The Immovable AMLO

The Immovable AMLO

The Mexican president continues to decry neoliberalism, but his government is failing to build an effective alternative to it.

President AMLO waves a flag on the balcony of the national Palace to kick off independence Day celebrations on September 15, 2020 in Mexico City. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

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When Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico in 2018, he promised a government “for the good of all, with the poor coming first.” He pledged to break with neoliberalism and its attendant inequalities, violence, and corruption. After more than two years in power, AMLO remains rhetorically committed to a vision of equality. But he has pursued this vision with a set of very fixed ideas. As new challenges have emerged, he has not adapted. His inflexibility threatens to undermine the promise that his election represented.

His government’s handling of the coronavirus is emblematic of this problem. When COVID-19 cases began to surface in Mexico last spring, AMLO’s response bordered on denial. A total lockdown would have been difficult to pull off in a country where a majority of the population earns a living from informal work. “I can’t stop working,” one hamburger vendor told reporters. “If I don’t sell, I don’t eat. It’s as simple as that.” But AMLO’s own activities demonstrated a lack of concern about spreading the virus. Initially, he made no changes to his practice of making trips around the country, which brought him into close contact with thousands of his supporters. He also promoted deadly misinformation. At the end of March, during one of his daily morning conferences, AMLO took out a pair of “amulets” and said that they would protect him and the country from the pandemic. Even after catching and recovering from COVID-19 in early 2021, AMLO chooses not to wear a mask in public.

As the number of cases rose, the government suspended large public gatherings and in-person schooling but avoided imposing a mandatory lockdown. Inconsistent public messaging encouraged voluntary restrictions, asking Mexicans to maintain safe social distance. Despite many people having little choice but to keep working outside of their homes to survive, Mexico experienced an 8.5 percent reduction of its gross national product in 2020, its worst economic contraction in almost ninety years.

In keeping with AMLO’s commitment to “republican austerity,” direct financial support has been minimal. Big business, he announced, had evaded taxes and didn’t deserve support: “No more bailouts like those given to banks in the era of neoliberalism.” But AMLO’s government has offered little help to ordinary people either. Some benefits were dispersed early, but there was no large-scale effort to provide insurance or basic income to the millions who found themselves short of work. Mexico’s coronavirus relief spending remains among the stingiest in the world: less than 1 percent of GDP. That figure is dwarfed by the relief policies of other Latin American countries; Chile and Brazil’s relief packages, for instance, amounted to about 8 percent of GDP.

The coronavirus has devastated Mexico. In September 2020, AMLO predicted that the worst was over. By the end of 2020, cases spiked, peaking in late January of this year. Black markets emerged for oxygen tanks, as family members tried to take care of sick relatives who could not, or would not, access public hospitals. According to data from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, somewhere between 18 and 55 million Mexicans (in a country of roughly 130 million) have contracted the virus. Mexico has the lowest rate of testing in the Americas and the highest positivity rate. By the end of February, the government reported approximately 185,000 deaths due to COVID-19. Mexico, with the world’s tenth-highest population, ranked third in the world for deaths, behind only the United States and Brazil. But looking at “excess deaths” compared to previous years reveals that official figures have grossly understated the cost to Mexico: by mid-December, there were already 380,000.

After returning from his illness in early February, AMLO spoke optimistically about rolling out a vaccination program, even with a much more limited supply than wealthier countries like the United States. But public information has been scarce and contradictory, and priorities seem to shift with the arrival of every new shipment. The vaccination plan includes the organization of “brigades” composed not only of medical staff but also of members of the army and political operators from the Secretariat of Welfare, a decision that has raised concerns about the potential for favoritism and manipulation in the immunization program. And contrary to epidemiological recommendations, the government announced it would prioritize distant rural areas instead of highly populated urban areas where contagion is more likely. Authorities have tried to justify this decision on the grounds of social justice, but an inefficient rollout will only deepen and prolong the emergency, which has hit the poor the hardest.

