Mexico’s Fourth Transformation

We're roughly three months into AMLO's term as president of Mexico. The challenges and opportunities his administration and the Mexican people face seem equally epochal.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador President of Mexico takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the events of the Presidential Investiture as part of the 65th Mexico Presidential Inauguration at Zocalo on December 01, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images

On December 1, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known colloquially as AMLO, took office as the president of Mexico. Speaking on the floor of Congress, he announced the beginning of “a fourth transformation of public life” in the country. Like the war of independence (1821), the period of secular state reforms (1850-1860s), and the massive social revolution (1910) before, the day marked the beginning “not only of a new government but of a new political system.”

By AMLO’s own admission this sounded “pretentious or exaggerated.” Nevertheless, this moment was indeed a towering achievement in modern Mexican political history. Thirteen years earlier he had been on that same floor defending himself as mayor of Mexico City against an impeachment process brought on by the allegedly illegal use of eminent domain laws to build a road to a hospital. Two failed — and one victorious — presidential runs later, Lopez Obrador presides over a congressional majority by his party MORENA (which also controls the Senate). His campaign for presidency trounced 92 percent of districts nationwide, leaving the establishment’s parties in shambles.

Political Power, Economic Power

La cuarta transformación. Over-statement or not, the moniker has stuck, used by friends and foes alike to make sense of the whirlwind of the past months. The transfer of power that occurred in 2000 after seventy-one years of one-party rule was smooth — a lackluster and uneventful “transition to democracy” — primarily because it happened at a high point of the neoliberal consensus. Now in Mexico, as in many parts of the world, that consensus is no more.

As Lopez Obrador put it in his inaugural speech: “neoliberal economic policies have been a disaster, a calamity for public life in the country,” reiterating a key theme of his campaign, the connection between neoliberalism and corruption: “privatization in Mexico has been synonymous with corruption . . . political power and economic power have fed off each other and it is established modus operandi to steal the goods of the people.” If he is serious about rolling back the past few decades’ immense public-to-private transfer of wealth, and short-circuiting the joint ventures of political elites and rent-seeking fractions of capital, his will not be a smooth government transition.

So far, Lopez Obrador is serious. The pace of his presidency’s inaugural months has been relentless. The symbolisms of power and the political ruling class have been thoroughly dismantled. The president has converted the lavish presidential residence into a cultural space open to the public; begun flying strictly on commercial flights; and is seen traveling the country without security guards. It is now common for airport travelers to chat with him, for him to be spotted in a convenience store or roadside stall, for common people to get up close — many snap selfies, many hand him manila folders filled with personal grievances.

These aesthetic gestures have been accompanied by a staggering sequence of substantive government actions: a truth commission to investigate the case of forty-three disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, labor rights for domestic workers, minimum wage hikes across the country, freedom to over a dozen political prisoners, closing loopholes that would have returned paid taxes to giant corporations.

These actions have taken place in the context of a hostile press, a belligerent punditry, and increasing pressure from international capital’s representatives. The IMF recently modified their economic growth estimates for Mexico’s coming year — reducing their 2.5 percent estimate, made just a few months earlier, to 2.1 percent. Fitch downgraded the state-owned oil company PEMEX’s bonds ratings.

But nothing has shaken the public’s resolve so far. In what is the key to understanding this juncture, Lopez Obrador maintains extraordinarily high approval ratings. He began his term polling in the upper sixties; the latest polls put him in the eighties. The gap between professional commentators and competing political forces on the one hand, and the vast majority of the population on the other, is abysmal.

Consulta Popular

Nothing has elicited the ire of capital as much as the cancellation of what would have been a $12 billion airport in the outskirts of Mexico City. The mega-project was in the works for years — the last achievement of the dying regime. It represented precisely the connection between neoliberalism and corruption that Lopez Obrador harped about.

The airport fit into a pattern of the state taking all the risks and business reaping all the profits — eating up the infrastructure budget, handing out bloated government contracts to private companies, indebtedness to foreign capital, disregard for serious environmental concerns, and the looming suspicion that another existing airport on the city’s outskirts had been intentionally under-utilized so as to justify a new “bottomless barrel” project.

