Mexico’s Politics of Bitterness - 22 minutes read





Early last September, at a restaurant a block from Mexico City’s National Palace, the leaders of the Movement for National Regeneration, known as Morena, gathered for a changing of the guard. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Morena’s founder and figurehead, handed a wooden stick adorned with colorful ribbons to his protégée, Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City. She had just won the primary to run as Morena’s presidential candidate in the June 2 election.

Sheinbaum is poised to win. Polls give her an advantage of over twenty points. Mexico does not allow second presidential terms, and so López Obrador is entrusting the “Fourth Transformation”—his mission to write the next great moment of Mexico’s history—to her. (López Obrador has defined the other three transformations as Mexico’s independence from Spain, gained in 1821; the Reform War, the civil war that took place about four decades later; and the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century.)

López Obrador has been phenomenally successful at portraying the “4T” as having rescued the country from the clutches of the “neoliberal elites” while taking care of the poor and fighting crime and corruption. But that is in great part a mirage. Not only has he failed to deliver this transformation—Carlos Illades, a scholar of the Mexican left, called it an “imaginary revolution”—but his constitutional chicanery and disregard for the law have undermined democracy. And his divisive rhetoric—pitting his supporters (“the people”) against his critics—has polarized the country.

In 2018 Mexicans were clamoring for change. Enrique Peña Nieto, López Obrador’s predecessor, embodied a ruling elite bent on enriching itself. Between 2013, Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, and 2018, his last, the murder rate spiked from 19 per 100,000 people to 29. In September 2014 forty-three students—known as the Ayotzinapa 43—were kidnapped in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.* Cell phone records indicate that state security forces, who often act in league with criminals for financial gain or under threat, were involved in the kidnapping, but Peña Nieto shielded them from investigation. The Mexican public reacted with outrage. Later that fall a blockbuster corruption scandal hit: the journalist Carmen Aristegui revealed that the registered owner of First Lady Angélica Rivera’s luxury home in an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City was a favored government contractor, one who had won public contracts during Peña Nieto’s tenure as governor of the State of Mexico and later his presidency.

López Obrador, sixty-four upon his election, offered a stark contrast. Born in 1953 to a middle-class family of Spanish descent in the southern state of Tabasco, among the country’s poorest, he wears guayaberas—traditional embroidered shirts—and eats tacos at street stalls. During his long political career he has favored leftist policies and railed against corruption and poverty. He started out in Tabasco with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled uninterrupted for seventy-one years from 1929 until 2000. (The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once accurately described its government as “the perfect dictatorship”: elections on paper, but undemocratic in reality.) In 1988, as the PRI tacked right, he left for the social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), rising to become its leader in 1996. As the mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he improved security and introduced welfare payments for the elderly.

Disaffection with traditional politicians’ poor governance was so widespread that López Obrador, after losing the presidential elections in 2006 and 2012, finally won in 2018. “He is one of us,” a resident of Tepetitán, his hometown, told us during a visit shortly after he was elected. López Obrador has said that he has no credit card. In one early press conference, he boasted that he only had the equivalent of twelve dollars in his wallet. Upon taking office he put the gleaming presidential jet up for sale and slashed his salary by 60 percent, to 108,000 pesos a month (about $5,700 at the time).

Disadvantaged Mexicans tend to be López Obrador’s most faithful base. And yet in 2018 he received a larger percentage of votes from those with university degrees than from those without—and more votes from high earners than from low earners. Apparently even the affluent believed extreme inequality couldn’t continue: the top 10 percent of Mexicans hold roughly 80 percent of the country’s wealth, and the top 1 percent almost 50 percent, according to the World Inequality Database.

When López Obrador took power, the atmosphere in Mexico was one of overwhelming hope. He had a persuasive diagnosis of the country’s problems and the political clout to tackle some of them. He promised to reduce poverty with cash transfers and minimum wage increases and to clamp down on corruption and tax dodging by the rich. He said he would address security in Mexico—murders had topped 30,000 every year since 2017, and over 100,000 people had disappeared—by taking a less militarized approach and focusing instead on what he saw as the root causes of this violence: economic exclusion and the absence of opportunities for young people. His pledge to do away with corruption may have lacked a detailed plan of action, but he at least seemed the rare politician not trying to line his own pockets.

