Mexicans Want Change, But Will the System Let Them?

Mexico will soon have a new president. As millions of Mexicans prepare for what they hope will be a new era, a large part of the ruling class—on both sides of the border—is nervously trying to figure out a way to avoid or co-opt the results of the popular vote.

Polls show the center-left candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, holding a commanding lead, with roughly a twenty-point margin over his nearest rival. Lopez Obrador heads up the coalition made up of his National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the Labor Party and the small evangelical Social Encounter Party (PES). The Bloomberg aggregated poll in late May showed that at 52% of the vote, the other three candidates together don’t reach him.

If elected, Lopez Obrador, often referred to in print as AMLO, rules for six years over a system that gives the president too much power and endless opportunities for misusing it. AMLO’s hallmark has been to reduce the corruption that the combination of omnipotence and impunity has generated throughout Mexico’s political development, from seventy years of one-party rule to the limited democracy today.

That message explains a large part of his appeal. Current president Enrique Peña Nieto comes from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that established the authoritarian system, later given a veneer of democracy. He has faced one corruption scandal after another. Although his party’s control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches—and mainstream media—has enabled him to shield himself and most of his allies from legal consequences, the political consequences have left him with a 77% disapproval rate and mired his hand-picked successor at the bottom of the polls.

The majority of Mexicans are fed up with the inertia of a system that keeps half the population in poverty while bloating global billionaires. Mexico adopted the neoliberal model whole-hog in the late eighties: an export-oriented economy, transnational corporate production, unregulated financial mobility without labor mobility, militarization, environmental exploitation and destruction, state support for foreign investors while withdrawing from national development, and rock-bottom wages (the minimum is set at about $4.00 a day, depending on the exchange rate).

The model has predictably led to multiple crises, many of them veiled from public view or given a headline and then forgotten as those directly affected are left alone to deal with the impacts. Despite what the World Bank and the PRI say, the situation is not getting better for the average Mexican—64% of those surveyed say their family economy got worse over the past year. This year the vote is the way many of them plan to say “Enough!”.

AMLO criticizes neoliberalism by name, but he’s not a self-proclaimed socialist like Bernie Sanders and in fact, he’s moved toward the center in this campaign to broaden his appeal. One of the beauties of neoliberalism, for the system, is that a handful of rich, white men can sabotage an entire nation.

This is what weighs heavy on the candidate’s mind. The wealthiest 10% of the population controls 64% of the nation’s wealth and the richest 1% controls nearly half. That exclusive club has divided on the elections, with some going into high gear to prevent a AMLO presidency and others getting used to the idea. German Larrea, the second richest man in Mexico and head of Grupo Mexico, a conglomerate that holds major mining, railroad and infrastructure interests, sent a letter to his employees:

“Recently we have heard proposals to nationalize industries and roll back the reforms in education and energy, among other ideas that would mean going backwards decades and a return to an economic model that has been proved to have failed in several countries”.

Then comes the veiled threat: “We are worried about the well-being of our employees and our company and will take every measure necessary to assure the continuity of our business.” The Cinemex chain of movie theaters screened a short cartoon warning of “using a magic wand” and offering “free money” to right the nation’s ills, again an obvious reference to AMLO. A group of anti-AMLO businessmen has reportedly attempted to convince the Peña Nieto to withdraw the PRI candidate José Antonio Meade to consolidate the opposition with the conservative Ricardo Anaya.

Lopez Obrador brought on a big-time financier and agribusiness leader named Alfonso Romo to assuage the 1 percent. Romo joined Lopez Obrador in his 2012 campaign and is now the point person in relations with the economic elite. Among other concessions, Romo announced that Lopez Obrador had decided not to undo Peña Nieto’s unpopular oil privatization or withdraw Mexico from NAFTA.

On the other hand, much of the financial world is settling into the idea of President Lopez Obrador. The head of the Mexican stock market reportedly told his employees that he didn’t expect major volatility if AMLO wins. It’s actually Donald Trump who has caused the dips lately, with his going-nowhere-fast NAFTA renegotiation and the steel and aluminum tariffs. Even so, financial experts are saying that so far, the financial system is relatively sanguine about both the upheavals from Washington and the upcoming Mexican elections.

It’s a fine line to walk between mollifying and mastering a ruling elite that’s used to getting its own way. Lopez Obrador’s proposed cabinet is a tightrope act. Business magnates rub elbows with academics and leftwing activists. Managing a Lula-style ideological split once in power isn’t easy without it getting out of control—as Lula himself learned the hard way.

