The Contradictions of AMLO

The Contradictions of AMLO

AMLO has performed a tightrope walk as president, balancing the opposing tendencies of populism: the extension of democracy and the strengthening of personal leadership. Has he begun to wobble?

AMLO supporters attend the Third State of the Union Report on December 1, 2021, in Mexico City. (Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

On December 1, 2021, Mexico City’s central public square, the Zócalo, began to fill with supporters of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It had been two years since there had been a public gathering of this size. Buses arrived from around the country, some organized by municipalities governed by AMLO’s party, Morena, and some by labor unions. After hours of musical performances, the president appeared. His supporters were happy to see someone that they looked up to both as a politician and as a moral authority. In his speech, AMLO highlighted the government’s signature policies and plans for the future. “In three years,” he said, “more than ever before, the mentality of the people has changed, and that is the most important thing of all.”

While AMLO’s supporters celebrated and the president touted his respect for the Constitution, a much smaller group had gathered about ten miles from the city center. Outside the gates to the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, students had organized an occupation in protest of the government-appointed rector who has led the institution since November. CIDE is a prestigious public university that focuses on training students in the social sciences. While the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México has more than 200,000 students, CIDE has just 400. It was founded in 1974 under left-wing nationalist President Luis Echeverría to train experts who could advise him on economic policy. In the 1990s, however, it became known for professors who completed doctorates abroad, which, in some cases, included training in market economics. AMLO alleges that during the neoliberal era that he so frequently criticizes, the institution “ended up abandoning public service.”

The CIDE students don’t see it that way. And when the new rector arrived last fall and contravened established practices in the university regarding faculty promotion and retention, they went on strike. Many worry that in an environment in which AMLO tends to equate public service with support for his government, there is real danger to academic freedom for those involved in research or advocacy that diverges from the government’s plans and policies. These fears are connected to other attacks on academia. Earlier in 2021, the Mexican government drew international criticism over its handling of a corruption case against several scientists who had received state support; the government overruled court decisions that favored the scientists and threatened them with severe laws normally used against drug traffickers. Students and faculty alike worry that AMLO’s administration has placed academics among its targets—and that it is using the politics of austerity to attack institutions that he perceives as hostile to his aims.

AMLOFest and the student occupation at CIDE were hardly equal in scale, and the contrast between them suggests something of the nature of AMLO’s government. Although the president continues to enjoy approval levels around 60 percent, his disapproval ratings have increased from a low of 14 percent in 2019 to 39 percent this February. While the government retains its popularity among broad swaths of the population, the president’s actions have alienated an increasing number of voters. AMLO judges almost everything according to how it affects his image. He has boasted during one of his morning press conferences that his net favorability ratings are second only to Narendra Modi’s on the world stage, apparently without awareness that it might be an unflattering comparison. AMLO reserves for himself the right to decide who belongs to the authentic people, and who is part of the self-interested elite. In his with-me-or-against-me logic, critics—including not just academics but also journalists and activists for various causes—are presented as motivated by the defense of their privileges and the old regime. Many of AMLO’s supporters echo these criticisms; pro-Morena journalist Gibrán Ramírez dismissed the occupation of CIDE as a “picnic.”

AMLO is Mexico’s first left-wing president since the country’s transition to competitive democracy in the late 1990s. When he was elected in 2018, many hoped that by reducing extreme inequality and corruption, as he promised to do, his presidency would deepen and expand democracy. Though some worried about his “populist” qualities, populist movements are not entirely inimical to democracy: they can bring new voices into politics, empower and integrate marginalized groups, and dismantle networks of privilege. But these movements can also imbue charismatic leaders with symbolic power, attack independent institutions and social movements, and build new networks of privilege based on loyalty. In the years since his election, these conflicting populist tendencies have coexisted in AMLO’s Mexico. But in the past year, there have been more frequent and more serious episodes in which AMLO has overstepped the bounds of democratic leadership. He has embraced the personalization of authority as the best way to advance his political project.

The midterm elections held in June 2021, which were widely seen as a referendum on AMLO’s time in office, were the first opportunity for his coalition (Morena partnered with two small parties) to contest many of the country’s powerful governorships. The coalition did well, picking up eleven of the fifteen states under contention. On the other hand, it lost ground in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican congress. The major parties of the political system that preceded AMLO—the remnants of the long-ruling PRI, the right-wing PAN, and the center-left PRD—formed an opposition bloc. They did well enough that Morena lacks the supermajority it would need to approve constitutional amendments without outside support. Nevertheless, Morena remains the prohibitive favorite for the 2024 presidential elections, where it is likely to be represented either by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard or Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. (The Constitution limits presidents to one term in office, and AMLO has promised to respect that rule.)

