The Age of AMLO

Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s victory in yesterday’s recall referendum confirms his status as one of the world’s most popular left-wing leaders — and strengthens his mission to remake Mexican politics.

President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks as part of the daily briefing at Palacio Nacional on 16 December 2021 in Mexico City. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of Mexico entered 2022 with the wind at his back. He’s as popular as ever, his party, MORENA, is set to win most of the six governorships up for grabs this year, and yesterday romped his way to victory in a recall election, fulfilling a campaign pledge to submit himself to one halfway through his presidency. AMLO will now complete his six-year team and his mandate has been strengthened after winning more than 90 percent of the vote, albeit on a low turnout following opposition leaders encouraging supporters to boycott the poll.

Meanwhile, the opposition is in shambles, with the right-wing electoral coalition Va por México in disarray and the ‘federal alliance’ of opposition governors having fallen apart. In the coming months, ribbons will be cut at two of the set pieces of the president’s infrastructure agenda: the Felipe Ángeles Airport in Mexico City and the Dos Bocas Refinery in the state of Tabasco. And his government is on the verge of passing a constitutional-level reform that would wrest back control of energy for the public sector while nationalising the country’s substantial lithium stores.

It’s a sight that’s so unusual in the English-speaking world of today that you’d be forgiven for blinking twice before noticing it: a confident, centre-left government winning elections, setting the agenda, and passing legislation. In the first three years, that has included a universal senior pension, disability benefits, stay-in-school scholarships for school-age youth and paid work apprenticeships for young adults, the creation of a public savings bank, a 60 per cent increase in the nation’s criminally low minimum wage, a package of aid for farmers including training, fertilisers, and price supports, a ban on genetically-modified corn and the toxic herbicide glyphosate, a secret-ballot provision for trade union elections, a rollback of employment outsourcing, and reform of public housing benefits to help debtors and halt evictions.

What’s more, thanks to the administration’s rescue of what remained of the state oil company PEMEX after its part-privatisation, Mexico is on track to be energy self-sufficient by 2024, a remarkable turnaround for a country that, for decades, has been cripplingly dependent on imported gasoline from the United States.

In foreign policy, the AMLO administration has taken steps toward recapturing a degree of national sovereignty while dusting off the leadership role Mexico once enjoyed in Latin America. In practice, that has meant curbing the actions of US intelligence agencies on national soil, suing American gun manufacturers for the violence their arms cause south of the border, calling out the United Nations’ failure to act on first-world vaccine hoarding, sending a plane to rescue Evo Morales after the 2019 coup, refusing to recognise Juan Guaidó as Venezuela president, backing Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez in his attempts to renegotiate his nation’s debts with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), sending advisors to bolster embattled Peruvian president Pedro Castillo, bolstering the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States at the expense of the US-dominated Organization of American States, and proposing some form of regional union—all of this as Latin America is entering into a second wave of the Pink Tide, with victories in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, and Peru.

Republican Austerity

Beyond this laundry list of policy achievements, AMLO has succeeded in radically redefining the image of a Mexican president. One of his first acts was to turn ‘Los Pinos’, the sumptuous official residence in Chapultepec Park, into a cultural centre, choosing instead to live downtown in the old, historical National Palace. Another was to slash his own salary before passing a law that no federal government official could earn more than the president. Eschewing the $218 million-dollar presidential plane, he instead flies coach; instead of winging around the world with costly retinues, he hardly ever leaves the country. After his workweeks in Mexico City, he spends the weekends traversing the nation, supervising infrastructure projects, meeting with officials, and sharing the local dishes he eats on social media. In a peripatetic continuation of his three presidential campaigns, when he visited every municipality in the country multiple times, it often seems like López Obrador is everywhere.

And then there are the mañaneras. In contrast to the pharaonic remoteness of former presidents, who only deigned to offer the occasional interview with friendly questioners, AMLO meets the press every morning at 7:00 AM for two, and sometimes three or more hours at a time. In direct opposition to the hackneyed advice of handlers warning of ‘overexposure’, the mañaneras have been a case study in going over the heads of a hostile corporate media in order to hold a sustained conversation with the nation. Part history lesson, part stand-up routine, part sparring act, and part talk show (featuring cabinet members, visiting heads of state, and guests such as Jeremy Corbyn), the conferences have, like never before in Mexico and in few places elsewhere, allowed for a real-time debate on everything from the economy to the pandemic to violent crime.

All of this is part of what AMLO grandly calls La Cuarta Transformación, or the ‘Fourth Transformation’ of Mexico, a historical event comparable with previous transformations in the form of the War of Independence from Spain, the Reform Laws that separated church from state, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910. A deft handler of both historical and political symbolism, AMLO has equipped his transformation with a guiding ethos in the form of ‘republican austerity’, or a frills-free form of governance inspired by the nineteenth-century liberals who defeated both domestic conservatives in a civil war and the foreign-backed Habsburg monarchy of Maximilian II.

