Friday, June 8, 2018


By Steve Ellner
A revised  version of this article was published in “NACLA: Report on the Americas” (Volume 50, Issue 2) Summer, 2018, pages 119-123.

The tactics used to discredit Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the frontrunner for Mexico’s presidential elections slated for July 1, differ somewhat from those employed by the political establishment and commercial media in his first bid for the post in 2006. At that time, López Obrador (or AMLO as he’s commonly referred to) was dubbed a proxy for Venezuela’s leftist Hugo Chavez, a depiction that may have cost him the presidency. 
Just as in the past, the pro-establishment candidates and media have gained up on AMLO, but their line has slightly changed. One of the main presidential candidates, Ricardo Anaya, warns of AMLO’s “destructive and messianic populism.”[1] Although seemingly far-fetched, others are comparing AMLO’s populism to that of both Nicolás Maduro and Donald Trump. In January, Politico ran an article titled “Mexico’s Trumpian Populist,”[2] which alleged that AMLO sometimes sounds “like a Mexican Donald Trump.” Indeed, both AMLO and Trump have been accused of being anti-globalization for harshly criticizing NAFTA, although they do so from different perspectives.
Another article published in January in the Washington Post assures that the Kremlin is supporting AMLO’s candidacy. The allegation is buttressed by a Cold War-like statement made by former U.S. national security advisor H. R. McMaster that the NSA has detected “signals” of Russia’s “sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and propaganda” in Mexico’s upcoming elections.  McMaster’s warning made its way to the Mexican electoral arena where several presidential candidates accused AMLO of receiving Russian aid.[3] 
AMLO and his party the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) owe their lead going into the July general elections largely to the unpopularity of President Enrique Peña Nieto as well that of the two previous governments of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings sank below 20 per cent last year. While Peña Nieto belongs to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Fox and Calderón were members of Mexico’s other main establishment party, the Christian democratic Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). Both parties have reacted to their low ratings by launching extra-party type candidacies. PRI nominated technocrat José Antonio Meade, who occupied top ministerial positions in both PRI and PAN administrations.  PAN’s contender Anaya packages himself as the candidate of a broad coalition taking in two center-left leaning parties, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and the Movimiento Ciudadano.  
MORENA Moves Away from the Hard Left
AMLO claims that his adversaries have over the recent past made less use of the Chavista label because it “no longer functions for them” thanks in large part to social networking which allows people to see the truth for themselves. 
But there are more credible reasons for the opposition’s modified narrative. Most important, the thesis that links AMLO with the leftist Venezuelan government is less plausible due to the fact that he has come to assume more moderate positions. The messianic label may be more convincing than that of a firebrand leftist. As a three-time presidential candidate and the supreme leader of his party who lashes out at the political class (including former allies) as a “mafia in power” (mafia de poder), AMLO is open to the accusation of having a messianic complex and upholding a Manichean vision, considered by some to be a trademark of populism. The same narrative characterizes him as “sectarian” and “arrogant.”
Some of AMLO’s critics on both sides of the political spectrum claim he has abandoned the leftist camp altogether. The allegation was made in an article titled “The Rightwing Drift of AMLO on the Route to the 2018 Elections,” published in Huffington Post’s Mexican edition.[4] The article makes reference to the viewpoints of Roger Bartra, a renowned Mexican scholar and former leftist, who wrote in Spain’s El País “López Obrador has ceased to be on the left and now has begun a return to positions resembling those of the old PRI.”[5] 
Greenpeace has also rebuked AMLO for abandoning progressive stands. The organization objects to AMLO’s selection of Victor Villalobos—who promoted genetically modified crops while serving in two PAN governments—as his future agricultural secretary. Greenpeace pointed to the decision’s “incongruence” considering AMLO’s 2012 platform, which called for a ban on GMOs.
 AMLO’s strategy of cementing ties with non-leftists has met criticism from within his movement. MORENA’s electoral pact with the Evangelical party Encuentro Social (Social Encounter Party, PES) has been most controversial. At a December 2017 meeting when AMLO announced his cabinet appointments—consisting of eight women and eight men—renowned Mexican writer and faithful AMLO supporter Elena Poniatowska held up a cardboard sign that read “NO TO THE PES.” AMLO denies major differences between the two organizations, even though PES is generally characterized as conservative.  
A number of politicians belonging to PRI, PRD and other parties have jumped on the bandwagon. MORENA stalwarts consider the newcomers opportunists and pejoratively call them “chapulines” (grasshoppers). Some of the contests for nomination as MORENA candidates in the July local, state and national elections pit chapulines against founding party members.   
In his third presidential bid, AMLO has maintained a balance between the pragmatism that lay behind his encouragement of the chapulines and the principled stands he has assumed. The centerpiece of his campaign is his pledge to guarantee accountability and combat corruption. Among his “Proposals for the Rebirth of Mexico” are the elimination of special prerogatives (known as fueros) for all officials including the president; the possibility of holding a presidential recall election; and his commitment to travel on commercial flights as president—Mexico’s presidential airplane is one of the world’s most expensive. 
AMLO links the issue of corruption to what may be the most critical issue facing Mexico: privatization of the oil industry. Peña Nieto’s “Energy Reform” – which required a PRI-PAN pact to enact a constitutional reform that stripped the state oil company PEMEX of its monopoly – opened the petroleum industry to private capital. AMLO – in sharp contrast to the conservative narrative – argues that privatization and state downsizing is conducive to corruption. Thus, for instance, he claims that the neoliberal government’s reliance on gasoline imports as opposed to investments to boost PEMEX’s productive capacity (which accounts for only 22 percent of the internal market) facilitates shady deals involving commercial interests. “The business of gasoline imports,” he says, “is managed by the mafia in power.” 
AMLO has also pointed out that dependence on gasoline imports forced President Peña Nieto to renege on his pledge to not raise gasoline prices. Consequently, Mexican gas prices are higher than in the United States and even oil-bereft Guatemala. Gasoline hikes in January 2017 set off mass protests throughout the nation that led to looting and at least four deaths and over a thousand arrests. AMLO has pledged to build two new oil refineries and modernize six existing ones in the first three years of his presidency. In doing so, he adds, Mexico will achieve 100% self-sufficiency. 
For these elections, AMLO has softened his stand on oil policy. In 2014, AMLO took a “patriotic oath” in which he pledged to “struggle without rest” against oil privatization. Now, however, he has ruled out an “authoritarian” approach based on decreeing the expulsion of foreign companies from the industry. Instead, he promises to respect existing contracts and submit the issue of re-nationalization to a national referendum. In case of approval, the will of the majority would be incorporated in a constitutional reform that would require two-thirds congressional approval. Mustering such overwhelming support in Congress appears to be nothing short of a pipe dream. In another modification, José Luis Beato, commonly referred to as AMLO’s liaison with the private sector, indicated that Peña Nieto’s Reform package contains “positive aspects,” although he failed to name any specifics.

