On a sunny morning last May on the grounds of Los Pinos, the old presidential residence now open to the public, Mexican citizens strolled past a line of cars, trucks, and armored vehicles. They gazed in the windows of a 1951 Volkswagen bug and posed for pictures in front of a Lamborghini Murciélago. The cars, which all belonged to the Mexican government (some were for official use, some had been seized from criminal organizations), were waiting for auction. “There can be no rich government and a poor people,” Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had repeated on the campaign trail. Now he was president, and this sale symbolized the new order. Proceeds were destined for some of the country’s poorest municipalities. Even the government agency responsible for the auction would have a new name: the Instituto para Devolverle al Pueblo lo Robado (the Institute for Returning to the People What Was Stolen).
As they waited to be sold, the vehicles picked up the dust and grime of Mexico City, which sits in a pollution-trapping valley at nearly 7,500 feet of elevation. Just the week prior, the city had virtually shut down for several days because of a pollution emergency, in which high temperatures, low rainfall, and ongoing fires added to the usual stew of exhaust and industrial effluent. In the grime on the window of a Corvette Stingray, someone scrawled a homophobic insult directed at the last president, Enrique Peña Nieto. A few days later, the vehicles were gone. The auction raised more than a million dollars in revenue.
The sale was designed to demonstrate some of the new president’s political ambitions. Few doubt AMLO’s determination to transform his country. Even before taking office he had already envisioned his term in historic dimensions, labeling it the “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico, following independence from Spain, the liberal Reforma, and the Mexican Revolution. Though AMLO has never provided a precise definition of the Fourth Transformation, he invokes it to describe a revindication of national pride, a political project of aligning the presidency with the popular will, and the creation of a social movement that could to do away with the old party system, social inequality, and the economic status quo.
AMLO has moved quickly to make changes. Old offices and programs have been dismantled and new social policies put in place. Spending considered profligate has been scrapped and budgets redirected. New priorities have taken over the everyday work of government agencies. Elected with an absolute majority, his party, MORENA, is in firm control of Congress. And his popularity has remained reasonably high, even as criticism mounts: his approval rating has fallen from a post-election peak in the mid-eighties to somewhere in the high-sixties.
AMLO is the fourth president—and the first from the left—elected since the end, in 2000, of seven decades of single-party control of the presidency by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Approximately one year into his term in office, his approval rating does not differ significantly from those of his more conservative predecessors at the same point. All of those presidencies—of Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, and Enrique Peña Nieto—are considered failures. Indeed, their legacy of accumulated fiascos propelled AMLO to the presidency. Expectations have been high. But for his administration to succeed, AMLO will need to make life better for the majority of Mexicans. To do this, he’ll need to reduce corruption, improve economic fairness, and provide safety and security. In each of these areas, however, there are reasons to be concerned about AMLO’s ability to make significant progress.
In his campaign for the presidency, AMLO took aim at the most emblematic infrastructure project of the previous administration, Mexico City’s New International Airport. At the time, about 20 percent of the construction was already complete and 60 percent of the investment under contract. AMLO argued that the project was too expensive and plagued by corruption. He offered several possible alternatives, including canceling it, auditing it, and privatizing it. As president-elect, just over a month before he assumed the presidency, AMLO handed the decision to the people, organizing a popular consulta (a voters’ referendum). Though poll after poll showed that most Mexicans wanted the building to continue, the consulta produced the opposite result: 70 percent voted for the cancellation of the project and the construction of a smaller airport on the military base of Santa Lucía in its stead.
The referendum was full of irregularities. As president-elect, AMLO did not have the legal authority to call it. Only 1.1 million people participated—about 1.2 percent of the registered voting population. More voting booths were installed in locations that voted strongly for MORENA during the election than in those that didn’t. In the weeks leading up to the vote, a bevy of legal challenges were soon brought against the decision to call the referendum. They gained steam until mid-October, when AMLO’s government decided to reclassify the project as a matter of national security to halt what he described as “legal sabotage.” The courts obliged. The one magistrate who insisted on upholding the challenges, Jorge Arturo Camero Ocampo, was immediately removed from the bench and accused of corruption by the President of the Supreme Court, Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea, a close ally of AMLO. As of November, there has been no official investigation into the alleged corruption that AMLO gave as a reason to cancel the project.
The case of the airport illustrates both the centrality of the anti-corruption drive to AMLO’s presidency and the frequently ad hoc nature of its implementation. Rather than relying on institutional safeguards, AMLO expects people to trust that his intentions, and the intentions of those around him, are good. He describes his approach as “republican austerity,” a moral imperative directed against the privileges of Mexican elites, against dispendio (wastefulness), and against the misuse of public funds and rampant corruption. It is also presented as an alternative to the neoliberal model the country has lived with since the 1980s: privatization of public assets, fiscal austerity, and an undemocratic nexus between economic and political power, all of which has been accompanied by disappointing levels of growth. Republican austerity is supposed to put political power at the service of average Mexicans, with the poor as the first priority. It entails frugal, competent, and honest government, working to create a more just and inclusive economy.
