A Progressive Reformist Is Leading Mexico’s Presidential Polls—and Washington Is Freaking Out
Is trouble brewing south of the Rio Grande? Have Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin gotten together to support the emergence of a “populist dictator” in the upcoming Mexican elections? Is the present front-runner for the presidency, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican equivalent of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Nicolás Maduro?
A series of articles and opinions published by the Council on Foreign Relations, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, The Atlantic, and The Economist, among others, have pushed these ideas recently into the mainstream of international public opinion, creating a surprising bipartisan consensus in Washington. Both Clintonites, like Larry Summers, and top officials in the Trump administration, like H.R. McMaster, already have issued paranoid public warnings on the topic.
It is time to set the record straight. Analysts and politicians who compare López Obrador to Chávez or Trump demonstrate an extreme level of ignorance about Mexican history and politics. And those who worry about a possible intervention of Moscow need to get a serious reality check.
The first, and perhaps most important, step is to understand that López Obrador is not “anti-American” by any stretch of the imagination. Last year, immediately after Trump’s inauguration, the Mexican leader embarked on a tour of more than a dozen cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, to express his solidarity with the Mexican diaspora.
López Obrador’s speeches and writings from this period reflect his utmost respect and admiration for the United States and its people, as well as an interest in establishing a positive, constructive relationship with Washington. “We call for a harmonious relationship between our two countries, one based on cooperation for development. When we work together, everyone wins. But in confrontation, the United States and Mexico will both lose,” he wrote in The Washington Post.
With regard to Trump in particular, López Obrador discouraged confrontation, preferring a battle of “ideas” and “principles” grounded in “love”:
We must counteract Trump’s strategy with a commitment to fundamental principles: not with shouts and insults responding to their provocations, but with intelligence, wisdom and dignity, with non-violence. This is a battle we must undertake in the terrain of ideas. It is a struggle against those who encourage selfishness and in defense of the forgotten ones, so that we can together stop the growth of resentment against those who are from another class, nationality or religion. To the discourse of hate we must respond with the spiritual principle of love for others. (Los Angeles, CA, February 12, 2017)
In general, López Obrador is an ideological maverick (similar to Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in this regard) who has constructed a broad rainbow coalitionthat includes an important role for the private sector and civil society. His most important base of political support lies among urban, educated, middle-class voters. López Obrador explicitly rejects comparisons to Chávez and defines progressivism as “being honest and having a good heart.” His platform is full of development projects, scholarships, and anti-corruption initiatives, not expropriations or nationalizations. He is in favor of renegotiating NAFTA but not revoking it, and he has promised to respect the independence of the Central Bank and vowed not to raise taxes. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, he openly refused to take “authoritarian action” in the economic realm and stated that “the anchor for confidence is going to be the rule of law.”
As mayor of Mexico City, between 2000 and 2005, López Obrador focused his attention on infrastructure and education. He partnered with Mexico’s wealthiest businessman, Carlos Slim, to overhaul the city’s beautiful historic downtown; built highways; and created a new public university. López Obrador also scored points for significantly reducing corruption and creating a special pension fund for the elderly. Although he won with only 38 percent of the vote in 2000, by the time he left office in 2005 for his first presidential bid, his approval ratings had skyrocketed to 84 percent among residents of Mexico City.
López Obrador’s immense popularity therefore does not arise from a radical “populist” confrontation with capitalism or the United States, but from his stubborn insistence on implementing fundamental welfare-state policies and cleaning house. Although this may sound exceedingly “moderate” to some, the implementation of such measures would in fact imply a major political transformation in a country like Mexico, which is so profoundly ravaged by neoliberal policies and constant corruption scandals.
Viewed in historical context, López Obrador’s moderation does not come as a surprise. Even during the height of classic “populism” and state interventionism in Latin America during the middle of the 20th century, Mexico did not turn to a demagogue. In contrast to the authoritarian, personalistic style of leaders like Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Mexico’s grand social reformer, Lázaro Cárdenas, was a highly pragmatic and down-to-earth president who worked within public institutions, tolerated political opposition, and left power quietly after his single six-year term.
But how about Russia? Isn’t Putin planning to use López Obrador to wreak “havoc on the US-Mexico relationship” and, more generally, “damage the U.S. and weaken the western world order”?
This is pure fantasy. There is absolutely no indication that the Russians plan on manipulating Mexican social networks or conducting cyber warfare. Even Mexico’s foreign secretary, Luis Videgaray, one of López Obrador’s most trenchant political adversaries, has publicly denied this possibility in a recent interview with RT from Moscow. Mexico’s electoral authorities have also ruled out any possible Russian interference in the elections.
Indeed, the only supposed “evidence” that has been presented to support speculations of Russian interference is the fact that a certain left-wing, US-born law professor at the National University publishes a weekly online two-minute video column with RT’s Spanish-language affiliate. In this column, I express myself with total freedom about the most important political issues of the day and emphasize the need to consolidate democracy and end corruption in Mexico (see, for instance, this recent piece).
