Mexico’s Fraternal Republic

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, A New Hope for Mexico

O/R Books, 224pp, $20.00, ISBN 9781682191552

reviewed by Daniel Whittall

On July 1st Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is more commonly known, and his National Regeneration Party, MORENA, won 53% of the vote in the Mexican elections. Their victory came as little surprise to those who had followed the polling, which had put them as the front runners for some time. Having run twice before – 2006 and 2012 – and lost out marginally, under circumstances where electoral fraud was likely used to overcome him, AMLO now has a governing majority that even the positive polling had not predicted.

The scale of MORENA’s electoral victory is remarkable. In a country where one party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), ruled for 71 years prior to 2000, and then again for the past 6 years, AMLO’s election marks a major political turning point. A New Hope for Mexico offers English language readers the opportunity to understand the platform on which AMLO won power, and also to assess some of the contradictions his MORENA party will confront when they take power.

The book consists of translations of two books previously published in Spanish. La Salida (The Exit) sets out AMLO’s broad vision of Mexican history and politics, and makes clear the areas that his party will prioritise in government. Oye Trump! (no translation required), meanwhile, is a fascinating collection of speeches given by AMLO on tour around cities in the USA, where he takes to task the racism and prejudice drummed up against Mexico by Trump and his supporters, and seeks to build a coalition in the USA itself to educate and fight back against this prejudice.

On the first day of Trump’s Presidency AMLO, speaking in Acuna City, announces that overcoming Trump requires that ‘We must reach out to the hard-working American people and confront this anti-immigrant propaganda’. Speaking in Los Angeles in February 2017, AMLO refers to Trump’s government as a ‘calculating and irresponsible neo-fascist administration’ who would ‘build walls that reduce the United States to an enormous ghetto’. In rallying his audience to resist Trump, AMLO invokes the image of that great American labour leader and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association Cesar Chavez, ‘an exceptional warrior for social justice who taught us that liberty is not asked for – it is taken’. In the final speech printed here, from San Francisco in March 2017, AMLO states that one aim of his tour of the US has been to ‘raise awareness among conservative voters . . . that their misfortunes were not caused by foreigners’. He then proceeds to excoriate Trump on the grounds that ‘instead of taking action to reduce poverty and inequality, the US government blames Mexico and the Mexican people for its problem.’

The speeches make clear that having Trump in the White House made things easier for AMLO, giving him easy meat for his rhetorical anti-racist politics grounded in basic values of human decency. Yet what is more important in the speeches is the way they show AMLO’s internationalist approach to Mexican politics. Throughout, he speaks of and to Mexican people overseas, as well as residents of other countries. No wonder, given that he identifies corruption and a failed economic model at home as being the root cause of Mexicans leaving for other countries. ‘Migration’, he asserts, ‘is the clearest and most painful proof of the exclusionary nature of the neoliberal model.’

So much for the speeches. What of AMLO’s policy platform? He identifies rampant corruption as the foremost problem confronting Mexico. The actions of today’s ‘brazen politicians’ are, he argues, ‘wholly unprecedented’ in Mexican history, though he also identifies President Porfirio Diaz, dictatorial head of state in Mexico in the first decade of the twentieth century, as having set the tone in this regard. Although corruption is rampant across Mexico, it is with the energy sector that AMLO is most concerned. ‘The possibility for corruptly appropriating public assets was the central motivation behind the privatization of the petroleum and electric power industries’, he argues. Yet the energy sector is not alone. In fact AMLO suggests that the neoliberal period post-1983 ‘constitutes a qualitative shift in the disintegration of the country’ and is representative of a broader ‘politics of pillage’ at large in Mexico.

The problem of corruption is the starting point for AMLO’s policy programme. As he explains, ‘Mexico’s crisis cannot be confronted without first addressing corruption and the failure to prosecute people benefitting from it.’ Dealing with this problem will require an interventionist state, with public backing. AMLO pledges to nationalize the energy industry following a referendum on the matter. He also invokes the need for what he calls a ‘politics of austerity’, though by this he means the inverse of that which has occurred in the UK and elsewhere. In AMLOs usage, austerity refers to cutting back the salaries of the most highly paid state employees, reigning in a bureaucratic apparatus compared to whom, in 2016, ‘the only member of the US government to earn more than Mexico’s high-ranking officials was President Barack Obama.’