Six years on López Obrador remains genuinely popular, in the sense that his approval rating has never dipped below 58 percent. The poorer Mexicans who form his base are extremely loyal, and with some good reason: a man who seems like them, and seems to like them, is in the National Palace for the first time. López Obrador’s cash transfers—for students, for young people to do apprenticeships, for people to plant trees, and for the elderly in the form of increased universal pensions—are another reason for his enduring popularity. (Cash transfers predate López Obrador, but under him they have become essentially unconditional, and are touted as a gift from the president.) More significantly, he has increased the minimum wage by roughly 180 percent since 2018. When a public agency reported that the number of impoverished Mexicans had decreased by nearly 6 percent since 2018, to 36.3 percent of the population, even his staunchest critics recognized it as an achievement.

But there are significant caveats. Many of the people who received cash transfers were just below the poverty line, and easy to push over it, according to Rogelio Gómez Hermosillo of Citizen Action Against Poverty. Those who were in extreme poverty, he explained to us, remain there, and López Obrador has damaged many of the public services needed for people to keep themselves out of poverty.

The agency also reported that some 30 million more people lacked health care in 2022 than in 2018, bringing the total without health care to 39 percent of the population. In 2020 López Obrador got rid of Seguro Popular, a program created in 2003 to provide health insurance to the almost 60 percent of Mexicans who lack it because they don’t work in the formal economy. Mexico, López Obrador boasted, would have a universal system, which, when it came into being, he named the Health Institute for Welfare (INSABI), to rival those in Scandinavia. But the underfunded and badly designed INSABI was far from a Nordic dream. The number of Mexicans who can’t see a doctor or go to a hospital is very likely higher today than the government estimated in 2022. In 2023 the government quietly got rid of INSABI. Those with extra money in their pockets thanks to wage increases and cash transfers describe spending it on taking their children to private doctors or buying medicine.

The destruction of Mexico’s health care system on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to a case fatality rate that Johns Hopkins University calculates as second only to Peru’s. López Obrador downplayed the danger of the virus, refusing to wear a face mask when almost all Mexicans (including Sheinbaum) did, and doing little to encourage people to stay home. At the time many told us they felt they had a choice between dying of Covid if they went to work and dying of hunger if they didn’t.

Citing corruption, López Obrador also made buying drugs for the public health care sector the exclusive preserve of the government. This has led to an even greater number of shortages of critical drugs. I, Sarah, recall talking to one mother who was desperately scrambling to find a hospital that had the drugs to treat her fifteen-year-old daughter’s rare cancer, regardless of how far it was from their hometown in Tlaxcala, a state east of Mexico City.

The president is correct that he inherited many institutions riddled with corruption and other problems. But almost without exception, he has opted not to improve them but to demolish them and replace them with something worse.

Take the matter of the educational curriculum. When students returned to the classrooms late last summer for the new school year, they received textbooks full of grammatical and factual errors. One diagram in a grade school textbook mislabels two of the country’s thirty-two states; another situates Mars closer to the Sun than Earth. They contain an odd mishmash of subjects like math and social studies, and the teacher’s manuals are full of ideology, suggesting for instance that institutions are to be mistrusted since they are used by elites to conceal control. Around the country, lower- and middle-class parents tell us that the first thing they would do with more money is put their children in private school.

This as the country exited a pandemic that kept schools shut for over a year while people frequented bars and gyms. By 2022 half a million Mexican students had dropped out of school entirely.

Mexicans see security as the worst failing of López Obrador’s administration. It is a challenging situation; the PRI kept a lid on crime through pacts with the cartels. But cartels have become far more numerous, powerful, and violent since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), deployed soldiers to fight, with US cooperation, a “war on drugs.” The security forces killed kingpins, causing the groups to splinter and multiply. Groups without the connections to traffic drugs preyed on civilians instead, extorting them under threat of violence and muscling in on industries from mining to avocado farming.

López Obrador signaled that he would break from Calderón’s approach, which Peña Nieto had continued, with a policy dubbed “hugs not bullets.” The exact approach was ill-defined but appeared to rely on cash transfers to alleviate poverty and idle hands. Security experts hoped he would build up police forces, which are coopted by criminal organizations or completely absent from many towns and villages, and strengthen the ailing justice system so that more crimes would be investigated and punished.

