Observers dismayed by Brazil’s election of the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro may find comfort in the coming ascension of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, to the Mexican presidency on Dec. 1.
In June, AMLO’s Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) party swept both chambers of the Mexican legislature, and in July, he won 53 percent of the vote in the presidential election as the candidate for the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition. In his campaign, he railed against the corruption of the entrenched Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and pledged to empower populations ignored by Mexico’s decades-long policy of technocratic neoliberal reforms and harmed by the militarization of the drug war. At the beginning of his campaign, he released a list of proposals calling for, amongst other things, increased decentralization of government, doubling of pensions and free education for all (El Universal, “The ten proposals of AMLO’s pre-campaign,” 12.14.2017).
AMLO portrays his presidency as the beginning of the “fourth transformation” of Mexico, a grandiose statement from a man credibly accused of possessing a demagogic streak (The New Yorker, “A New Revolution in Mexico,” 06.25.2018). Whenever a charismatic populist comes to power, it is essential to make sure that the emancipatory nature of their project is not lost in a cult of personality or in hatred of political opponents. To this end, it is necessary to undertake a careful critique of AMLO’s actions thus far in the lead-up to his presidency so that this “fourth transformation” can truly come to pass.
The most significant action that AMLO has taken thus far is announcing that he will cancel the construction of a massive new international airport outside Mexico City, a project that critics have lashed out against for misdirecting resources and lucrative contracts to the wealthiest stratum of Mexican society. AMLO came to this decision by calling a nation-wide consulta (consultation) on the airport. Seventy percent of the roughly one million voters in the consulta voted no. Instead, the Mexican government will improve and expand pre-existing airports in the area (NACLA, “Mexico Says No to a New Airport,” 11.26.2018).
The use of the consulta process marks an exciting departure from the behind-closeddoors technocratic decision-making of the Peña Nieto government. However, only one million people participated in the vote, representing barely one percent of the Mexican electorate. In addition, AMLO’s supporters were more likely to have voted (The Economist, “Mexico’s incoming president halts an airport project, and pays a price,” 11.03.2018). The consulta process must involve much more participation from the general public or else the process is at risk of becoming a rubber stamp for the policies on which AMLO has already decided. Personalistic rule disguised as a direct-democracy is no improvement on technocracy at all.
AMLO’s proposals to expand the energy sector, fund development in indigenous communities and combat narco-trafficking also deserve additional scrutiny. AMLO wants to devote billions of pesos to expanding the Mexican oil industry, which will probably inflict negative ecological ramifications and disproportionately impact indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. These same communities also face the risk of displacement by his proposal to build an extensive infrastructure network linking southern Mexico together.
These two plans could possibly render benefits to indigenous Mexican communities by stimulating economic growth and providing employment. However, mitigating negative impacts is only possible if the government consistently communicates with local community leaders. The government must never pursue these projects for its own sake and drift away from its intended purpose of empowering locals. Reporter Alexander Gorski writes, “[I]t seems like the most powerful opposition to AMLO’s proposed ‘fourth transformation’ will indeed be coming from organized Indigenous communities and their allies” (NACLA, “The Infrastructure of a Presidency,” 09.18.2018).
Furthermore, AMLO’s proposal for a national guard combining military and civilian police to combat the drug trade and other crimes perpetuates the worst policies of the Mexican drug wars. President Felipe Calderón’s decision to deploy the military in the drug wars contributed to many human rights abuses, including numerous extra-judicial killings. By maintaining the military’s role in combating the drug trade, the proposed national guard would institutionalize the military’s drastically expanded presence in Mexican life. The current arrangement already erodes civilian control over the actions of governments; what would happen to Mexican democracy if this policy cemented itself as a permanent fixture? (The Guardian, “Mexican president-elect’s new plan to fight crime looks like the old plan,” 11.21.2018).
Despite these grave concerns over AMLO’s agenda, his presidency serves as a ray of hope in a hemisphere experiencing a period of far-right revanchism. The Mexican people elected him and MORENA with the fervent desire to reshape their society to be more equitable, democratic and just. Even if ALMO successfully implemented only a quarter of his proposals, the average Mexican would be better off. As the beginning of his Presidential term approaches, let us lend him our support and constructive criticism.