Mexico’s AMLO — Tropical Messiah or False Prophet?


Mexico’s AMLO — Tropical Messiah or False Prophet?

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often referred to simply as “AMLO,” is the type of character that engenders strong feelings. In a recent Bloomberg op-ed, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations accused AMLO of “dismantling democracy in Mexico.” Before his 2018 election, The Economist criticized AMLO for his “shaky grasp of economics” (can one imagine a harsher critique from The Economist?) and his lack of “respect for rules or institutions.” Mexican historian Enrique Krauze described AMLO as the “Tropical Messiah” in a 2006 essay and told The New Yorker in June 2018 that he feared AMLO would “corrode democracy from within.” The Eurasia Group considered AMLO’s election so destabilizing that it identified the first year of his presidency as one of the top 10 geopolitical risks of 2019.

As far as we can tell, only the American socialist magazine Jacobin has unambiguously nice things to say about AMLO – which says something in and of itself.

The Mexican people have strong feelings about AMLO too. In July 2018, 53.2 percent of them propelled AMLO into office. The next highest vote-getter, Richard Anaya, received just 22.3 percent of the vote. Not only that, but AMLO’s MORENA party won majorities in both houses of Mexico’s bicameral legislature, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. In February 2019, AMLO’s approval rating was a stratospheric 85 percent, and though COVID-19 has put a serious dent in his popularity, as of June 27, 2020, his approval rating is around 56 percent – a high enough figure to make many democratic leaders envious. AMLO’s initial response to COVID-19 no doubt left much to be desired, but we also cannot help wondering if his approval ratings will surge back upwards after how well he acquitted himself on a recent trip to Washington D.C. to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Part of AMLO’s charm has always been his identification as a human of the people. Case in point: it is hard to think of another global leader who would fly coach on his way to an official state visit with his country’s most important neighbor and consent to a connecting flight in Atlanta – and during the middle of a global pandemic, no less! Perhaps even more remarkable is that last week’s trip to Washington was AMLO’s first trip abroad since his landslide election victory two years ago. When Krauze asked AMLO before his election if it was true he did not own a passport, AMLO told him, “[I] have to concentrate on Mexico…the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy.” To paraphrase Krauze, AMLO’s entire world is Mexico. Like any leader, AMLO has his faults, but hypocrisy does not appear to be one of them.

Hubris is another matter. AMLO has called his presidency “the Fourth Transformation” and believes he will author changes in Mexican politics no less significant than Independence, Reform, and Revolution. During his quick visit to Washington, AMLO visited two sites before proceeding to the White House: the Lincoln Memorial and a monument to Benito Juárez, the Mexican political figure AMLO most admires. Krauze credits Juárez as the leader who presided over Mexico’s 19th-century evolution from an aggregate of regions and localities into a modern nation. AMLO believes he is following in Juárez’s footsteps. When asked by journalist Jon Lee Anderson if he truly believed the comparison was apt, AMLO, without hesitation, replied “Yes, yes, yes. We are going to make history, I am clear about that.”

How ironic, then, that the U.S.-Mexico relationship under AMLO has been remarkably stable? A year before AMLO became President, the late U.S. Senator John McCain said that an AMLO victory “can’t be good for America.” U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly took McCain’s comment one step further, presuming to conclude it “would not be good for America or for Mexico.” And yet, it was not AMLO who decided to ghost U.S. President Donald Trump at a ceremony marking the New NAFTA (or T-MEC or USMCA or whatever you want to call it). 

No, instead it was the ever-polite Canadians who spurned the U.S. chief executive. According to The Globe and Mail, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “too busy” to join Presidents Trump and AMLO to mark the occasion. Trudeau comes by his nonchalance honestly, as he is no doubt frustrated by the U.S. government’s threat to renew tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum on the farcical basis of national security concerns. Not AMLO, who thanked President Trump for his “respectful, cordial treatment” and thanked the Mexican people for supporting his decision to represent Mexico “with decorum and with dignity.” This is the firebrand, wannabe Hugo Chavez who is a threat to U.S.-Mexico relations and to Mexican democracy?

AMLO has deftly managed his relationship with President Trump, an achievement in and of itself considering how belligerent Trump was on the campaign trail in 2015 about Mexico paying for a border wall and sending rapists into the US. It is in Mexico that AMLO is in danger of falling short. 48 percent of Mexicans say they are doing worse economically in the past six months and 58 percent characterize the Mexican government’s COVID-19 response as a failure. Mexico’s structural economic problems, however, and the corruption and deep-seated inequality AMLO aims to stamp out, could hardly have been cured in two years even without COVID-19, and the OECD projects Mexico could get back to pre-crisis unemployment levels by Q2 2021.

It is in the field of security that AMLO’s record has been the worst. Far from bringing peace and security to Mexico, AMLO has thus far presided over record-breaking levels of violence since assuming office. In 2019, murders increased by 2.7 percent and according to Mexico’s National System of Public Security, over 35,588 people were murdered last year. Murders continued at a record pace in the first four months of 2020 even as the Mexican government-enforced COVID-19 related quarantines. Two weeks ago, gunmen allegedly associated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) attempted to assassinate Mexico City’s secretary of public security, Omar García Harfuch, wounding him and killing three others. A few days later, 24 people were killed and 7 injured during a grisly attack on a drug rehabilitation center in Irapuato, Guanajuato.

Even before the relatively peaceful bubble of Mexico City was popped, AMLO had shifted his position from emphasizing reconciliation to authorizing the Mexican armed forces to continue participating in law enforcement until March 2024. Ironically, AMLO finds himself dealing with much the same issues as his hero, Benito Juárez. Juárez created a federal police force known as the Rurales in 1861 because the pervasive and omnipresent banditry in the countryside was hindering Mexico’s economic progress. The Rurales reached their fullest height under Porfirio Díaz, who relied on them to create at least the appearance of enough law and order to attract foreign investment to Mexico. Ultimately, Juárez, Díaz, and every other Mexican leader since — despite myriad successes in forging a modern Mexican nation — has failed to bring all of Mexico under centralized rule.

It is, of course, unfair to lay all or even most of the blame for Mexico’s rampant drug cartel violence at AMLO’s feet. AMLO has inherited an impossible situation, as much the consequence of previous government policies as centuries of Mexican history and the unforgiving nature of Mexican geography. Those who claim they will make history, however, cannot run from its challenge. If AMLO is to author his Fourth Transformation, he will have to do what seems impossible. Mexico is a nation and it is a democracy, imperfect but enduring and resilient. All Mexico lacks now is peace and shared prosperity, which are two sides of the same coin. If AMLO cannot bring peace, he will not bring prosperity, and if he cannot bring prosperity, he will not bring peace. Whether he is remembered as a Tropical Messiah or a well-intentioned false prophet will depend on how he and the Mexican people rise to this challenge.