Alas, the president did not increase the measly 0.6 percent of GDP that Mexico, as of 2021, spends on the courts, prosecutors, and police (excluding the armed forces)—the lowest of any country in Latin America. Nor has he improved their ability to investigate and prosecute crime. Ninety-six percent of reported crimes never have any outcome, whether a conviction or otherwise (not to speak of the many that go unreported). López Obrador instead fell back on a version of the same playbook he had criticized, doubling down on militarization (where spending has risen), but without his predecessors’ dedication or cooperation with US counterparts.

In 2019, in what would become a familiar pattern of destroying something he deemed “corrupt” (often simply because it had been created by a predecessor), he disbanded the federal police. Yes, there was a problem with corruption—at times officers had taken bribes to work for the cartels, for example—but the establishment of a federal civilian police force in 1999 had been a step forward. The National Guard López Obrador created to replace it is not a civilian police; it is predominantly composed of soldiers who have not been vetted or trained in police work. It, too, has been plagued by allegations of corruption and incompetence. López Obrador has handed control of the body to the defense ministry.

In 2020 he reduced security cooperation with the US after the DEA arrested Salvador Cienfuegos, a former Mexican defense minister who had allegedly taken bribes from drug cartels in return for help trafficking their wares. That left Mexico with less vital intelligence and support in tracking criminal networks and their financing. In 2022 López Obrador dropped all pretense of demilitarization, extending the army’s public security mandate to 2028.

López Obrador boasts that murders have fallen; between 2018 and 2023 they did indeed fall by 12 percent, from 34,656 to 30,529. But disappearances, which are almost all murders without a body, have gone up, to a ghastly one person per hour. Last year, shortly after Where Do the Disappeared Go?, a website created by the National Search Commission and dedicated to the issue, reported that the number of disappearances during López Obrador’s six-year term would outstrip that of his predecessors, he said he would reexamine the numbers in a census. Karla Quintana, the head of the National Search Commission (CNB), resigned in protest against the way the census would be carried out. Some months later the government slashed the number of confirmed missing from 110,964 to 12,377. (After the uproar that ensued the CNB said it was still looking for 92,000 missing people.)

On a scorching January morning earlier this year, I, Sarah, arrived in Culiacán, the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, to talk to a group of mothers who are looking for their missing relatives. I met them on scrubland on the edge of the city, where they had just found a dead body during one of their regular field searches. They were viscerally angry at López Obrador.

“I don’t know what the president has in his head,” Victoria Soto, who has been searching for her brother Pedro since he was taken from his home in 2017, told me. “He said he was going to put an end to disappearances and crime, but it’s getting worse and worse.” When the authorities turned up to secure the area, another mother muttered, “pendejos”—assholes.

The Ayotzinapa students’ relatives openly curse the president, too. As president-elect, López Obrador had promised the families to their faces that he would resolve the case by consulting the team of international experts that had been investigating the murders until Peña Nieto declined to renew their mandate. López Obrador did indeed bring them back, but in July last year they packed their bags again, criticizing the government for “hidden evidence,” “secrecy,” and a “lack of information.”

López Obrador has also stoked anger by downplaying the crime that Mexicans deal with on a daily basis. When violence—including kidnappings, clashes between cartels, and an assassination—engulfed several states last June, he described the violent areas as “very few” and declared that “Mexico is a beautiful and safe country.” In April he described cartel members as “respectful people.” For many regular Mexicans, statements like this gloss over their daily fear.

Criminal groups are increasingly involved in elections as well. During the 2021 midterms some three dozen candidates were killed by criminal groups, presumably for refusing to cooperate with them. At least thirty-nine politicians have been murdered in the run-up to this year’s elections.

Incompetence, hubris, and a sense of revenge are rampant in López Obrador’s administration. A longtime ally of his confided to us a year ago that he thought López Obrador’s bitterness was ruining his presidency. He had waited so long for a position he thought he not only deserved but had been robbed of by institutions serving elite interests. When López Obrador lost the presidential race in 2006 by less than a percentage point, he alleged without evidence that the National Electoral Institute—or INE, which organizes elections and monitors campaigns—had rigged it against him. He wore the red, white, and green presidential sash in a parallel swearing-in ceremony he organized in Mexico City.

