“Even if they call me messianic, I am going to purify the country.”Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
You need to have a large ego to be a politician, and even more so in a country that is riven by poverty, corruption and drug trafficking. AMLO (the initials by which Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is known) considers his Presidency to be the fourth seminal event in Mexican history, the first three being:
- The war of Independence (from Spain) in 1810
- The war of Reform which radically reduced the church’s power in the country in 1858
- The Revolution which completed the secularization of the country in 1910 – 1920
Now that is some high self regard!
Americans tend to think of Mexico as having only three facets: sunny beaches, nasty drug cartels, and a porous border through which come a lot of undocumented migrants. But it is more than this. Mexico is America’s second largest trading partner (Canada is 1st); it has a youthful, well educated population; it has a deep and rich history and culture, and along with Central America could easily serve as a counterpoint to China’s recent dominance of manufacturing.
AMLO was elected in 2018 in an anti corruption platform with significant popular support (his predecessor’s wife had acquired a multi million dollar mansion that she claimed she had paid for with her earnings from acting. This turned out to have been a “gift” from a contractor who was angling for some large government contracts.)
AMLO’s message is populist – he is very popular among the poor – but his vision for the country appears to be a nostalgic return of Mexico to the ‘70s, when the state ran everything major, and the governing party had a tight alliance with the two or three, now sclerotic unions. The Venezuelan journalist Moise Naim refers this mode of thinking – seen in his country’s leader Maduro – as “necrophiliac idealism”. Nostalgia is limited neither to the left nor to the right.
He has said his policy is “Abrazos, no balazos” (hugs not bullets) towards the narcotraficantes, reducing pressure on the organizations, which has given them license to expand their reach, typically violent and lawless.
Halfway through his six year term, AMLO has both done too much and too little. He was slow to acknowledge Covid as a threat, refusing to wear a mask, continuing to have major political rallies and being vague both about having the country supplied with the vaccine and getting one himself. As the virus spread, hospitals were overwhelmed and a black market developed for oxygen cannisters. Mexico’s is about ⅓ the size of the U.S. and has had the same number of Covid deaths (and American numbers are not anything to write home about.) Most of these deaths have occurred among the poor.
He has done little to investigate or curtail femicide, which is sadly all too common and, like his predecessors, is unable to address the massive number of unsolved murders and disappearances.
AMLO canceled a major airport expansion on which $3.8 BN had already been spent and has said he wants to use a military airport whose runways are not appropriate for civilian aircraft and which is more than an hour from Mexico City, instead.
Over ½ of Mexico’s economy is informal and cash based; eventual shutdowns and a sinking economy due to Covid meant that the poor could not earn money or buy food. The economy shrank by 9% in 2020, which may not sound like much but, in comparison, the American economy only fared worse than that in two out of 10 years of the Depression (1929 – 1939). And it is a fairly corrupt place to live and do business: ⅓ of people surveyed recently by Transparency International had to pay a bribe to get a government service and the country is in the most corrupt third of countries (124th out of180) in which to do business.
AMLO announced he plans to renationalize Pemex, the country’s oil and gas concern and considered its crown jewel. After NAFTA was signed 30 years ago, the company had slowly begun to modernize (it was notoriously inefficient and bureaucratically unionized.) and develop partnerships with international producers. He plans to force electrical utilities to buy and burn local coal, stranding a number of more efficient wind farms developed privately and polluting the air.
He is very popular among the poor – and to his credit, has made efforts to provide cash distributions to the elderly, the disabled and those unable to work. AMLO has a daily press conference at 7 AM that runs for at least an hour and during which he castigates his enemies, makes advantageous leaks of confidential information and reminds listeners of his purity and simplicity.
AMLO has begun to show an authoritarian streak of late, threatening to shut down news outlets that are critical of him and bestowing favors on allies without oversight, having opponents arrested on trumped up charges, and attacking civil society organizations and environmental groups, who he classifies as “neoliberal enemies of the people”. The New York Review of Books places him in the company of Vladimir Putin (Russia), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Narendra Modi (India), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil). All men who run autocratic democracies.
Likely AMLO will not be able to stray too far, even with his popularity: civic institutions are (just) strong enough here and the country’s ties to Canada and the U.S. (via NAFTA) to maintain its stability.