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The Left’s Delusions About Mexico’s New President

Andrés Manuel López Obrador is going to save Latin America from neoliberalism, according to American and British leftists. The reality is much more complicated.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador at his swearing-in ceremony (Getty Images)

The story has never failed to entrance a foreign audience: An outspoken leftist committed to social justice wins a landslide presidential victory in Latin America. Headlines last July for 65-year-old Andrés Manuel López Obrador proclaimed the familiar tale. Mexico’s poor, marginalized, and forgotten had elected a man who would truly represent them: a plain-talking, frugally living southerner who would stamp out corruption and give voice to the voiceless.

Yet with his promises to increase state economic intervention and potentially reverse Mexico’s market reforms of the past 30 years, AMLO, as he is known, polarizes opinion. Supporters, both at home and abroad, believe he and his National Regeneration Movement party (Morena) are the antidote to the neoliberal policies that have left the country mired in gang violence and inequality. Critics, meanwhile, compare him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—a potential authoritarian who will wreck the economy.

Mexico’s challenges since transitioning from one-party-rule to democracy in the 1990s are so numerous and complex—corruption, drug violence, the rule of law—that the most probable outcome is that AMLO, like his predecessors, merely disappoints. Yet there’s ample reason to suspect those dubbing him the “Mexican Bernie Sanders” are misreading the situation: projecting southwards an American leftist fantasy that fails to engage with Mexican reality. The man who has vowed to initiate Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation” is not free of flaws. And some of them come uncomfortably close to those which have long led the left astray in Latin America.

It is debatable whether AMLO, who was sworn in December 1, won July’s election because of a longing by Mexicans to see the left return to power, or simply because of widespread disenchantment with their entire political class. Former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year term was beset by corruption scandals, drug violence, and a batch of pro-market structural reforms that have yet to benefit the majority of the population. Exhibiting equal parts arrogance and incompetence, the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politician symbolized the very worst of Mexico’s ruling class. The 2018 election could credibly be read as the country’s “Trump moment,” a desire for something—anything—different.

Mexico, for all the catastrophizing by politicians, the media, and NGO researchers, remains a country in flux rather than crisis. Its violent crime rate, while the source of horrific massacres and mass disappearances, is lower than those of Venezuela, Brazil, or Colombia. Its burgeoning high-tech and manufacturing sectors are the most productive and innovative in Latin America. And its current economic performance—relatively low, if consistent, growth—while disappointing to many, can be considered an improvement on the 20th century when Mexico lurched from crisis to crisis, depending on oil prices.

Ultimately, where Mexico continues to struggle is in the consolidation of democratic institutions and the rule of law—the legacy of decades of authoritarianism. Weak public institutions undermine everything from criminal justice to the implementation of social welfare policy and prevent any government, right or left, from meeting its goals. They permit corruption to continue, and serve as background to the catastrophic images of death and mayhem that flit across our screens after the latest drug war massacre.

Yet this is generally not the discussion being had on the left with regards to Latin America. Many in western academia and journalism continue to consider neoliberalism the region’s primary problem. This posture was first adopted by the left in the 1990s during the alter-globalization movement, itself partly inspired by Mexico’s 1994 “Zapatista” uprising, and has endured as the foremost leftist critique of Latin American governments to this day. While many of the criticisms of the rapid implementation of liberalizing market policies were justified, they rarely appreciated the context of the times or distinguished between positive reforms and negative ones.

Mexico’s market reforms, after all, were spurred by serious problems. While the Mexican economy, propelled by oil revenues, grew rapidly during the mid-20th century, state-backed monopolies filled with political cronies only served to suppress innovation and entrepreneurship, while state intervention in the economy through land reform and price controls simply maintained one-party hegemony, culminating in the disastrous Latin American Debt Crisis of 1982. Notably, Mexico today is growing more robustly in its north, which has been quicker to embrace industrialization and global trade, than its rural and politically volatile south, which only seems to fall further back.

AMLO’s policy proposals are not so much radical or innovative as retro. Steeped in nationalist symbolism, his economic plans in particular echo the country’s leftist leaders of the 1970s, whose profligate spending contributed to the 1982 debt crisis. Specifically, he has suggested considerable public reinvestment in Mexico’s corrupt, unwieldy energy giant, Pemex, implicated in the region-wide Odebrecht scandal; a revival of the agricultural sector, which was in steep decline even before the market reforms; and increased public spending. After decades of financing development via oil revenues and foreign loans, such increased spending cannot now occur sustainably without tax reform—something AMLO so far has resisted.

Few members of the recent “Pink Tide” of leftist leaders in Latin America have attempted to tackle the pervasive issue of tax reform, preferring to gamble on the short-termism of commodity booms. The reasons for this impasse are various: in many countries, millions work in the untaxed informal economy; the middle class resents paying taxes to governments they—correctly—perceive as corrupt and rapacious; tax evasion among the rich is rampant. But failing to broaden the tax base has also had consequences. Even moderate governments in Brazil and Argentina have driven their countries into minor crises through reckless spending in recent years, ultimately wiping out the economic gains for the poor upon which they had defended their records and opening the door for dangerous right-wing populists like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

In these and other respects, AMLO more closely resembles the ambiguous Latin American leftists of yesteryear than Bernie Sanders or British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, to whom his supporters often compare him, and the latter with whom he has a personal friendship. In addition to a certain realism regarding public finances, Sanders and Corbyn recognize the fundamental role of the rule of law in their countries, understand the importance of checks and balances, and are more than willing to expel corrupt figures from their own ranks. Conversely, AMLO has dismissed growing demands for an independent attorney general and anti-corruption prosecutor, stating openly that the president alone should dictate who among the corrupt falls and flourishes. He has twice, in 2006 and 2012, claimed fraud upon losing an election, without sufficient evidence. He has dubbed journalistic critics members of the prensa fifí—or “fancy press”—a troubling stance in a country where journalists are murdered with impunity. Already boasting majorities in both houses of Mexico’s congress, he has repeatedly touted the possibility of dismantling some of the country’s few genuinely independent institutions, such as the National Electoral Institute, the National Transparency Institute, and the National Human Rights Commission, all of which have been important, if flawed, building blocks in Mexico’s transition to democracy.

The international community still lacks a healthy debate regarding the failings of the Latin American left. During his campaign, AMLO’s harshest critics frequently called him a “danger” to the country, prompting a number of moderates, as well as leftists, to defend him against what they perceived as right-wing attacks. The resulting political climate, evident on social media, is not dissimilar to that of the U.S. post-Trump, in which battle lines have been drawn and the desire for outright attack stifles nuanced debate. This, naturally, is a gift to any politician, left or right, looking to trample on democracy and amass power.

The key point made by AMLO’s critics, many of whom would identify themselves as moderate, or even progressive, is lost: For decades, Mexico’s great mistake has been to believe that there are shortcuts to sustainable development. In reality, prioritizing cheerleading for a candidate over the slow but vital work of institution building, sustainable budgeting, and rigorous anti-corruption enforcement has led to patchy results. Enthusiasm for a new leftist hero shouldn’t obscure either the particulars of Mexico’s needs or its new president’s very obvious shortcomings.