by Adam Wiaktor
The past two years have been full of political surprises. The election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as President of Mexico was not one of them. He won the election in convincing fashion, with more people voting for him than any other presidential candidate combined. He has broken the stranglehold the PAN and the PRI had over Mexican politics. He is promising to do nothing less than drain the Mexican swamp of corruption, injustice and careerism. He is the embodiment of the new populism in Central America. Critics have suggested there is more than a hint of Péron in his rhetorical style.
I am supportive of Lopez Obrador and think he will provide a number of fundamental cultural shifts that have been long overdue in the Mexican political order. But the comparison to Walter Mitty is an accurate one. ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ first made an appearance just months before the Second World War and has been the subject of two films. It has become synonymous with individuals who manage to deceive themselves into thinking that they are capable of achievements beyond their means and ability.
In some respects, AMLO is almost forced to walk the Walter Mitty tightrope. The coalition which delivered him to power was united by anti-establishment feeling and little else. The ideological diversity is massive and building an executive which can work cohesively requires a great deal of triangulation and compromise. There is little doubt of AMLO’s own left-wing credentials. But if his tenure as Major of the Federal District taught him anything, it is that achievement is far more valuable a political currency in Mexico than a sense of ideological purity. If there was anything which symbolised this willingness to put people above policies, it was his close association with telecommunications giant Carlos Slim.
The recent North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiation is a clear example of the political game AMLO has to play. Lopez Obrador has been a long time critic of NAFTA, with the brunt of his opposition aimed at the potential for Foreign Direct Investment in Mexico’s Energy Sector. In a move straight out of the Trump playbook, Lopez Obrador emphasised on the need to put ‘Mexico First’ when it came to natural resource exploitation. In spite of this, there is little to suggest that AMLO would reverse the recent arrangements made by Enrique Peña Nieto and the White House to save NAFTA. The former Communist has become a (reluctant) free trade embracer.
Another face of the AMLO machine is shown in his desire to change Mexican drugs policy. For the last decade, Mexico has pursued a military-focused approach to combatting drug crime. However, the legacy of the War on Drugs has been devastating for Mexico. 2017 was, by many accounts, the deadliest year for the drug crime in the best part of two decades. Though many of the old drug lords are detained or dead, Mexican policymakers underestimated the ability of the Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels to find new leadership. An estimated 200,000 people have now died in the violence, and many in the military now find themselves in the pocket of the very drug cartels they were tasked with destroying.
It is clear that the new President has a very different agenda to that of his predecessors. His answers to the Drugs Crisis is through the nib of a pen as opposed to through the barrel of a gun. One of the areas of policy where Lopez Obrador has been very consistent is the desire to root out corrupt politicians on the left and right of the political spectrum who have enabled the Drug Trade. Even more ambitious than tackling the toxic elements of Mexican politics is the proposed amnesty with criminal organizations. The policy that has the best chance at delivering a safer Mexico is also the one that might tear his political coalition apart. Both the business leaders and the evangelical Christians have shown a great deal of opposition to the policy, believing that justice will not be served to those who most deserve it.
Even foreign affairs, an area of policy in which politicians tend to be at their most transparent, will pose a number of image challenges. AMLO’s political inclination is an uncomfortable mixture of inclusivity and nationalism. One the one hand, he wants to ensure a good relationship is fostered with the United States by recognizing the political reality of a Trump presidency and he has done well not to rise to a lot of the inflammatory rhetoric which less steely opponents have attempted to take on and failed. On the other hand, he wishes to return to a policy of Mexican isolationism and reduce the need to involve Mexico with the other political crises in Central and South America. Some people will see this as sympathy to the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments (widely accused of human rights infringements). Those criticisms might even have some truth in them, but it is difficult to see what Mexico is able to do without further muddying the water.
But the area where I think the greatest Walter Mitty moment might come about is in relation to Mexico’s potential in the energy sector. It is in energy where we can see the contradictions in AMLO’s populism come through most clearly. Natural energy sources could provide the potential to fund a large chunk of AMLO’s ambitious social program. They could provide the quality of life to ordinary Mexicans that generations have cried out for. But the reality is that the Mexican state is simply not equipped to take production to the level needed. International firms, the bogeymen and exploiters in the electoral rhetoric, are the best chance that Mexico has. So much was made of delivering promises and creating the New Mexico. But everything has a price.
In most cases, I would firmly encourage politicians to stop walking the centre ground, and to clearly highlight what they believe and to allow themselves to be accountable to the General Public. However, I cannot provide the same prescription to my own political order. Mexico is a country which has suffered for too long. All the ideology in the world is a little substitute for evidence-based policy which will make people safer, more affluent, and more united. Lopez Obrador has a pretty unenviable task in the six years which await him. But perhaps, if he is just able to make others believe in him, he will manage to do what Walter Mitty never did. Achieve those dreams.