AMLO’s decisions to auction luxury vehicles owned by the government and to open the presidential residence to the public are republican austerity in practice. He has also decided to sell the presidential airplane and fly coach, take a 40 percent pay cut, push to reduce high-level public servants’ salaries, cancel life pensions for former presidents, and do away with the Estado Mayor Presidencial (the Mexican equivalent of a presidential guard), among other measures.
The question is whether these gestures are more symbolic than substantial. AMLO’s critics believe that his most significant decisions might prove counterproductive. The airport cancellation, according to researcher Ana Thaís Martínez, could end up costing Mexican taxpayers billions. Reducing salaries of public servants may make it difficult to attract the talent needed to make the government work effectively. And without institutional safeguards, it is not clear that publicly visible anti-corruption policies will truly reduce corrupt practices. The president flying coach is a potent symbol of his commitment to live modestly, but it does not alter the political economy of the old order.
There is a certain irony in making republican austerity the alternative to neoliberalism, given that austerity has been a hallmark of the neoliberal economic policies put in place by previous administrations. But AMLO’s government emphasizes that republican austerity does not mean reducing government spending but rather reshuffling budget allocations in order to benefit the most needy. Government spending in Mexico has in the past contributed to the country’s highly unequal distribution of income rather than reducing it. For AMLO, reducing corruption and waste—ending practices that have allowed employees with access to state resources to live at a standard far above that of most Mexicans—is a key component of restoring trust in government.
When AMLO came close to winning the 2006 presidential election (he insisted that he lost because of fraud but was never able to prove it), his opponents frequently compared him to other so-called left “populists” in Latin America. The specter of Hugo Chávez was frequently raised to suggest an AMLO victory would lead to a future of economic irresponsibility and eventual crisis. But republican austerity departs significantly from the ultimately unsustainable practices of Venezuela. There is currently no talk in Mexico of the nationalization of private enterprises, for example, nor has there been a surge in government spending. AMLO’s first year in power has been characterized by macroeconomic discipline. In fact, his government has arguably avoided necessary tax and institutional reforms that would make Mexico’s economic model even moderately progressive. For the time being, his government is only moving around existing resources, not generating new ones.
These reallocations have not been without their problems. Reductions in subsidies to the health sector have led to shortages of medicine and staff in public hospitals. Salary reductions and personnel layoffs in sensitive areas like the Sistema de Administración Tributaria (Mexico’s IRS) have weakened already meager tax collection capacities.
The government has also transformed a number of existing social programs. It has replaced conditional cash-transfer programs with direct cash provision, especially to young people, seniors, and the disabled. Though budgets for social programs have been increased, as of the third quarter of 2019, the government had underspent its allocations by around $2.5 billion in key areas such as youth unemployment. In other cases, cash allocations have not been sufficient to replace lost benefits, like with day-care provisions for poor mothers that were replaced by a single family payment of $42 per month.
The cash provisions are emblematic of the government’s attempt to put social equality at the center of public policy. But they could potentially become a new foundation for one of the most decried aspects of the old system: clientelist politics. There are no well-defined and transparent registries of the beneficiaries. In 2019 cash was handed out without any supervision or regulation, and none have been put in place for 2020. And at least for now, there’s little evidence that the changes are producing results. Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro, a flagship project under AMLO targeted at providing employment to youth, has produced no decrease in the number of people aged eighteen to twenty-nine who are neither working nor in school. After ten months, with about a million people in the program, it has been able to help 15,000 find jobs.
A more positive development in the labor market last year was an increase in the national minimum wage from around $4.39 per day to approximately $5. In the border region—which is wealthier and more industrialized—the minimum wage practically doubled, to nearly $9 per day. Some workers were emboldened. Following the announcement of the increase, wildcat strikes broke out in the maquiladora sector of the border city of Matamoros, winning new contracts and higher pay for tens of thousands of workers. Labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, who became the symbolic leader of the strikes, compared them to the Arab Spring: “I have always dreamed,” she said, “that the workers would wake up and fight, and it has happened.” AMLO’s administration took a neutral position on the strikes, a notable development given previous governments’ hostility to action by workers. Throughout the country, the purchasing power of labor has risen, and there has been an increase in consumption, all of which explains some of AMLO’s enduring popularity.