While the flaws in the government’s response to the coronavirus are particularly acute, similar patterns appear in other policy areas. AMLO continues to decry the faults of neoliberalism, but his government is, for the most part, failing to build an effective alternative to it. Yet even as former supporters have slowly stepped away from the government and criticism has mounted, AMLO’s level of popular support remains high. As of January 2021, his approval rating was around 62 percent. His enduring popularity depends partially on what he has delivered, but even more on what he still represents.

AMLO’s first two years in office have not been all bluster. While critics have focused on his lack of transparency and the threats he poses to the autonomy of democratic institutions, AMLO’s government has successfully pushed policies aimed at reducing inequality. The federal government has issued three minimum wage increases: by 16 percent in 2019, 20 percent in 2020, and 15 percent in 2021. These raises are important steps in beginning to reverse a decades-long period of income stagnation, during which working people’s purchasing power decreased significantly. A surge in inflation—the outcome dreaded by the policy’s detractors—has not occurred. Moreover, the federal government has worked to curb the precariousness of the labor market, especially in the informal sector. In 2020, it ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 189 Convention on domestic workers’ rights—a move civil society organizations had been demanding for almost a decade.

AMLO’s coalition, which has a majority in both legislative chambers led by its flagship party, MORENA, also passed a bill in 2019 that could alter the country’s labor movement by facilitating the formation of truly independent and democratic unions. Under the old system of corporatist rule, unions were accessories to the power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), extending privileges in exchange for votes and the suppression of more radical labor demands. Many workers’ organizations have never complied with democratic standards, and unfair and authoritarian practices have survived the end of the PRI’s rule. MORENA’s labor reforms include new rules to govern union freedom and democracy, to establish the independence of labor judges, and to improve workers’ negotiating position.

The implementation of the labor reforms will take years, and there are reasons to worry that the government might weaken some of the most important aspects of the bill. Mexico’s weak justice system has long enforced laws and regulations only intermittently and unevenly. AMLO’s government, far from strengthening the institutional capacities of the Mexican state, has systematically diminished them. And though MORENA passed the reform, it was formed under external pressures—from the ILO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), all of which included obligations to adopt international standards of union independence. AMLO remains on very good terms with the labor behemoths of the old political order, such as the teachers’ and oil workers’ unions. He is also close to the Confederación Autónoma de Trabajadores y Empleados de México (CATEM), a newer labor federation that could end up becoming the foundation of a pro-AMLO corporatist arrangement. And while MORENA has advanced labor rights in the private sector, the implementation of severe austerity measures in most of the agencies of the federal government has led to reductions in wages and benefits in the public sector.

Beyond the workforce, AMLO’s key welfare policy has been an ambitious set of unconditional cash transfers to senior citizens, single mothers, and people with disabilities, as well as paid internships for young adults. These programs are designed to provide assistance to those who badly need it and to bring marginalized people into the national economy. According to the government’s numbers, the transfers reach 65 percent more beneficiaries than past social programs. Independent analysts doubt the accuracy of these figures, however, because they are based on an opaque “Welfare Census” that doesn’t offer a reliable way to verify that the monetary transfers are reaching their targets.

There have been fierce debates about whether these cash transfers are ripe for corruption, or whether they can in fact reduce it. The program’s champions argue that their key feature is the establishment of a direct link between the state and the program’s beneficiaries—the cash goes straight to the people, leaving out any middlemen. But as critics on the left, such as Milena Ang and Tania Islas, have argued, direct cash transfers can “perversely replicate neoliberal logics” by eroding welfare institutions and “dump[ing] responsibility onto individuals for their own well-being in a competitive market economy.” It is not encouraging that government officials have quickly dismissed cases where corruption and misuse have been identified—for example, in the administration of grants intended to help unemployed young people learn job skills. Moreover, because of budget cuts to other areas, social spending under AMLO remains below the levels seen in the period between 2009 and 2016. Still, when Mexicans are asked to name the best thing AMLO has done in office, social programs are the most popular answer by far.

