It was early April 2018. The Mexican presidential campaigns were heating up and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, running for the third time for the highest office in the land, sounded defiant. Donald Trump’s foreign policy was “wrong,” he told supporters at a rally in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. He also denounced what he called the US president’s “derogatory attitude towards Mexicans.”
“Neither Mexico nor its people is going to be the piñata of any foreign government,” added López Obrador, who had even written a book titled Oye Trump (“Listen, Trump”) to criticize his policies.
Fast forward almost 26 months and defiance seems to have been replaced by compliance. The Mexican president, who took office December 1st, readily folded when the Trump administration threatened to impose escalating tariffs if Mexico did not immediately act to stem the flow of immigrants from Central America.
Taking what the US State Department called “unprecedented steps,” Mexico agreed to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration, including deploying its own National Guard. In return, Mexico kept the status quo as a crucial trade partner with the United States, and nothing else.
López Obrador did have a “nuclear option,” says Sergio Negrete, an economics professor at ITESO, a college in the city of Guadalajara specialized in technology and economics.
“He could’ve said to Trump, ‘Go ahead with your tariffs and go up incrementally until you reach 25 percent,’ which was the threat Trump had made, but López Obrador decided against it because he realized that was going to hurt all the production chains in North America and hurt Mexicans and Americans alike,” Negrete said. He simply chose not to pursue it.
Former undersecretary of foreign relations Andrés Rozental Gutman has publicly criticized the migration agreement between Mexico and the US, saying “Mexico should not do the United States’ police work or help it violate its own immigration laws, denying asylum seekers the right to apply for the benefit in its own territory, as stipulated under American law.”
Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation”
Despite his own transformation into cordiality, and compliance with the Trump administration, Lopez Obrador has not been as accommodating at home, especially with those who dare to disagree with his grandiose nationalist and populist political platform.
Lopez Obrador says that he started “Mexico’s Fourth Transformation”, a social movement to eradicate corruption and alleviate poverty, while striving for social justice and equality. By doing so, he puts himself on par with the heroes of Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, and the 20th century revolutionaries who created modern Mexico.
But while his focus is on social justice and reducing poverty, his ideology is hardly clear cut. “For everybody’s good, the poor should be first,” the president often said while campaigning. Although left-leaning, he has vehemently rejected predictions that he would be a reincarnation of the late Hugo Chávez, the populist, nationalist and socialist president whose policies destroyed the Venezuelan economy.
Instead, he says he’s a follower of Mexican presidents including the liberal Benito Juarez who enacted laws to separate church and state and Lázaro Cárdenas, a nationalist who in 1938 kicked out foreign oil companies and took control of the industry.
He has been endorsed by Mexican evangelicals who historically supported conservative candidates, and has met with business leaders shortly after office in an effort to reassure nervous investors.
Perhaps because of his unconventional brand of nationalism, Lopez Obrador has more political capital than any of the three other Mexican presidents since the country’s transition to effective democracy in 2000. His approval rate is unusually high – up to 70 percent – and his huge popular mandate stems from the fact that he obtained more than 30 million votes or 53.19% in the July 2018 presidential election.
Morena, the political party he founded to run for president, also controls both chambers of congress. And since Mexico allows presidents to serve for only one six-year term, he has the luxury of taking risks that may or may not alienate voters.
Lopez Obrador has taken dramatic actions to fulfill campaign promises to cut waste and reduce corruption. At the beginning of his administration, the 65-year-old from Tabasco state vowed to sell the presidential plane, arguing it cost taxpayers millions of dollars that could be better spent tackling poverty.
He opened the presidential mansion to the public, which he said had become a symbol of luxury and opulence in a country where nearly 42 percent live in poverty, according to government figures.
But critics say that he has made decisions that made little financial sense in order to please his political base.
On the seventh month of his presidency, finance minister Carlos Urzúa, a former longtime ally of the president, bitterly resigned with a resignation letter that raised questions about the president’s decision-making and his much-vaunted promise to reduce corruption.
Six other cabinet members have also resigned in the first eight months of López Obrador’s administration, including Environment Secretary Josefa González Blanco, tourism undersecretary Simón Levy and Guillermo García Alcocer, who oversaw Mexico’s Energy Regulating Commission.
While alienating some of the political establishment, it’s undeniable that some of the president’s unilateral choices have simply backfired
When nearly 100 people died in January after a pipeline explosion in Hidalgo, a central Mexico state, López Obrador denounced fuel theft as one of the greatest evils in the country. His immediate solution was shutting down several pipelines, which created a fuel shortage in several states for weeks.
Major cities like the capital and Monterrey, an industrial hub in the north, experienced shortages not seen in decades.
A divided country and uninspired economy
The result of all this has been an open polarization of Mexican society, and a middling economy.
Mexico narrowly escaped recession in the first half of the year. A preliminary estimate published by the national statistics agency show the economy grew by 0.1% between April and June. A negative growth of 0.2% during the previous quarter shows the Mexican economy, at best, is stagnant, according to José Ignacio Martínez, an international relations professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Other economic factors show a more positive outlook. “Inflation is currently at 3.97% and the peso has remained stable at 19.03 per dollar. The central bank is expected to keep interest rates at their August 15 meeting at the same level or to lower them slightly which means that fiscal policy is stabilized,” Martínez said. In other words, the average consumer is not feeling any pain despite worries by economists and so the president remains highly popular.
Those who support his nationalist and populist brand of politics proudly call themselves “chairos”. The president himself calls those who voted against him “fifís”, a derogatory, although not obscene, term. This division mirrors a socioeconomic and racial tensions that have existed in Mexico for centuries. But now the epithets are coming from the top and in a very public way.
“The country is now divided between those who support López Obrador, that he sees as the good ones, and those who oppose him whom he calls the bad ones,” says Rozental, the former foreign relations undersecretary.
He acknowledges that López Obrador has attempted to tackle some pervasive problems in Mexico society, including inequality, poverty and education and says that programs for the elderly and the unemployed youth instituted under the current president were badly needed.
However, he says the balance after eight months of government has been negative, he concludes. “There have already been issues with his government, including corruption, abuse of power, and even lack of transparency in the cabinet itself,” Rozental said. “His promises that he alone would be able to eradicate corruption because ‘I’m an honest man’ is a pipedream.”