David Raby writes: The bad news is that Mexican President López Obrador tested positive for Covid-19 on January 24, which caused much anxiety among his supporters and sympathisers both at home and abroad.
But the good news is that his symptoms w ere relatively mild and a fortnight later (on February 8) he was back at his morning press conference, apparently fully recovered and with inspiring energy and enthusiasm.
Nationalising Electric Power
The President continued dealing with some government business while in quarantine, and showed remarkable vigour with the announcement that on February 1st he had sent a formal proposal to Congress for an urgent reform of electric power legislation. The bill he proposes will give priority to power generation by the public Federal Electricity Commission (CFE by its Spanish initials), reversing 30 years of privatisation and in effect re-nationalising the industry.
The bill, which should be approved within 30 days, requires examination of all contracts with private operators for corrupt or illegal clauses, leading to their elimination and recovery of lost funds, an end to subsidies of private companies and restoration of national self-sufficiency in the sector.1
Recent events make it clear that the essence of the 4T Transformation is to restore the power of the state – the Mexican Federal Government – to develop the country as an independent nation, indeed as a medium-sized power, on the basis of a productive national economy with social justice, aligned with its Latin American neighbours.
Mexico’s leading progressive daily La Jornada describes the electric power proposal as “probably the most important set of legal changes undertaken by the Fourth Transformation”. It fulfills a campaign promise, and “we should celebrate the fact that today the authorities are seeking to return to the people the property and the energy sovereignty given away by the corrupt and unscrupulous political class that took over the country during the long neoliberal night”.2
Back in the 1980s the public CFE generated all the country’s electricity, but by 2018 this had fallen to 54%. Further privatisation measures under President Peña Nieto (2012-18) led the CFE to financial losses of $450 million in 2017 and $1,900 million in the first half of 2018.
Giveaway contracts to foreign companies, in which the state built the infrastructure and transferred it to the private operators for free and also paid inflated rates for power generated (ripping off Mexican consumers in the process) are the explanation for these astronomical losses. The most notorious case was that of Spanish company Iberdrola which is now under investigation for bribery.
The new legislation does not outlaw private contracts but subjects them to strict control and confirms Mexican sovereignty in the sector. As La Jornada points out, regaining control of the industry and restoring it as a public asset will not be achieved overnight, but it is crucial for the country’s future.
When questioned as to possible friction with the US on this issue, AMLO declared that there has been no statement on the subject so far from Washington. He also showed the relevant clauses of the USMCA Trade Agreement which recognises Mexican energy sovereignty.
To make the matter crystal clear, the President displayed the public letter to the Mexican people by President Adolfo López Mateos on 27 September 1960, when electric power was first nationalised, in which López Mateos concluded with this dramatic statement: “People of Mexico, I release you from any obligation to obey future rulers who may try to give away our resources…”3
As if sent from on high to confirm AMLO’s views on energy sovereignty, in mid-February a massive snowstorm hit Texas, leading to serious power blackouts and leaving large numbers of people freezing, without electricity or gas and in some cases without water. The effects spilled over into northeastern Mexico (Coahuila, Nuevo León and neighbouring states) because of the import dependency resulting from neoliberal reforms. One journalist compared Texas to a “failed state” and pointed out that the disaster was not just due to the weather but to the extreme privatisation of the state’s power grid imposed by far-right state governments over the years.4
Law, Order and Justice
Reclaiming national control over key industries and resources goes hand-in-hand with restoring the power of the Federal Government to enforce law and order, which had been seriously undermined by more than three decades of neoliberal privatisation and corruption. The pervasive growth of organised crime, and a response by the authorities which alternated between ineffective policing and indiscriminate military repression, left the country in a state of social and political decomposition.
This accounts for Mexico’s appalling record on human rights of all kinds which was from the beginning a fundamental issue for AMLO and the 4T Transformation. Homicides, femicides, forced disappearances and criminal violence in general naturally grab the headlines, and the government is engaged in a tenacious struggle to root out corruption, reform the justice system and end impunity. But it is important to see these issues in context and avoid jumping to conclusions; as in all his actions, AMLO’s approach to this does not necessarily conform to conventional liberal nostrums which prioritise the role of “civil society” and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). In his view, many NGOs have become lucrative careerist outfits pursuing self-serving or political agendas.
AMLO has made investigation of homicides and forced disappearances a top priority, engaging personally with families and communities affected by such appalling crimes, beginning with relatives of the 43 students in the Ayotzinapa case. Such cases are complex and more importantly they present serious obstacles arising from the entrenched interests of corrupt and repressive networks linked to the old regime.