The results in Mexico City are suggestive of some of the shifts in AMLO’s electoral coalition. His victory in 2018 was the result of cross-class support, but last year his party lost in a majority of the city’s boroughs, the first such result for a nominally left-wing party since 2000. With a population greater than 8 million, Mexico City has long been the stronghold of the country’s political left; AMLO and Ebrard have both served as mayor. Last May, however, in the lead up to the midterms, both Ebrard and Sheinbaum were tarnished by the collapse of an elevated rail line whose shoddy construction and insufficient maintenance suggested that political expediency was prioritized over passenger safety. Morena’s losses in the western part of the city, which contains some of its wealthier districts, represents not only the expected hostility of the better-off classes, which AMLO derides as “fifí” (posh), but also declining support among educated professionals. His strength in the poorer east, meanwhile, shows the loyalty of that part of his base.

Part of the reason for that loyalty are new social programs implemented under AMLO that represent limited but real accomplishments. His government has passed meaningful increases in the minimum wage, in a country where average labor income was lower in real terms in 2019 than in 2005. The series of increases passed by Morena—including a 22 percent increase for 2022—amount to a 65 percent increase in wages in real terms. The government’s flagship projects for targeting inequality and poverty through cash transfers to students and senior citizens, among other groups, have also provided some support. Between 2018 and 2020, there was a 7 percent increase in the number of Mexicans in poverty, a figure that is somewhat lower than what was expected due to the effects of the pandemic. During the same period, benefits from social programs increased 56 percent; the cash transfers are among the reasons for this difference.

Other labor reforms introduced by Morena have begun to have positive effects. As required by NAFTA, the party put in place new regulations that make it possible for workers to lodge grievances, overturn sham contracts, and form independent unions on more favorable terrain. These are significant, and democratic, reforms. Under the semi-authoritarian governments of the PRI that ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century, powerful unions were given privileged positions in key sectors in exchange for political loyalty. They were important pillars of the regime and made their leaders wealthy, but they benefited few workers. More democratic union representation has the potential to create a new labor culture.

For example, in February 2022, workers at a General Motors plant in the city of Silao that assemble Chevy and GMC pickup trucks overwhelmingly voted to join an independent union, ending their contract with one of the dinosaurs from the PRI era. Under the old contract, wages topped out at $23 per day, and workers reported regular mistreatment, such as denial of bathroom breaks. Organizers of the independent union overcame intimidation and threats to obtain their victory. This success is emblematic of the new possibilities for worker power under the new laws, especially in the private sector. If this empowerment of labor encouraged by the new legislation is consolidated, it will offer one of the most tangible hopes for a lasting redistribution of wealth in Mexico.

In other areas, the centralization of power in the executive and a lack of transparency undermine the potential of reforms. In the social programs, everything from the register of beneficiaries to the social effects of the cash transfers are clouded in obscurity. Contrary to government rhetoric, social spending is actually lower and less progressive than it was under the previous president. Developments in key public-sector unions are also not encouraging. The union of workers at Pemex, the state oil company, was for decades notorious for corruption, with leadership ostentatiously enjoying condos in Miami and Cancún. In 2019, the longterm head of the union was successfully pressured to resign, but the attorney general’s office (which is formally independent but perceived as the president’s ally) has dropped or dragged out judiciary inquiries in spite of the clear details of the case against him. Many wonder if the strategic importance of the union has led AMLO to tolerate undemocratic practices that allow leadership to remain favorable to his government. Pemex workers, voting at almost the same time as workers at the GM plant in Silao, produced the opposite result: they elevated a close collaborator of the deposed leader in an election in which independent candidates reported the use of scare tactics and clientelism.

Pemex is central to AMLO’s plans for regional development in the country’s poorer southeast. It is also key to his goal of “energy sovereignty.” To achieve this goal, his government is providing the heavily indebted company with capital injections, fiscal credits, and generous budget increases. The federal government has also rehabilitated old refineries, begun the construction of a new one, and even purchased a facility in Texas.

The goal of energy sovereignty is also behind the president’s proposal for a constitutional reform that would radically transform the national electricity market by minimizing the role of private firms and strengthening the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the state power company. In the government’s opinion, existing energy legislation—the result of a previous constitutional reform in 2013—creates “regulatory disorder” and squanders billions of dollars in subsidies to private companies. Secretary of Energy Rocío Nahle has argued that an energy marketplace under private control leaves consumers defenseless against the fluctuations of the market. The proposed reform would correct this situation by putting the state back in control of electricity, guaranteeing supply to all consumers and reducing risks to national security.