But the new airport was already 30 percent completed. The difficult decision to roll it back depended on the added support of a “consulta popular”: a MORENA-organized poll in which about one million people voted overwhelmingly against the new airport. The poll was non-legally binding, organized quickly under the pressure of the upcoming budget. Critics argued against opening up “technical” decisions to the will of the people, and pointed — rightly — to the lack of the usual vote-validating safety locks of a regular election. But Lopez Obrador’s democratic impulse was hard to deny. And while the poll’s one million participants is small relative to registered voters in the country, it was an impressive display of the energy in MORENA’s base and for more participatory democratic forms in the near future.

The second front that has pitted Lopez Obrador against elites is his attacks on the upper layers of administrative bloat. Before his victory, the salaries of upper-middle and high-ranking officials were extraordinarily high by global standards. For example, Mexican Supreme Court justices made close to $400,000 a year (US Supreme Court judges make about half of that). Lopez Obrador himself reduced his salary as president by half.

Lopez Obrador has justified these moves by arguing, to the chagrin of a cast of neoliberal technocrats, that state agencies should “cut from the top.” These “republican austerity” policies are delayed by the courts, but have nevertheless boosted the president’s popularity among the vast majority of the population. Thanks to public pressure, the judges who initially struck down an earlier salary reduction law have now “voluntarily” agreed to a 25 percent cut.

But perhaps the most dramatic fight of his presidency so far has been the attempts to curb the widespread theft of PEMEX gasoline. The state-owned oil company loses an estimated nine million liters per day to the tapping of pipelines — a practice called huachicol after the adulterated tequila market. Oil theft grew exponentially over the past decade, with the involvement of all levels of government officials (including the managerial sector of PEMEX) and links to organized crime, who built a complex infrastructure that parallels and siphons off the major pipelines.

The efforts to dismantle this network and recover state control of gasoline distribution have caused weeks-long fuel shortages and long waits at gas stations across several states. Tragically, in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, the January explosion of a hastily illegally tapped pipeline resulted in 125 casualties (as townspeople rushed to the area trying to collect gasoline from the initial leak).

The urgent need to reassert state power has also manifested in the debate over the government’s proposal for a national guard. The national guard will be a new policing body devoted mostly to abating the crisis produced by the past decade’s drug war, which has left hundreds of thousands dead. The guard would be composed of members of the military, re-trained for policing, plus new recruits. It would begin under the control of military officers before lapsing into civilian control after five years. Crimes committed by members of the guard against civilians would be tried in a civilian court, not a military one.

Critics (including members of MORENA) fear this involves an increased militarization of everyday life. The military’s participation in the drug war has occurred under legally ambiguous terms and has won it a worrisome record of human rights violations. And while Lopez Obrador’s campaign did call for a national guard it was never clear what the military’s role would be. He had after all also been critical of the policing functions the military had been carrying out.

This attempted de-stigmatization of the armed forces is puzzling. But as Secretary of State Olga Sanchez Cordero explained, the proposed national guard is a compromise between removing the military from the streets altogether and the popular demand for the presence of armed forces. Opinion polls show overwhelming support for the measure.

Change From Below

Other limits to AMLO’s anti-neoliberal project have started to emerge. The paradox here is that MORENA’s left-wing takeover is happening after a prolonged period of hollowing out the state. Now, there isn’t much of an apparatus left to carry out the new government’s plans.

This has meant a continuing dependence on private-public partnerships. For example, the ambitious plan of cash transfers to the elderly, people with disabilities, and students relies on Banco Azteca’s administrative infrastructure. The bank is owned by the media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego and its director openly said it sees cash-transfer enrollees as future clients of its (often predatory) lending services. Lopez Obrador’s pet public infrastructure project, the “Mayan Train” circling the Yucatan peninsula, will also be a public-private venture (although presumably with more advantageous terms for the state than previous projects). And Secretary of Labor Luis Maria Alcalde’s project to aid unemployed youth amounts to state-subsidized internships in private companies.

These programs will help millions and should not be dismissed out of hand. But they do re-open the question of the organic relationship between economic power and political power criticized so pointedly by Lopez Obrador before taking office.

But deep change remains on the horizon, and not only through Lopez Obrador’s initiatives. In the past month tens of thousands of striking workers in the maquiladoras in Matamoros won wage increases, and a combative women’s movement against the increasing wave of femicides and gender violence is pushing the state in the right direction.

The opposition remains shocked by their resounding defeat. It has become disoriented (aside from their singular obsession with Venezuela) and unable to articulate itself as an alternative project. The optimism of the population at large and the disorganization of right wing will not last forever. The moment is ripe for a “fourth transformation.”