AMLO also shows a degree of restraint in his statements about relations with Washington, notwithstanding Trump’s offensive remarks about Mexico. In most of his declarations, AMLO stresses the need for mutual respect. He assures that under his government relations will be based on “friendship and cooperation, but not subordination.” He reserves his sharpest criticism for Peña Nieto who, in the face of Trump’s affronts, “has failed to act with decorum in defense of the Mexican people.”
Similarly, AMLO’s position on NAFTA is more flexible than those of his two previous presidential bids. His 2018-2024 governing program surprisingly praises NAFTA as a well-demonstrated, useful instrument for the development of economic relations with the U.S. and Canada.” AMLO’s platform recognizes that NAFTA has been beneficial for Mexico’s electronic and car industries, but detrimental to small producers.
AMLO envisions a government based on state intervention in the economy and the promotion of a welfare state, which would break from the policies of a string of six neoliberal Mexican presidents beginning with Miguel de la Madrid in the 1980s. However, AMLO’s ambitious electoral platform may not be entirely feasible. Large state expenditures are at odds with AMLO’s promise to avoid tax hikes and an increase of the public debt and to maintain the autonomy of Mexico’s Central Bank. AMLO has assured that needed resources could come from eliminating bureaucratic waste and corruption and slashing the president’s salary in half. These measures, however, would not appear to provide the state with sufficient revenue to implement his ambitious programs. 
AMLO’s shifts have led some on the left to question his credentials as a progressive. Lorenzo Peraza, a well-known activist and victim of government repression, told me: “López Obrador toned down his message in his 2012 campaign with respect to that of 2006 and now even more so—so much so that there is only a fine line separating him and social democrats.”[6] 
Locating AMLO on the Political Spectrum
MORENA, originally founded as a “movement” in 2012 after breaking from the PRD, now sees itself as “a party of a new type,” in the words of its Human Rights National Secretary Carlos Figueroa Ibarra.[7] MORENA militants are keenly aware that their party needs to avoid the practices that characterized the two parties that it emerged from, the PRI and PRD. At a party meeting, the renowned writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II pointed out that MORENA has not removed the word “movement” from its name because its members “associate the word political party with vertical structures.” He added: “we want to be a horizontal movement whose leaders are chosen from the rank and file…and which learns from the errors of traditional parties.”[8] 
Unlike many traditional parties, MORENA respects the autonomy of social movements. Reinaldo Mancebo, a MORENA leader in the southeastern city of Mérida, told me: “we have participated in large numbers in the protests against the murder of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, and all the other protests in Mexico, but not in the name of the party. We don’t want to give the enemy the opportunity to politicize and discredit these actions.”[9] Indeed, MORENA’s unequivocal support for the Ayotzinapa protests and those last year in opposition to gasoline price increases clearly places the party on the Left. Nevertheless, MORENA’s more cautious strategy toward mobilizations contrasts with AMLO’s direct participation in the movement opposing oil privatization at the time of the party’s founding.
In spite of AMLO’s moderation and the resultant criticism he has received from leftists in and outside of MORENA, he remains a towering figure on the Mexican left. In a recent interview, Mexican Marxist economist Jorge Veraza referred to AMLO’s candidacy as “somewhat paradoxical.” On the one hand AMLO has followed an increasingly pragmatic strategy, but on the other he is widely viewed as a man of unbending principles. Given these apparent contradictions, “the only way you can explain López Obrador’s popularity and lead at the polls is on the basis of the complete discredit of Mexico’s political class” and the perception that he is “Mexico’s last hope.”[10] AMLO’s credibility is bolstered by his past history of steadfast resistance to the allegedly fraudulent elections of 2006, and subsequently his breaking with the PRD over its alliance with the PAN, considered by many to be self-serving. 

