AMLO Has a Project to Transform Mexico

Mexico is set to hold crucial midterm elections early next month. Though far from perfect, the governing MORENA party remains the Left’s best bet to transform the unequal, corruption-addled country that AMLO’s administration inherited three years ago.

President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) looks on during a daily briefing at Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, 2021. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

On June 6, some ninety-five million Mexicans will be called to the polls for the largest set of elections in the nation’s history. Some twenty-one thousand offices will be in dispute, including mayorships, state legislatures, fifteen governors, and all five hundred members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the federal Congress. Squaring off against the governing MORENA coalition will be an unholy alliance of right-wing parties composed of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN), and the straggling ruins of the once-proud Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Amongst the frenzy of campaigns, spots, and controversies, one thing is clear: Mexico in 2021 is not the same country as it was in 2018.

There are scholarships for students, apprenticeships for nonstudents, a universal pension for seniors, benefits for the disabled, and insurance for the unemployed. For small businesses, there are interest-free microcredits and for farmers, a series of programs providing for technical training, fertilizers, a basic package of foodstuffs, and price supports for staple crops.

Over three years, the minimum wage has been raised by 60 percent. The peso is stable. A public option for banking has been established. Marijuana is legal and thousands of federal prisoners stand to be released from prison and have their records wiped clean. An amnesty law will free further nonviolent offenders, including those jailed for drug possession, abortion, and indigenous persons who were denied the right to an interpreter in their trials.

Large corporations have been forced to cough up years in back taxes, to such an extent that tax collection went up during the pandemic year of 2020. Private prisons are being phased out, as are genetically modified corn and the toxic chemical glyphosate. Processed foods have been fitted with warning labels. A secret ballot has been introduced for union elections. Outsourcing has been rolled back. Recall and binding referenda have been passed, with AMLO volunteering to stand in a recall election next year. Public housing benefits have been reformed to assist debtors and halt evictions. Pensions have been reformed to lower the retirement age, increase governmental contributions, and reduce commissions. And instead of winging around the world on a luxurious jet and hiding behind set-piece interviews, the president remains in Mexico and takes two hours of questions at daily press conferences.

In foreign affairs, Mexico has exchanged its former slavish devotion to Washington for a rigorous defense of its own national sovereignty. It has reined in the actions of US intelligence agencies, refused to recognize Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, called a coup a coup in Bolivia, bucked the Organization of American States, and sent a plane to rescue Evo Morales.

Pulling the levers of multilateralism, it has called out the United Nations for its failure to act on First World hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines while cutting deals with China and Russia for importation and bottling; Mexico currently ranks twelfth in the world for number of vaccines administered. And staring down powerful foreign energy interests, AMLO and the MORENA majority have passed two key laws to reassert public control over its grid and regain self-sufficiency. With fits and starts, a long-neglected proyecto de nación, or national project, has begun anew.

The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

At the heart of this national project is AMLO’s systematic effort to dismantle the combination of state capture and state terror that beset Mexico with special ferocity over the last thirty years of neoliberal governance. In the 1980s and ’90s, the nation’s assets were sold off to a cabal of elite cronies, creating a new class of post-privatization mega-millionaires. By the 2000’s, this elite — gorged on the nation’s banks, trains, telephone service, iron and steel industry, and more — had joined forces with its benefactors in the PRI and PAN to create a kleptocracy that exceeded all previous limits.

No area of the economy was safe, no state decision free of collusion. Uncounted billions of public money were funneled through phantom companies and public universities into political campaigns, pet projects, and politicians’ pockets. By means of a pay-per-vote system of moches, legislators were bribed to pass the ongoing counterreforms that benefited the very interests making the payoffs.

Presidents frolicked with cabinet ministers in the employ of cartels. Governors filled luxurious ranches with menageries of exotic animals while, in First World capitals, their wives insisted to their diaries that they deserved the abundance that had been showered upon them. Meanwhile, the general public, having already weathered two currency devaluations and the sell-off of its public services, was then subjected to the fresh hell of a “drug war” that killed hundreds of thousands and rent the fabric of the nation with untold savagery.

Here, too, Mexico is not what it was. Through the joint, and at times fraught work of the Justice Department and the Revenue Service’s Financial Intelligence Unit, former development secretary Rosario Robles is in jail for the “master scam” diversion of public funds that took place during the Peña Nieto administration. Emilio Lozoya, who as a member of Peña Nieto’s campaign, negotiated millions of dollars in bribes from the Brazilian company Odebrecht — only to pay the company back with contracts once he was named director of the state oil company PEMEX — has become a cooperating witness for the government.

