Strategy and tactics in Mexico’s transformation

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David Raby writes: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has shown remarkable skill in combining clear and decisive action with tactical subtlety and flexibility. 

AMLO’s political career and the composition and orientation of his MORENA party conform to what is normally considered the Left of the political spectrum. He made it clear from the start that his priority was to govern for and with the poor and marginalised, and that he was radically opposed to neoliberalism. But in his election campaign, and even more as President, he has tried to broaden his appeal and to present himself as leader of all Mexicans. His discourse which posits the main ideological division as between “Liberals” and “Conservatives” is disconcerting for the opposition, but also for many with radical, socialist or Marxist views. Similarly, his insistence that the real cause of poverty and inequality in Mexico is not so much capitalism as corruption may seem surprising to some, but even a cursory examination of the Mexican establishment (and the current opposition) makes it quite plausible.

National Tradition and Liberal Integrity

In common with many successful political leaders, AMLO has made national history and culture central to his discourse. Time and again he refers to the heroes of the Independence struggle against Spain such as Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, to the leader of the mid-19th-century Reform movement, Benito Juárez, to the great figures of the 1910-20 Revolution, Francisco Madero, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and others, and to Lázaro Cárdenas, the great 1930s president who nationalised petroleum and pushed through agrarian reform. He insists on the value of Mexico’s indigenous cultures, the ancient pre-conquest civilisations of Aztecs, Mayans and others, but also of the present-day native peoples who have been exploited and marginalised.

Mexico’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist traditions are fundamental: resistance against the Spanish Conquest and against colonial rule, against the French invasion and occupation of the 1860s, and against Yankee imperialism from the 1840s when Mexico lost more than half its territory, down to the various 20th-century interventions and threats.

AMLO does not identify these struggles with conventional left-wing or socialist ideology but rather with what he calls the Mexican Liberal tradition, best personified by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian who by talent and circumstance became president from 1858 to 1872 and led the disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church and the resistance against the French. For AMLO Juárez was the “best president Mexico ever had” for his honesty and integrity; he constantly quotes Juárez’ most famous dictums, “Respect for the Rights of Others is Peace” and “Nothing by Force, Everything by Reason and Law”.

His crucial political values are democracy, peace, dialogue and participation, along with the moral virtues of simplicity, modesty, integrity and respect. Priority must always be given to the poor and marginalised, and the wealthy must share and contribute to the general welfare, but they are not evil by definition: the enemy is not wealth as such but privilege.

There is much debate in Mexico and elsewhere as to how far this stance of AMLO is tactical and how far it is fundamental ideology or principle. What cannot be denied is that it is directly reflected in policy, so far with considerable success. The opposition has been completely wrong-footed by AMLO’s tactics. By insisting that the poor come first and launching a whole range of programmes to help them while simultaneously encouraging the private sector, he has outmanoeuvred the conservative establishment.

Much of the traditional left distrusts AMLO’s strategy which they see as pro-capitalist, but they must realise that a more conventional leftist or socialist approach with tax hikes and nationalisations would have led to even greater and more dangerous political polarisation. AMLO’s cautious but firm socio-economic policy combined with his insistence on respect for democratic rights and peaceful dissent has exposed the opposition sectors’ lack of popular support, leaving them angry, frustrated and divided. But this very frustration is now beginning to show in more open and aggressive hostility to the President.

No Corruption and a Level Playing-Field

A central component of AMLO’s socio-economic strategy has been the campaign against corruption. By ending government favouritism which had previously always protected certain favoured companies and individuals, by promoting impartial administration of justice and encouraging the courts to investigate and prosecute notorious corruption cases, AMLO has not only won popular support but also the grudging respect of many companies and investors who previously felt excluded and discriminated. The funds confiscated from those found guilty of corruption are invested in social programmes, and amount to billions of dollars.