If the reform, which is presently stuck in congress, is approved, CFE plants will have preference over private ones for uploading their energy to the transmission net. This would be a blow to renewable energy facilities, which are mainly in the hands of private companies. Moreover, the reform states that CFE will be legally responsible for the generation of at least 54 percent of Mexico’s electricity, well above the current 38 percent. Existing plants aren’t enough to meet that need, which most likely means there would be more recourse to fossil fuels. Climate Action Tracker ranks Mexico’s policies and actions for the reduction of emissions as “highly insufficient,” and AMLO’s wager on non-renewable energy will only make the situation worse.

The proposed energy reform would also suppress agencies in charge of regulating energy production, which are perceived by the government as limiting presidential power, and establish a state monopoly over the exploitation of Mexico’s large deposits of lithium. These changes are representative of the federal government’s increasing centralization of power and AMLO’s systematic distrust of public agencies, companies, and political actors not under his direct control.

International relations scholar Natalia Saltalamacchia has described AMLO’s approach to energy policy as “autonomism”—a conviction that weaker countries should focus on expanding their autonomy to pursue national goals, not foreign interests. The same idea applies to the AMLO administration’s foreign policy. AMLO frequently quotes the nineteenth-century liberal statesman Benito Juárez, who said, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“Respect for the rights of others is the foundation of peace”). In practice, this means a kind of indifference to internal conditions in other countries. That indifference isn’t ideological: AMLO sought good relations with Trump, just as he seeks good relations with the leaders of Cuba. The upshot is that Mexico today has a foreign policy stance that resembles the one that characterized the governments of the PRI, which often sought to mediate regional conflicts.

Over the past year, Mexico has held the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and hosted a meeting of the heads of state of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The latter is a group that some Latin American countries—especially undemocratic ones like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba—hope could be built into an alternative to the Organization of American States, and one without the presence of the United States. In a speech at the summit in September, AMLO called for an end to the “policy of blockades and poor treatment” and promoted “associating for the good of the Americas without infringing on our sovereignty.” He also called for building something similar to the “the economic community that gave rise to the current European Union.” The European Union, however, imposes significant restrictions on legal structures and economic policy in exchange for inclusion. As Martha Bárcena Coqui, AMLO’s former ambassador to the United States, has pointed out, the European Union is a preeminent example of the “ceding of national sovereignty to a supranational organization.”

U.S.-imposed sanctions have indeed caused human suffering in Cuba and Venezuela (and have arguably strengthened those governments rather than weakened them). And in theory, it is useful for a country like Mexico to be available to host delicate negotiations, such as those between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. But AMLO often interprets efforts to protect democracy as interferences with sovereignty. For example, he warned against sanctioning Nicaragua after it held illegitimate elections in November and disagreed with efforts to ban Russian state media after the invasion of Ukraine. “We have good relations with everyone,” AMLO declared.

Another recent initiative by the foreign ministry has been widely praised, even by many critics of AMLO. In August, it announced that it would sue U.S. gun manufacturers for contributing to violence and instability in Mexico. Between 2014 and 2018, 70 percent of guns traced in Mexico had originated in the United States. The lawsuit, which was accepted in Massachusetts, charges manufacturers with deliberately making weapons that are attractive in the Mexican market and among criminal groups. Straw purchasers and smugglers take advantage of the extraordinarily lax gun laws in the United States to acquire and then traffic weapons south. “Just as Defendants may not dump toxic waste or other pollutants to poison Mexicans across the border,” the lawsuit asserts, “they may not send their weapons of war into the hands of the cartels, causing repeated and grievous harm, and then claim immunity from accountability.” Legal experts do not expect the lawsuit to succeed, but it can still increase awareness of shared responsibility for armed violence in Mexico, and perhaps generate some commercial and political pressure.

AMLO tends to identify countries with their governments, rather than their citizens—which perhaps tells us something about how he thinks about Mexico. At times, he portrays his leadership as above other principles or institutions of democracy. This does not mean he, or Mexico, have become authoritarian. There are divisions within his party that he can’t tame, and some of his proposals are stuck in congress. And despite all the setbacks to his administration, AMLO’s personal popularity is still immense. Nevertheless, his style of leadership is connected at least in part with older, undemocratic traditions—especially the belief in the head of state as the only possible solution to the nation’s problems.