As the Deputy Secretary of the interior Ministry, Alejandro Encinas, declared in a recent press conference,5 “We are treading on the tiger’s tale”, and it is to be expected that the investigation will face media distortions, threats and potential violence. But he insisted that they will continue and that progress is being made.
Indeed in the Ayotzinapa case the Special Attorney’s Office established by the President has succeeded in debunking the “official story” invented by the previous government as a cover-up, and has arrested a total of 80 individuals on charges related to the case.6 A great deal remains to be done and the investigation is linked to a coordinated effort to overcome bureaucratic inertia and political sabotage by vested interests.
At the January 29 press conference the head of the National Search Commission, Carla Quintana, reported on efforts to reinforce the forensic capacity of regional authorities. State Search Commissions now exist throughout the country and the federal authorities are working systematically with families, communities and international organisations to establish appropriate protocols. There is now a national registry of all documented disappearances which is available for general public consultation.
Another crucial human rights issue which is a matter of great public concern is gender violence. The government has created a Transversal Programme Against Gender Violence across departments at the highest level, with weekly meetings.7 There are 24 State Panels for Promotion of Peace & Security focusing particularly on protection of women and children, with (so far) 117 local networks of Women Peace Promoters working on solutions.8 There is now gender parity in the Federal Cabinet and official recognition that the 4T Transformation is feminist.
Effective Policing and Intelligence
The search for truth and justice in relation to past crimes goes hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce current levels of violence and criminality. Effective policing based on community cooperation and intelligence rather than brute force is the way forward, hence the importance of the National Guard (GN), trained in human rights and with a growing presence throughout the country. As of January 2021 the GN had 172 barracks (of a planned total of 266),9 with 93,000 active personnel; given the unreliability and corruption of many state and municipal police forces, this large-scale federal presence is crucial for public security. It is also significant that in December 2020 AMLO appointed a woman, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, as Secretary of Security & Public Protection, responsible among other things for the GN.10
AMLO’s critics, particularly on the left, condemn what they see as the “militarisation” of public security, but they have no answer as to how security is to be achieved and the law enforced given the pervasive presence of organised crime. Only restoration of the state’s monopoly of legitimate force, coupled with effective detection and impartial, corruption-free administration of justice, will achieve a long-term reduction of criminality, and on all these fronts AMLO is moving forward steadily.
Serious crimes continue to occur with disturbing frequency; the difference is that there is an immediate response from the federal authorities, and there is no attempt at a cover-up, or if there are signs of a cover-up by local authorities, the federal government takes action to investigate and ensure justice is done.
Thus in late January, just when US President Biden had announced his intention to implement a radical change of migration law and AMLO had expressed hope that treatment of migrants would improve substantially, there occurred a massacre of 17 people, Guatemalans and Mexicans, shot dead in a truck in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas.
The response from Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero (and then from AMLO when he returned from his Covid convalescence) was immediate, and within days 12 members of the Tamaulipas State Police were arrested on suspicion of responsibility and other local officials were dismissed. Sánchez Cordero also declared in response to questions that in relation to the abuse of migrants in general, the government has dismissed dozens of employees, presumably for abuse or negligence.11
The case was raised again in questions at the press conference on February 11, and AMLO did not mince words. He explained that the border area in Tamaulipas (with Texas) is the most violent of all, with confrontations between two criminal gangs and between them and the state police, with the criminals often wearing military uniforms. Action was only taken when the federal government intervened, but now in addition to the arrest of local police officers there are Mexican migration officials who have been charged.12
The President insisted that they are working with the Biden administration for change in the entire system, and that their number one priority in this respect is the welfare of migrants. This is why Mexico previously closed its southern border to prevent the unchecked entry of migrants, granting them the option of applying for asylum in Mexico, and trying to ensure good treatment in camps on the southern border because the northern border is where they are in greatest danger. Mexico is also providing development assistance to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and urging the US to do the same so that citizens of these countries will not feel obliged to leave.
Another headline case is that of Mariana Sánchez Dávalos, a medical student doing social service in Ocosingo, Chiapas, who was raped and murdered in what seems like a classic case of femicide.13 Outrage from students and women’s organisations has been followed by an arrest and the resignation of a local official (the case is ongoing).
