There has been so much contradictory commentary on the election of Mexico’s new president. I have selected two quite contrary pieces to share with my readers, both with the permission of the authors.
Hello, AMLO: Seven Things to Know About Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
John Authers is a senior editor for markets. Before Bloomberg, he spent 29 years with the Financial Times, where he was head of the Lex Column and chief markets commentator. He is the author of “The Fearful Rise of Markets” and other books.
Markets have been too quick to panic about Mexico’s next president.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a seductive politician. From 2000 to 2005, he used to woo me, and the entire population of Mexico, at 6 a.m. every morning.
Mexico’s president-elect was then the mayor of Mexico City, arguably the country’s second most powerful post, and it gave him the perfect pulpit to show the rest of Mexico’s tired political class how to do politics.
A chief innovation was the 6 a.m. press conference. He held one every day without fail, long before the country was awake. The shtick was irresistible. Here he was, hard at work already, making himself available to the press before getting on with the people’s business.
It did the trick. Whatever the news, there was always a timely sound bite from the mayor on the first broadcasts of the day. Speaking practically and in simple words, he set the nation’s agenda. Pressed headline-writers started referring to him by his initials, AMLO, and it stuck.
Reporters at the morning pressers felt part of a special club and soon succumbed to AMLO’s charm. One news editor told me that he had to replace his reporter on the AMLO beat virtually every month, as they all became true believers.
It was clear that AMLO wanted to be president, that he had a great shot at winning the prize, and that Mexico’s establishment found this terrifying.
On Saturday, more than a decade after he stepped down as mayor, AMLO will finally receive the presidential sash. A wave of hostility from international investors has already greeted him. The peso has tanked to its weakest ever level, Mexican stocks are at their lowest in nine years, and ratings agencies have put the country on notice for a downgrade. Meanwhile investors greeted Brazil’s presidential choice of Jair Bolsonaro, a politician who uses neo-fascist rhetoric and has never held an executive position, with a rally.
The pessimism is overdone. At worst, it could be counterproductive and force AMLO into exactly the behavior that foreigners want him to avoid. Mexicans are used to feeling victimized by international capital markets, which at present see only the very good reasons for concern about AMLO, and not the reasons for hope.
After four years observing him as a reporter in Mexico City, here are the salient points I would offer about the man who was my mayor:
- He is a pragmatist —you cannot survive more than five years running the biggest city in North America without being practical. Mexico City has many problems, but it was a cleaner, wealthier and safer place when he left than when he arrived.
- He can make deals when needed. Notably, the revitalization of Mexico City’s glorious colonial historic center started as a partnership involving Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man; AMLO; and President Vicente Fox, a conservative. The mayor even hired Rudy Giuliani, his former New York City counterpart, as a consultant on crime.
- He is a decent manager who inspires cult-like loyalty, but a poor delegator. His city offices were spartan, and he and those around him worked long hours. As mayor, he drove himself to work in a small car and gave himself a pay cut —an act he intends to repeat with civil servants. At the same time, there was corruption. His chief financial officer was caught on camera gambling for high stakes in a Las Vegas casino, for example, and subsequently served more than two years in prison for money-laundering. But no journalist has yet uncovered evidence that AMLO ever enriched himself.
- He lacks imagination but not ingenuity. As mayor, he managed to manipulate budgets enough to set up “pensions” or welfare payments —which made him hugely popular.
- Ideologically, he is a true believer. He has a clear-cut left-wing view of the world and regards such totems as the state control of Mexico’s national oil company, Pemex, to be beyond negotiation.
- His populism can veer into absurdity. As mayor, he held referendums on such issues as whether the city should end daylight saving time. Sometimes the absurdity can look downright dangerous, as in his refusal to accept defeat in the presidential election of 2006, when he declared himself the “legitimate” president and camped out in a tent city in Mexico City’s main square. And, of course, in his decision last month to cancel construction of a new Mexico City airport on the basis of a thin “consultation” organized by his own party. He is also one of the least internationally curious men ever to run Mexico, and proudly admits that he does not speak English.
- Most important of all, he is a seriously good politician, combining a Bill Clinton-caliber grasp of retail politics with a Ronald Reagan-caliber ability to appeal over the heads of Congress to the voters. This, as much as his left-wing ideology, is what scares the ruling elites. Mexico has suffered a long run of ineffective presidents, men who proved unable to overcome the cumbersome checks and balances in the constitution, and left office branded as failures. AMLO, with rare political talent and what looks like a workable majority in Congress, threatens at long last to get something done.