AMLO also suggests his government will look to advance policies supporting the public right to the city, develop agriculture in order to improve food security and self-sufficiency, and promote investment and technological development in order to support improved economic growth. Nevertheless, AMLO’s policy platform contains contradictions too. On the one hand, for example, he proposes a large-scale reforesting programme to improve the environment. And yet at the same time he intends to construct two new refineries to expand domestic production of fossil fuels and seeks to expand the Mexican fossil fuel extraction industry in order to profit from exports. There are also plans to increase airport capacity, and thus further hinder any environmental gains from reforesting, despite opposing and declining permission for a proposed new airport that had been a flagship infrastructure policy of the previous government. And for all the talk of a well-resourced, interventionist state there are also plans for ultra-low tax special economic zones and duty free areas to be established along the Mexico-US border in order to attract businesses.

The contradictions in AMLO’s platform even run as far as his attitudes to Mexican big business. He praises those he refers to as ‘honest businessmen’ for their role in creating wealth in the country, and suggests that ‘we hold no grudges against’ the elites who have overseen the rampant corruption of previous decades. But these will be exactly the people who will oppose some of AMLO’s redistributive agenda, perhaps especially his intention to increase wages for the most poorly paid in Mexican society. AMLO builds an argument for a ‘fraternal republic’, ‘a new mode of living based on love for family, our fellow citizens, nature, our country and humanity.’ It was this prospect of a fraternal future that no doubt motivated AMLO’s decision to announce, a week before his inauguration, that he had no intention of pursuing past cases of corruption. Enticing though this vision of a future society might appear, it is difficult to imagine how AMLO can move Mexico towards it without at the same time antagonising many amongst that group of ‘honest businessmen’ he currently values so much. How far his love stretches may have to be tested under such circumstances.

AMLO’s vision is for a Mexican social democracy. There is no radical left programme to overthrow capitalism and forge a Mexican socialist republic here. Yet in the context of Mexican politics over the past few decades AMLO’s agenda is a radical one. It may also have longer term transformational impacts beyond the programme AMLO is currently presenting. Left experts on Mexican politics have argued that the most important aspect of an AMLO presidency may well be that it will at last provide Mexico’s wider left the space to breath and to establish itself more prominently in national life. Were this to occur, there could be real potential to move AMLO’s government left and to forge more far-reaching changes across the country.

Undoubtedly this prospect motivates the decision of the liberal press to fly into a panic about AMLO’s presidency. Initially the US media ran with wild articles likening him to Donald Trump. As AMLOs inauguration approached, The Economist began to fret over the ‘worry’ that the markets are displaying over his policy agenda. Not to be outdone, the Financial Times recently ran a piece by its Latin American editor John Paul Rathbone arguing that this ‘maverick leftist’ is in fact a ‘populist strong man’ who poses a greater threat to liberal democracy than Brazil’s new far right leader Jair Bolsonaro. If the rampant corruption of recent Mexican politics is what the FT takes liberal democracy to look like, then any threat AMLO poses to this model is almost certainly to be welcomed.

‘We are going to govern for everyone’, AMLO asserted in his inauguration speech, ‘but we are going to give preference to the most impoverished and vulnerable.’ An early announcement on opposition to fracking has already antagonised the energy industry, a sector that AMLO will further need to confront if he is to secure the reforms he intends. His election is a historic moment in Mexican politics, the kind of opportunity the left in that country has not seen for many years. Against the context of a rightward drift in election results across Latin America AMLO’s victory takes on particular regional significance, and the success of his government will be essential in providing succor to the left on a continental scale. When Jeremy Corbyn visited Mexico to attend the inauguration AMLO referred to him as his ‘eternal friend’, and the two met to discuss progressive politics. For that reason, A New Hope for Mexico is essential reading right now, and it is very much to be welcomed that the book has just been re-published by Pluto Press in the UK.

The opening chapter declares that ‘Mexico’s crisis cannot be confronted without first addressing corruption and the failure to prosecute people benefitting from it.’ Wracked by the contradictions of social democracy AMLO’s agenda may well be, but if he succeeds in his intention of creating ‘a new way of thinking, a revolution in conscience that will prevent avarice, corruption and greed from prevailing over truth, morality, and fraternity’ then he will have set an example for the left worldwide to follow.