“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.
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 indifferent to money, almost allergic to it, and nobody has known him to be personally involved in any illegal business dealings (or, for that matter, any legal ones). He is not especially nationalistic, unlike Chávez and most “elected despots,” and he is certainly not a racist like Trump, whom he handles with a deference and servility that are unprecedented in Mexican diplomacy. AMLO remains silent whenever Trump insults Mexico and Mexicans; he boasts about their friendship, and he yielded to Trump’s threats to unilaterally raise tariffs if Mexico didn’t comply with his punitive immigration policies.
But there are also disturbing similarities between AMLO and Chávez. Both are geniuses of communication who ended up controlling most of their countries’ mass media. Chávez used to appear every Sunday on his marathon TV program, Hello, Mr. President. AMLO has surpassed him, appearing every weekday between 7 and 9 AM at the Palacio Nacional, at what he has called his mañaneras—morning sessions. The mañaneras are not exactly press conferences. They are civic masses, sermons that are disseminated widely on TV and across social media, making them the main source of information, if not the only one, for people who have no alternatives. On the rare occasions when these mañaneras are attended by journalists who ask probing questions, the president dodges them, discredits them, or refutes them with outright lies (thousands of them have been compiled), maintaining that he has “other information” (the Mexican version of “alternative facts”).
Since television and radio broadcasters are state concessions, most chose to avoid a direct confrontation with López Obrador. Only a few completely independent newspapers and magazines survive, along with critical voices on websites and on radio and TV programs with limited reach. Political humor, which has a great historical tradition in the carpas (a kind of traveling vaudeville show), now limits itself to cartoons and social media. There are no political satire shows on TV. A Mexican Stephen Colbert is unthinkable. Given his well-documented impatience with criticism, it seems unlikely that the president would handle daily satire well.
Like Chávez, AMLO deliberately encourages polarization and rancor. Chávez stirred up “the Bolivarian people” against those he called the escuálidos (scrawnies) and the pitiyanquis (despicable pro-Americans); AMLO divides Mexicans between “the good people” who acclaim him in town squares and the “conservatives” who resist “true change.” The Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid has called him a “poet of insults,” and he has no less then eighty derogatory nicknames for his opponents, among them Alcahuete (pimp), Aprendiz de carterista (pickpocket apprentice), Camaján (slob), Fifí (snooty), and Mafiosillo (petty mobster).
Another similarity between the two leaders is their use and abuse of history. Chávez felt that he was the twenty-first-century reincarnation of Simón Bolívar. For AMLO, who in the 1980s wrote El poder en el trópico, a derivative and highly ideological book on the subject,1 Mexican history is an oracle, with two perspectives that converge in him: the “great man theory” and the script of peaceful social revolution. According to the first, Mexican history is a roll call of heroes whom he seeks to emulate and surpass. According to the second, history is a promise of social redemption that had been eroded and betrayed after three popular upheavals—the War of Independence (1810–1821), the War of Reform (1857–1860), and the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920)—and now must be fulfilled in a “Fourth Transformation”—under his leadership.2
If Chávez made occasional use of Christian symbology, for AMLO it is crucial, and in a country as religious as Mexico, it has turned out to be decisive. In an essay published shortly before the 2006 elections I characterized him as “the tropical messiah.”3 As a defender of the poor who were persecuted by the rich, he compared himself at the time (as he continues to do) with Jesus Christ, and people recognized him as such: “You are our Messiah” read a placard carried by an aged indigenous man in a remote Oaxaca village. The adjective “tropical” was not mine, either—that, too, was his. In his book, AMLO equated the passionate nature of Tabasqueño politicians and the “tropical” environment of the region, with its impassable rainforests and tempestuous rivers.
As president, López Obrador constantly declares that he is trying to establish a Mexico free of corruption, a Mexico that is pure. In order to achieve this, he has mobilized thousands of young people in the pay of the government: so-called servants of the nation. Indoctrinated by the evangelical churches—and as devoted to Trump as they are to AMLO—they travel around the country, improving the morals of the people by instructing them in the tenets of the Fourth Transformation and conducting surveys of social needs.