Also in the President’s morning press conference on 9 February a woman from Cancún identified herself as one of several female victims of repression by local police in an incident which occurred three months before (she had been shot in the leg and others were injured by police using live ammunition to suppress a peaceful demonstration); she said all their efforts to obtain justice had been ignored. AMLO responded that she would be received immediately by the Interior Secretary to deal with the matter.14
As the President insisted, all of these lamentable crimes are a product of the situation of social decay inherited from the previous neoliberal regime. His government is doing all it can to rectify the situation, but it will take time.
Political Corruption the Key Issue
The fundamental problem here, as AMLO never tires of explaining, is corruption: corruption of the justice system, of the police, of the military, of the civil servants and above all, of the politicians. Moreover – he insists – the problem started at the top, which is why it was so important to end the immunity from prosecution of former (and current) presidents and to pursue legal cases against former ministers or directors of public enterprises like PEMEX. The intention, by encouraging citizen complaints, whistle-blowing and investigation, is to document as many cases of corruption and/or violation of human rights as possible and to take legal action through a reinvigorated justice system.
This is also why AMLO does not share the liberal obsession with condemnation of the military as the main solution to the country’s problems. He is well aware that corruption had also penetrated the military and that some officers and units were responsible for brutal repression (and they like all delinquent officials should answer for their crimes), but in his view the root of the problem lies among civilians, above all politicians.
It was politicians – former President Felipe Calderón and his Security Chief García Luna – who ordered the brutal militarised War on Drugs which caused much innocent blood to be shed, and who authorised the illegal “Fast & Furious” intervention by armed US personnel. It was politicians – former President Enrique Peña Nieto with backing from his PRI party and the “opposition” PAN and PRD, apparently brought on side by having their palms generously greased – who pushed through the privatising Energy Reform which virtually destroyed PEMEX and the CFE and cost Mexico billions of dollars.
The solution in AMLO’s view is to make politicians accountable (ending immunity from prosecution and instituting the right of recall are steps in that direction). Reform of the justice system (including, again, preventing politicians from appointing or dismissing judges) and reform of the police and military are also essential: not as some NGOs would have it, by weakening these institutions or campaigning against them, but by reinforcing their community links, instilling a consciousness of their popular and patriotic roots, and providing training in human rights.
AMLO’s approach from the start has been to emphasise the revolutionary origins of the Mexican military, their roots in the working class and peasantry and the historical contribution of armed insurgency to the country’s development. The 4T Transformation is peaceful and democratic and repression of any kind is excluded, but the heroic struggle for independence and the early 20th-century uprising against the Díaz dictatorship and for social justice are key elements of the 4T ideology.
On several occasions AMLO has expressed his admiration for General Lázaro Cárdenas, a revolutionary who became president from 1934 to 1940 and who did more than any other president to distribute land to the peasants, who promoted workers’ rights and nationalised the oil in 1938. On 15 January this year AMLO visited the port on the Pacific coast named after Cárdenas, as part of the current plan to eliminate corruption in the customs administration and promote development of the port. He stressed Cárdenas’ contribution to the country’s infrastructure through hydroelectric dams, highways and ports.15
Then on 14 February AMLO organised a major symbolic gathering in the village of Cuilápam, Oaxaca, to commemorate the 190th anniversary of the execution of Vicente Guerrero, an Afro-Indigenous hero of the Independence struggle against Spain, hitherto rather neglected in the country’s historical iconography.16 In a short-lived presidency in 1829 Guerrero decreed the abolition of slavery and promoted public education and land reform before being overthrown by a conservative revolt and then executed.
The event was attended by the State Governors of Oaxaca and Guerrero (named after the valiant leader) and several other dignitaries including Martin Luther King III, son of the great US martyr of the Civil Rights movement. It would be difficult to find a more appropriate figure than Guerrero to symbolise AMLO’s intent.
David L. 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 [email protected] and on Twitter @DLRaby.
2 “CFE: poner fin al saqueo”, www.jornada.com.mx/2021/02/03/edito
3 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/02/09.
4 edition.cnn.com/2021/02/17/politics/texas-power-grid/index.html & edition.cnn.com/2021/02/18/weather/texas-winter-storm-thursday/index.html
5 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/01/29.
6 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/01/21.
7 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/01/25.
8 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/01/27.
10 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2020/12/31.
11 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/02/03.
12 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/02/11.
13 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/02/10.
14 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/02/09.
15 www.gob.mx/presidencia/ Conferencia de Prensa Matutina, 2021/01/15.
16 twitter.com/lopezobrador_/status/1361013988654391300, 2021/02/14, 190 Aniversario Luctuoso de Vicente Guerrero.