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MEXICO’S NEW POPULIST PRESIDENT
Ross Gandy, Ph.D. Sociologist, National University of Mexico, Dec. 4, 2018
Andrés Manuel López Obrador became the President of Mexico on December 1, 2018. He is a populist who promised the moon to the people who voted for him.
In thinking about politics and society the fundamental problem is the question of POWER. What power does Obrador have?
He does not have a political party behind him. His National Regeneration Movement is a coalition of the dissatisfied, not a party with discipline, ideology and organization. Will Obrador without a party be able to handle the Congress? In Congress he has a coalition with a bare majority. Will the coalition hang together? Can he get the Congress to pass his laws?
Obrador does not have a hold on all the governors of Mexico’s states. In Guanajuato the reactionary National Action Party will be governing. In Morelos the football star Cuauhtémoc Blanco with a sixth-grade education will be governing. In Jalisco, Enrique Alfaro Ramírez will govern as an independent. The mafioso Institutional Revolutionary Party will continue governing Coahuila, Hidalgo and Mexico-State.
Obrador does not control the Central Bank. Like the U.S. Fed the Mexican Central Bank is independent of the President. The Bank is run by economists who swear by the conservative ideology of the U.S. economic community. The Bank has just raised the interest rate to a whopping 8 percent! That means that small business can’t get any credit to invest in production. Small business is where 80 per cent of what employment we have left in Mexico is. Unemployment will increase.
Obrador does not control the economic elite—the upper ten percent of income groups in the population. The economic elite owns the stocks, the bonds, the assets, the capital, the big profits, the astronomical salaries and the most fertile land. It has arranged loopholes in the tax law so that it gets off free. The elite has promised Obrador to turn the economy upside down if he hits it with taxes. And the starving masses can’t pay taxes. So without a tax base Obrador has little money to throw at social programs.
Obrador does not control the corporate boards of the United States multinational corporations that make up the bulk of Mexico’s export platform. If the corporate elite decides to withdraw investment from Mexico, the economy will go into a tail spin. If Obrador’s populism clashes with their interests they know what to do.
Obrador does not control the International Monetary Fund that dances to tunes played by Washington. The International Monetary Fund is implacable: Mexico must pay the interest on its fantastic debt. This coming year Mexico will have to pay an interest equal to what the government spent last year on education, health, transport and welfare.
Obrador does not control the drug lords who organize the narco traffic. Their narco activities account for ten percent of the Gross National Product. In Mexico they keep the sinking economy of the underclasses afloat.
Obrador does not control the Supreme Court. The Court’s lifelong Justices are rich conservative allies of the elite. They can declare Obrador’s laws unconstitutional.
Obrador does not control the media. In a nation where hardly anybody ever reads anything, every family has a TV set. TELEVISA, the TV monopoly, is owned and run by billionaires in the economic elite. All newspapers except one are owned by business groups. The only one founded and run by independent journalists is where left academics write cryptic articles to one another.
Obrador does not control the Catholic Church hierarchy. In a deeply Catholic country the Bishops are allies of the conservative elite. And Obrador is an atheist. The Mexican masses don’t know that but the Bishops know it.
Obrador does not yet fully control the Army. In Latin America every country is occupied by its own army. If a General Staff decides to overthrow a populist government, it can do so with Washington’s approval.
Obrador does not yet fully control Mexico’s Secret State Police.
Obrador does not command a civil service with entrance exams, promotions and pensions. The Mexican bureaucracy of friends, relatives and compadres of a regime knows that it has six years to line its pockets while it can.
Obrador does not control the labor unions, they are run by gangsters who hate him.
Obrador does not control the private universities. They are often run by reactionary Catholics such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ. Many depend for financing on the economic elite—their economic profs are conservatives. The federal universities who do back Obrador are staffed by left academics who are incomprehensible.
Obrador does not control the White House. Let’s take an example of what the White House does to Mexican Presidents. Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) wrote a law legalizing possession of a few grams of marijuana for personal use and sent it to his Congress. In the White House lurked George W. Bush. Bush telephoned Fox and roared: NO. Fox then vetoed his own law.
Well, what power does Obrador have? At his inaguration festivity Obrador knelt in front of 120,000 people in the central plaza with tens of millions watching on televisión and received from an indigenous chieftain a sacred rod of command blessed by precolombian gods. If Obrador’s enemies try to block his reforms, will the wind god Quetzalcoatl cut a fart to blow them away in a hurricane?
Obrador has moral force. For a century millions of Mexican Diogenes with lanterns have been searching for their político. They have found him. The Kingdom of God runs on morality, but the kingdoms of this world are run by POWER. Populist President Obrador mixes in with the crowds and rides on public transport. How long will the powers-that-be let him live?
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