The word “citizen” does not exist in AMLO’s vocabulary. There is only a collective called “the people.” (The 47 percent of citizens who did not vote for him are not “the people,” for instance.) And he alone represents the people, defends the people, embodies the people. He seeks to “make history” (as his campaign slogan says) by means of a peaceful revolution that recovers and expands the political, economic, social, educational, and ideological preeminence that the state maintained under the PRI for much of the twentieth century. This is, of course, a return to that past, but with some new aspects. The PRI presidents enjoyed a great deal of power, but they never fully controlled the party, which was a confederation of workers’ organizations, rural farmers and bureaucrats, and an electoral machine. They scrupulously respected their restriction to one six-year term. But AMLO might be tempted not to. He controls his party, Morena (which he founded in 2014, two years after he left the PRD, and whose name comes from the Spanish for “National Regeneration Movement”), as well as most of Mexico’s political institutions. His power is not just constitutional but charismatic. He is a savior in power. And saviors are not in the habit of observing limits, whether legal, institutional, or temporal.
In my 2006 essay I warned against the dangers of this concentration of power in a purifying leader. I feared that AMLO (who was then leading in the polls) would reverse the fragile institutional progress that Mexican democracy had achieved since 1997, when the PRI failed to win a legislative majority in the lower house, ending seven uninterrupted decades of absolute power in both houses. For the first time in our modern history we had a fully autonomous and functioning electoral institution, a multiparty Congress, an independent judiciary system, which was restored in 1997, and substantial freedom of the press (which had been suppressed or restricted until the 1980s). All this could be endangered by a strong caudillo, more so if he thought of himself, and people thought of him, as a redeemer. Messianic expectations, I thought, would inevitably be disappointed, and Mexico could lose years it would never get back.
AMLO has governed with a revolutionary zeal whose source is that messianic impulse to save the country. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I wondered if Mexico had wasted a year. Now I’m afraid it will lose the next five.
AMLO is motivated by what he calls “ideals and principles” that he believes are unassailable because they spring from his self-proclaimed moral superiority, and they free him from considering the practical consequences of his actions, which he cannot conceive as being in need of correction. In the first year of his presidency those consequences were not encouraging. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, they are tragic.
The paradoxes in his social program have always been significant. “For the good of all, the poor first” proclaimed the billboards with his picture at the start of this century. He translated that powerful message into a huge plan for economic support directed at poor Mexicans. It aims to reach more than 20 million people, but it has serious flaws. First, it is not subject to any form of public accountability. In addition, instead of being open to all Mexicans, the program is partly carried out by those “servants of the nation,” who use their discretion to evaluate recipients, which lends itself to high-handedness and corruption. Until recently, these “servants” were representatives of Morena and the president; now they are employees of the government.
AMLO conceived the idea of jump-starting a number of “well-being projects”: planting 266 million trees between 2019 and 2020 in the southeast, creating hundreds of public universities and millions of scholarships for young people who don’t study or work, and building the first 13,000 branches of a Bank of Well-Being to extend microcredits to the poor. All these projects have failed or stopped short due to improvisation or lack of viability. He had been financing them through draconian—as well as arbitrary, opaque, and disorganized—budget cuts and underspending on other programs. He used up 57.7 percent of the Budgetary Income Stabilization Fund, a reserve created by previous administrations to make up for any fall in government revenues, and he also diverted funds set aside for disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and catastrophic diseases.
These measures affected essential public institutions serving poor Mexicans, such as the Mexican Social Security Institute and the eighteen National Health Institutes and High Specialty Hospitals, which in 2020 had their budget cut by four billion pesos. All of them suffered a major shortage of medicines and hospital supplies, which López Obrador blamed on “corruption” in the pharmaceutical industry and among doctors rather than on his austerity measures. More serious was the elimination of the Seguro Popular (Popular Insurance Program), created in 2003 and recognized internationally for its effectiveness in providing health coverage for the poor; 53 million people found themselves suddenly without health coverage. Its replacement by a new National Institute for Health and Well-Being, which has not yet come into operation, was heavily criticized.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, these decisions are showing their terrible consequences. For weeks after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported at the end of February, López Obrador continued traveling across the country, organizing mass meetings and inviting people to gather, rejoice, and embrace. Mexico lacks the basic equipment and medicines to deal with the outbreak, and it is one of the countries that has conducted the fewest Covid-19 tests: only 0.04 per thousand people (the average for countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is 23). The numbers of infections and deaths keep rising—as of the beginning of June there were over 93,000 confirmed cases and over 10,000 deaths—but so does denial. After The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and El País reported in mid-May that the actual number of deaths in Mexico City was as much as three times higher than that officially reported by the federal government, AMLO attacked them in Trumpian style: “famous papers with no ethics.” In one of his mañaneras, he cast a magic spell on the coronavirus with amulets and sacred images.