As I have explained elsewhere, the widespread censorship, violence against journalists, spying on activists, and government control over the media have pushed many Mexican dissident journalists and intellectuals toward international media outlets, such as CNN, BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Al Jazeera, Telesur, and RT, in order to have an opportunity to get out their message. Without such opportunities, speech would be much more restricted for analysts like myself whose views do not coincide with the sitting government.
In general, even during the height of the Cold War, Mexico never fell prey to the hysterical “Red Scare,” which did so much damage to critical thought in the United States. There is no Mexican equivalent for Joseph McCarthy. Throughout the 20th century, Mexico astutely managed to simultaneously root itself firmly within the capitalist “West” and maintain a positive, constructive relationship with Russia and Cuba, in exchange for these countries agreeing to abstain from intervening in internal political affairs. This situation continues to hold today.
This diplomatic neutrality, grounded in the legendary Estrada Doctrine, allowed Mexico to play an important mediating role in Latin America. For instance, Mexico’s participation was crucial in peacemaking efforts in Central America during the 1980s, particularly in El Salvador.
Mexico’s openness to multipolar geopolitics has also forged a broader political culture of tolerance and plurality among the Mexican people. For instance, most Mexicans correctly think it is absurd to categorize RT as a “foreign agent of influence,” as the hawks in the Trump administration and at the Atlantic Council have done. To the contrary, Mexicans see RT as a welcome addition to the plurality of the media landscape. The role of international media is particularly important in Mexico, given the fact that the country’s localmedia market is one of the most concentrated in the world, with only two nationally broadcast television stations dominating some 90 percent of viewers and a handful of families in control of the lion’s share of the radio frequencies.
This is why the paranoid accusations of supposed “Russian intervention” in the Mexican elections have been received with such humor and rational disbelief south of the Rio Grande. López Obrador himself recently published a video on social networks in which he jokingly gazes out into the Atlantic Ocean in expectation for the arrival of a Russian submarine loaded with gold for his campaign. The video has since gained over 2 million views.
Now, although the risk of Chávez or Putin taking control of Mexico is a ridiculous bugbear, it is true that the upcoming Mexican elections, which will take place on July 1, are of historic importance. Not only will the presidency be up for grabs, with reelection for sitting President Enrique Peña Nieto prohibited by law, but so will the entire federal Senate and Chamber of Deputies, nine governorships, including the mayor of Mexico City, and hundreds of state and municipal seats. A total of 3,416 posts will be on the ballot. Never before in modern Mexican history have so many elections been held together simultaneously on the same day.
López Obrador and his new party, MORENA, created in 2014, are poised to sweep the country. Polls show that the maverick leader holds a commanding two-digit lead over both of his closest rivals, Ricardo Anaya of the right-wing Christian democrats from the National Action Party (PAN) and José Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The incredible success of MORENA is not only due to López Obrador’s charisma and popularity. Peña Nieto’s bungled leadership has also made a major contribution. Constant corruption scandals have brought trust in government to a historic low. Rampant violence and impunity have ripped apart the social fabric and instilled an unprecedented level of fear amid the population (the final statistics for homicides in 2017 are now out; at almost 30,000, they are the highest in recent history). Widespread censorship, violence against journalists, combined with government spying and repression, have silenced critical voices and sidelined civil society. This past December 21, Peña Nieto signed a new Law of Internal Security, which allows him discretional use of the military for law enforcement and potentially for political control.
Trump’s commitment to building a border wall, his attacks on immigrants, and his threats to end NAFTA have also fanned the flames of discontent south of the Rio Grande. Over the past few months, Mexican views of the United States have turned sharply negative, and the Mexican peso has entered into free fall. If NAFTA is finally revoked, the already weak Mexican economy could go into an uncontrollable tailspin, inevitably increasing the sensation that it is time for political change.
In this context, the key concern is not that López Obrador might win in July, but that the ruling coalition may try to use its vast public and private resources, combined with its control over electoral oversight bodies and its alliance with the Trump administration (note, for instance, the recent request by the Peña Nieto administration to purchase dozens of missiles and torpedoes from Washington), to commandeer an electoral fraud in the style of the recent elections in Honduras.
Indeed, one of the principal international advisers to Juan Orlando Hernández’s 2017 reelection bid in Honduras, the Venezuelan JJ Rendón, has recently announced his arrival in Mexico. Rendón is notorious as a Latin American equivalent to Steve Bannon, someone without any scruples who is willing to help his clients win elections by any means necessary. For instance, during the previous Mexican presidential elections in 2012, he allegedly hired a Colombian hacker to manipulate social networks and infiltrate the computer systems of Peña Nieto’s rivals. Cambridge Analytica, the firm closely linked to Bannon himself—he was a board member until the summer of 2016—that manipulated social networks and conducted cyber warfare during the Trump campaign, is already in Mexico working with candidates close to the Peña Nieto administration.
In general, overt electoral fraud has come back in style in Mexico. The hope of democratic transition, which accompanied the victory of Vicente Fox in 2000 as the first president since 1946 not from the PRI, has now run out of steam. In 2012, the PRI pounced back into power with Peña Nieto, and it has every intention of staying in control for another half-century.
