On Saturday, December 1, five months to the day after his thumping electoral victory, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, as he is known for short) will take the oath of office at the San Lázaro Legislative Palace in Mexico City to become the president of Mexico for a six-year term. His ascent to power is historic by any measure: at a time when the Latin American Pink Tide is receding vertiginously from the historical shore, AMLO led his fledgling party Morena — founded only in 2014 — to a crushing landslide, defeating his closest rival by some thirty percentage points. In contrast to his previous presidential bids, where his support was concentrated in the center and south, AMLO swept thirty-one of Mexico’s thirty-two states, including the entire border area and even the industrial center of Nuevo León. In Congress, Morena holds an absolute majority in the lower House of Deputies and, together with its coalition partners, a comfortable margin in the Senate, as well.
From a historical perspective, AMLO’s electoral achievement stands out as even more remarkable. After seventy-one years of the post-revolution “perfect dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the failed democratic transition of 2000, and the docena trágica (tragic dozen) years of rule by the conservative National Action Party followed by a one-term return to the PRI, the 2018 Morena landslide marks the first time a progressive party has won the presidency in modern political history, the first time it has won the Congress — and, needless to say, the first time it has done both together. In a system where a disproportionate amount of power remains concentrated in the presidency, AMLO’s triumph would appear, at first glance, to be total.
Playing a Bad Hand
AMLO, however, will need every inch of advantage to play the supremely difficult hand he has been dealt. Mexico’s economy is currently growing by just over 2 percent, while inflation is running at double that. The peso has shed half of its value against the dollar under the outgoing administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, falling from under thirteen to over twenty. Public indebtedness is set to crack the ten trillion-peso mark, rising 12 percent in the Peña years in relation to GDP. The state-owned oil company PEMEX, motor of the twentieth-century Mexican welfare state, has been privatized, allowing familiar names such as Shell, Repsol, and Chevron to scoop up contracts for deep-sea oil exploration. Inequality is rampant, with a handful of super-wealthy — many of whom, such as telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, owe their fortunes to the transfer of public entities into private hands — coexisting with a mass of 61 million poor making a hardscrabble living in Mexico’s post-NAFTA agricultural ghost towns or clustered in shacks on the hillsides around its major cities. The nation is more dependent than ever on the importation of basic foodstuffs such as rice and corn as well as gasoline, maintaining only five days’ worth of reserves if the United States were to choose to turn off the taps. Corruption, already endemic, has hit a peak under the kleptocratic administration of Peña Nieto, with up to 10 percent of GDP being frittered away.
But over and above the dreary economic numbers — ongoing testament to the generational failure of the neoliberal policies applied without let-up since the peso crisis of 1982 — is the violence that has rent the nation’s social fabric asunder. Ever since the “war on drugs” launched in 2006 by Felipe Calderón to secure his hold on a presidency he did not rightfully win, some 267,000 Mexicans have been killed: 120,935 under Calderón and 146,194 — and counting — under Peña Nieto, who continued his predecessor’s militarization policies with even bloodier results. (To make matters all the more lurid, on November 13 the Mexican public was treated to the allegations of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. On trial in New York City, the defendant claimed through his lawyer that the cartel had paid millions of dollars over the years in protection bribes to both Calderón and Peña Nieto.) While doing nothing to stop the flow of drugs into the United States or the assassinations of journalists (fourteen in 2017, the deadliest country for journalists in the world) and women (671 feminicides in 2017, nearly two a day), the presence of soldiers in the streets has been much more effective at suppressing social movements and creating the conditions for transnational mining companies to take possession of the exceedingly generous concessions offered by Mexican law. In a grim repeat of colonial times, but exponentially greater in volume, Mexico is being stripped of its natural resources for elite and foreign gain.
And then there are the migrants: some 9,000 Hondurans encamped in Tijuana with more on the way, a humanitarian crisis that has led the city’s mayor to seek the assistance of the United Nations. With a belligerent Donald Trump determined to make jingoistic hay out of his threats to close the border, the fate of the migrants is set to become the first major test for AMLO once in office. Since September, his administration-in-waiting has been trying to alter the paradigm by persuading the US to sign onto a “Marshall Plan” for southern Mexico and Central America — a decidedly tough sell and one that, moreover, risks turning the combative rainforest regions of the southeast, where anticapitalist opposition to the extraction-based economics of both the parliamentary right and left is concentrated, into a free-trade free-for-all of exploitation and environmental despoliation.
The Long Transition
Mexico’s five-month transition period leaves the country in a state of extended, lame-duck limbo, giving outgoing administrations ample time to clear the decks of incriminating evidence and placing incoming governments at risk of seeing their momentum dissipate. In the last two presidential cycles, the transition periods were consumed by allegations of electoral fraud and their attendant legal and political battles; in 2018, AMLO sought to seize the initiative with a flurry of press conferences, appointments, and policy proposals. To a large extent, it worked: with a clear mandate and in light of Peña Nieto’s dire approval ratings (the worst in recorded history for a Mexican president), the president-elect’s comings and goings overshadowed those of the incumbent to an extent never seen before.
Without a doubt, the largest popular victory of the transition was the cancellation of the proposed new airport for Mexico City. The massive, $13 billion-dollar boondoggle — not set to be fully complete until the 2060s — was set to be plopped onto the bed of Lake Texcoco, a refuge for some 150 species of migrant birds and one of the last remaining aquifers in a city with problems serious enough to land it on the top-ten list of “Water Day Zero” cities. After opposing the project during the campaign, AMLO announced shortly after the election that a public consultation would be held to decide its fate. Although the non-legally sanctioned referendum — organized by Morena and with an insufficient coverage of polling places across the country — was hard to defend in technical terms, over a million people participated in the exercise, 70 percent of whom endorsed the alternative plan of converting an existing military airport to civilian use. Although elements of the media, not for the last time, warned of imminent devaluations and stock-market losses, AMLO calmly announced two days later that he had come to an agreement with the investors involved regarding the shifting of their contracts to the new project.
