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Learning From AMLO, Mexico’s Bernie Sanders

Issue 255

Laura Carlsen Mar 5

When Andres Manuel López Obrador was inaugurated as president of Mexico in December 2018 following a landslide election victory, progressives were euphoric. The new president’s party, MORENA, won a simple majority in both houses of Congress and it looked like nothing could stop the progressive agenda — dubbed “The Fourth Transformation” — from boldy moving forward. Mexico stood out as a beacon amid the rightwing backlash that had taken hold in Latin America.

Just over a year into his presidency, López Obrador (or AMLO as he is widely known) still has nearly five years to carry out his sweeping agenda, but the view from inside the country reveals a telling mix of advances, obstacles, limitations and setbacks. The difficulties in carrying out promised reforms to end neoliberalism, reduce violence, lift millions out of poverty and attack corruption demonstrate some of the challenges for left-wing governments in today’s globalized world, while the internal contradictions raise the question of what it looks like when progressive ideals meet the pragmatic realities of governing.

Generalizing between national and political contexts is risky, but Mexico can provide an ongoing case study for progressive candidates positioning themselves in the U.S. elections, and also for the people who support their agendas. Here are some lessons so far, from both successful strategies and contradictions that have caused political blowback.

Lesson #1: Use, don’t lose, your base.

Opposition to a left government got downright vicious during AMLO’s three presidential campaigns. Now, entrenched powers have become even more organized and sophisticated in their relentless attacks on social media, in the press and behind the scenes. AMLO touched nerves with his vows to root out corruption — a way of life for business and for Mexican politicians whose motto was “a politician who is poor is a poor politician” — and end the neoliberal economy that created billionaires, privatized public goods and services, and generated millions of impoverished Mexicans and emigrants. 

National and international capitalist interests are reluctantly working with the new government, but many are looking to exploit any opportunity to weaken it. For Mexico’s conservative press, for the opposition parties and for powerful business groups, the administration’s every misstep or poor result opens up a flank attack.

AMLO’s response has been the same as his campaign strategy: to build a popular base that identifies with and defends his political project. It’s not the same to ask for a vote as it is to ask for a population to mobilize to support a long-term political transformation. López Obrador was elected with 53 percent of the vote, more than double his closest opponent. In January 2020, he had a nearly 70 percent approval rating. His popularity can’t be attributed to results — the economy contracted in his first year and violence remained high. It’s his rapport with his base that explains his popularity. 

President López Obrador maintains constant communication with his supporters through broadcasted daily press conferences, which are aimed at them rather than the press, and weekend visits to cities and villages across the country where direct contact reaffirms his man-of-the-people image. His colloquial speech and the way he explains the moral more than political premise of his government’s actions have kept people involved. This high level of support weakens powerful critics, who so far have been unable to cause significant defections from the AMLO ranks.

Lesson #2: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

López Obrador’s progressive reforms face dangerous enemies, namely national and international capitalist interests, and the Trump administration. One could add the dethroned political elite, but after a series of neoliberal administrations that treated governing as a private business venture, it’s already included in the first category.

AMLO knows his enemies could disrupt his plans or even stage a coup against his government. His strategy has been to coddle them. The most surprising enemy-as-friend is Donald Trump. Mexicans universally detest Trump, but AMLO refers to him as “my friend” while heaping praise on Trump, a renowned egomaniac. The Mexican president decided that faced with a hostile government in its major economic partner — 80 percent of trade and most investment is with the United States — the rule would be ‘avoid confrontation at all costs.’

The problem is not so much the ideological contradiction of being friends with a white supremacist billionaire who bashes Mexico at every opportunity. It’s that to maintain this friendship AMLO has sacrificed the safety and wellbeing of thousands of Central American migrants. Trump threatened tariffs on Mexican exports, taxes on remittances and closing the border, and every time AMLO has ceded on migrant rights. His submission strengthens Trump and his anti-immigrant agenda, and erodes the Mexican president’s position as a principled reformer with a human rights agenda.

The power of Washington and the international market has also led to a mixed approach to economic transformation. The United States, with the international financial system it leads, can make or break the Mexican economy. When Trump tweets a new threat, Mexico’s stock market plummets. When North American Free Trade Agreement faltered, the peso devalued. When AMLO moved to bolster the state-owned oil company PEMEX, rating agencies reduced investment ratings. López Obrador positioned a number of neoliberals in his cabinet to reassure capitalist interests, including his chief of staff, an investment banker and biotech industrialist. López Obrador also supported the renegotiated and little-changed NAFTA, despite having criticized it as a pillar of neoliberalism.

His party MORENA has sponsored pro-business bills, including extending patents and promoting megaprojects, extractive industries and fossil-fuel development. To placate the private sector, the president did not include progressive tax reform, although his administration is closing up loopholes, increasing sanctions and doubling down on enforcement. He’s orthodox in restricting government spending, debt and inflation, while increasing social programs, public banks, health care and services. The president’s ambitious megaprojects, like the Maya Train, have sparked protests among indigenous organizations that view them as a continuation of handing over their land, territory and resources to private investors. At the same time, he never misses an opportunity to slam neoliberalism and employs strong rhetoric against the rich.

Whether this means that the “end of neoliberalism” will remain merely discursive or whether the president figures he’s buying time to make structural changes and reduce Mexico’s outward dependency at this stage is still not clear. There’s a fine line between keeping control and losing the vision.

With these contradictions festering, the government could be setting itself up for internal fracturing and external attack. The enemies-as-friends strategy has arguably worked so far, but it poses serious dangers. Sometimes it’s better to name your enemies and face them head on. Despite the short-term benefits, the contradictions could destroy the progressive agenda. Also, López Obrador will not say this out loud, but he badly needs a more progressive U.S. administration if he’s to carry out the deep economic and political reforms promised. But then, so does the rest of the world.

Lesson #3: Do not underestimate the profoundly radical nature and need for gender equality and women‘s rights.

There’s a final lesson that has captured national attention recently. As femicides and violence against women have risen, Mexican women have spearheaded increasingly strong protests, including university strikes, often targeting the presidency for indifference and inaction. López Obrador, who presides over a cabinet with 50-50 gender parity, seems to think this is the end point and that gender violence is just regular violence committed against ‘the weaker sex.” He has an opportunity to really go after lethal patriarchal power structures, but he doesn’t have a critique of patriarchy and instead has criticized the demonstrations, stating that hidden forces are instigating the protests, rather than entering into dialogue. His government has not implemented an integral plan for gender equality and the eradication of violence against women.

No progressive agenda can consider this secondary.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. She is based in Mexico City.

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