The discussion, so far, about the newly-elected Mexican president,
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known popularly as “AMLO”) is
only accurate and useful to a point. The former leftist mayor of
Mexico City has always run against the Mexican political and
economic establishments, and employs the usual Latin American
populist rhetoric in his campaigns, but his political personality
has a certain complexity.
As mayor (2000 to 2005) of one of the world’s largest cities
(population believed now to be more than 21 million), Sr. Obrador
remained very popular despite failing to fulfill most of his
campaign promises --- and despite scandals involving many who
worked for him. He subsequently ran for president in 2006 and
2012, losing by narrow margins both times. In 2012, he declared
himself president-elect, but was overruled by the national
electoral commission. This year, however, he won in a landslide
with more than 50% of the total vote. The two more conservative
Mexican major parties were severely reduced in their total of the
national vote. His Morena Party also won the majority seats in
the Mexican Congress.
The current ruling party, PRI., saw its support virtually collapse
as Mexican voters were fed up with the endemic corruption and
rising violence of recent Mexican public and private life. For most
of the previous century, following the Mexican revolution, the
PRI had ruled the nation claiming to be the revolutionary party,
but in reality, it became a party of Mexican special interests. In
2000, the most conservative party (PAN) finally wrested control
from the PRI, and it narrowly was re-elected in 2006 under Felipe
Calderon. When he failed to deliver on his promise of reform, the
PRI was returned to power in 2012.
From there, almost everything in Mexico got worse.
Lopez Obrador is perhaps most accurately described as an
economic nationalist. Curiously, in this he resembles President
Trump. Like Trump, Lopez Obrador is also a critic of NAFTA.
and demanded during the campaign that the NAFTA negotiations
with the U.S and Canada be suspended until after the elections.
Allegations of scandal have arisen during much of his career, but
Lopez Obrador’s supporters have continued to support him,
believing the allegations against him to be groundless and
politically motivated --- another similarity he has with the
American president. Both leaders are pragmatists, and also
anti-establishment in their respective countries
On the other hand, there are important differences between the
two presidents. Lopez Obrador grew up in poverty and has
spent much of his adult life in politics. His populism and leftism
is very much in the tradition of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez
and other Hispanic American caudillos. He has always identified
himself with the large segment of the Mexican population which
is rural and poor. He has publicly opposed building a wall
between the two nations.
Although it is not being reported widely in the U.S., Lopez
Obrador is unusual among south-of-the-border populists in that
he does not blame the United States as a primary cause of
current Mexican woes. Instead, his focus has been on the
corruption of the PRI, Mexican government bureaucracy and
domestic business interests. In his first campaign for president
in 2006, he openly proclaimed his willingness to work with U.S.
leaders. He has already had his first private conversation with
President Trump, and both reported it was convivial. Of course,
difficult negotiations are ahead, Sr. Lopez Obrador and Mr.
Trump have very different expectations, for example, in the
looming NAFTA renegotiations.
According to John Davidson in a recent article in The Federalist,
Lopez Obrador’s populist rhetoric means very little. Davidson
argues that any Mexican president today has little power to
control the corruption, drug cartels and violence that
overshadows contemporary Mexican public and private life.
Mexico’s greatest poet and essayist Octavio Paz wrote in his
landmark book (1945) The Labyrinths of Solitude that Mexico
has a unique character, that its population is primarily
composed of those whose culture was originally indigenous,
but had the Spanish imperial culture superimposed on it. The
indigenous Aztec empire was advanced but also oppressive, and
following the decade of the Mexican civil war in 1910, individual
Mexicans rejected both imperial legacies and retreated into the
modern consciousness of personal solitude in their own way,
often masking their suffering and problems with stoicism and
violence. [Those wishing to understand Mexico better should
read this short book, as well as the probably greatest Mexican
novel, Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo --- which also reveals much
about the Mexican character.]
As Hispanic America’s newest charismatic and populist chief
of state, President Lopez Obrador is of special interest to those
north-of-the-border. In many ways, he comes from a familiar
tradition of recent leaders, but in some ways, as I have pointed
out, he also represents unconventional world views and
His term as president will likely be an extraordinary one, but
any prospects of his leadership resolving Mexico’s many
problems and challenges remain, at the outset of his taking
office in December, quite unclear.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.