Why wasn’t there an enormous public reaction against this dismantling of the health system, which was likely to have most affected precisely those Mexicans who voted for AMLO? Since the beginning of 2020, protests have grown on social media and have now become widespread, but mainly among the urban middle classes. Beyond this more educated demographic, what counts is the omnipresence of state propaganda in radio and television. So does the old, deep-rooted political culture of millions of people who do not know what political representation means, who do not understand accountability (there is no single Spanish word for it), and who see the president as the legitimate possessor of power—all the more legitimate if he has tirelessly visited every corner of the country to talk to them as no president had before.
In economic policy, AMLO’s “ideals and principles” favor the state over the market, whose workings he despises and does not understand. But here he is deeply contradictory. On the one hand, with a contempt for experts that is similar to Trump’s, he has decimated public spending in crucial areas such as health, higher education, and scientific research. On the other, he is strengthening state oil and energy companies and is about to turn them back into monopolies, which they were—at least in oil—until 2014.
One of his dogmas is seeing oil as a kind of existential lifeblood for Mexico, and Pemex, the state oil monopoly, as a central lever of development. The result has been the de facto banning of private investment in the exploration, production, and distribution of oil and all other sources of energy, which has put the country’s economy at risk. In the beginning of 2020, it was feared that if Pemex’s credit rating fell, the country’s credit rating could be dragged down with it. That has now happened: with more than $100 billion in debt, the company has been downgraded to junk status by all agencies, and it posted a loss of $23.6 billion in the first quarter of 2020, after a net loss of $18.3 billion in 2019. Notwithstanding these financial problems and the 50 percent decrease in world oil prices since his election, the president has vowed to pour $8 billion into a refinery in Tabasco.
López Obrador’s contempt for ecology is every bit as dismissive and cynical as Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s. The refinery in Tabasco is a white elephant that will give priority to hydrocarbons rather than to clean and renewable energies. The wind and solar firms that were to start the final test required to operate within the national power grid have seen their startup permits canceled, while the Federal Electricity Commission is favoring investment in coal and heavy fuel oil over geothermal or hydroelectric power plants.
Perhaps the government’s most visible mistake was the cancellation of the construction of the much-needed new international airport for Mexico City. It was nearly a third complete and $13.3 billion had already been spent. Instead, the Santa Lucía military airport will be remodeled by the Mexican army for civilian use, which both global aeronautical authorities and domestic and foreign airlines do not consider technically viable, among other reasons because its location is too mountainous for commercial aircraft to land and take off safely.
AMLO promised that the Mexican economy would grow at an annual rate of 4 percent. In 2019, for the first time since the global crisis of 2008, it recorded negative growth, of 0.1 percent. Things have gotten worse. The peso has fallen 20 percent since January. In the first quarter of 2020, economic growth has fallen by 2.4 percent; according to JPMorgan, Moody’s, and Bank of America, it is expected to fall between 7 and 8.4 percent for the year. Meanwhile, in 2020 Mexico has lost half a million jobs (without taking into account the informal economy). According to CONEVAL, a national council that evaluates the impact of social policy, some nine million Mexicans will fall into poverty.
The main reason for the economic stagnation was apparent even before the pandemic: private investment, which contributes some 90 percent of the total investment, had practically ground to a halt. It was and remains a problem of trust, rooted, at least partially, in the illiberal nature of the Fourth Transformation. In one year, the president had managed to achieve an unprecedented concentration of power, not only restricting free expression but gaining the subservience of the National Congress (where Morena and its allies have a majority in both chambers) as well as many state legislatures, municipal presidents, and governors (who depend on federal funds for some 80 percent of their budgets). Among the main autonomous institutions, AMLO controls the National Commission of Human Rights and the Energy Regulatory Commission, whose chairman resigned, pointing to “incompatible technical approaches and points of view.” The Central Bank (founded in 1925) is still autonomous and so is the National Electoral Institute, founded in 1990, which has operated professionally since its first real test in the 1997 elections and is resisting the pressure of AMLO, who has cut its budget, tried to discredit it in his mañaneras, and is able impede its normal functioning and to impose yes-men as counselors. It is doubtful that he could do the same in the Central Bank but less so in the Supreme Court, where he already has substantial support.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, AMLO’s abuses and concentration of power, as well as a punitive law that equates tax evasion with organized crime, had a negative impact not only on big businesses but on hundreds of thousands of small businesses and nearly five million microbusinesses, because all have lost confidence. A significant portion of Mexico has modernized to the point that it understands the extent to which absolute presidential power represents a danger to freedom, a word that AMLO almost never mentions in his speeches, but whose fragility is a crucial factor in the climate of mistrust.