AMLO’s candidacy is Mexico’s only real leftist option in July. The logic behind his decision to moderate his stance is easy to understand. AMLO is not likely to receive an absolute majority of the popular vote and it’s even more unlikely that MORENA will gain control of congress. More moderate positions will facilitate congressional agreements with either smaller parties slightly to the left of center or one of the major ones, depending on the outcome in July. Furthermore, given the change in the correlation of forces in Latin America over the recent past, an AMLO presidency will face an unfriendly environment at the continental level.
In addition, forging understanding with prominent non-leftists will reduce the possibility of electoral fraud, which is foremost on the minds of all MORENA militants and is a topic of discussion in virtually all party meetings. In a recent Jacobin post, New Politics co-editor Dan La Botz reviewed the span of Mexican history over the last century as well as the hostile statements of pro-establishment publications in the U.S. and concluded that electoral fraud and even an attempt on AMLO’s life are serious possibilities. [11]
 AMLO cannot be dismissed as an ex-leftist. None of his rivals in the presidential race offer anything that comes close to a comprehensive critique of Peña Nieto’s neoliberal policies, in spite of Anaya's efforts to position himself to the left of PAN's historical location on the right. In contrast, AMLO questions the advisability of the government’s neoliberal oil, labor, education and fiscal “reforms,” even while his alternative proposals appear to be on the mild side.
Any evaluation of AMLO’s candidacy from a progressive perspective needs to place it in a broad context. In recent years, conservative and reactionary parties have come to power in major European nations (Germany, Britain, Spain, France) and in the United States. The same has happened in Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile), while the right-wing pushback has been strongly felt in Venezuela and Ecuador. The rightist narrative points to these developments and then harps on Venezuela's pressing economic problems in order to question the viability of socialism and other leftist proposals for Latin America. It is precisely for this reason that so much is at stake on July 1. 

[2] Sabrina Rodríguez, “Mexico’s Trumpian Populist Could Mean Trouble for Donald Trump,” Politico,

[3] Frida Ghitis, “A Mexican Presidential Candidate is Getting an Unexpected Boost from Trump – and Putin,” Washington Post, January 11, 2018.
[5] “López Obrador representa la nostalgia por el viejo PRI,” El País, November 9, 2017.

[6] Lorenzo Peraza, author interview, Mérida, January 26, 2018.
[7] Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, author interview, Puebla, September 7, 2017.

[9] Reinaldo Mancebo, author interview, Mérida, January 24, 2018.
[10] Veraza, author interview, Caracas, May 4, 2018.

[11] La Botz, “The Plot against López Obrador,” Jacobin.


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