Mexico debates a rising political party's 'New Deal' for the poor

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[José Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[José Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

Mexico City – The fliers promoting the kickoff rally for Claudia Sheinbaum’s presidential campaign posted an official start time of four in the afternoon, but by 2pm, the main square here in this capital city – popularly known as the Zocalo – was already teeming with thousands of supporters jostling for just a smidgen of elbow room and spilling out into the adjoining streets.

The closer to the Zocalo, the denser the crowd, and the harder it was to move, until eventually, right before reaching the square, the movement of the crowd slowed, then came to a virtual standstill. With bodies pressed close together as they tried vainly to squeeze past each other, a sense of unease fell over the crowd, and panic began to show on some faces. Then a loud voice rang out, calling for calm.

“We’re all Morenistas here! Let’s take care of each other!” yelled the voice, using a common term to refer to supporters of the leftist political party, Morena, founded by Mexico’s outgoing president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The crowd immediately began to settle down, the bottleneck dissipated and the Morenistas continued on their way, most finding a relatively comfortable patch of the Zocalo from which to cheer on Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s governor, and Lopez Obrador’s protege. Mexico City officials estimate that 350,000 people – roughly the entire population of Cleveland, Ohio – attended the March 1 kickoff rally.

Only a decade after it was founded, Morena – both an acronym for the National Regeneration Movement and a Biblical allusion to Mexico’s Indigenous version of the Virgin Mary who is often referred to as La Morena, meaning the “brown one” – is, by most accounts, uniting the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking country, modernising the state, and recalibrating the relationship between the governed and their government.

The key figure in this political movement is the 70-year-old Lopez Obrador, who has gained an almost cult-like following since 2018, when voters elected him by a nearly two-to-one margin over his closest rival. Elected on a campaign promise to “put the poor first”, Morena and Lopez Obrador – widely known as AMLO – have enacted a series of Keynesian reforms intended to increase consumer buying power, reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[José Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[José Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

In six years in office, AMLO has nearly doubled the national minimum wage from 123 Mexican pesos (about $7) to 249 pesos ($14). The pay hike has combined with a host of labour laws to empower trade unions and raise wages here to an all-time high on a per-capita basis.

Under AMLO’s leadership, the government has created an enormously popular pension plan for retirees and steadily expanded the number of families receiving cash stipends to 14 million, while increasing the average payment by more than half when adjusted for inflation. Nearly every household in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero – traditionally among the country’s poorest – receives some form of government subsidy, and in total, cash assistance programmes have helped lift 5.1 million people out of poverty between 2018 and 2022.

Cheques from the public treasury have helped shrink the income gap between the nation’s richest and poorest from a factor of 21 to a factor of 15 between 2016 and 2022, and reduced the national poverty rate to 36.3 percent, the lowest in a generation, according to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, a federal agency.

Morena has also committed $2.8bn in public funds to the construction of a 188-mile railroad corridor linking the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean in an effort to create a major international trade hub rivalling the Panama Canal. And construction is under way on the Mayan Train, which, when finished, is projected to transport three million passengers annually along a 1,555km (966-mile) stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula.

‘The Fourth Transformation’

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

"Morenistas" (supporters of the Morena party) have dubbed Lopez Obrador’s administration Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation” – after the Mexican revolution, the nation’s independence from Spain and the 19th-century reform government of Mexico’s only Indigenous president, Benito Pablo Juarez Garcia – for sharply reversing the classical, free-market policies of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years until 2000, and another six years between 2012 and 2018. According to a poll taken in January of this year, nearly seven in 10 respondents approved of AMLO’s job performance, down only marginally from his first months in office when the ratio was eight in 10.

While Mexico’s constitution prohibits Lopez Obrador from running for reelection, Sheinbaum is polling so far ahead of her closest rival that the only suspense surrounding the June 2nd presidential poll is whether Morena will win the two-thirds congressional majority it needs to amend the constitution.

 “The polls show that the people have it very clear,” said Miguel Chavez Azcue, who travelled to the March 1 Morena rally from his home in the city of Puebla, 160km (83 miles) away. “There has been a revolution of consciousness in the Mexican people, people are well informed, and the evidence is this fully packed square.”

Unsurprisingly, the country’s elites take a dimmer view of the populist president than do his supporters. In Mexico’s wealthier enclaves, AMLO is excoriated for what "la classe alta" (upper class) describes as his cheap, ill-fitting suits, police reforms that they characterise as “soft-on-crime”, his authoritarian style, and a default position that blames the country’s elites for practically everything.

Stiff Opposition from 'La Classe Alta'

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

Of that litany of grievances, the country’s enduring crime woes are perhaps the most difficult to refute. The crime rate here remains stubbornly high despite Lopez Obrador’s criminal justice reforms that promote “hugs, not bullets”. By emphasising job training and scholarships for youths, the governing party has lowered the number of arrests by police from 21,700 in 2018 to 2,800 in 2022, and the country’s homicide rate by nearly 10 percent between 2021 and 2022. And although polls consistently show that Mexicans feel safer today than they have in almost a decade, there were still more than 33,000 homicides in 2023, or 25 homicides per 100,000 in population, a rate that is more than four times higher than in the US. In December of last year, farmers in rural Mexico state deployed machetes and sickles to kill 10 gang members who authorities said were demanding payments of as much as $600 to work their own land, according to media reports. Four farmers were also killed in the melee.