Meanwhile, the Morena majority in Congress, seated in September, was beginning to make its muscle felt. First up was a Law of Maximum Salaries, quickly passed, which lowers the lavish salaries of the top federal bureaucracy and eliminates the equally generous pensions of ex-presidents, a key AMLO campaign pledge. Next up — and currently at different stages of the legislative pipeline — are: a government austerity bill designed to reduce the perks and benefits of public servants; a public-communications bill to regulate public spending on publicity, which has historically acted as a coercive mechanism for governments to ensure favorable press coverage (Peña Nieto spent the equivalent of over $2 billion promoting itself over its six-year term, not to mention spending by the legislative and judicial branches and state governors); a mining bill requiring companies to consult with local populations who would be affected by their activities and enabling the government to cancel concessions in sensitive areas; a banking bill to regulate the extortionate commissions Mexico’s mostly foreign-owned banks inflict on their clients; and a bill to legalize and regulate the growth, sale, and use of marijuana, which would make Mexico the first Latin American country besides Uruguay to take this step.
What Remains Off-Limits
Positive as these measures are, and with the caveat of seeing which ultimately pass (there has been intra-party pushback on the mining bill, for example, and AMLO is opposed to anything that ruffles the hair of the banking sector), major areas exist where Morena fears to tread. First of all, there is the North American Free-Trade Agreement, soon to be rechristened the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). After years of strong opposition, AMLO came around to supporting the agreement during the 2018 campaign, with his team assisting the Peña Nieto government in the recently concluded negotiations. Although the revised version continues minor improvements to labor and environmental rights and nods at raising wages, it is still, fundamentally, the exact same agreement that has hollowed out Mexico’s manufacturing and agricultural sectors, deepening dependence and turning the nation into a precarious assembly economy for transnational factories benefiting from border-area tax havens (indeed, AMLO’s new chief of staff, Alfonso Romo, has spoken enthusiastically about extending these “special economic zones” throughout the south and southeast). And although AMLO’s team has bragged about ensuring that the independence of Mexico’s energy sector was expressly spelled out in the agreement, the key Chapter 11 provision allowing companies to challenge the government through a corporate-friendly investor-state trade dispute (ISDS) if it makes any attempt at renationalization remains very much in force.
Which brings us to the matter of energy. When Peña Nieto privatized PEMEX in 2013, AMLO, who had beaten back a similar attempt made by Felipe Calderón in 2008 through a series of public mobilizations, did not hesitate in labelling it the “theft of the century.” But by 2018, all he would promise to do was “review the contracts” issued under the new law to ascertain if there had been corruption or malfeasance in their drafting. And in August, he revealed that he would not only respect existing tenders but continue to offer more in order to boost production. The strategy, presumably, is to generate the resources necessary to initiate the slow process of recovering energy autonomy by building a new refinery and investing in infrastructure that was deliberately neglected by previous administrations. But that does not make it any less of a deal with the devil.
Finally, there is the role of the military which, in open violation of the Constitution, has become the nation’s de facto police force in large swathes of the country since the beginning of the “war on drugs.” In the 2012 campaign, and as recently as 2017, AMLO promised to return the armed forces to their garrisons if elected, attending, instead, to the underlying social and economic causes of the violence. On November 15, the Supreme Court’s near-unanimous ruling overturning Peña Nieto’s Internal Security Law — which purported to legalize the military’s role in policing — offered AMLO a golden opportunity to put this into practice. Instead, he proposed going one further by amending the Constitution to allow for the creation of a National Guard, which would bring military police from all branches together with federal police under one unified command. The proposal is to be submitted to a — this time, formal — public consultation in 2019, together with a question as to whether or not to prosecute former presidents for corruption, another area in which AMLO has been decidedly lukewarm.
From a historical perspective, none of this is particularly surprising. When NAFTA was being debated in the early 1990s, a more-or-less explicit goal of the agreement was to lock in unfettered access to Mexico’s economy in a way no future progressive government would be able to reverse. Twenty-five years later, we have the spectacle of AMLO praising Donald Trump for his “visionary and tolerant” attitude towards renegotiations. As in the economy, so in security: once the genie of government-sanctioned violence has been let out of the bottle, it is exceedingly difficult to get it back in. Hence, the prospect of a progressive government set to elevate to a constitutional level the militarization of the nation’s police force. Even if AMLO himself — as he promised in a September speech at the site of the 1968 Tlaltelolco student massacre — does not use the military to repress the people, a future president of a Bolsonaro persuasion would find no legal impediments in so doing. It does not require an excessive degree of cynicism to come to the conclusion that, by blocking AMLO presidencies in 2006 and 2012 and postponing his victory a full twelve years to 2018, the Mexican elite managed to add both the privatization of energy and the permanent presence of the military to the list of items considered irreversible. Globalization, at the butt of a gun.
On December 1, AMLO will hit the ground running with a decalogue of priority proposals, including a national old-age pension, a scholarship/apprentice program for youth, an extension of medical care to those currently without coverage, maintenance allowances for persons with disabilities, reforestation, and free internet in public places. These, together with the proposals emanating from Morena in Congress, represent a welcome set of proposals to be fought for and defended. But if the Mexican left allows itself to be boxed in by what is considered to be untouchable, in the long run, it is destined to lose the battle.