Elsewhere, there have been more worrying economic signals. Growth is decelerating and will probably be near 0 percent for 2019. When confronted with the prospect of near-zero growth, AMLO said, “even if our adversaries don’t like it, there is no recession.” Pointing to the distribution of income, he said that his administration cares about growth, but cares more about development. But low growth will make redistribution more difficult. Carlos Manuel Urzúa Macías, a renowned progressive economist who served as AMLO’s finance minister for about seven months, expressed concern about the president’s dismissal of technical expertise, writing in his resignation letter: “I am convinced that all economic policy must be carried out based on evidence. . . . However, during my tenure such conviction found no echo.”
There are echoes, however, of some of the political dynamics of the “Bolivarian” countries, even if there are significant differences in economic approach. AMLO has long held a small elite, a “power mafia,” responsible for national ills, and describes the country’s elites with the colloquial word “fifí” (meaning posh or with excessively exclusive tastes). But this hasn’t stopped him from seeking cooperation from the country’s ultra-rich. When private-sector investment seemed to be slowing early in 2019, and Trump made threats to add tariffs to Mexican goods in June, AMLO responded by reaching out to some of the country’s wealthiest citizens. The Mexican Council of Business united with the president to oppose the threatened tariffs. Carlos Slim and Ricardo Salinas Pliego, two of the richest men in the world, have appeared publicly with AMLO and announced their interest in collaborating with the government on major infrastructure projects.
Rather than a left “populist,” AMLO is better described as a popular nationalist, fighting against the tides of technocratic rule and globalization. For example, since his time as an opposition politician, AMLO has repeatedly insisted on turning the state oil company, Pemex, into the engine of the country’s development. His other signature projects—the airport at Santa Lucía, an oil refinery at Dos Bocas, and a proposed “Tren Maya” that would make a touristic loop around the Yucatán peninsula’s Mayan archaeological sites—all evince nostalgia for Mexico’s “era of stabilizing development,” the years of strong growth in the mid-twentieth century. But conditions—and priorities—today aren’t what they once were. Julia Carabias Lillo, one of the most respected ecologists in the country, has deemed the Tren Maya a model of “anti-ecotourism”: massive, high intensity, not respectful of the natural environment, without a social function, and not involving local communities. For his part, AMLO has dismissed those who have raised concerns about the train—including academics, environmentalists, and indigenous groups—as “out of touch with the people.”
AMLO won election in no small part because of the Mexican people’s frustration with the governments that preceded him. In addition (and related) to corruption and unequal development, the existing punitive strategy of militarization to combat violence and organized crime was widely viewed as a failure. Public safety in Mexico has reached a desperate point: the number of crime-related murders is approaching a quarter of a million since 2006, with at least an additional 40,000 reported missing. The involvement of army forces in police work has resulted in serious human rights violations. During his campaign, AMLO promised a radical change in direction, including the gradual return of the military to its barracks, drug legalization, transitional justice, and selective amnesties. He insisted that his policies to combat government corruption and economic inequality would lead to a decrease in crime rates.
However, during the first year of AMLO’s term the murder rate has actually increased. In the first ten months of 2019, there were nearly 30,000 murders—a record number. This is to a great extent a consequence of the failed policies of the Calderón and Peña Nieto administrations. But as time passes, AMLO will have to assume responsibility for the crisis. This will prove no easy task. One new policy in particular sets a worrying precedent: in July, AMLO established a National Guard. This new security corps, the government’s emblematic security policy, is a hybrid military and police force that seems in many ways a continuation of the militarized “war on drugs” approach.
In some parts of the country, criminal groups are strong enough that the Mexican government lacks effective state authority. Last October, in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa, the government was compelled to release Ovidio Guzmán López—one of the sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—after his arrest by armed forces. Right after the detention took place, members of El Chapo’s organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, blocked highways, set vehicles on fire, and created widespread chaos in the city, during which nine individuals died. Faced with the cartel’s menace, the federal government decided to release Guzmán. Following his release, the credibility of the government’s crime strategy plummeted.
The attempted arrest was, on one level, simply a poorly planned operation, but it also raises important questions about AMLO’s security policies. The Culiacán episode repeats the most criticized aspects of previous policies: “decapitating” the cartels by killing or detaining their kingpins, instead of focusing badly needed attention to less spectacular but, in the long run, more effective approaches, such as dismantling criminal networks at their mid-levels, deploying aggressive financial intelligence against money laundering, and, above all, committing to a full-fledged reform of the police forces and the justice system.
It also points to the challenges AMLO faces in the international environment, particularly in relation to its northern neighbor. After the cruel murder of nine members of a Mormon family in northern Mexico in early November, many in both Mexico and the United States began calling AMLO’s policy of “abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not bullets”) a failure. On November 5, Trump tweeted, “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.” AMLO has reason to take Trump’s whims seriously. With his threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods, Trump was able to extract an agreement in which Mexico stepped up immigration enforcement not only at its two borders but throughout its territory. As a result of Trump’s pressure, AMLO’s administration abandoned a short-lived policy of issuing work permits to migrants and adopted a tougher stance on migration—most notably by mobilizing about 25,000 National Guard troops to stop the flow of migrants and by restricting the movement of migrants within Mexican territory (banning them, for example, from leaving the southern border state of Chiapas).
As anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz argued, this drastic policy change was proof of the irreversible fact of North American integration: Mexico was effectively coerced to deploy troops against Central American migrants to keep trade with the United States flowing. This integration is, of course, asymmetrical. As veteran reporter Ioan Grillo has pointed out, for example, Mexican cartels employ U.S.-made weapons, and it would greatly help the fight against cartels if guns were less available. But the topic is barely raised in the United States, even among advocates of stricter gun control.
In contrast to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, Mexico has repeatedly refused to comply with the U.S. demand to sign a “safe third country” agreement, which would require that migrants first apply for asylum in a transit country (and get rejected there) before seeking asylum in the United States. However, the adoption in January 2019 of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in the United States—the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, according to which migrants who have applied for asylum in the United States are sent back to Mexico to wait for a response to their applications—has turned Mexico into a de facto safe third country. As a result of the MPP, about 60,000 migrants are currently stranded in Mexican cities along the border. Most of them are living in extremely precarious conditions and are targets for extortion, theft, and kidnapping. These conditions have contributed to a spike, unprecedented in Mexican public life, in anti-immigrant sentiment and opinion.
Only one component of AMLO’s original set of policies that aimed to create an alternative still stands: the promotion of a regional development plan for Central America that would address some of the root causes of migration. From a practical and ethical point of view, some such regional approach seems inevitable; with climate change, the inflow of migrants from Central America into Mexico and the United States will in the long run likely only increase. But the broader trend is clear: under pressure, Mexico has become a full partner of the U.S. government’s aggressive stance against migration.
AMLO was elected with the enthusiastic support of much of the Mexican left. What have we learned about the kind of left he represents after a year in office? His most clearly leftist trait is his critique of the Mexican oligarchy and his attempt to rethink the relationship between political and economic power. In overt contrast to most Mexican politicians of recent decades, AMLO has long been a critic of the elite concentration of wealth and resources. Despite this lifelong commitment to the denunciation of social exclusion, his approach suffers from important deficiencies. For example, his intense focus on political corruption can create the impression that beneath the corruption there exist a series of economic relations that are, in essence, just. The emphasis on corruption risks diverting a leftist political program from what should be its fundamental aim: the creation of an egalitarian political economy capable of transforming the distribution of material resources. AMLO’s economic program lacks the main tools for such a redistribution, including the needed tax reforms.
AMLO’s program for the social and economic development of the nation suffers from another deep-seated deficiency: its emphasis on oil production, refining, and consumption, justified under the banner of “energy sovereignty.” Clean, renewable energies are completely absent from his plans, while environmentally unfriendly large-scale projects such as the Tren Maya and the Dos Bocas refinery occupy center stage. It is also troubling that AMLO seems not to distinguish between good- and bad-faith criticism, and as a political project, the Fourth Transformation prefers to strengthen presidential leadership as an instrument of the popular will.
Though his foreign policy has arguably progressive elements—offering to negotiate between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó when both claimed the Venezuelan presidency, and granting Bolivia’s Evo Morales asylum after the Bolivian military forced him from office in November—AMLO has displayed no vision of the global dimensions of issues like climate change, migration, and economic policy. One of his administration’s main foreign policy aims has been, somewhat paradoxically, a battle for the preservation of the foreign trade principles of NAFTA (now in the form of a new agreement called the “T-MEC” or USMCA). It will be difficult to put an end to neoliberalism if domestic policies are not accompanied by a similar set of international policies. AMLO has repeatedly insisted that “the best foreign policy is to have good internal policies.” But without a left-wing approach to global matters, AMLO’s government has simply inherited some of the most emblematic programs of the previous pro-free-trade administrations without presenting an alternative.
When AMLO took office there was a sense of hope, enthusiasm, and renewal. One year in, there is a growing sense of unease that the Fourth Transformation is not delivering the changes that Mexicans so desperately need. For the moment, AMLO’s political opposition is in shambles. It has no leadership, no ideas, and, above all, no relevance. But MORENA and AMLO, who insists that he is planning the long-term transformation of Mexico, will need to be bolder, smarter, and more accountable to succeed. Javier Sicilia, poet and leader of the victims’ Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, whose son was killed in 2011, has given voice to the concerns of many: “We don’t want the Fourth Transformation to fail, nor are we its enemies,” he said in November. “If it fails, there is nothing.”
Humberto Beck is a professor at the Center for International Studies at the Colegio de México in Mexico City. He is author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought.
Carlos Bravo Regidor is a political essayist and associate professor at the journalism program of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, a public research and teaching center in Mexico City.
Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.