11 December 2018

A clear choice faces Mexico’s new president – pragmatism or populism?


On December 1, veteran leftwinger Andrés Manuel López Obrador finally took office as Mexico’s new president, having been elected in July with 53 per cent of the vote.

With that victory the man known to his compatriots as ‘AMLO’ broke with nine decades of conservative and centrist governments to put his Movimento Regeneracion Nacional in power.

“Today a change of political regime begins… It will be a political and orderly transformation… it will end the corruption and impunity that prevent rebirth”, the new president told Mexicans on taking office.

AMLO won the election on the promise of an “austere, no luxuries or privileges” government, a steadfast fight against corruption and the preservation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), initially threatened by Donald Trump and then reworked into a new agreement.

Although he only formally took power last week, it feels like AMLO has been at the helm ever since winning the election — every day seemed to herald a new announcement, appointment, project or initiative.

Making use of participatory democracy and a particular populist style, he has already submitted a number of different projects to referendums, from the construction of infrastructure to increasing pensions and even a plan to give every Mexican free access to the internet.

He was helped by the fact outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto allowed AMLO to define his agenda in a way that had never been seen before. Another crucial factor is that AMLO enjoys a majority in both houses of Congress.

The first and most controversial of his referendums was on cancelling the construction of a new international airport in Texcoco, just east of Mexico City. It was a substantial undertaking, a $13.3bn project to replace the capital’s old terminal, on which $3bn had already been spent.

Violence is one of Mexico’s biggest problems, which reaches ever more alarming levels each year. In 2017 alone there were just shy of 30,000 murders recorded, making it the most violent year in two decades. Depressingly, 2018 is on track to exceed that total, with some 15,973 murders in the first six months alone – an increase of 16 per cent on the same period last year.

Violence also tarnished the electoral campaign, considered “the most violent” in recent years. Between September 2017, when the pre-campaign began, until July 2018, there were more than 100 politicians murdered.

The savagery stems from decades of conflict between Mexico’s military and the drug cartels, as well as between the cartels themselves, who fight over lucrative trafficking routes. The numbers are staggering – since the government launched a military operation against the cartels in December 2006 it is estimated that more than 200,000 people have lost their lives.

AMLO’s platform, however, offers a more liberal solution to the issue of drug-related violence. In October, the then-president-elect acknowledged the legalisation of certain drugs could be part of a broader strategy to fight poverty and crime.

The legalisation of marijuana and opium is also on the agenda. At the same time AMLO has said he might pay farmers more for corn as a way to deter them from planting the poppies that provide the raw material for opium.

Liberalising the marijuana laws has also been on the agenda since well before AMLO’s election. In 2015, a Mexican court authorised imports of a drug derived from cannabis to treat a child suffering from epilepsy. Two years later, the country’s Congress approved the medical use of marijuana. Earlier this year the Mexican Supreme Court went one further and ruled that any citizen could apply for a permit to consume recreational marijuana.

The biggest foreign policy issue facing AMLO’s government is, of course, the relationship with Donald Trump. But in spite of Trump’s harsh speeches against Mexican illegal immigrants and the almost opposite political stance, the relationship between the two presidents has gotten off to a good start.

That is partly thanks to AMLO agreeing to support Trump’s plan to change the border policy between the two countries. Under the new proposal, anyone wishing to take refuge in the United States will have to wait in Mexico while their case is heard by US courts.

The migration issue is of interest to AMLO because this year Mexico itself had to deal with caravans of migrants from Central American countries trying to reach the US border. People from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have not always been well received in Mexico. In the border city of Tijuana, locals took to the streets to protest against the migrants’ arrival.

At the crossing in Tijuana, US officials also launched tear gas bombs at migrants near the pedestrian crossing. The Nieto government demanded an explanation from the Americans, before deciding to deport 98 members of the caravan.

If AMLO succeeds in taking a tough stance with immigrants from other Latin American countries and deters Mexicans from crossing the border with the US, it is possible that the new president could have an even better relationship with Trump.

However, Trump’s promise to erect a wall on the border will present a serious hurdle, not least as he still seems determined to try and force Mexico to pay the construction costs.

AMLO has already flatly rejected the idea, albeit in diplomatic terms.

“We are going to convince them that the immigration problem is not solved by building walls, or by using force, but it is a diplomatic work of respect,” he said in September. “We will not quarrel with the US government. We will not quarrel with President Donald Trump”.

Another challenge will be reviving the economy. More conservative elements in Mexico are sceptical about how a leftwing government will handle the finances of a country projected by the IMF to grow 2.2 per cent this year. Rightwingers are justifiably concerned that AMLO is both a populist and an admirer of the disastrous regime in Venezuela — indeed, during the election campaign the conservative National Action Party accused AMLO of wanting to turn Mexico into Venezuela.

AMLO’s economic team is doing its best to dispel that impression. New finance minister Carlos Urzua says he has already met with more than 65 investment funds, telling them that the new president is committed to central bank autonomy, a free-floating currency, free trade and restraint on public spending. Despite those promises, most economists fear AMLO’s well-known socialist inclinations present a serious threat to the already weak Mexican economy.

On the other hand, the reformulation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — now known as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — seems to have played well for AMLO, who sent his own representatives to the negotiations, which ended with a deal finally being signed in October.

It was important that both the outgoing Nieto government and his successor both supported the agreement and took part in negotiations. Even Trump, once so hostile to the arrangement, ended up in favour of the deal.

AMLO could also trumpet his personal involvement in USMCA, having written to Trump urging him to make “an effort to complete the renegotiation” in order to avoid “prolonging economic uncertainty”. The stakes for Mexico could scarcely be higher, given that some  80 per cent of the country’s exports go to the US.

While there have been plenty of positive signs so far, many will be waiting anxiously to see whether Lopez Obrador leads his country down an authoritarian path, like Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, or adopts a pragmatic approach that respects both individual rights and institutions — something many of his supporters sincerely hope for.

The only thing that is certain is that Mexico’s politics have taken a radical 180-degree turn. One way or another, Latin America’s burgeoning right-wing movement must learn to deal with it.

Jorge Carrasco is a Cuban freelance journalist.