López Obrador’s Alternative Plans for Mexico

Mexico’s poor performance both politically and economically over the past few years cannot only be blamed on external factors, according to López Obrador. He is critical of the neo-liberal model being followed by the National Action Party of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa and has an alternative plan which he presented to the nation on July 25th in the main plaza of Mexico City.

Firmly with Lopez Obrador

Mexico’s poor performance both politically and economically over the past few years cannot only be blamed on external factors, according to López Obrador. He is critical of the neo-liberal model being followed by the National Action Party of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa and has an alternative plan which he presented to the nation on July 25th in the main plaza of Mexico City.

Whereas the political left in Mexico has apparently self destructed over the 2006 election results and differences over whether to recognize the “victory” of Felipe Calderon or not, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “AMLO,” his nickname derived from his initial, is proclaiming a new alternative political program for the country, and apparently intends to participate in the 2012 presidential elections.

Last month his new book “The Mafia that Took Possession of Mexico… and 2012,” was released. While it tends to repeat a lot of themes and tales that are already familiar to much of the public, it clarifies some of the specifics of López Obrador’s ideas and intentions, as well as some of the challenges facing Mexico in the current economic and political context.

Political origins of López Obrador

AMLO has been a political activist since 1976, first as a member of the PRI, and participating in election politics in his home state of Tabasco. In 1988 he joined other dissenting PRI members and moved to the Democratic Current led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, which later became the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), the party with which he has been affiliated now for twenty years.

He ran for governor of the state of Tabasco in 1994 against Roberto Madrazo. There were widespread accusations of fraud that were considered well-founded, and Madrazo apparently spent more money on his campaign than Bill Clinton did on his successful presidential campaign.

Part of the early reputation of López Obrador is related to his work with indigenous groups in his home state. In 1996 he rose to prominence when he appeared on national television soaked in blood after a violent repression of the government against protesters outside a PEMEX (government petroleum) facility where there had been an action in support of indigenous peoples whose land was being contaminated.

From 1996 to 1999 he was national president of the PRD, and in 2000 he was elected chief of government of the Federal District. During his tenure as the number one government official of Mexico City, he was recognized as being one of the most effective political actors in the country. He was able to confront various problems in the national capital, such as reducing delinquency and crime, getting rid of many of the inefficiencies of the public service, initiating projects for infrastructure, traffic rerouting, reducing pollution and establishing a much more respectable image for the city government in terms of efficiency and honesty. He demanded very high standards of performance of his collaborators and insisted that they be irreproachable in their moral standing. He also acquired a reputation of being authoritarian and stubborn because of his strict regulation of his subordinates.

Critics of his leftward leaning politics have had to admit to his highly successful relationship with Carlos Slim Helú, Mexico´s and later the world’s richest man, who participated in renovation and “gentrification” projects of Mexico City’s historical district, as well as bringing middle class housing projects to previously deteriorating areas. Whereas many businessmen scoffed at López Obrador’s potential for leading the nation politically, Carlos Slim confided to New York financial circles that he would be quite able to work with AMLO prior to the highly controversial presidential elections of 2006.

Run-up to the 2006 elections

The relationship between López Obrador and Vicente Fox was not however such an easy one. Early in his six year term of president, Fox’s ineptitude soon became evident. His letting the “window of opportunity” close in not using his momentum to change the way politics are done in Mexico led to declining public approval ratings during the second year of his government. As well, allowing the sale of Banamex to CitiGroup with no taxes paid (after the population of Mexico had bailed it out with the controversial FOBAPROA bank rescue program) was seen as a payback to the biggest shareholder, Roberto Hernandez, one of his earliest supporters in his bid for the presidency.

While López Obrador was seen as a very effective leader who implemented social programs including improved access to health care and pensions for elderly (a first in Mexico), his 80% approval ratings particularly irked Vicente Fox. Between 2001 and 2005, Fox’s approval ratings hovered around 54% while his disapproval ratings were around 43.5%.

In 2004 when it was becoming obvious that AMLO’s stride for the presidency was becoming unstoppable, Fox’s government organized a “desafuera”, where they attempted to strip López Obrador of his immunity to prosecution over a case in which a wealthy developer did not want to give up a property that he (apparently in a crooked deal) had obtained, and which was to mean a huge increase in the cost of building an access road to a new hospital. AMLO had expropriated the property and ignored the resulting lawsuit. Had the case gone forward, he would have been unable to run for president.

The sheer hypocrisy of Fox sending his attorney general after Obrador in such an obviously politically motivated case backfired, as AMLO mobilized the masses in his support, and Fox finally had to let the case be dropped, further displaying his ineptitude and veniality.

A huge scandal involving Argentinian businessman Carlos Ahumada in which PRD officials were seen receiving money from him in video recordings surfaced, and appeared to be part of a concerted effort to discredit the party and AMLO’s momentum. The corrupt officials were dismissed, but the damage was done.

AMLO’s refusal to participate in debates and his rejection of an alliance with the leader of the teacher’s union also damaged his commanding leads as the elections approached.

The 2006 election

The results of the 2006 elections were disputed by AMLO, and he called for a complete recount of the votes, although the electoral officials only recounted 9.2% of the votes. The fact that the percentages in favor of AMLO drastically reduced as the vote count went late into the night also suggested foul play, and the controversy was not resolved for a period of several months, if it can really be considered ever resolved. Blockades were set up on the principal boulevard, La Reforma, where thousands of protestors refused to recognize a victory by Felipe Calderon. Calderon was blocked from having a formal swearing in ceremony, and although the claims of fraud were not accepted nor was the proof apparently sufficient, the supporters of AMLO in many cases refused to accept the loss, and continue to refuse to consider Calderon a legitimate president. López Obrador has maintained that he won and that he is the Legitimate President of Mexico, a claim that is believed by a significant portion of the Mexican population to this date.

Mexico Post 2006

Over the past few years López Obrador has been touring Mexico, visiting all of the municipalities (similar to counties) across the country. The objective of being in contact with the population of the whole country has also been reinforced by the formation of committees across the country to support the political movement that AMLO hopes will contribute to the undermining of the Mafia that has taken possession of Mexico, creating an elite that is wealthier than the elites of many highly industrialized countries while leaving the majority of Mexicans in poverty and misery. Representatives of the 31 states of Mexico were present this past Sunday to report on their recruitment efforts, and there are an estimated 15 million people prepared to vote for AMLO once again…

Mexico’s Mafia Elite

In AMLO’s book he explains how 30 individuals have managed to take control of the country and eliminate the possibility for millions of Mexicans to have a decent future. Carlos Slim is one familiar name on the list, but there are total of 16 “businessmen” on the list.  I use quotation marks because López Obrador points out that many of the “businessmen” were not able to amass great fortunes due to their entrepreneurial skills, but instead due to their connections with then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In the spate of privatizations of Mexico’s previously majority publicly-owned economy, these Salinas cronies were able to pay fire sale prices for Mexico’s public utilities, banks, mines, food industries, television and communications corporations. Auctions were not publicly tendered, so clients of Salinas were able to obtain massive fortunes in exchange for becoming his unwavering supporters. Obrador points out that legitimate businessmen were often excluded from the auctions.

Eleven of the 30 individuals are politicians. Seven are PRIistas, the party that reigned for 70 unbroken years (and that may be back again in two more years…) three are PANistas, including ex and current presidents Fox and Calderon, and one is the teacher’s union president Elba Esther Gordillo, who has her own party. Three others are technocrats who have moved between public administration and the private sector.

AMLO accuses this Mafia of preventing Mexico from enjoying economic growth and development, and claims that these individuals have conspired to support one another and to exclude himself, his party and the true interests of the vast majority of Mexicans from having representation in the government and economy of Mexico. In particular he rails against the duopoly of television networks which have constantly marginalized his political achievements, and which gave greater support to Felipe Calderon’s National Action party once it was clear that the PRI was not in the running for the 2006 presidency.

Of the politicians mentioned, he names Enrique Peña Nieto, the boy-wonder governor of Mexico State that seems to have been campaigning since he came into office four years ago. This 43 year old nephew and grandson of three former governors, and part of a dynasty of political families considered part of Salinas de Gortari’s group, has the full support of the Televisa broadcasting corporation and is portrayed constantly in what is apparently “free” publicity as he has “romantic links” with a soap opera actress from the same company. Amongst many commentators of both the left and right, if he were to obtain the presidency, it would effectively imply a return to power of Salinas de Gortari (and a likely rewriting of legislation giving the television duopoly even more powers).

A Country in Abandon

López Obrador presents considerable details of the decline of Mexico under the Neo-liberal model, statistics showing per capita growth of the economy from 1982 to 2009 of 0.6 % per year compared to approximately 3.2% per year from 1954 to 1982.  He claims that Mexico is one of the world’s worst performing economies and blames the pillaging Mafia for not prioritizing growth but rather greed.

He points out the decline of the welfare of the workers, with statistics of minimum wage purchasing power. In 1982, the minimum daily wage could buy 51 kilos of tortillas, or 280 bread rolls, or 12 kilos of dried beans. With today’s minimum wage you can only buy six kilos of tortillas, or 30 bread rolls, or three kilos of dried beans.

