The third-time’s-a-charm presidential candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has the wind at its back. But by cozying up to elites and limiting his rhetoric to the fight against corruption, he is failing to build the mass movement he needs to win.
If Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, as he is known for short) were an allegory, his name would be “persistence.” The second opposition mayor in the history of Mexico City and a two-time presidential candidate, he has been at the forefront of the uphill struggle for democracy in Mexico for some three decades. In just three years, his fledgling party MORENA (the word is both an acronym for “Movement for National Regeneration” and, significantly, a woman of dark complexion) has overtaken the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to effectively become the nation’s preeminent center-left electoral movement. He is ahead in the polls for the upcoming elections, to be held on July 1, 2018, while Mexico’s other main parties flail in disarray: the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), besmirched by corruption, economic mismanagement, and the unresolved disappearance of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher’s College; and the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) which, riven by dissension between supporters and opponents of former president Felipe Calderón, has resorted to creating an electoral coalition with the PRD to bolster its flagging fortunes.
After twelve years of a perpetual campaign that has seen AMLO tour the nation’s 2,446 municipalities with a doggedness that not even a 2013 heart attack has managed to dent, and with Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric creating a yearning for a leader who can put the national interest ahead of servility to its northern neighbor, the stars appear to be finally aligning for MORENA to become the first left-wing party to capture the presidency in the nation’s history. But victory for Mexico’s long-suffering left is far from assured.
The Nadir of Corruption
While AMLO has succeeded in building a party that has qualified for the public financing (known as the registro) needed to compete with its corporate-backed opponents, he has not yet mobilized the mass movement required to protect any victory from the electoral system that has foiled his previous two presidential bids and which continues to operate with impunity. Case in point, the June election for governor of the State of Mexico where, according to official results, Peña Nieto’s cousin narrowly fought off a challenge by MORENA’s Delfina Gómez amongst the depressingly familiar accusations of vote buying, the alteration of electoral rolls, intimidating calls designed to depress turnout, discrepancies in the official count compared to precinct-level tallies, and the yawning indifference of both the state electoral institute and the federal electoral tribunal.
Corruption in Mexico has hit a nadir in the Peña Nieto years. Fifteen ex-governors – the vast majority from the generation of “new PRI” leaders that were to have reformed the party – are under investigation for crimes ranging from the diversion of public funds to money laundering to links with organized crime; eight have been arrested. At times the headlines have spilled over into the outright bizarre. The former governor of Tamaulipas, Tomas Yarrington, accused of complicity with the Gulf Cartel, was captured in Florence in April and found to have accumulated 18 false identities. The ex-governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, fled to Guatemala, leaving behind over 100 bank accounts linked to phantom businesses allegedly used to win state contracts, together with a lavish network of homes stocked with home cinemas and expensive art. Among other things, Duarte’s Health Department has been accused by his successor in the governor’s chair (Miguel Ángel Yunes, himself a target of corruption allegations) of giving false chemotherapy to children with cancer. The case has been taken to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
As for Peña Nieto himself, he has been rocked by a series of scandals, including the Casa Blanca – a home worth $7 million in the upscale Mexico City suburb of Lomas de Chapultepec, built on very generous terms for his wife by the Higa Group, a contractor that has benefited from hefty contracts from the president’s campaign and administration. The revelation was made by the journalist Carmen Aristegui, who had her popular morning radio program canceled shortly after in retribution. In 2016, it was revealed that Peña Nieto had plagiarized large sections of his university thesis. Subsequently, the allegation surfaced that Emilio Lozoya, international coordinator for Peña Nieto’s campaign, received bribes from the Brazilian company Odebrecht in exchange for helping the company position itself in Mexico. Lozoya later became head of the state oil company Pemex, which, following its 2013 privatization, awarded a $100 million engineering, procurement, and construction contract to the company; the contract was rescinded in May. One month later, The New York Times revealed that the Mexican government has been targeting human rights lawyers (including those investigating the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College), journalists (including Aristegui and her son), and anti-corruption activists by means of sophisticated hacking software acquired from an Israeli cyber-arms manufacturer. In response, Peña Nieto wobbled, first threatening to go after those who had raised “false accusations” against his administration only to claim, hours later, that he had misspoken.
In this context, it is understandable that AMLO would devote most of his stump speeches to the fight against corruption. Mexico’s main problem, he has repeatedly stated, is not poverty, insecurity or violence, but the underlying corruption that causes them. The annual cost of this “cancer,” he estimates, is 10% of the federal budget or some 500 million pesos ($28 million US), three times more than what El Chapo used to make from funneling cocaine into the United States. The fight to transform Mexico, he states, revolves around three guiding principles: not to lie, not to steal, and not to betray the people.
Of course, making hay of an opposing party’s corruption and abuses of power is the most natural thing in the political world, and AMLO is an old hand at it. But however critical the need is to clean out the stables, AMLO’s single-minded focus on it, to the detriment of wider, structural issues, entails several risks. First, however much that Mexican citizens may see him as the honest, subway-riding man of the people in a political culture of lavish excess, they have become so cynical about the functioning of their government that they are (rightfully) skeptical of the ability of anyone to root out the systemic rot.
