Mexico’s Ruinous Messiah

“Even if they call me messianic, I am going to purify the country.”
—Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Among the “elected despots” of our day who once they are democratically voted into office seek to do away with the separation of powers and judicial independence, to limit freedom of expression, and ultimately to subvert democracy itself, one is accustomed to seeing the names of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, Nicolás Maduro, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Donald Trump. But the list rarely includes Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The world seems not to be aware that as president of Mexico he too is seeking to do all these things.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Andrés Manuel López Obrador; drawing by John Cuneo

Born in 1953 in the southeastern state of Tabasco, López Obrador—or AMLO, as he is known—was an active member of the country’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from 1976 until 1989, when he joined the left-wing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), climbing its ranks to become its president from 1996 to 1999. In 2000 he was elected chief of government of Mexico City. In 2006 he lost the presidential election by a narrow margin—243,934 votes (0.62 percent)—to Felipe Calderón and immediately declared himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico. From then on, he was an implacable critic of Calderón’s aggressive and ineffective war on drugs. He lost again in 2012 to Enrique Peña Nieto, of whose corrupt administration he was no less critical. In July 2018, on his third attempt, AMLO was elected president with 53.19 percent of the vote. His approval ratings at the end of 2019, a year after he took office, reached 72 percent.

It was clear that for many Mexicans, AMLO represented a hope for rectitude and renewal. Part of the country had simply had enough of the PRI, which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and again from 2012 to 2018, and the National Action Party (PAN), which governed from 2000 to 2012. But there has been another reason for his popularity: the religious aura he has cultivated. Until the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to stop in April, he traveled around the country in a manner that he has described as “apostolic” and that large parts of the population felt was genuine and compassionate. Peña Nieto used to play golf on weekends; AMLO went to villages, talking to people and taking selfies. The “good news” that he preached was not a mere change of government but the coming—with all of that word’s religious overtones—of a new age with the promise of equality, prosperity, and justice.

A comparison between AMLO and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is revealing. Unlike Chávez, he has not aspired to be an international celebrity or even a Latin American one (since taking office, he hasn’t traveled outside the country and probably never will). He is…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.