He reminds us that only 20% of Mexican youths have the opportunity to go on studying after the age of fifteen years old, and that the private sector is taking a larger and larger portion of the higher education responsibility, leaving only those with an income in the top 20% of the country able to afford those private schools. As head of the Mexico City government, AMLO initiated the new Federal District University network, the first such project in thirty years.

López Obrador scathingly criticizes the current government’s efforts to privatize energy, and insists that the petroleum resources of Mexico should be the basis for a national development program, which he reminds us that none of the past four neo-liberal administrations have even presented, allowing Mexico’s economy to be run on the basis of dictates from foreign investors and international lending agencies. He also condemns the current and recent administrations for their policies on the privatization of electricity and mining, which have been or are in the process of being handed over to members of Mexico’s Mafia elite.

AMLO sees direct links between the government’s kowtowing to the whims of the elite mafia, the surging narcotics trafficking problem, and the desperation of young Mexicans who in many cases see no future for themselves apart from migrating to the United States or the overcrowded industrial cities of Mexico, or else joining the ranks of the illegal drug economy. He lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of those elites who pay no taxes and contribute the minimum possible to the prosperity of average Mexicans, supporting militarization as opposed to negotiation as the solution to all social conflicts.

Alternative Plans for Mexico

Obrador’s alternative plans for the progress of Mexico consist of ten points that are part of the platform he is poised to use to propel himself to the next elections and, he hopes, the presidency. While a recent estimate of his support for 2012 gave him 16% against 58% for Enrique Peña Nieto, he said in his speech on Sunday that the next two years are necessary for the left to “get the message out,” in spite of their lack of access to the principal private medias of communications.

Obrador proposes rescuing the public institutions that are being held hostage by the elites, and recovering the resources that have been handed to the Mafia via secondary laws and regulations which he claims are in contradiction of the constitution. In particular he refers to the electricity, mining and petroleum sectors.

He insists that there needs to be a democratization of the communications media, allowing for the constitutional right of the population to have access to information. He refers specifically to the situation where the duopolies of Televisa and TV Azteca administrate the ignorance of the country in their interests: he wants to see open competition amongst the television channels.

He proposes that a new economy be fostered, and that Mexico sees productive activities take precedence over financial speculation. He says that the state must not relinquish its role in planning and organizing policies that will result in productive activities that will employ the population and permit development, rather than stagnation dependent on foreign investors with no long term commitment to Mexico.

He insists that the monopolistic practices in many sectors of the Mexican economy be done away with, in order that Mexicans are not forced to pay prices much higher than those paid in other countries. As well he wants there to be more opportunity for small and medium size businesses to compete in an open economy. He mentions that Mexicans pay 240% more for long distance calls than in the United States, 185% more for credit cards, 309% more for cable television, 145% more for wide band internet, and 176% more for mortgages, despite Mexicans earning nine times less than Americans do.  He claims that in November 2006 his party proposed a law to eliminate price protections in the Senate, but it was defeated by the other two principal parties of the right.

He wants to eliminate fiscal privileges enjoyed by the big corporations, including the tax free gains of the Mexican Stock Market. He pointed out Sunday that Bill Gates is proposing to donate 50% of his fortune to social causes, Warren Buffet up to 99% and in Germany 51 millionaires are giving 10% of their fortunes to balance the budget, but in Mexico the rich don’t want to pay any taxes at all. He says that if they paid their share, and no more, we would already go a long ways to covering the shortfalls of the budget deficit. He insists that large corporations in Mexico must pay similar tax rates as are paid in other countries.

AMLO wants the splendor and extravagance that are the hallmark of Mexican government officials to be eliminated; he himself had planned to turn the presidential residence into a museum had he been declared official winner in 2006. He wants to eliminate unproductive expenses such as those enjoyed by the current governing class.

He proposes that Mexico should seek self sufficiency in its food supplies, and criticizes strongly the undoing of the farming sector that has occurred over the past 27 years of neo-liberalism. He also links narcotics and marijuana production to the inability of those in the agricultural sector to obtain credit, inputs, supports and fair prices for their productive activities.

The slogan for his 2006 presidential campaign was “For the good of all, first the poor”, and he has reiterated that a system of protection of the weakest members of society through old age and disability pensions, public health services and free medicines to the poorest are not only humanitarian values but also keys in maintaining social peace.

Finally he points out that there is a need to change the way that Mexicans think about their society, and their values. He claims that in his crisscrossing the country, he got a sense that many people are concerned that the moral values of Mexicans are in decay, that greed, corruption, exploitation and violence are more and more common and that there appear to be few efforts on the part of the government to reduce the bloodshed and insecurity. Andrés Manuel maintains that the natural tendency for Mexicans is to be supporting, caring, respectful and generous, but the system in place and the leaders and elites benefitting from it have no interest in making Mexico be all that it potentially can be.  In his speeches he reminds his followers to not resort to violence despite provocations, and in fact he has alienated some members of the hard left for his unwillingness to take harsher actions in response to the strategies of political opponents of his movement.