AMLO touts the success of these programs during daily briefings from the National Palace. These appearances, known as mañaneras, are broadcast in their entirety not only through YouTube and Facebook Live but by several media outlets. Each weekday at 7 a.m., AMLO speaks and reacts to reporters’ questions, usually for a little over ninety minutes. Sometimes he invites guests, such as cabinet members or other high-level officials, to provide details on specific programs or policies; occasionally he presents graphs or images. Most of the time, he talks off the cuff, sharing his thoughts on current events. “I am being spontaneous,” he said last August. “Don’t think I come here with analyzed ideas. No, I come here to speak sincerely, to tell you how I feel, what I know, what my experience is.”

The emphasis on authenticity goes well beyond his press conferences. When AMLO talks, he tends to use an unpretentious, vernacular Mexican Spanish. He dresses humbly. During his travels around the country, AMLO has made it a point to always fly coach, even at the peak of the pandemic. On these journeys, he records videos of himself at popular spots eating antojitos, typical Mexican street food. Although he radiates a traditional solemnity, he does not appear to be concerned about protocols or even about his own security, arguing he has nothing to fear because “the people take care of me.” AMLO comes off as an earnest man of the people, rather than a distant and snobbish member of the traditional ruling classes, unfamiliar with the plight of average Mexicans.

AMLO uses this reputation to burnish his own moral authority, which he then wields as an arrow in his political quiver. The very fact that AMLO was elected to the presidency has deepened some Mexicans’ confidence in their country’s democracy. But his determination to concentrate moral and political power in himself, without systematic anti-corruption policies, does not contribute to restoring public confidence in democratic institutions. He has targeted election- and transparency-related institutions as well as technical and auditing bodies that have the potential to contradict or complicate the story he tells about his own achievements.

According to political scientist Luis Estrada, as of February 12, in office AMLO has made almost 45,000 false, misleading, or unverifiable public statements, including frequent exaggerations or misrepresentations of his administration’s accomplishments. Over the course of his term, AMLO’s relationship with the press has grown increasingly antagonistic. He has been subjected to unfair coverage by some hostile outlets, but instead of responding directly to criticisms or correcting the record with verified information, he has instrumentalized this conflict as part of his battle against old elites, practices, and institutions. He labels journalists as “professional slanderers,” “conservatives,” or “adversaries” who are lashing out against him because they are allegedly “losing their privileges.”

The media is not the only target of AMLO’s combative rhetoric. He frequently rails against civil society organizations, environmentalists, feminists, intellectuals, and scientific and artistic communities, rejecting the need for targeted efforts to address the issues they raise. “All of the problems that the country suffers—against women and men—are the poisoned fruit of the materialistic and inhuman economic model that was imposed during the neoliberal period,” he said in November. When challenged on the inadequacy of such statements offered in response to the Mexican women movement’s protests against femicide and gender violence, he disregards their demands and accuses critics of bad faith.

AMLO has also exploited opposition to corruption in Mexican politics to go after any figure or institution he wants to do away with. In October, he ordered the closure of 109 fideicomisos—foundation-like bank trusts, some of which were government-backed, used to finance long-term projects in the arts, sciences, sports, human rights, and other areas, arguing that the money needed to be repurposed for the fight against COVID-19, and that the trusts were opaque, wasteful, or susceptible to graft. Some may have been, but evidence was never presented to support these generalizations. According to Antonio Lazcano, a leading voice of Mexico’s scientific community, the cancellation of the fideicomisos means the collapse of many scientific projects.

AMLO argues that corruption stems from the immoral neoliberal model. He has promised an ambitious “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico to end abuses of power by the privileged. But it will be impossible to overcome deeply entrenched resistance and build the “new regime” Mexicans voted for, he argues, without a strong, reconstituted presidency. He expects his personal example of rectitude to generate a kind of trickle-down morality, but this model can be used to justify his own government’s abuses. Take the example of Jaime Cárdenas, who, only a few months after his appointment to head the recently created Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People, resigned his post and detailed the administrative irregularities and illegal behaviors by public servants that he had observed. Or consider the cousin of the president who received more than $18 million dollars in contracts from Pemex, the state-owned oil company, and two recently surfaced videos from 2015 that show one of the president’s younger brothers accepting an envelope and a brown paper bag stuffed full of cash offered as “contributions” to AMLO’s movement.