At the rhetorical level, it often feels like the civil war is still going on. For the nation’s displaced opposition—rabidly indignant at losing access to perks, privileges, and what it perceives to be its natural place in power—AMLO is a totalitarian menace. In repeated waves of hysteria, he has been referred to by upstanding members of public life as ‘satanic’, ‘an assassin’, and ‘genocidal’. Straight-faced pundits have accused him of fomenting a coup d’état while comparing him to former president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, author of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre against protesting university students, and even to Adolf Hitler. On social media, he is referred to as simply ‘López’, in an attempt to play up his common-sounding last name, and mocked for his Tabascan accent, in which the ‘s’s in words are either elided or replaced by an aspirated ‘h’ sound. The president’s supporters, meanwhile, are derided as nacos or chairos, terms used to describe those considered vulgar, unrefined, or of a lower social class. This has all been egged on by the international press, which has delighted in portraying AMLO as an unreconstructed autocrat, a throwback to the 1970s, and—in a thinly veiled attempt to protect the access of multinational energy companies to Mexico’s grid—a hopeless lover of coal and oil. Yet despite this vitriol, the rhetorical onslaught hasn’t made a dent in AMLO’s support.

Recovering Morality for the Left

The essence of López Obrador’s political savvy lies in his reappropriating of two discourses which, in recent decades, have been hijacked by the Right. First, a discourse of morality and values that he has centred around the precept of living within your means, both on a personal and governmental level, in order to prioritise those less well-off. This idea, tinged with the liberation theology prevalent in AMLO’s youth, was most directly expressed in the slogan of his first presidential campaign in 2006: ‘For the good of all, the poor come first.’ The second, infused with the fervour of the first, is a crusade against the corruption that, in conjunction with the mass privatisations of the neoliberal era, hollowed out the state from within, making it easy prey for the infiltration of drug cartels while creating a new class of multi-millionaires.

In the years before 2018, this combination of state capture and narco terror reached obscene heights. Untold billions at the federal, state, and local levels were diverted through phantom companies and public universities into political campaigns, pet projects, and foreign bank accounts in tax havens such as Andorra, Luxembourg, and Panama. By means of a pay-per-vote system known as moches, members of congress were bribed to pass legislation, such as the 2013 ‘opening’ of PEMEX, that benefitted the very interests financing the payoffs, such as the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

The security minister for former president Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) is even currently on trial in New York for collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel. As for the once-hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), there is hardly a governor who served during the term of Enrique Peña Nieto who isn’t in jail, on trial, or on the lam. Meanwhile, the general public, having already weathered two currency devaluations and the sell-off of its public services, was then subjected to a ‘drug war’ that killed hundreds of thousands and rent the fabric of the nation with untold—and wholly unnecessary—cruelty.

Despite the fresh air provided by AMLO’s victory, progress in punishing these crimes has been slow. Although the president has repeatedly stated that no one is above the law, he has also advocated for putting a punto final, or full stop, to the wrongdoing of the past in order to avoid getting bogged down in prosecutions that risk sapping energy from more pressing matters. A few high-profile arrests—such as the former head of PEMEX, Emilio Lozoya, accused of accepting bribes from Odebrecht—have been made, but many other cases evince a frustrating lack of progress. And though the public voted in favour of investigating the potential crimes of ex-presidents in a referendum last August, the participation rate was far from the 40 per cent of registered voters required to be legally binding. Although the age-old tension between applying justice and looking forward has yet to boil over in the MORENA movement, a small but quietly growing number of voices have begun calling for the resignation of Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Moreno.

Playing Nice With Power

The Fourth Transformation has shown itself to have other limitations, as well. Like the first wave governments of the Pink Tide, which used a boom in commodity prices to fund their social spending, the AMLO administration has danced around the issue of the concentration of capital by using other sources of revenue to fund its programme: namely, anti-corruption savings and the collection of unpaid back taxes from large corporations. While it has been extremely gratifying to see delinquent companies such as Walmart, Toyota, and IBM Mexico cough up, it is no substitute for genuine reform of a tax system rigged drastically in favour of the most wealthy. Indeed, because of the president’s stubborn refusal to raise taxes on the rich, the emblematic ‘republican austerity’ of the Fourth Transformation has translated into genuine economic austerity in non-priority areas of the budget, constraining the expansionary effects of his social spending.