Once he actually did become president he went after the INE, which he accuses of being part of the “neoliberal” system that came before him. Three times he proposed reforms to reduce its power. His enemies, whom he terms “fifis,” “neoliberals,” and “puppets,” include any person or group that criticizes him, such as women protesting femicides.

López Obrador pitches this story through his mañanera, a daily press conference that can last three hours. Last year he revealed the salary of the journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, who has reported on potential corruption involving the president’s sons. In February he read out the cell phone number of the New York Times bureau chief Natalie Kitroeff after she e-mailed his office for comment on a story about campaign finance corruption. In a segment of the mañanera called “Who’s Who,” a government communications director singles out supposedly fake news—although the president denies well-documented reports that the armed forces have spied on opposition figures, journalists, activists, and even his own officials. When challenged with data, López Obrador says he has “otros datos” (other facts).

López Obrador has gotten increasingly vicious as institutions have done their jobs and checked his power. In February he introduced a package of reforms, including eighteen constitutional amendments, to eliminate a number of these bodies, including the National Institute for Access to Information (INAI), which helps the public request and view all sorts of information in government records. Notably, documents from the INAI revealed who owned the house Peña Nieto’s wife was using. (Most of the reforms in the package haven’t yet been voted on, largely because Morena and the party’s allies know it wouldn’t pass: they no longer have the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional reforms.) One of the proposed reforms would have introduced elections for justices. This was a shot at Mexico’s supreme court, which has struck down many of López Obrador’s proposed reforms and is the strongest check on his power.

In June last year the court struck down one of his laws targeting the INE. That came after half a million Mexicans, who recognize that without the INE the PRI would never have ceded the presidency in 2000, took to the streets to demand its protection. A sea of protesters clad in pink, the color of the INE’s logo, held banners reading “Hands off the INE.” In response López Obrador called them puppets of the old regime who want the “continued dominance of an oligarchy.” Six months later the supreme court ruled that the INAI could meet without a full quorum of commissioners, which Morena had refused to appoint in order to obstruct the agency’s work. The court also struck down an energy reform that favored state companies and ruled that the National Guard must be under civilian control.

The president has openly sought ways to get around the court’s decisions. He issued a decree that his badly planned and expensive pet infrastructure projects, including an oil refinery and a train in the southeast, are subject to national security laws because they are being built by or under the control of the armed forces—surely a bid to hide information. When the court ruled the decree unconstitutional, the president issued a new one. The court ordered work on sections of the train line suspended, but the government continues to build it. In response to reporters’ questions about his government’s open defiance of judicial orders, he said, “Don’t come at me with that fairy tale that the law is the law.”

He shows the same disdain for the laws governing elections. The INE has determined that he has violated laws in at least seven mañaneras with his comments on the electoral process and the opposition’s candidates. But he sees little reason to desist: the only sanction so far has been an order for his office to take down the videos, by which time they have spread across the country.

A lack of transparency makes it hard to judge López Obrador’s record on corruption, but there are many signs that it remains widespread. SEGALMEX, an agency López Obrador set up to secure food supplies, is under investigation for awarding contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to shell companies. Even the president’s family is in doubt. In 2020 and 2021 videos surfaced that showed two brothers of López Obrador receiving, separately and on separate occasions in 2015, envelopes of cash from a government official to finance Morena. The president said they were “contributions” to election expenses, but those are strictly regulated. Loret de Mola has reported on what he calls “the clan,” a network headed by the president’s oldest son, Andy, through which Andy and his friends have allegedly “won” contracts in public health and infrastructure by establishing front companies.

Then there is the fact that López Obrador has given the armed forces tasks like building airports and banks, distributing medicine, and controlling customs and airspace. Not to mention his infrastructure projects: a train across the southeast peninsula with a price tag of at least $28 billion (and countless more in environmental damage) and an oil refinery in his home state that has cost $19 billion to date but has not produced a single barrel of oil.

