How revolutionary-minded is Mexico’s new president really?

Mexico’s incoming ‘leftist’ president wants to be both a man of the people and a friend to big business.

AMLO Reuters
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will soon have to make the kinds of decisions that will finally reveal the authenticity of his "revolution", writes Eventon [Reuters]

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will assume the presidency of Mexico on December 1, has promised to deliver a “radical revolution,” comparable in its transformational impact to the country’s independence from Spanish colonial rule or its revolution of 1910. He has vowed to confront corruption and the “power mafia”, to improve social services and put the poor first. But the nature of this revolution, and even the political orientation of Lopez Obrador’s party, remains unclear.

Lopez Obrador, who is known by the acronym AMLO, was once a confrontational left-wing candidate. Ever since his latest presidential campaign began, however, he has become a friend to all. Harmony and unity, peace and love were the buzzwords of his campaign. While he claimed his administration would represent the people in power and end three decades of neoliberalism, at every step he reassured Mexico’s elite sectors that they had nothing to fear. There would be no expropriations or nationalisations, he said. Taxes would not be raised and tax-free zones would be created to encourage investment.

Nowhere in his policy prescriptions were there any measures that might disturb the oligarchic groups accustomed to having the country run in their interests. Representatives of the major business sectors have been understandably enthusiastic. The Mexican Business Congress, which once opposed AMLO, held a meeting with his new incarnation and told the press they were looking forward to working with him. They found him “pragmatic,” they said. AMLO has met Carlos Slim – Mexico’s richest man, the primary beneficiary of the privatisations of the neoliberal period and the supreme example of the concentration of economic power that has stunted the country’s economic growth. He praised the billionaire as “a great businessman who has known how to triumph in Mexico.” When he spoke to business groups in Monterrey, AMLO was interrupted on three occasions by loud applause; among the most fervent was the representative from FEMSA, Mexico’s fifth-largest company and the largest independent bottler of Coca-cola in the world.


A candidate for all

That balancing act – simultaneously a revolutionary man of the people and friend to big business – could only be sustained through a calculated strategy of political ambiguity. A key element in AMLO’s electoral success, the current affairs magazine Nexos observed, was “a fierce discourse of opposition to the status quo, but without a limiting ideological contour.” MORENA (The Movement of National Reformation), the political vehicle founded by AMLO in 2014 after two stints with mainstream parties, has mobilised those who feel excluded from political life, who are tired of violence and inequality and the venality of the political class. The party describes itself as left-wing, but its declaration of principles acknowledges it is open to people of “diverse currents of thought.” And it is: ex-members of the right-wing PRI and PAN parties, leaping from sinking ships, have been accepted into the fold.

Such ideological flexibility meant alliances could be formed during the presidential campaign with both Maoists and devout evangelicals without violating any strict set of principles. John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker magazine followed AMLO on the campaign trail. “His campaign strategy,” he wrote, “seemed simple: make lots of promises and broker whatever alliances were necessary to get elected.” Policy prescriptions for sensitive topics were necessarily vague and inoffensive. AMLO would not take a firm stance on drug legalisation, nor explain how he would confront the violence of the cartels.

He does, however, seem committed to the militarised approach to policing in Latin America: In November he announced a National Plan for Peace and Security, which contradicts his campaign discourse and affirms a central role for the military in fighting organised crime. The new plan, writes Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, could be “the culmination of the dream of the right wing on the continent: to bring Mexico closer to a military regime.” 

The primary economic objective in particular was unimpeachable: to double Mexico’s sluggish GDP growth to around four percent a year.

It is, therefore, understandable that, even after the electoral victory, articles could still appear in the press with headlines such as, “AMLO: Of the Left or the Right?” When the journalist Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez commented on the apparently “opportunistic” nature of AMLO’s transformation and accused him of being a conservative, Lopez Obrador responded by dismissing Herzog himself as a conservative masquerading as a progressive.

For Commander Galeano, a representative of the Zapatista movement, the answer was unambiguous. “He is the most right-wing of the four candidates,” he told the press. The case for the right-wing interpretation was only strengthened when AMLO made his first significant political decision: the selection of his cabinet. It is now clear that the “revolution” will involve the participation of many members of the old guard of Mexican politics. Among them is the new chief of staff, Alfonso Romo, a prominent businessman with interests in finance and the agro-industry, and a former supporter of the right-wing president Vicente Fox. After his appointment, Romo described to the press what he considered to be his challenge: “to convert Mexico into a paradise for investment”.


Three months after the presidential election, and with a certain sense of inevitability, the press reported that AMLO “has backtracked on many of his signature issues and hedged on his commitments, trying to whittle down his supporters’ outsized expectations.” As a candidate, he had said that the economy was healthy, that there was money to spend if corruption was confronted, bureaucratic costs were reduced and suitable reforms were passed. Now, he said the state was bankrupt and spending projections would need to be readjusted. The commitments he made to business groups, however, appear to be sacrosanct.

A broken country

Mexico had needed a change. Three decades of neoliberal economic reforms have strained this country of 130 million people to breaking point. Even the supporters of the system have had to recognise the failure: economic growth has been lethargic for years and the economy actually contracted in the first quarter of 2018. In a recent poll, only 3.8 percent of respondents said they thought the economy was heading in the right direction. A unique opportunity for something different had presented itself. Every major political party was tainted by corruption and the legacy of the neoliberal reforms.

A campaign for change by a politician with an unblemished record and supported by a new political movement could be successful. In this sense, the Pink Tide governments that emerged from the wreckage of neoliberalism at the turn of the century were useful precedents. The saccharine tone of AMLO’s campaign was similar to that of Lula, Brazil’s “Peace and Love” candidate back in 2002. His politics of low-lying fruit are reminiscent of Uruguay’s Pepe Mujica, whose personal asceticism enchanted the media. AMLO drives a Volkswagen Jetta and has put the presidential plane up for sale, and he is implementing a policy of austerity on the Mexican bureaucracy, including salary cuts for members of congress. These are not radical policies, but they are popular. 

The Pink Tide governments also provide a cautionary lesson. Their record is debatable, but it is undeniable that they have deepened the reliance of the region on extractivism, which now accounts for a larger share of regional GDP than it did at the turn of the century. The label attached to these development models by the academic studies has some justification: “Neo-liberalism with a human face.” AMLO himself has predicated future spending on an increase in oil production; originally a 30 percent increase in two years, although that deadline was extended to six years once he was elected.

Yet, if Mexican society is to recover, deep, structural changes are needed. Today, a fifth of the national income is captured by the richest one percent of the population. The number of people estimated to be living in poverty is around 50 million, nine million of them in extreme poverty. For the average Mexican, life is a day-to-day struggle, and most employment is outside of the formal sector. Meanwhile, the thousands of young people who see no future for themselves in the licit economy find an outlet for their anger and hopelessness in the drugs gangs. The country is drenched in blood: last year more than 23,000 homicides were recorded, the highest number in its history.

The scale of the problems is daunting. Lopez Obrador will soon have to make the kinds of decisions that will finally reveal the authenticity of his “revolution.” The friend-to-all is going to have to disappoint someone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.