Having lived through the 1982 peso devaluation and the 1994 ‘tequila crisis’, the desire to avoid a debt spiral that would place Mexico under the thumb of the IMF or other international lenders is a primary concern for AMLO. Avoiding indebtedness, then, is as much for him an issue of national sovereignty as is energy and food self-sufficiency. And it is true that his control of spending has also allowed Mexico to make it through the pandemic, paying for vaccines and an expansion of hospital capacity, without contracting additional debt. But as Mexico’s super-rich have seen their fortunes soar by as much as 60 per cent during the crisis, the 4T is in danger of leaving behind a more unequal country than the one it inherited—one that was already the second most-unequal in Latin America.

The tax code has not been the only area where AMLO has bent over backward to keep Mexico’s top industrialists on side. He has also kept them set up with construction contracts through a series of infrastructure packages, offered them front-row seats at his set-piece speeches, and has held frequent meetings with them at the National Palace and elsewhere. The strategy has worked in the sense that the uppermost strata of the bourgeoisie—such as Carlos Slim, beneficiary of the privatisation of the Mexican Telephone Company and at one point the richest man in the world—has, pointedly, not joined in the anti-AMLO hysteria of the strata below. In this way, the president has been deft in picking off the most prominent bigwigs while leaving the rest to rage and shake their fists. But in doing so, AMLO appears to have resurrected, through willing ingenuity, the old chestnut of the ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’: a group that will put aside its class interests for the good of the nation.

Yet if history is any example, the bourgeoisie will take what it can get before biting the hand that feeds it; and all the more quickly if it is a government that professes any degree of progressivism. That it hasn’t done so yet is largely due to the fact that, all told, the upper classes have done very well under the Fourth Transformation.

Finally, there is the question of the military. AMLO has leaned heavily on the armed forces since taking office, showering them with contracts and largesse, creating a militarised National Guard to perform policing functions, increasing their budgets, and placing strategic areas and projects—such as the ports and customs, PEMEX installations, the Maya Train in the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Trans-Isthmenean industrial corridor linking the ports of Salina Cruz on the Pacific with Coatzacoalcos on the Atlantic—either in their direct custody or under their security protection. As with the ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’, AMLO has propounded the parallel idea of the ‘patriotic army’, one that, unlike other armed forces that grew out of nineteenth-century gendarmes, was an outgrowth of the Mexican Revolution and is thus intimately bound to the fate of the nation.

The logic is understandable: with police forces and governmental bureaucracies alike compromised by corruption and organised crime, the incoming AMLO made a lesser-evil decision to bet on an institution that, despite manifold abuses, has retained its popularity with the public. With its capable corps of engineers and builders, the army has indeed shown a flair for performing infrastructure work, such as the new airport in Mexico City, which it has built professionally and in record time as opposed to the boondoggle project-to-nowhere of Peña Nieto it replaced. And once the military genie had been released from the bottle in the form of the suicidal and fratricidal ‘drug war’, it was always going to be exceedingly difficult to put it back in again.

Yet despite AMLO’s attempts to furnish it with a revolutionary backstory, the Mexican army is a hierarchical, conservative, and self-interested body. It is armed, powerful, dangerous, and when it feels threatened—as when retired general and former secretary of defence Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested in the United States on drug charges—it will flex its muscles to protect itself. And as with any such organisation, it does not give without getting. The worry, indeed, is that, in exchange for its support, the military is stonewalling investigations into its complicity in events such as the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, where soldiers received orders to ‘take out’ suspected criminals, mowing down twenty-two people in the process, and the disappearance, barely three months later, of the forty-three teaching students of Ayotzinapa, which drew international outrage. And although the president has repeatedly promised to never use the army to repress the people, there is nothing to stop a future administration from using the enhanced instrument it inherits to do so. Or, rather, for the military to take matters into its own hands, blocking ports, customs, the airport, PEMEX, and other areas in its custody in order to check any future president that may stray too far to the left.

Growing Confidence

On the night of 1 July 2018, supporters filled Mexico City’s central square, or Zócalo, to celebrate AMLO’s victory. Among the crowd, however, were those who had brought signs decrying the fraud they were sure was on the way. After decades of struggles and setbacks against a structure that appeared inevitable, many simply did not believe that they would be allowed to win. Three years later, when the crowd gathered again on 1 December 2021 to celebrate the three-year anniversary of AMLO’s inauguration, the mood was different. Gone was the incredulity, the preemptive defensiveness, replaced instead by a confidence instilled by the intervening years in power.

Barely seven years old and despite serious internal tensions, MORENA has shown it can win in big cities and in small towns, in the industrial north and the rural south, at the US and Guatemalan borders in equal measure. It has become, in short, the party to beat. It is facing significant challenges in the years ahead, including an acrimonious fight to come over the succession to AMLO. The old powers, including the bourgeoisie, church, and major media, have not gone anywhere. But a movement needs to celebrate its victories as well, in order to maintain its morale and replenish its strength for the future. And for Mexico, this is its moment.