The insistence on a level playing field has also allowed AMLO to insist that all companies, both domestic and foreign, pay their taxes: no favouritism, no corrupt officials requesting bribes or kickbacks, no tax hikes, but an expectation that all must obey the law and pay their dues. This has also produced impressive results, with several major corporations which used to seek tax breaks (as they do in many countries) agreeing to pay the full amount to the Secretaría de Hacienda, the Finance Ministry. A prominent recent case was Walmart which announced a back payment of 8 billion pesos (about $350 million US).1

The emphasis on fairness and transparency has also allowed the President to strengthen the public sector without actual nationalisations. Thus in electric power generation and distribution he has annulled lucrative and costly contracts gained through favouritism and corruption by certain companies such as Spain’s Iberdrola, and used the funds for much needed investment in the Federal Electricity Commission.

The same approach has been adopted for the oil industry with a systematic recovery plan for PEMEX, the national petroleum company. Over the last three decades lack of public investment and a fire-sale of the company’s assets had reduced it to a minor international role and had virtually destroyed the country’s refineries and petrochemical industry. Under AMLO the six existing refineries are being restored and a new one built at Dos Bocas, Tabasco to end the absurdity of Mexico exporting crude oil and importing refined petrol. The aim is no longer primarily to export but to have an efficient industry serving national needs.

This strategy of strengthening public investment while working with the private sector is also evident in AMLO’s major railway projects: the Mayan Train, the Trans-Isthmian Railway and new suburban lines around Mexico City and Guadalajara. The Mayan Train will revolutionise transport in the poor and neglected southeastern region, with an extensive loop from Tabasco through Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo states.

Controversial with environmentalists, the fact is that it will provide a much more ecologically-friendly alternative for goods and passengers who at present can only travel by road or air. It follows the route of a disused former line, the Ferrocarril del Sureste, one of the emblematic projects begun by the great reforming president Lázaro Cárdenas in the late 1930s ; the new track therefore has minimal environmental impact, as well as generating tens of thousands of jobs.

Investment in infrastructure projects combining public and private enterprise was part of the 4T from the beginning, but with the economic crisis it has become even more relevant. Significantly it does not involve deficit financing, all the more surprising since conservative governments all around the world have suddenly thrown the austerity rulebook overboard and assumed massive new debts to avoid total economic collapse. AMLO insists time and again that he will not impose a debt burden on future generations; without doubt one of his main concerns here is to avoid falling into the clutches of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The Military and the Transformation

Another key element of AMLO’s discourse and practice which has caused unease and incomprehension on much of the left is his close alliance with the military, including the creation of a new public security force, the National Guard, to replace the old corrupt Federal Police.

The military are central actors in AMLO’s public works programme, with military engineers prominent in the construction of the railways, the Dos Bocas oil refinery and the new Mexico City airport at Santa Lucía (which replaces the much more expensive airport planned by the previous government). Not only this, but military and naval hospitals have been very active along with civilian health institutions in the fight against the pandemic, and the military have helped provide resources for the public health system as a whole.

Why this intimate relationship with the Armed Forces, coming from a man and a party with no such tradition? The answer surely is that AMLO and his team understood from the beginning that no serious transformation is possible in any country without the support, or at least the collaboration, of the military. Moreover the President’s insistence on defence of Mexican sovereignty and self-determination would be meaningless without control of the legitimate means of force.

Although the Mexican military has a chequered history with real problems of corruption and human rights abuses, their defects have been less pronounced than those of the various police forces. Moreover, the present Armed Forces had their origin in the popular Revolution of 1910-20, and Mexico is one of a small minority of Latin American countries where access to the officer corps is not restricted to elite social sectors. Thus AMLO has been able to build on the military’s popular, nationalist and revolutionary background to win their support for the 4T and foster their identification with the common people.

