The election of Manuel Lopez Obrador is historic. It is following a common trend internationally. He is a populist. A left wing populist. His election came out of similar forces that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
One of the items that trump ran on was not part of Obrador’s electoral playbook. This is deep racial animus. But the economic reasons for his victory are similar.
Mexico, like the United States, has a growing income inequality gulf. This is no longer a gap, but rather a deep wide gulf. This has created a lot of anger and despair, especially among the working class and middle class that is the backbone of his support. While globalization has been a boom to economic elites, inequality is growing.
He also has a record as an executive. One of his planks, to reduce poverty nationwide, did not work that well in Mexico City when he was the mayor. He did reduce violence and started to build some essential infrastructure, however. The second level of the periférico is a good example.
And here is where things get very complicated. During his administration, the second level of the viaducto-periferico was built. The project was assigned to a private Spanish company. The profits from the fees paid by drivers who use it, go to this Spanish company. It is not just that. Lopez Obrador promised that it wouldn’t cost to use, as taxes should cover it. It does, and most drivers in Mexico City cannot afford it.
This may very well look like nitpicking. However, AMLO, as he is known in Mexico, has a history of doing this. He promises one thing. He gets defensive when it is called a populist promise, which in many cases it is, and then reverses course when people are not paying attention.
NAFTA and Trump
This will be the most immediate policy matter between both countries. Both Obrador and Trump ran on how evil NAFTA is. Unlike Trump, Obrador pulled back from the most extreme views under pressure from the business community.
Obrador has pledged to renegotiate the agreement. And after he takes power on December first, a new team will take over negotiations. This is not minor. I expect Obrador to be more aggressive against the Trump position. He is also inheriting a country that has been preparing for the end of NAFTA and what seems to be an inevitable trade war
In many ways Mexico has reweighed a lot of its trade with South America and China. This does not mean this will be good for either country. However, the trade war that the Trump administration is starting looks inevitable. So Mexico has been doing what other governments are, getting ready.
The end of NAFTA could mean a loss of jobs to the tune of five million in the United States. The effect on the Mexican economy could be that significant as well. We expect these effects to be unclear due to American actions on the world stage.
Border Security and Cooperation
At the heart of a lot of this is the Merida Initiative. This has allowed Mexico to get American equipment, at times training, in exchange for help in the war on drugs. To say that this is hardly popular in Mexico is an understatement. In Mexico this cooperation is not popular.
Mexico and the United States are hardly the distant neighbors of my youth. This does not mean that there is not a large contingent of Mexicans who still detest the United States. In some ways, this is part of Obrador’s base. And one thing he has promised is as follows:
“La política exterior se guiará por los principios de no intervención y autodeterminación de los pueblos. Mantendremos una relación de amistad y cooperación para el desarrollo con el gobierno de Estados Unidos, pero no aceptaremos el maltrato a los migrantes ni actitudes racistas, hegemónicas o prepotentes.”
“Mexican foreign affairs will be guided by non intervention and the self determination of nations. We will maintain a friendly relationship, and cooperation with the American government, but we will not tolerate the maltreatment of migrants, nor racist, hegemonic, attitudes.”
At least this observer expects are more confrontational relationship between the two governments. At least in the open, and there is history of this. President Luis Echeverrria Alvarez led the non aligned movement at the UN, and openly was a thorn on the side of the United States. We know from the Kennedy papers that he was a CIA asset. Mind you, in Mexico this was all but news.
The wall is a non starter with Mexicans. So if Trump insists that will degrade that relationship very fast. It may very well make it the worst in decades. And this is not about Lopez Obrador, as there are calls for this already in the Mexican Congress.
Mexican legislators this week proposed ending cooperation with the US on immigration, counterterrorism, and fighting organized crime “as long as President Donald Trump does not act with the respect that migrants deserve.”
The proposal was made on Wednesday by the Mexican Congress’ Permanent Commission, which meets while Congress is in recess, and asks the executive branch to “consider the possibility of withdrawing from any bilateral cooperation scheme” with the US on those issues.
In short, this could bring to an end bilateral cooperation. It may very well mean the withdrawal by Mexico from the Merida initiative. It would be a very populist act, and popular to boot.
So yes, the election is historic. Obrador is riding a global populist wave, that is coming from the same structural issues that propelled Trump to the White House. However, it will also provide Trump a good punching bag. Mexico, he will claim, is now an enemy of the United States.
As to the promises made by the new president elect, as my mother used to say, it costs nothing to make promises, or to love. Prometer y amar no cuesta nada.
One more thing. To those thinking he is the Mexican version of Bernie Sanders, not true. He is more like a PRI politician of forty years ago. And I do hope he turns out to be far better than his record as Mexico City Mayor suggests.