Second, AMLO has made a series of eyebrow-raising alliances with members of the business and governing elite, including the agribusiness magnate Alfonso Romo and fundraiser Lino Korrodi, former backers of ex-President Vicente Fox (Korrodi, in fact, ran the fundraising arm “Friends of Fox,” which was later found to have engaged in irregular financing of Fox’s party, the PAN) and Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, Governance Secretary under Fox’s predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo. But the alliance that truly sticks in the public craw is the one with Senator Manuel Bartlett who, as Secretary of the Interior in 1988, was instrumental in the fraud that denied Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas victory against Carlos Salinas de Gortari (in a July interview with the newspaper Reforma, Bartlett openly admitted that Salinas did not win the election before later backtracking and saying he didn’t know one way or another). Although AMLO contends that the doors of MORENA are open to all who wish to transform the country in good faith and that everyone deserves a “new opportunity,” citizens will be left to wonder how that transformation will occur if he is filling his team with backers and members of the same administrations that have brought the nation to its current state of paralysis. As the case of Lula da Silva has shown in Brazil, the attempt to co-opt elites can backfire spectacularly.
Third, there is the structure of MORENA itself. While the vast majority of grassroots members are earnest in their desire to take back a nation reeling from the one-two punch of mass inequality plus a violent drug war that has killed some 200,000 over the course of a decade, the party has not yet succeeded in creating an internal democracy that would allow those members to have a genuine say. This has led to situations where, in 2016 for example, the electoral slates of MORENA – including five of its gubernatorial candidates – were a hodgepodge of former members of political parties from across the spectrum. AMLO, who began his career in the PRI, seemed to have inherited its penchant for selecting candidates by dedazo, or the pointing of a finger. This year, the party has determined that candidates will be selected by unanimity at state congresses or, lacking that, by means of an opinion poll. The problematic nature of such a method, however, was recently evidenced in the selection of MORENA’s candidate for governor of Mexico City (which was recently endowed with a new constitution, giving it effectively the status of a state) in next year’s elections: Claudia Sheinbaum, who heads the city’s Tlalpan ward, was selected by means of a poll over Ricardo Monreal, leader of the Cuauhtémoc ward, and Marti Batres, president of MORENA in Mexico City. Monreal cried foul, forcing the party to reverse course and release the results and methodology of the poll to the public.
The argument can be made that the means justify the ends: Sheinbaum, a doctor in energy engineering who was the environment secretary in AMLO’s mayoral administration, was clearly the best choice. But absent a trustworthy mechanism for the direct election of candidates by party members or the general public, it will be very difficult to make the case that MORENA is qualitatively different, either in its philosophy or operating structure, from its opponents.
All of this speaks to a larger issue. The corporatist political structure that infused Mexican political parties since the Revolution – the predecessor to the once hegemonic PRI was organized along sectoral lines – persists to this day, with parties being dominated by a patronage structure of votes for benefits. Ideology takes a backseat to a revolving-door system of politicians hopping between parties in order to exchange their local vote bases for candidacies and enlarged fiefdoms.
Add to this the consequences of thirty years of neoliberalism and the effect is a perfect storm of debased ideology in Mexican politics. Dr. Cuauhtémoc Medina González of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) writes:
[I]t has been a hallmark of neoliberalism to hide the systematic violence of increasing exploitation and the destabilization of every kind of lifestyle by focusing the bulk of public debate on the personal/policing issue of corruption. In the same way, the notion of “security” appears as the fruit of a fear that assumes, inexplicably, that the poor, destitute and marginalized must assume their station in peace. Not to conceive of poverty and unemployment as causes of profound worry demonstrates the clear triumph of a myopic vision of neoliberal discourse.
None of this was invented by AMLO, of course. But he has fallen short in not using his charisma and rallying power to more clearly delineate a left vision for Mexico. His stump speeches tend towards the repetitive and simplistic, his call to renew the nation overlaid with a strong dose of moralism (in his 2012 campaign, for example, he called for the creation of a “republic of love”). Where he does attack the nation’s rampant inequities, he tends to personalize them, referring to the “white-collar delinquents” and “the 30 people that truly govern Mexico.” If only this caste were replaced by honest politicians, the underlying message goes, all would be well. Without the money wasted by corruption, there would be plenty of resources to go around. In that sense, his philosophy is more reminiscent of the 19th-century liberalism of Mexico’s iconic president Benito Juárez than the 21st-century socialism of a Correa or a Morales.