A recent poll from March 2022 showed that AMLO’s approval rating had fallen to 54 percent—still high by most standards, but damaged by a recent scandal that has undermined his claim that he and his government are “not the same” (as he frequently asserts) as Mexico’s previous rulers. In January, reporting showed how one of AMLO’s children had gone from a middle-class lifestyle to one of luxury, living in an enormous home in Houston. It was later revealed that this son is currently working for a company owned by the children of a businessman in charge of supervising the construction of one of AMLO’s infrastructure megaprojects, the Tren Maya. AMLO reacted to the story by exposing private information about the journalist and calling for an investigation of his income and wealth, as well as details about his business partners and family members. Such hostility to the media has steadily increased during AMLO’s time in office, in what is already one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Over the first three years of his administration, AMLO’s political discourse has subtly changed: he has gradually dropped anti-oligarchic talk about the mafia del poder (power mafia), his term for the alliance between monopolistic plutocrats and corrupt politicians, and begun to talk instead of los conservadores (the conservatives), a loosely identified group that includes businessmen, journalists, intellectuals, feminists, human rights activists, and even “the middle class” as a whole. The only thing that ties them together is that they are perceived by AMLO as “adversaries” of his government. AMLO used to be known for his inclusive concept of “the people,” but in office that group has grown smaller and smaller.

The most extreme instance of this trend is AMLO’s fight with the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), the autonomous public agency responsible for organizing elections. Electoral manipulations were part and parcel of the country’s political system throughout most of the twentieth century, but a series of reforms in the 1990s established INE—an important part of the democratization of Mexico. But AMLO treats the institution as an obstacle; he now calls it an enemy of democracy in Mexico. Top members of INE have sometimes reciprocated AMLO’s hostility, adopting a discourse that presents “populism” (used as a euphemism for AMLO and Morena) as a threat to democracy.

AMLO’s feud with Mexico’s electoral authorities dates back to 2006, when he lost his first bid for the presidency by less than 1 percent. He has been convinced since then that INE (known as IFE at the time) committed electoral fraud against him. The evidence for this claim is lacking—and INE has been responsible for the organization of elections that have resulted in numerous electoral victories for Morena, including AMLO’s in 2018.

INE is, to a significant extent, outside the scope of AMLO’s personal authority (it has had constitutional autonomy since 1996). But it has suffered substantial budget cuts under AMLO’s policy of austerity. These issues have come to a head with an unprecedented revocación de mandato (revocation of mandate) nationwide vote scheduled to take place in April. The plebiscite measure was introduced in 2019 by Morena, which has portrayed the vote as an instrument of direct democracy to determine whether the people have “lost confidence” in AMLO. Given his popularity, the outcome of this exercise is not in doubt. But the vote will allow AMLO to run the equivalent of a second electoral campaign to boost his and his party’s image in advance of this year’s local elections and the 2024 presidential cycle.

The revocación presents a significant burden to INE, on top of its already tightened budget. Last December, INE’s governing board voted to momentarily suspend the organization of the revocación until after the Treasury delivered necessary funds. In response, prominent members of Morena talked about the need to “exterminate” the institute, asked the attorney general’s office to imprison members of the governing board, and suggested that elections from this point forward should be organized by the federal government.

One of the main points of contention over INE are the salaries and perks of the organization’s board and advisers. The budget cuts, along with the revocación, represent an indirect way of applying pressure on INE to cut back salaries, but the institute has refused to yield. After the Treasury’s denial of extra funds, the INE decided to organize the revocación with just a third of the election sites needed for an exercise of this magnitude. “They are not doing it with pleasure—they don’t like democracy,” AMLO commented. “And this is all because they want to keep their salaries. They want to keep on living like kings.” But whatever the INE’s flaws, putting elections under federal control would place the fairness of upcoming votes in real doubt.

During the first years of his six-year term, AMLO performed a tightrope walk, balancing the opposing tendencies of populism: the extension of democratic inclusion and the strengthening of personal leadership at the expense of democratic institutions. He has now begun to wobble. The positive elements of his administration—some of the social programs, the new labor laws, the lawsuit against gun manufacturers—remain worthy of praise, though they are not necessarily better than what another administration would have done. Other elements may be contentious but remain within the realm of democratic disagreement. But AMLO’s resistance to transparency and scrutiny, and his preference for presidential control, are cause for concern.

AMLO has said that the upcoming plebiscite represents real, participatory democracy: “In an authentic democracy, the people rule.” He then clarified who belongs to the people, and who he sees as his opposition: “not the intellectuals, not the politicians, not the journalists, not the experts, not the tycoons.”

Humberto Beck teaches history at El Colegio de México. He is the author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought.

Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: