David Raby writes: Mexico’s progressive 4T Transformation under AMLO may not be headline news, but it is steadily going ahead despite fierce opposition and is asserting with growing clarity its values of national sovereignty, integrity, community initiative and indigenous identity.
Having signally failed over the past few months to destabilise the country by violent protests in Mexico City, the opposition has now reverted to an earlier tactic of fomenting regional discontent through an alliance of right-wing governors who claim to be defending their states against authoritarian centralism. They have seized on issues ranging from the Mexico-US water treaty to Covid-19 policy and fiscal redistribution to raise the banner of what in the US would be called “States’ Rights”, calling themselves the “Federalist Alliance”.
Corruption and machine politics
A motley crew of ten governors from the North and Centre-West, five are from the traditionally conservative PAN party, two from the old establishment PRI that ran the country for decades, one from the formerly left-wing PRD, and two independents. What they have in common is a desire to maintain traditional machine politics and prevent democratic change, and most of them are under suspicion of corruption with possible links to organised crime.
Under the leadership of Enrique Alfaro of the major western state of Jalisco they went on the offensive in May-June 2020,1 but were stopped in their tracks when AMLO visited several of their states with his security team (the Public Security, Defence, Navy and National Guard commanders) and obliged them to accept federal policy on combatting corruption and organised crime. AMLO’s insistence on avoiding brute force and fighting violent crime by intelligence gathering and stricter financial regulation to prevent money laundering has begun to undermine their patronage networks, and may expose them to criminal charges.
Wherever possible AMLO tries to avoid open confrontation, and so insists that while having “differences of opinion” he manages to work with opposition governors. He also points out that their hostile statements are often motivated by electoral politics, since gubernatorial and legislative assembly elections are coming up in several states next June.
While there is some truth in this, the underlying issue is opposition to AMLO’s “4T” Transformation with its emphasis on ending corruption and impunity and prioritising the poor and excluded. In Mexico governors, like presidents, cannot be re-elected, so these opposition governors are concerned with defending their partisan and group interests rather than their personal hold on office. What is at stake is an entire repressive and exploitative system, and most Mexicans are well aware of this: opinion polls indicate 60 to 70% popular support for AMLO in the states run by these demagogues.
All of AMLO’s welfare and popular development programmes are based on direct transfer of federal resources to individuals and local communities, bypassing corrupt intermediaries in state and municipal bureaucracies or unions and NGOs. This has proved extremely popular with working people who were used to seeing most of the (inadequate) funds of previous social and welfare programmes disappear into the pockets of sleazy middlemen.
The “federalists” went on the offensive again on October 25th by holding public rallies in their states to attack federal policies and claim that they were being short-changed by the central government. AMLO’s response was to demonstrate, with detailed information presented by the Finance Minister, that they have received every penny they are owed under the law which was last revised in 2007 and agreed by all parties.2
The opposition governors dramatically threatened to “break the Federal Pact” – as if they were going to declare independence – something no-one takes seriously and which has no real popular support.
But such irresponsible brinkmanship caused inevitable concern, and on October 28th a pro-unity, pro-AMLO statement was issued by seven progressive governors led by Mexico City Head of Government Claudia Sheinbaum: this unconstitutional threat, they said, only shows that the “federalists” have failed to understand that Mexico has a popular mandate for change, for a peaceful transformation to end the regime of corruption and privilege.3
The pro-transformation governors are from the Centre and South, with one significant exception: the Governor of the north-west border state of Baja California. Support for AMLO and the 4T is certainly stronger in the Centre and South which are poorer, more heavily indigenous and traditionally neglected.
But support for AMLO and the Transformation is growing in the North and West, and in little more than six months’ time the regional elections may well seriously weaken the right-wing “federalists”. That is why they, who never uttered a word of dissent under the high-handed and corrupt previous president Enrique Peña Nieto, are now suddenly making populist and separatist threats.
AMLO stands firm on Mexico’s energy sovereignty
Free trade with Mexico’s northern neighbours specifically excluded the energy sector – oil, gas and electric power generation – where AMLO reaffirmed public control through PEMEX (the national petroleum company) and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE in its Spanish acronym).
While not directly nationalising companies which had entered the sector during the privatising neoliberal era, AMLO declared there would be no more giveaway deals for foreign energy giants, and corrupt former deals would be investigated for possible fraud.
On October 22nd six US senators and 37 representatives wrote to Trump complaining about Mexican policy impeding market access and going against the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.4 This however is not the case as Mexico had taken care to exclude the energy sector from the treaty, and AMLO proclaimed this very publicly in front of President Trump at the White House in July.
AMLO gave a categorical response on October 26th: “I am paid to protect the public interest, not to help Repsol” (a Spanish company favoured by the previous government), and he boldly reasserted national sovereignty by referring to the historic nationalisations of oil by Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938 and of electricity by Adolfo López Mateos in 1960.5 He quoted Cárdenas to the effect that anyone giving away the country’s resources was “a traitor”.
It would, however, be quite wrong to conclude from this that AMLO is seeking confrontation with Washington. In recent weeks he also faced a difficult internal problem arising from an opportunistic stance by the right-wing Governor of Chihuahua State, Javier Corral, who demagogically tried to whip up nationalist sentiment against sharing scarce water supplies with the US.
The waters of the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo (the great border river) and its tributaries are shared under a 1944 treaty which took many years to negotiate and is remarkably favourable to Mexico, which receives over 75% of the water. If Mexico had defaulted on this it would undoubtedly have ended up with a worse deal, as well as getting caught up in a diplomatic row in the middle of the US election campaign. Despite violent protests provoked opportunistically by Corral and his conservative PAN party, AMLO stood firm and negotiated a solution with the US.
Direct benefits for the people
The fact of the matter is that the 4T Transformation is going full steam ahead, hence the consternation of the opposition. A controversial issue in recent weeks has been AMLO’s determination to abolish over 100 fideicomisos (trusts or “quangos”) which administered a vast range of programmes providing grants for the arts, sport, education, research, community groups and other activities. They took federal funds for all kinds of good causes, but AMLO insisted that the great majority of them were profoundly corrupt, dispensing patronage without accountability.
Abolition of these quangos was one of the President’s campaign promises, but it became a live issue in the past three months when he pushed for Congress to pass legislation on the subject. All kinds of distinguished individuals in culture, sport, academic research and charitable causes raised an indignant outcry, claiming that their worthwhile, indeed essential, activities would be abandoned.
AMLO however insisted that all worthwhile activities would continue to be supported with direct federal grants, and appointed several distinguished specialists to investigate all the relevant programmes and ensure their continuation in a more transparent and accountable manner. After a very heated debate Congress passed the law establishing a process to abolish these quangos and replace them with more transparent arrangements.
Then in recent press conferences AMLO surprised his audience by announcing his intention to halt fraudulent outsourcing or subcontracting, which is used in Mexico (as in the UK and elsewhere) to deprive workers of legitimate rights and benefits. He pointed out that many workers were dismissed from regular jobs in November and transferred for a couple of months to skeleton subcontracting firms as temporary employees, then re-hired in January or February by their real employers. In this manner they were deprived of the Christmas bonus (which is a substantial benefit to which full-time employees are entitled) and also lost seniority and accompanying benefits.
The President quoted the example of one such outsourcing company with more than 200,000 workers on its books in what also amounts to false accounting, a practice under serious investigation by Public Administration Secretary Irma Sandoval and the Tax Administration section (SAT) of the Finance Ministry.6 Many companies guilty of tax evasion and/or false accounting have already been taken to court or forced to pay up, in many instances for the first time ever, and this new law will lead to more such cases.
Secretary of Labour Luisa María Alcalde explained that the new law will ban outsourcing of the principal activity of any enterprise; outsourcing of specialised activities (e.g. cleaning for a manufacturing company) will be permitted but under controlled conditions; and there will be greater sanctions for companies breaking the law. She declared “We start from the principle that labour is a right and not a commodity”.7
Another legal reform just announced concerns housing credits: the Institute for the Promotion of Workers’ Housing (INFONAVIT), a savings scheme somewhat similar to a Building Society in the UK, will make credit available on easier terms and without intermediaries.8 Those approved for credit can undertake self-build projects, purchase or repairs as they please, with technical advice to ensure safety, building standards and planning requirements. Access to housing is thus improved and small and medium enterprises are also most likely to benefit.