The margin in the polls make it seem like AMLO is a shoe-in for the July 1st elections and he tends to reinforce that image by talking as if he were already the president-elect. But it’s not that simple. There are a number of ways the popular will is already being violated. First, the possibility that the candidate of choice will be shot to death before election day. More than 100 politicians have been assassinated so far. The toll rises every passing day.

Violence in places like Tamaulipas on the northern border and Guerrero appears calculated to discourage people from going to the polls. The obviously class-based polarization of Mexican society could be another cause of violence. To hear people talk about Lopez Obrador, he’s either a Savior or Satan. Although the candidate had moved away from the slogan of his 2006 campaign, “First, the Poor” by his 2012 run, the idea of the poor having a voice in power is still present and still anathema to most of the well-heeled. Or to put it another way, they hate him with a passion.

It’s unlikely that that sentiment will boil over into physical violence, but expect the campaigns (election campaigns and campaigns to undermine his power if in office) to get more vicious and the division to deepen. Another pitfall is the degree of control that the conservative parties have over the electoral process. Mexico set up exemplary electoral laws and institutions, including the National Electoral Institute, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Electoral Crimes and the Federal Electoral Tribunal, along with their state counterparts. The system runs mostly on public funding, allows no corporate money, and caps private donations and campaign spending overall.

But as usual, the gap between the law and the way it plays out is the size of the Grand Canyon. A recent reportby Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity found that for every peso declared by parties and candidates, 15 are spent under the table. This includes money drawn off public coffers, private money channeled illicitly into cam-paigns and drug cartel money. The institutions have been hijacked by the parties (MORENA is not represented) and biased officials. The independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez shouldn’t be on the ballot at all since most of his signatures proved invalid, but in a twisted political, quasi-legal calculation the Tribunal reversed the Electoral Institute and put him on.

The electoral institutions have been so lax in enforcement that political parties routinely calculate the fines as far lower than the benefits of violating the laws. Polls show that the population is skeptical, to say the least, regarding the institutions’ capacity or willingness to ensure free and fair elections. Vote buying and coercion are common. Civil society organizations and journalists have documented the widespread use of welfare programs for electoral purposes. Recipients report that government agents of the cash-transfer program Prospera, which reaches seven million families, threaten to cut off benefits to those who don’t vote PRI. Testimonies and investigative reports show that a program for housewives, the Pink Wage, is also being used to coerce the vote, violating the voting rights of women who receive and administer government payments in especially vulnerable, impoverished families.

The U.S. media long ago agreed on the accepted vocabulary for referring to Lopez Obrador—“populist”, “firebrand” and “messianic” are telltale signs of the editorial line, and you rarely see an article that doesn’t compare him to Hugo Chavez. While the Cold War rants against Lopez Obrador in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and other financial rags are to be expected, they turn ominous with the open suggestion that the Trump administration intervene in Mexico’s elections.

Members of the Trump administration have publicly stated that the US government does not want AMLO in the presidency and US Embassy employees don’t even pretend to be impartial—the center-left candidate has vowed to ratchet down the drug war the U.S. funds under the Merida Initiative, in light of the 200,000 killed and 36,000 disappeared since the two governments implemented the policy. Nearly 200 scholars and civic leaders, of which I’m one, signed an open letter to Congress to pre-empt U.S. intervention: “We urge you and your colleagues to make every effort to ensure that the US supports Mexican democracy by insisting on the strict adherence to fair electoral practices and compliance with laws… The US government should maintain the utmost respect for Mexican national sovereignty and the popular vote and express its commitment to building a strong relationship with any new Mexican administration.”

Meanwhile, Mexico’s population has mobilized like never before to protect these elections. Hundreds will be deployed as poll-watchers and a record number will vote. US observers will be on the ground too, with an eye on Mexico’s process and another on Washington. Both populations, so closely linked, must be on high alert for dirty tricks to assure that Mexico can freely choose who will lead it in the turbulent times to come.


This article was published in Counterpunch magazine  vol 25, no. 3 2018



Crossing the Medicine Line

About 21 million people become climate refugees annually, from the big storms and droughts, and by 2050, 1.2 billion people


Latin America will be all feminist!

March 8, International Women’s Day (IWD), serves as a barometer of the strength of feminist and women’s movements, especially in