Mexico United Against Crime, a civil society organization run by Lisa Sánchez, has documented that in the first four years of his presidency López Obrador handed the armed forces at least 103 civil tasks, along with their budgets. The president favors the military, she told us, because as commander-in-chief he can order it around, avoiding negotiation and legislation that would likely fail. The military can withhold information about its projects in a way other public bodies cannot, creating an informational black hole. The president has declared that the armed forces will keep the profits from many of these projects.

The power López Obrador has handed to the military is likely to be the most damaging part of his legacy—and the one hardest for Sheinbaum to roll back, should she want to. “This endangers the concept of civilian public administration and, therefore, democracy itself,” Sánchez told us.

López Obrador’s support for dirty fuel is another example of his idiosyncratic and often frankly conservative approach. He refuses to see that the days of Pemex, the national oil company, as the engine of the economy are gone. His government’s cash injections into the company, which owes $106 billion in debt, have swallowed up billions of dollars. In giving Pemex and the state electricity company priority over private companies to sell power, López Obrador has breached contracts, discouraged investors, and made Mexico’s energy supply dirtier. Last year record foreign direct investment figures masked a low second only to 2006 in new investment—despite many companies looking to relocate outside of China and closer to the United States. If the country developed its ample green energy resources, including solar and wind, it could cover all its needs.

The government budget for 2024 will increase the fiscal debt to 5.4 percent of the GDP, the highest in more than twenty years. Cash transfers, which no successor to López Obrador will be able to do away with, are becoming unaffordable. If, in a generous reading, López Obrador’s government has been one of “transformation” from the old way of doing politics, the former López Obrador ally told us, the next one will have to get back to basics: security, health care, and education.

Recent polls show that nearly two thirds of voters still see López Obrador as an honest man. But his personal popularity benefits from voters disconnecting him from his policies. Only 38 percent think he can deliver results. In 2021 voters punished Morena by taking away the supermajority the party and its allies had enjoyed, as well as its seats in Mexico City, long a bastion of the left.

The problem is that Mexico’s opposition parties don’t appeal to a majority. The opposition coalition, composed of the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD, has a much more popular presidential candidate than expected in Xóchitl Gálvez, a sixty-one-year-old engineer and entrepreneur who headed the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples for six years and was later elected a PAN senator.

Gálvez touts the fact that she sold jellies on the street as a child. Her language is as colorful as her clothing. Her campaign has focused on making Mexico safer, pushing the transition to green energy, being more open to investment, and embracing new technologies. But when she talks about her proposals in interviews and at presidential debates, she comes across as less detailed or policy-oriented than Sheinbaum.

Given the single-digit poll numbers of the third candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez of the social democratic party Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement), Mexico can expect its first female president no matter what. Sheinbaum, who is sixty-one, lacks López Obrador’s charisma but may be a better administrator. She is a climate scientist with a doctorate from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (and research experience at Berkeley). As mayor of Mexico City she seemed to base policy on evidence more than personal whim (notwithstanding her government’s distribution of ivermectin, a drug that had not been approved to treat Covid, during the pandemic). Though in public she mimics López Obrador—down to his tabasqueño accent, the subject of much ridicule—she has started to signal gaps between them, especially in her plans to transition to green energy. (Although she says she will continue to support Pemex.) When we have met with her in private, she has come across as technocratic and measured. Still, she can be as stubborn, nationalistic, and ideological as her mentor. She has openly supported the package of reform initiatives he proposed in February, which will push the country further into a democratic backslide.

López Obrador says he will retire from politics, but his hold on Morena may force Sheinbaum to stick closely to his policies. Launching her official campaign in March, on an overcast afternoon in Mexico City’s vast Zócalo, she once again laid out the elections as a choice between more “transformation” and a return to the corruption of the past. “It will be up to us, together,” she said, “to preserve the legacy of a man who is in the National Palace today, who has changed the history of our country for the better.”

If Sheinbaum is elected and manages to tackle the pressing problems voters hoped her predecessor would—without attacking democracy as he has—she may improve the legacy of López Obrador, Morena, and its political project. But if she sticks to his path, Mexicans may well come to judge López Obrador and his “transformation” of their country as a national disaster.




Source: The New York Review of Books

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