Sanctions for these instances of corruption, when they occur at all, have been mild. AMLO’s attribution of corruption to neoliberalism as an ideology makes it almost impossible to design an appropriate institutional response. And his see-no-evil attitude toward his own party extends to other areas as well. He has stood by MORENA’s gubernatorial candidate in the state of Guerrero, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women, saying that he has been subject to a “campaign of lynching” and that the decision of whether or not to reject him should be up to the voters.

As AMLO’s political project has consolidated and his coalition has matured, another troubling tendency has emerged: though MORENA includes historic sectors of the Mexican left, its government also includes alliances with conservative religious groups and, increasingly, the military. This ideological configuration suggests that the Fourth Transformation will not be the one that many on the left hoped for.

On the campaign trail, AMLO promised to end a failed war on drugs by “returning the army to the barracks.” In office, he has done the opposite, passing a constitutional reform that makes the armed forces responsible for public safety tasks until 2024. And a 2020 presidential security decree empowers the army and navy to carry out police tasks, such as detentions and seizure of property, throughout the country, without clear regulation or subordination to civil authorities. Under AMLO’s watch, the military budget has ballooned, reaching spending levels similar to or higher than those of key sectors such as welfare and health.

AMLO’s basic rationale for this increased military spending doesn’t differ significantly from arguments made by previous administrations in support of Mexico’s “war” against organized crime. Given the shortcomings of police forces, he argues, recourse to the army is necessary amid heightened insecurity. To this old line of reasoning AMLO and his supporters have added a new rhetorical flourish: the military is nothing but “the people in uniform,” a trusted organization whose increased presence doesn’t represent a threat to Mexican civil institutions. AMLO presents the army as practically the only trustworthy government institution. There are more troops than ever involved in public security, and the National Guard, created in 2019 as a military-civilian hybrid organization, has rapidly become Mexico’s third military force. It has already been accused of human rights violations.

The strategy has not yet led to a significant reduction in violence. The first year of AMLO’s government was the most violent in the last two decades, with 34,582 criminal homicides. Last year saw only a slight decrease, with 34,523 murders. As a candidate, AMLO promised a break with the disastrous militarized response to organized crime carried out by his predecessors. But his increasing dependence on the military—not only for security, but for infrastructure development and even social services—has made it an essential part of AMLO’s coalition. Rather than demilitarization, his government seems to be on the path to what Argentinian political scientist Rut Diamint has called Latin America’s “new militarism”: armed forces intervene not only on security matters but on all sorts of policy tasks, not with autonomous force but as allies of democratically elected governments that, nevertheless, end up politicizing the army’s loyalty.

AMLO’s alliance with the military isn’t his only relationship that came as a surprise to his supporters on the left. After being quite critical of Donald Trump as a candidate, AMLO warmed to the former president. Last July, he traveled to Washington, D.C. for a signing ceremony for the renegotiated NAFTA. “During my time in office as president of Mexico,” AMLO said, standing with Trump, “instead of insults against me, and more importantly my country, we have received from you understanding and respect.” His statements quickly made their way into Trump campaign ads targeted at the Latino community, where Trump made gains in the 2020 election.

How this will affect relations with the United States going forward remains to be seen. AMLO’s praise for Trump likely strengthened the hand of those within Democratic circles who see AMLO as an irresponsible populist, dangerous in similar ways to Trump himself. Though AMLO always stressed his ideological differences with Trump, some of his supporters have come around to a more favorable view of Trump, who they see, like their president, as a nationalist leader treated unfairly by failing institutions. AMLO’s decision not to recognize Biden as president-elect until mid-December heightened these tensions, as did his public opposition to Twitter’s decision to ban Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol riot.