One of the most important ways the PRI prepares for electoral fraud is by illegally channeling public and private funds to its war chests. For instance, The New York Timesrecently exposed how a former member of the Peña Nieto administration embezzled tens of millions of dollars of public monies to fund PRI campaigns throughout the country during 2016. Videgaray, then treasury secretary and now foreign secretary, was in charge of the disbursement of all federal funds at the time.
During the 2012 elections, the international coordinator for Peña Nieto’s campaign, Emilio Lozoya, allegedly received about $4 million through offshore accounts managed by the construction giant Odebrecht, according to testimony by Odebrecht officials (Lozoya has denied the allegations). Mexico’s National Electoral Institute has recently demonstrated how tens of millions of dollars were illegally channeled through debit cards and parallel bookkeeping to PRI operatives during the 2012 elections. Independent investigations had already revealed, years ago, that a large amount of cash that flowed to the Peña Nieto campaign was channeled through shell corporations linked to drug-cartel operatives.
The 2017 gubernatorial elections in Peña Nieto’s home state, the State of Mexico,demonstrated how it looks on the ground when a flood of illegal cash is used to manipulate election results. Despite the vast repudiation of the ruling party by voters, Peña Nieto managed to get his cousin, Alfredo Del Mazo, into office by mobilizing an untold amount of resources to intimidate and marginalize the opposition as well as to buy off voters and election officials. By the time Del Mazo finishes his six-year term in 2023, the PRI, and its predecessors, will have ruled the State of Mexico for a total of 94 years without interruption.
There is a strong incentive for Peña Nieto to implement the same methods used in his home state to place one of his cronies as his successor in the presidential palace. Many of his closest allies are today in jail or in serious legal difficulties due to corruption, organized crime, or money-laundering charges, including the former governors of Veracruz, Coahuila, Quintana Roo, and Tamaulipas. Peña Nieto is therefore acutely aware that his future may be at risk if there is a real alternation in power in 2018 and the new government is able to review the accounting books freely.
Indeed, Peña Nieto has already handpicked his “successor,” following all of the old rituals. Even before the celebration of the party’s primaries, he has used his dedazo, or pointed finger, to select his finance secretary, José Antonio Meade, as the PRI’s candidate. Most of the press and all of the official labor and peasant organizations quickly followed suit, just like in the old days, in which elections had only the symbolic purpose of ratifying decisions made previously in the halls of power.
If López Obrador maintains his lead in the polls through the coming months, Peña Nieto will be tempted to pull the plug on any semblance of democratic procedure. This has happened before. In both the 1988 and the 2006 presidential elections, a surging opposition candidate, the first time Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and the second López Obrador himself, was stopped cold by ballot tampering and other irregularities. As a result of these experiences, Mexicans today have an extremely low level of trust in the cleanliness of elections and the honesty of electoral officials.
If electoral fraud raises its ugly head again in 2018, it will be extremely difficult for Mexico to maintain its exceptional reputation for political stability. In a region known for its constant civil wars, coups, impeachments, guerrilla warfare, and revolutions, Mexico has stood out in Latin America as a bastion of institutional politics. This institutionalization of formal politics has indeed had a dark side, with the violent “dirty war” against political dissidents during the 1970s and the sharp spike in “drug war” violence and political prisoners in recent years. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable feat that since 1934 every single Mexican president has served to the end of his six-year term.
But if the regime slams the door in López Obrador’s face again this July 1, it might well be the last straw. A new electoral fraud would generate enormous protests and widespread political instability, with dire consequences in the economic and social spheres. This, in turn, would be the ideal enabling environment for the emergence of a new leader who indeed openly confronts the United States and promises to reach heaven in a day. Ironically, the no-holds-barred fight against an imagined, fantasized “populist nationalist” at the service of Venezuela and Russia, supposedly incarnated in López Obrador, could end up conjuring out of the depths of Mexico a real exemplar of the very phenomenon so desperately feared by the US policy-making establishment.
It is not too late to change course. The United States and the international community as a whole still have time to weigh in, with absolute respect for Mexican sovereignty, on the side of peace, democracy, and political stability in North America.
Full disclosure: My wife, Dr. Irma Eréndira Sandoval, one of Mexico’s leading experts in anti-corruption theory and practice, was recently announced by López Obrador as his future comptroller general, if he wins the election. She does not receive any salary from López Obrador or MORENA, nor does she work directly on the campaign. This is one of many strictly honorary invitations that AMLO has made to a series of leading figures in civil society to form a part of his cabinet without requiring any specific political loyalty from them.
Sandoval holds a PhD from the University of California and has been a fellow at both Harvard University and the Sorbonne, so she definitely doesn’t owe this future job to her husband. And it is public knowledge that my own support, as an independent intellectual, for AMLO goes back years (see, for instance, this previous piece in The Nation). The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and should not be attributed to Sandoval, López Obrador, Putin, or anyone else.