And then there is the question of Mexico’s electoral integrity. In 2022, Lopez Obrador proposed a constitutional amendment to restructure the nonpartisan agency that oversees elections and is largely credited with helping the country free itself from the PRI’s iron grip on Mexican democracy.  Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched across the country in November of 2022 to protest the measure, which would have replaced the leadership of the National Electoral Institute, or NIE, with political appointees who would be confirmed by popular vote. In advance of the rally, the Mexican journalist Denise Dresser wrote on X:

“Tomorrow I will march with colleagues and friends from the Institute for Democratic Transition Studies.

"Because I remember what it was like to live in Mexico without free, clean, and fair elections.

"Because AMLO/Morena want to distort/discredit the civic achievements of an entire generation.

"Because it was @lopezobrador_'s duty to correct the political, institutional, and partisan mistakes of the past, not worsen them.

"Because I refuse to be complicit in hegemonic aspirations that would return us to the old PRI regime.

"Because I refuse to accept the false dichotomy of strengthening social rights but sacrificing political rights in return.

"It's not about being 'right-wing' or 'left-wing', or being pro-AMLO or opposition. It's about being a citizen and a democrat. That's what's at stake."

Congress killed the bill the following month but AMLO’s critics point to it as representative of his authoritarian streak and worry that if Morena wins two-thirds of the seats in Congress, the party might succeed in watering down the NIE and ultimately reduce Mexico to a one-party state yet again.

Similarly, Lopez Obrador introduced a plan last month to guarantee pensions that pay 100 percent of retirees’ full salary, garnering heavy criticism. No other country in the world provides such a guarantee, and AMLO’s detractors in the media and among the country’s elite pounced in the run-up to the polls in June. Even with his party controlling both houses of Congress, there is virtually no chance that lawmakers would approve a bill with such an onerous price tag.

“It’s an election year, so all these reform initiatives can be seen as something to get people to vote for Morena,” Gabriela Siller, the director of analysis at Banco Base, told The Associated Press.

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

Also in February, the New York Times published an article alleging that “American law enforcement officials spent years looking into allegations that allies of Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, met with and took millions of dollars from drug cartels after he took office.” The brief article acknowledged that the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by AMLO, but at a news conference, a visibly angry Lopez Obrador railed against the Times for publishing the account and even read aloud from an email he’d received from one of the story’s authors, Natalie Kitroeff, the New York Times’ bureau chief for Mexico, asking for comment.

What outraged his domestic critics, political opponents and the international press corps, however, was that AMLO not only identified Kitroeff by name in his news conference but publicly recited her phone number. Foreign correspondents working in the country accused the president of putting a bullseye on Kitroeff’s back in a country where two journalists are killed each year, on average, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“This is tantamount to doxxing”, Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote on the social media platform known as X, [which is] “illegal by Mexican privacy laws and places reporters at risk”.

A federal agency, Mexico’s National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection, announced that it was opening an inquiry into Lopez Obrador’s remarks made at the news conference. But according to the polls, the row had no discernible effect on his popularity, with Morenistas pointing out that the journalists murdered in Mexico are typically Mexicans employed by local news outlets and investigating criminal gangs, and defending the president from what many said was a plot hatched by Sheinbaum’s main political rival, Xochitl Galvez, to discredit the upstart party.

Still, the contretemps shine a light on AMLO’s appeal with a broad swath of the electorate.

The Iconoclastic President

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

First, there is his accessibility. Unlike his predecessors, he holds daily news conferences and makes himself available to reporters and his constituents in a way that previous administrations did not. He is known to take the bus, stop at convenience stores to shop, or just chat with shopkeepers and their customers; peppers his Spanish with colloquialisms and slang; serves traditional Mexican comfort food, like tamales, at state banquets, and routinely visits remote villages and poor neighbourhoods where no Mexican president in memory has stepped foot.

Secondly, while AMLO is often referred to as a left-wing, his politics are, in fact, quite complicated, making it difficult for opposition parties to either pigeonhole or define him. Consequently, public critiques of his government tend to bounce off Lopez Obrador earning him the nickname once associated with Ronald Reagan in the US, "the Teflon President".

For example, while Lopez Obrador embraces a left-wing label, he is, in fact, a deficit hawk in the extreme, cutting Mexico’s budget almost to the bone. What differentiates him from other deficit hawks, however is where he cuts.

One of Lopez Obrador’s first acts as president was to slash his own pay by 60 per­cent, as well as that of his executive staff and Congress. He moved into a relatively modest apartment, abandoning the presidential palace, known as Los Pinos, and converting it into a public museum; he sold the presidential plane, a Boeing, and for years flew coach, where it was not uncommon for him to be serenaded by admiring fellow passengers; and cut education spending by $12bn, or 10 percent, since taking office.