This situation was already worrying, but the pandemic has caused a serious breach between AMLO and the private sector. Instead of applying the fiscal and economic measures being undertaken now in the majority of countries to help companies and save jobs, AMLO ruled, “Let them go bankrupt.” In a recent mañanera, he declared that standard measures of economic growth like GDP are now useless: what matters is the spiritual well-being of the people.
There were 35,588 violent deaths in Mexico in 2019—a level of yearly violence not far from that in the decade of the Mexican Revolution. Before the pandemic, this was the greatest concern of Mexican families, who by the end of the 1990s had become accustomed to living in a reasonably peaceful country. That changed after 2000 as a result of a combination of factors—among them the sidelining of Colombian drug cartels by Mexican ones and the lifting of the ban on assault weapons in the US in 2004.4 Unlike the PRI governments that in the last decades of the twentieth century had enough power to negotiate with the cartels—getting them to limit their violence and their transport routes while also taking a good slice of their business—the governments of this century failed to confront the new circumstances. Vicente Fox irresponsibly did not consider it a priority. Calderón rashly launched a war on drugs that captured a few top drug lords but multiplied the number of criminal groups, which expanded their territory and their deadliness. Peña Nieto almost ignored the problem and gambled instead on a few major structural reforms in energy and education that AMLO quickly revoked.
López Obrador has said that his predecessors’ policies toward crime were tantamount to “swinging blindly at a wasps’ nest.” But the solution he put forward in his first year turned out to be ineffective at best. His slogan “abrazos, no balazos”—hugs, not gunshots—is a sort of unilateral pacifism. Finding their hands tied and confused at the government’s clemency toward criminals, the forces of law and order became demoralized, while criminal gangs and even common delinquents kidnapped, extorted, and murdered in the country’s streets with growing impunity.
Almost all crime remains unpunished. The widely publicized stories of the aborted capture in Culiacán of the son of Chapo Guzmán, the former head of the Sinaloa Cartel, and the appalling murder of the LeBarón family (American citizens based in Chihuahua for generations) were terrible evidence that some regions of the country are under the rule of the narcotics trade. In late March, AMLO made a goodwill gesture toward Guzmán, who is serving a life sentence in an American prison. He traveled many hours to Badiraguato, Guzmán’s hometown, where he publicly greeted his mother. Not surprisingly, the editors of the independent newspaper Reforma recently reported that the Sinaloa Cartel had sent them a recording in which it threatened to blow up the newspaper’s building if it doesn’t stop its defamation of AMLO.
AMLO ordered the dismantling of the Federal Police because he believed it was irremediably corrupt and absorbed it into a new National Guard, which has in turn been shamefully used to stop Central American migrants at the southern border and to keep them under control, in subhuman conditions, at the northern one. In an attempt to appease Trump, he turned Mexico into a de facto border wall. On immigration, AMLO swapped the humanitarian approach he once embraced for harsh enforcement, adopting deterrence and deportation methods favored by the White House. “Even if they’re from Mars, we will deport them,” said Francisco Garduño, his immigration czar, who had previously been in charge of the country’s federal prison system. Much to Trump’s delight, National Guard troops assembled on Mexico’s southern border, where they clashed with Central American migrants, deporting them in record numbers.
In addition to serious negotiations with the US over arms trafficking and the decriminalization of certain drugs, the real way out of all these problems is the arduous, protracted building of a state governed by the rule of law. Although since 1824 Mexico has had constitutions not unlike that of the US, they have been largely ineffective. Justice in all its branches and functions has depended on executive power. The transition to multiparty democracy in 1997 began to alter this situation, and it was to be expected that any Mexican government would continue to improve judicial institutions: police, prisons, attorneys, judges, magistrates, ministers. AMLO brought this process to a halt and, in crucial ways, reversed it, with the result that crime is rampant: there were 2,492 homicides reported in April 2020, making it the third most violent month in contemporary history after March and June 2019, when the number surpassed 2,500. In the time of Covid-19, AMLO has gone from “abrazos, no balazos” to the opposite. In his election campaigns, he often said that if it were up to him, he would dissolve the army. Now he has issued an unprecedented decree that gives the army nationwide control of security for the remaining years of his presidency.
At the beginning of 2020, 64 percent of Mexicans believed AMLO’s fight against corruption was succeeding. But this is doubtful. Corruption has to be fought through transparent institutions and an effective judicial system. To this end, in 2003 the National Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (INAI) was created to supply citizens with information about where public money in any sector has ended up. The INAI’s performance has been outstanding, and the media and social networks turned to it to uncover a number of cases of corruption by Peña Nieto and his collaborators that in the past would have gone unnoticed and unpunished.
Unfortunately, AMLO does not believe in the INAI. He has called it “a complete sham.” He has cut its funding and will soon be in a position to control it or eliminate it altogether. Now there is absolutely no transparency in the use of public money and, at the same time, the awarding of contracts to companies owned by the president’s friends and cronies is more frequent and open than during Peña Nieto’s presidency. Within AMLO’s tight circle, there are a number of prominent figures from the former PRI regime who have committed proven illegalities: electoral fraud, union fraud, defrauding the public purse. But presidential pardons have made them untouchable.
The illegitimate blending of the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary into a single power that distorts the truth and appropriates history—is this not the most serious corruption? That is what Gabriel Zaid suggested in his 2019 book El poder corrompe (Power Corrupts), without a single mention of AMLO. In Zaid’s conception, “rather than being merely theft, irresponsibility, or injustice, corruption is a deception.” In the case of AMLO, the deception consists of making no distinction between his official position and his mystical incarnation:
Power corrupts the meaning of reality, and so it stunts reason. Corruption demeans the people who abuse what they represent, by the abuse itself, not by the ways they benefit from it. It demeans them even when they don’t benefit at all, when they perpetrate abuse “in order to save the institution”…which they thereby destroy. At the same time, corruption demeans those who are complicit, whether actively or passively, and all society, destroying meanings and symbols.
López Obrador has abused his position, and to that extent—like Trump and all “elected despots”—he has corrupted the institution of the presidency, as well as the meanings and symbols of democracy.
No leader in modern Mexican history accumulated as much power as López Obrador wields. There is no political force that can compete with him. The PRI is deservedly ruined because of its history of corruption, the PAN is lacking leadership, and the other opposition parties barely count. Before the pandemic, it seemed likely that AMLO’s party would sweep the midterm elections in July 2021 for a new Chamber of Deputies and fifteen governorships. That would have given them a significant advantage in the 2024 presidential elections, in which López Obrador would either have himself reelected directly (by changing the Constitution, which didn’t seem impossible) or via a surrogate—an unconditional ally or even a relative—as Putin did. In that case, Mexican democracy would not only have lost many unrecoverable years. It would have lost itself.
Now that outcome seems less certain, since 59 percent of Mexicans disapprove of AMLO’s handling of the pandemic. If the opposition parties unite before the midterm elections, Morena could lose control of the House of Representatives and, barring the Venezuelan option of stealing the election or dissolving Congress, Mexican democracy would still survive the second part of AMLO’s term.
Mexico urgently needed change. It needed to end the shameful corruption among its political elites and to make a serious attempt to correct social inequality through economic growth and the distribution of cash without clientelism; it needed respect for the environment, a professional fight against crime, and a strong, independent judicial system. But the longed-for change has arrived only in the Orwellian realm of power and propaganda, not in reality. Months ago, before Covid-19, I thought that an apocalyptic scenario of economic and social crisis, a crisis of security and violence more serious than anything we had experienced, was still improbable. That scenario would further encourage migration to the United States, which no wall would be able to stop. With Covid-19, that nightmare seems near.
The task of rebuilding Mexico will be titanic. The hope is that civil society, which has been increasingly active, might produce new leaders who, allied with a coalition of parties, could win the presidential election in 2024 and form a government that will face up to the country’s enormous problems, new and old, honestly and responsibly, without messianic expectations, preserving democracy and freedom with the institutions of a state governed by the rule of law.n
—June 3, 2020; translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn
El poder en el trópico (Mexico City: Planeta, 2015). ↩
See my “El presidente historiador,” Letras libres, January 2, 2019. ↩
“Tropical Messiah,” The New Republic, June 19, 2006. ↩
See my “Mexico at War,” The New York Review, September 27, 2012. ↩