Many of AMLO’s supporters have also echoed U.S. conservatives in their opposition to renewable energy. AMLO’s rhetoric about the energy sector is cast in terms of Mexican sovereignty rather than any interest in environmental problems. Following the prescriptions of a fossil fuels–based policy of “energy protectionism,” the government is planning to increase hydrocarbon production and oil refinement capacity in order to reduce Mexican dependency on gasoline and diesel imports from the United States. Yet he has cut support for clean energy despite its lower cost, arguing that renewables represent a threat to the functioning of the power system. The government is also attempting to restore the monopoly of the national power company, CFE, over the generation of electricity, and AMLO says he intends to turn Pemex, the heavily indebted state oil company, into the “lever of national development” with the assistance of billion-dollar investments. Even if he succeeds, the plan will deepen Mexico’s economic dependence on fossil fuels.

All of this is bad news for a country where the energy sector is responsible for around 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The situation is set to get even worse following AMLO’s decision last summer to buy two million tons of coal for power generation. He has also called for prioritizing oil refinement at six existing facilities and a new one under construction in the Port of Dos Bocas, Tabasco, rather than importing from abroad. The refining process produces a residual, highly polluting fuel oil, much of which will be later used at CFE’s thermoelectric plants, to the great danger of the surrounding populations’ health.

AMLO’s energy policy goes against Mexico’s commitment in the Paris Agreement to a 22 percent reduction in emissions. As Fernando Tudela, an academic and former official who represented Mexico at the negotiations in Paris, has pointed out, these setbacks are “collateral damage” of AMLO’s professed goal of restoring the state’s monopoly in energy production—an objective to be pursued at any cost. After resigning from his position leading the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources last year, biologist Víctor Manuel Toledo expressed his estrangement from a government that claims to be interested in securing social welfare without accepting the significance of environmental protection. His ministry’s 2020 budget amounted to only 2.5 percent of the “fossil fuels budget” designated for Pemex, CFE, and the Secretariat of Energy.

In terms of its long-lasting effects, AMLO’s inability to adequately respond to environmental challenges such as climate change could constitute an even greater failure than his inability to cope with the pandemic. Soon, Mexico will be even more exposed to multiple vulnerabilities related to global warming, from water scarcity and crop failure to increased pressures from climate refugees.

During his time in office, AMLO has faced an unusually daunting set of circumstances. Polling shows that Mexicans are perfectly aware of where his government’s performance has been weak, giving it poor marks on the economy and mediocre ones on managing the health crisis. Yet AMLO is still seen more positively than his government. “Mexicans are not irrational,” pollster Lorena Becerra argues. “They are aware that AMLO’s government has not delivered the results he promised, and [they are] also certain that the country is in bad shape. . . . That does not mean, nevertheless, that most people disapprove of him.” The high poll numbers point to the significance of some aspects of his agenda—especially social spending and labor reforms. Though there is a long way to go before these changes are genuinely transformative, poor and working-class Mexicans have real reasons to believe that AMLO cares about them and their well-being.

But mismanagement in other areas threatens to undermine those elements of his program. AMLO’s thinking on issues like feminism and environmentalism is antiquated. His approaches to the pandemic and social violence have not been successful. He has damaged Mexico’s public sector, his government is not transparent or reliable, and he is not receptive to criticism.

AMLO’s supporters weigh these shortcomings against the failures of his predecessors. “Many Mexicans,” Becerra says, “are holding onto the hope that [AMLO] gave them and are still very angry about previous presidents. That he has not delivered good results does not mean people are willing to reject him and go back to whatever we had before.” How he will govern in the second half of his term remains to be seen. His trajectory since taking office is not especially reassuring. “La esperanza de México”—“Mexico’s hope”—remains the slogan of MORENA, and the reason why so many remain loyal to the government. But two years in power have shown that hope alone is not enough.

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 analyst and professor at the Journalism Program of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, CIDE, in Mexico City.

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.

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