AMLO’s political success is based on measures that sound far from radical or revolutionary, yet which in fact strike at the heart of a rotten and oppressive system. Companies are not being expropriated, there is no censorship, there are no arbitrary arrests or repressive measures (quite the contrary), but political priorities have fundamentally changed.
Proclaiming Mexico’s indigenous identity
An essential aspect of policy which has come to the fore recently (although it was always an explicit part of AMLO’s strategy) is to reclaim Mexico’s indigenous heritage and identity. He declared that 2021 will be a special year of commemoration with a series of historic anniversaries: 700 years from the foundation of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, 500 years since the fall of the city to the Spanish Conquistadors, 200 years from the formal completion of Mexican Independence, and several other significant events.9
A series of commemorations will be held during the year with guests invited from all over the world, and the emphasis will be on the indigenous cultures as the essence of national identity. Diplomatic efforts are being made to obtain the return, at least temporarily, of national treasures such as the Aztec and Mayan codices (pictographic records of the history & culture of the native peoples) and Moctezuma’s ceremonial head-dress, items currently held in various European museums.10
Discussions have been taking place about a possible formal apology by Spain for its actions in the Conquest. AMLO has pointed out that the Catholic Church made such an apology in relation to Bolivia, and hopes it may do the same for Mexico. It would be desirable also for the Church to apologise for its treatment of the Mexican independence leaders Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, both Catholic priests and both defrocked and excommunicated before execution (although Morelos’ excommunication was subsequently withdrawn).
Along the same lines, AMLO declared that the Mexican State requests forgiveness from the native peoples, especially the Yaquis of Sonora and the Mayans, for their mistreatment by national governments during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In keeping with this, AMLO placed great emphasis on the traditional festival of “the Day of the Dead”, really three days of communion with each family’s ancestors on October 31st and November 1st and 2nd. Coinciding with the Catholic festivals of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, it also has deep indigenous roots, and AMLO stressed this as never before by inviting 20 different indigenous nations to set up their own displays in the National Palace, where he accompanied them in a profoundly moving ceremony. In view of the ongoing Covid-19 problem, these dates were also dedicated to all those whose lives have been lost in the pandemic.
Recognition of native peoples is not limited to symbolic measures. Educational programmes being delivered during the pandemic online, on TV and by radio are available in 20 indigenous languages as well as Spanish, and several of the federal welfare programmes such as pensions are provided on more generous terms for indigenous communities. For the first time also, Afro-Mexican communities, significant in coastal areas of Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca, have received official recognition; and AMLO has apologised to Chinese-Mexicans who were subject to racist attacks during the revolution. More than ever, the country’s diversity is being recognised and celebrated.
David Raby is a writer, political activist and retired academic living in Norwich (UK). Professor Emeritus in Latin American History, University of Toronto, and former Senior Fellow in Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool. Former City Councillor in Norwich. Executive member, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign; Chair, Norwich-El Viejo (Nicaragua) Twinning Link. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @DLRaby.
1 See my article in Public Reading Rooms UK, https://prruk.org/amlos-adavances-in-the-cause-of-justice-and-peace-in-mexico/
2 www.gob.mx/presidencia/es/articulos/version-estenografica-de-la-conferencia-de-prensa-matutina-jueves-29-de-octubre-de-2020?idiom=es, Accessed 30/10/2020. Further such references are abbreviated as “Conferencia de Prensa Matutina” with the relevant date.
3 Declaración contra Gobernadores “Federalistas”, 28/10/2020, www.cdmx.gob.mx/storage/app/media/Posicionamiento%20de%20los%20Gobernadores%20de%20y%20la%20Jefa%20de%20Gobierno.pdf
5 Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 26/10/2020, accessed 26/10/2020.
6 Conferencias de Prensa Matutina, 27/10, 28/10 & 12/11, accessed 14/11/2020.
7 Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 12/11/2020, accessed 14/11/2020.
8 Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 11/11/2020, accessed 14/11/2020.
9 Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 30/09/2020, accessed 14/11/2020.
10 Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 13/10/2020, accessed 14/11/2020.