According to Bloomberg, Mexico’s budget is one of the tightest in the world, with deficit spending increasing by only 0.6 percent during the pandemic, while the conservative government of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro increased spending by 3 percent during the lockdown without producing significantly better health outcomes.

“He is not a tax-and-spend liberal”, Ignacio M Sanchez Prado, professor of Spanish, Latin American studies and film and media studies at Washington University in St Louis, told Al Jazeera. “He makes the case for what he calls ‘republican austerity’, which warrants against the overspending of public resources.”

'No rich government in a poor nation'

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Mexico's Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard hold a call at the National Palace in Mexico City. Lopez Obrador is seen on the far side of the wooden table, in front of a Mexican flag and a glass-shielded book case.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has championed development projects as an economic boost for Mexico’s economy [File: Mexico Foreign Relations Ministry handout/Reuters]
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has championed development projects as an economic boost for Mexico’s economy [File: Mexico Foreign Relations Ministry handout/Reuters]

In AMLO’s view, those resources are better spent on the poor than on the opulence that attends high elected office, or even institutions, such as colleges and universities, which promote the kind of cultural elitism that he detests, inspiring one of his favourite catchphrases: “There can be no rich government in a poor nation.”

An elderly woman in the Mexico City suburb of Alvaro Obregon, Clotilde Patricia Cervantes Gomez was among the thousands who attended Sheinbaum’s March 1 rally. When she lost her job four years ago, she turned to one of the 300 community centres across the country created by Sheinbaum and Morena. At the centre – known as PILARES, or pillars in English – the staff helped her start her own microbusiness to get back on her feet. Cervantes Gomez attended the Sheinbaum kickoff rally as a grassroots volunteer organiser for Morena.

"I was left hanging when the pandemic hit, honestly”, Cervantes Gomez told Al Jazeera. “But today, I feel protected."

It is Lopez Obrador’s unique political identity as both a populist and an iconoclast that has transformed Mexican politics, not only in terms of lifting the people’s living standards but also renewing their faith in government and raising their revolutionary consciousness. When AMLO was elected president, 88 percent of Mexican respondents told pollsters that they believed that the government primarily served the elites. But since then, the ratio of Mexicans who trust the federal government has nearly doubled, according to the polling agency, Latinobarometro, and the number of respondents who told pollsters that the federal government is "not or only rarely corrupt” has tripled. Polls show that as many as two-thirds of Mexicans believe that Morena has the country on the right path and want Sheinbaum to continue AMLO’s policies.

“I believe in Lopez Obrador and I believe in Claudia,” a man who gave his name only as Honorato told Al Jazeera while attending Sheinbaum’s kickoff rally. He is from the town of Sierra Otomi Tepehua in the state of Hidalgo and had driven six hours to attend the rally in the capital city.

“We want Claudia to follow his example.”

Raising Revolutionary Consciousness

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]

Similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration that led efforts to dig the US out of the Great Depression, Morena's political project has inspired a kind of civic project here, raising the "revolutionary consciousness" of Mexicans who have traditionally felt estranged from their politicians.

By rescuing the state-owned oil company from an attempt to gradually privatise it, nationalising the country’s lithium reserves, and consolidating the government's control over Mexico's electric utility, Lopez Obrador has imbued in Mexicans a sense of national sovereignty, or patriotism.

In that same vein, AMLO has charted an independent foreign policy path for the country, respecting the United States, but also demanding respect in return. As one example, Lopez Obrador has broken with tradition by publicly expressing support for the left-wing presidents of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel, and Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, both of whom have long been at odds with Washington.

Marcelo Ebrard, the ex-foreign affairs secretary under AMLO, who finished second behind Sheinbaum in the race to succeed Lopez Obrador at the top of the ticket, told Al Jazeera that this election season marks an inflexion point in the nation's history.

“This a campaign where the continuity of the Fourth Transformation is at stake. We have support from the majority of people, but we must not become complacent,” Ebrard said. “The majority of Mexican society is with the Fourth Transformation because there have been real changes that had not been seen before.” Continuing, he said:

“It is very clear to me that the great strength lies in the results that President Lopez Obrador has achieved. In my opinion, he is the most important president that Mexico has had so far this century.”

Among the pledges articulated by Sheinbaum at her kickoff rally was a commitment to continue defending the country’s national sovereignty.

“We will be respectful of the government of the United States, we are their main trading partner, there will always be goodwill for coordination, but it is also up to us to demand respect for our sovereignty [and] for the Mexicans on both sides of the border,” she said to raucous applause. “Coordination yes, subordination no. We will never bow our heads.”

Miguel Chavez Azcue, who travelled to Sheinbaum's campaign launch from his home in the city of Puebla, told Al Jazeera:

“We are in a transition process where the country is consolidating itself as a sovereign country and right now Claudia Sheinbaum is giving continuity to that project and is telling us we are not going to be a country that depends on foreigners, nor that submits to foreign interests or large international companies.

"We are going to make decisions in favour of the interests of the people.”

In Mexico, a New Deal, and ‘revolution of consciousness.”
[Jose Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
[José Luis Granados Ceja/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera