with police abuse and overreach, as well as blatantly being racist. The $4.3 million contract went ahead, reportedly financed by a consortium of prominent Mexican businessmen, including Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim. In the end, AMLO implemented 137 of Giuliani’s 146 recommendations. Today, Mexico City remains violent and dangerous.
This was not the first time that AMLO decided to cozy up to Mexico’s rich and powerful. At the time of the Giuliani contract, the then-mayor had already formed an alliance with billionaire Slim. Together, AMLO, Slim and conservative President Vicente Fox agreed to restore Mexico City’s historical sector. AMLO named Slim as head of the reconstruction efforts. Slim, for his part, was miraculously able to get his hands on some of Mexico City’s most prime real estate in order to develop it. More than 15 years later and now as president, this coziness continues, as AMLO has refused to raise taxes on the rich.
Despite this, the president’s economic nationalism has shown that he is not as friendly to foreign and private capital as his ultra-neoliberal predecessors. Upon taking office, he cancelled the already-begun construction of a brand new $13 billion airport in the nation’s capital, one of the largest investments in Mexican history.
On August 27, the president scored a victory on his demands to renegotiate large state contracts signed under the previous administration with multinational firms in the energy sector. For months, he had refused to give the green light for natural gas to flow from the U.S. and Canada through a number of multinational-owned pipelines until an agreement was reached over what he considered unfair contracts. In his usual 7 am morning press conference, known as the mañanera, AMLO claimed he had successfully renegotiated the contracts, resulting in savings of $4.5 billion for the state.
Surprisingly, during the mañanera, standing alongside the president was none other than Slim — unsurprisingly, a major investor in one of the pipelines. Out of all the companies, Slim’s Grupo Carso was the first to budge and agree to the renegotiated deal, inevitably leading to all the other companies following suit. Time will only tell what kind of backroom deals were made between AMLO and Slim this time. Of the few details that were made public, one was that the president agreed to extend the pipeline concessions to all of the companies for between five and 10 years.
Top-Down Policy Platform
AMLO’s policies make it clear that he is not a true izquierdista (leftist). It is beyond doubt that he is an extractivist. His decision to pour billions of pesos into Mexico’s state-owned (and the world’s most indebted) oil company, Pemex, to achieve one of his presidential pet projects of building a new oil refinery at Dos Bocas, off the coast of his native Tabasco state, is clear evidence that in the fight against climate destruction, he is on the side of the destroyers.
AMLO prioritizes economic growth over local and Indigenous autonomy. Another pet project of his, the Tren Maya, that aims to connect the southern and most impoverished parts of Mexico through a 1,500-kilometer train line, is a perfect example of his top-down neocolonial vision of economic development.
Local and Indigenous peoples have been protesting for months, pleading that they do not want a huge train line sewn through their communities. Once again, the president refuses to listen and simply tells them that it’s what they need. He says that local communities will benefit from the tourism it will bring. He is completely disregarding local control, as well as centuries-old traditions that are specifically tied to the land and forcing the people he claims to be helping to accept his vision.
In terms of the drug war, which has caused the deaths of a quarter-million Mexicans in little more than a decade, he promised that he would change the years-long military approach. Instead, one of his first big-ticket legislative “achievements” was the creation of an entirely new military branch, the National Guard. This new military force has even drawn justified criticism from the Mexican right, the group largely responsible for the disgraceful levels of violence in Mexico, for becoming practically a subsidiary of the U.S. Border Patrol. AMLO claimed that as president, Mexico would welcome migrants. Instead, he has essentially become the commander of Trump’s Mexico division in his racist war against poor refugees fleeing extreme poverty and violence in their home countries.
AMLO and the Left
It would not seem so today, but there was a time when AMLO was a national symbol of the Mexican left. In the mid-1990s, he led a campaign of resistance against Pemex in his native Tabasco state. Supported by local and Indigenous people as well as campesinos (peasants), this campaign blocked 51 oil wells, with AMLO declaring the area a “territory of civil disobedience.” He was quoted in the local newspaper, Tabasco Hoy, as saying, “We are not willing to continue living in misery while a company, supposedly property of the nation, extracts new riches.” His fame as a leader of the people skyrocketed to a national level during this period. Facing the threat of incarceration, he responded, “Prison is an honor when fighting for justice.” He was even described as the “moral leader” of the Mexican left.
Now, not only is he using Pemex to build a new oil refinery off Tabasco’s coast, but he has remained worryingly quiet on a draconian law pushed by the state governor of his party that aims to punish the right to protest with over a decade of imprisonment. From leading protests a quarter of a century ago, AMLO is now leading the criminalization of them.
On December 1, 2019, AMLO will complete his first year in office. He has taken far less than one year, however, to prove that he will not be the president that so many hoped he would be. His saint-like talk of the “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico is quickly becoming just another program of top-down resource extraction, environmental extermination and community-destroying megaprojects to which Latin America has been victim for decades.
The previous transformations were about fundamental and systemic change. This proposed transformation fails in comparison. It was a highly effective campaign strategy, but now that it is time for action and implementation, it has become a call for unquestioning loyalty to a pseudo-revolutionary president that will lead only to the institutionalization and patronization of progressive social movements.
Today, the best thing the left can do is abandon Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Sadly, Mexico has reached a point where the greatest achievements that the left can aspire to come from opposing him. On too many major issues, the AMLO position is not the progressive position. The man should not be able to go on for the nextyears as president with progressive support. He should face the threat of complete abandonment in the 2021 midterm elections if he does not start to seriously change at least the very worst of his policy platform; the new oil refinery would be a good place to start.
Any so-called progressives who continue to support the man are complicit in a failed model of development that is unsustainable both economically and environmentally. Fyears can either be spent supporting this model, or searching for a serious alternative.