Mexico in 2017, moreover, is a different country than when AMLO declared his first presidential candidacy in 2005. Not only are crude oil prices about half of what they were then, but the PRI government of Peña Nieto part-privatized Mexico’s oil industry in 2013, opening the production chain and most new oil fields to foreign investment and drilling. Despite the hyperbolic promises used to sell the reforms, petroleum production is down – Mexico, in fact, now imports more refined fuel from the US than it sells in crude oil – while gasoline and electricity prices are up. But instead of promising to immediately roll back the unpopular measure (which he denounced at the time as “the theft of the century”), AMLO now promises to submit it to a referendum while respecting the contracts issued prior to his taking office. In a similar vein, he also says he does not intend to repeal Peña Nieto’s controversial Education Reform, which opens the door to the stealth privatization of Mexico’s education system and has led to at-times violent clashes between police and dissident members of the teachers’ union (including a deadly confrontation in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca in June of 2016 that killed 11 and left over 100 wounded). Instead, he would modify it.
AMLO’s stances on social issues are no less problematic. Whereas his mayoral administration of Mexico City was highly successful in terms of economics, education, and infrastructure, the major gains in social policy – the legalization of both abortion and same-sex marriage – occurred under his successor, Marcelo Ebrard. Whereas AMLO’s reticence on these issues (refusing to take a personal stance, he has also proposed referendums in both cases) is hardly unusual among progressive Latin American leaders in predominantly Catholic nations, it is also the case that, faced with the growth of a young, liberal and internet-connected generation in Mexico’s urban centers, his non-committal take on social policy appears increasingly anachronistic.
The Zapatista Challenge
On May 28, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) selected the traditional doctor and Nahuatl-speaker María de Jesús Patricio Martínez to be their independent presidential candidate for 2018. In 2014, independent candidacies were legalized in Mexico, and the CNI, with support from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), is mobilizing to collect the signatures of 1% of the national voter roll – some 788,000 – in order for Patricio Martínez’s name to appear on the ballot.
The Zapatistas’ goal is not to win the presidency of a system they do not believe in. Rather, it is to spread the message of another way of organizing society, based on communal, anti-capitalist organization. What is important, said Subcomandante Galeano (formerly Marcos), spokesperson for the EZLN:
…is the challenge, the irreverence, the refusal to submit, the total smashing of the idea of the indigenous as subjects of charity and pity – an image so entrenched on the right and, who would believe it, also on the institutional left of the ‘true change’ and its organic intellectuals addicted to the opium of the social networks – that their daring would shake the entire political system and have echoes of hope not only in one, but in many of the Mexicos from below… and the world.
The ironic reference to the “left of the ‘true change’” is to AMLO’s campaign slogan from 2012. And, considering AMLO’s reluctance to challenge the larger economic structure, the alliances he has made with elites, and the use of MORENA for candidates parachuted in from other parties, it is not hard to see why the Zapatistas would see him and his party as part and parcel of the same system. The bad blood between the Zapatistas and the institutional left is nothing new: it dates back to 2001, when the PRD voted against the Indigenous Rights and Culture Law in the Cámara de Diputados, Mexico’s House of Representatives, and in 2004, when PRD members ambushed a Zapatista contingent in Zinacantán, Chiapas. Galeano has also been highly critical of previous members of AMLO’s team for, he says, participating in the repression of Zapatistas when members of the federal government – the danger, clearly, in recycling old faces from previous administrations.
AMLO, for his part, has roundly criticized the CNI’s initiative, accusing it of seeking to divide the left and playing into the government’s hands. In doing so, he is only playing into the stereotype of an authoritarian leader seeking to silence indigenous voices in the name of “unity”. The irony is that, from his days as state director for the National Indigenous Institute in Tabasco (1977-1982) and through the 1990’s – famously placing himself on the front lines of the 1996 blockade of PEMEX oil wells undertaken to protest exploitation and environmental contamination – he was fiercely active in defending the rights of the state’s Chontal people. While protest leader and presidential candidate are two different roles, this is a side of AMLO that must not be sacrificed to the desire to become palatable to the nation’s de facto powers.
The Fourth Transformation
AMLO has stated that a victory for MORENA in 2018 would represent no less than the fourth great transformation of Mexico, following the War of Independence, the nineteenth-century Reform Laws separating church and state, and the Revolution of 1910, which broke with the hacienda system and laid the foundations for the modern Mexican State. It could not come too soon: Mexico is a factory of millionaires (145,000), billionaires (15) and poverty – 55.3 million people, nearly half of the population. While stratospheric salaries and bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year are the norm for politicians and judges, the minimum wage of 80 pesos a day ($3.90 US) keeps many of those millions at a level of bare subsistence. A progressive government is not only necessary in Mexico: it’s the one thing that might keep it from splitting apart at the seams. What Andrés Manual López Obrador needs to decide, before the dirty campaign against him revs up again in earnest, is what kind of left he wishes to lead: a mass, diverse popular movement that channels the grassroots energy that has been building up for decades in the form of student, farmer, and worker, indigenous and women’s movements, or a narrow, coopted, party-based campaign that fails to generate the enthusiasm necessary either to lead him to victory or, if elected, to truly effect the transformation he has promised.
This is the first of a series of articles the Progressive Army will publish in its “Mexico: Road to 2018” series. Mexico’s presidential election will be held on July 1, 2018.
NOTE: This piece was filed before the September 19th earthquake. The author and the editors wish to express their condolences to the families of the victims and all those affected by the disaster.