The Present Reality of the Left

The 2004 performance of López Obrador was the best of any Left presidential candidate in a national election, 14 756 350 votes, or 35.33%,  0.52% less than those registered for Felipe Calderon (in 2000 Vicente Fox went on record stating that if he lost by less than 10% he would insist on a full recount). AMLO’s alliance included three parties: the PRD, Convergencia and the Worker’s Party.

Up until mid July of 2010, there was an agreement between the two main contenders for the presidential nomination of the left to wait until 2011 to see who was the best-placed to win in the 2012 presidential elections; however, that landscape is shifting rapidly.

Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon is the second best known aspirant to the leftist nomination for presidential pre-candidate, and he owes his political position to being a protégé of AMLO. He had his entry to the position of head of government paved by AMLO and in public the two men have never displayed conflict, although with the present announcement by AMLO that he is ready to run again for president, the position of Ebrard becomes more delicate, as he will not want to alienate his mentor.

In the ensuing political struggles since the 2006 elections in which AMLO refused to recognize the victory of the catholic church and business based PAN party, the PRD of which AMLO was candidate and former president, had internal elections in which those who took control of the party were seen as willing to negotiate with the PAN, and thus have been painted as traitors by many in the party. Those elections were seen as fraud-laden and Alejandro Encinas, loyal to Obrador was felt by many to have been the true winner.

To complicate things even further, it seems that the PRI party had many members “abandon” the PRI in order to join the PRD when it was rapid expansion in the years before 2006, with the apparent objective of destroying the PRD from within.

But on top of the difficulty of holding together an alliance of the left that includes the PRD, the Worker’s Party and Convergencia, the PRD itself is riven with factions that threaten to destroy its chances of presenting a candidate that will be able to count on the support of all.

Nueva Izquierda, the New Left, is the most powerful group within the PRD, and has legal control of the party and the two principal organs of decision-making. It is alternatively known as Los Chuchos because of the several Jesuses in its upper ranks. This group will definitely not support AMLO; they are considered to have committed treason to López Obrador in recognizing Calderon’s victory, and permitting him to assume power.

There are five mentioned PRD candidates, although three are not widely known outside of the party, but there are estimates of up to ten different currents within the party, and a good chance that they will finish in internal conflict rather than coalescing around one candidate.

In the upcoming weeks stresses may be coming to a head as the attention to AMLO may wane and the focus shift towards other politicians of the left. Marcelo Ebrard, as head of the Mexico City government, has a high profile and has managed to maintain a conciliatory image despite differences with the principal candidate of the PRI (Enrique Peña Nieto, who is close in age, also not married, and considered a cultured, attractive candidate, as is Ebrard) and of course President Calderon, who has been recognized by Ebrard. The biggest factor in terms of the success of the left will be the navigation of the political landscape over the next weeks and months. An important PAN politician, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, included in AMLO’s list of the Mafia, an ex presidential candidate, ex leader of the senate and a lawyer highly involved in cases involving important drug traffickers and politicians, has been missing kidnapped for over two months, with a veil of secrecy over the negotiations for his release. His release or the confirmation of his death could have important political ramifications for all parties.

If the economy takes another steep decline, that could change the playing field as well. And if Enrique Peña Nieto makes some (more) serious mistakes, that could shuffle the deck again as well. His inexperience and lack of projecting substantial depth or political understanding has been up to now covered up by the pro-PRI media, but as time passes that will be more difficult to maintain, especially if difficult economic or political circumstances require him to show more ability as opposed to being just another “pretty face”.

In 2011 there are elections for governor of Mexico State, and if there is an alliance between the left and right for that contest, then the PRI may find itself scrambling to fix a win, with the interim months allowing for the unraveling of tacit cooperation within the party. Mexico State has the largest population of any state in Mexico, over 14 million, and includes the suburbs adjacent to Mexico City. It is considered an important bastion of Priism, and would severely affect Peña Nieto’s chances for the presidency if it were to be lost.  There have already been several political intrigues related to the 2011 election there.

Meanwhile the inflexible clinging to his values and beliefs, and his rejection of opportunistic alliances with the right may lead to López Obrador’s chances for winning the nomination and the presidency being reduced. While the Worker’s Party would certainly accept him as their presidential candidate, he will need broader support across the parties of the left in order to win the presidency. For now his chances do not seem so great. But as one commentator pointed out, in spite of his reputation for stubbornness and lack of self reflection, and the widespread alienation of many sectors for his acts of civil resistance, for the moment, the playing field is only occupied by dwarves in comparison.