Over three years, some thirty-one thousand bank accounts worth billions of pesos have been frozen. Both Peña Nieto and former president Felipe Calderón are under active investigation, with Calderón currently caught up in a fresh scandal of allegedly diverting some $300 billion pesos ($15 billion in today’s US dollars) in no-bid crony contracts to launch Mexico’s private prison industry.

At the end of April, Tamaulipas governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca of the PAN was stripped of political immunity by the federal congress — the first time ever for a sitting governor — in order to face charges of fraud that led to his racking up some thirty-odd properties, including luxury residences, restaurants, and art galleries. This is just the latest in a seemingly endless stream of PRI-PAN governor-criminals stretching back over the last decade.

In short, the AMLO administration and its congressional allies are unraveling a web of corruption on the scale of Italy’s Mani pulite or Brazil’s Lava Jato (to which it is related through Lozoya, Odebrecht, and the Spanish firm OHL). Not that you’d know it, of course, from international media coverage of Mexico over the past three years.

Spectacular coverage of drug violence is easier, cheaper, and better fodder for headlines than taking the time to learn who’s who and follow the plodding progress of prosecutions. Interest in anti-corruption crusades also tends to fall off when it is being performed by a government that is not to the liking of the international elite that determines media framing.

But even more to the point, tracing the trail of corruption in Mexico would mean uncovering US complicity every step of the way: through financing, weapons, rogue intelligence operations, and the daily fact of playing nice with officials, like former security minister Genaro García Luna, who they knew to be highly compromised by organized crime.

USAID Aids the Opposition

The long arm of the United States has been on display in another way during the midterm election campaign: in helping to fund the political opposition. By means of the United States Embassy in Mexico, and as reported by the magazine Contralínea, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are financing the organization “Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity” (MCCI), founded by Claudio X. González. Not only is González leading the charge against MORENA in this year’s election, organizing the coalition of parties arrayed against it and financing its candidates, he has also been an active figure in the war of attrition seeking to block the key pieces of the president’s agenda in the courts.

Far from representing a passing check, the millions in funding from the US agencies amounted to nearly 20 percent of the organization’s revenue in 2019 and 2020. And while MCCI is not directly a political organization, the United States has effectively been chipping in a healthy salary (González received the equivalent of some $375,000 dollars from the organization over the previous three years) to the chief organizer of Mexico’s opposition.

Spurred by the revelations, Mexico sent a diplomatic note to the United States on May 6 asking it to clarify the matter. At his press conference the following morning, AMLO classified it as a form of golpismo, or coup promotion, and compared it to the participation of US ambassador Henry Wilson in the overthrow of President Francisco Madero during the Mexican Revolution. “It’s an act of interventionism that violates our sovereignty … Our Constitution forbids it. You can’t receive money from another country for political ends.”

The case raises the specter of USAID’s dark history throughout Latin America, from its promotion of “fiscal reform” and “competitive business climates” to its clumsy attempts at regime change in Cuba to its support of the mass sterilization of the poor in Peru. In its Cold War heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, USAID helped to bolster dictatorial regimes throughout the region by training their police officers in counterinsurgency, riot control, explosives, public relations, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” carried out in soundproofed cellars.

Claudio X. González’s election interests, meanwhile, are not limited to financing the opposition and taking checks from USAID: two of his allies will be on the technical committee named by the National Electoral Institute to oversee the Preliminary Election Results Program (PREP) on election night. According to the institute, they will be “contributing to the development of democracy” and “overseeing the authenticity and effectiveness of the vote.”

A Positive Balance

MORENA’s performance over these three years has not been perfect. It has been too timid on a number of fronts, including reining in the privatized free-for-all of the mining and banking industries, attacking the nation’s grotesque wealth inequality, and defending migrants against US pressure.

It has been inactive on indigenous rights, insensitive to protests surrounding the plague of feminicides, and inadequate in creating a long-term environmental vision in the face of climate change. Its budget reductions have cut too close to the bone in a number of areas, including science and culture. And despite the fanfare of a new National Guard, the violence has not abated.

But on balance, its record has been positive. In this urgent historical moment, the MORENA coalition must win the midterm elections on June 6.