AMLO does everything possible to emphasise the revolutionary and popular roots of the military. On May 21st 2020 he made a point of commemorating the centenary of the assassination of Venustiano Carranza, a civilian who led the triumphant Constitutionalist movement during the revolution and who as president was formally responsible for the re-foundation of the Mexican Army, uniting most of the insurgent forces to become the official Armed Forces of the new Mexican State under the 1917 Constitution.2

In AMLO’s view the potential contribution of the Armed Forces was neglected by previous governments, and the best approach to the intractable problem of public security was to combine military discipline with systematic training in human rights and social consciousness.3 Without doubt this has begun to produce positive results: a poll carried out by Reforma newspaper showed that whereas in December 2018 when AMLO took office, 95% were opposed to the participation of the military in public security, by May 2020 68% were in favour.4

The Opposition Offensive

Mexico, like the US, has a federal constitution which gives considerable autonomy to the 32 States. The ineffectiveness of the opposition at national level led conservative forces to concentrate their efforts behind a group of old-guard State Governors, led by Enrique Alfaro of Jalisco. With its capital Guadalajara being the country’s second city, Jalisco has a history of rivalry with Mexico City, and Alfaro has played on this to stake out a position of hostility to the 4T. In recent months he has used the pandemic to oppose AMLO’s policy of voluntary adherence to quarantine rules, imposing a hard-line policy requiring municipalities to use fines and summary arrests to enforce lockdown.

Early in June this hard-line approach led to serious unrest when municipal police in a Guadalajara suburb arrested a young man, supposedly for not wearing a face mask, and he subsequently appeared dead. Popular protests over this turned violent, and Governor Alfaro tried to blame AMLO and the MORENA party for the violence. AMLO quite correctly denied any involvement and warned Alfaro not to make baseless accusations, while reiterating his desire for good relations with the Governor.5 Independent sources suggest that the violence may well have been caused by provocation on the part of Jalisco State agents who are also accused of arbitrary seizure and temporary disappearance (in effect kidnapping) of several young demonstrators;6 the President is undoubtedly aware of this but has no interest in an open rupture with the Governor.

Growing efforts to organise an effective opposition offensive against the 4T surfaced on June 9th with the revelation by AMLO himself of a document he had received purporting to be the proclamation of a Bloque Opositor Amplio (BOA), a Broad Opposition Bloc).7 It called on all opposition parties to unite and was apparently signed by a large number of well-known establishment politicians and intellectuals. What was very striking was that over the next few days almost all of them denied any knowledge of the document, but everything indicates that it is essentially true and that the BOA does exist, at least as a project which may or may not come to fruition depending on opposition rivalries and divisions.

The opposition Governors have now raised the stakes by issuing a public declaration calling on the President to change course completely in relation to the economic crisis. On June 20th the Governors of eight Northern and Western States (Coahuila, Colima, Durango, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas) called on AMLO to postpone his public works schemes such as the Mayan Train, the new oil refinery and the new airport and grant more funding to states and municipalities.8 They declared that all means, including debt and recourse to international agencies, should be used to reactivate the economy; in other words, a return to a purely conventional strategy.

As always, AMLO’s reaction to all of this has been cautious; he has not made any public response to the Governors’ declaration. On the Jalisco situation he stated that he had no quarrel with Governor Alfaro, although he did say that any cases of human rights abuses in the State should be reported to the National Human Rights Commission and the Fiscalía (Public Prosecutor’s Office). When questioned on such matters, sometimes by indignant supporters who want him to respond more forcefully, he points out that there are elections for Governors coming up next year and the aggressive stance of some incumbents is just electioneering.

The President undoubtedly realises that the underlying problem is much more serious. Conscious of their political failure hitherto, opposition leaders are taking a leaf from the manual of similar movements elsewhere in Latin America (Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua), and trying to create disorder and chaos which they can then blame on the Government. The presence of organised crime is a complicating factor: the most active narcotics gang at present is the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación which plagues that state as well as Michoacán and Colima, and the state with the highest murder rate is Guanajuato.

The gravity of this problem hit home on June 16th when a young federal judge, Uriel Villegas Ortiz and his wife were murdered by a group of armed men at their home in Colima. Uriel Villegas had sentenced gang members including Menchito, the son of the Jalisco Nueva Generación boss. The news dominated AMLO’s press conference the next morning; the Interior Minister lamented the death of the judge whom she knew personally, while the President declared the struggle against organised crime to be “a matter of State”.9

Then on June 20th a joint operation by the Army, the National Guard and State forces in Guanajuato led to violent resistance by another cartel, with three dead, several injured and widespread destruction. In his press conference on June 22nd AMLO pointed out that Guanajuato accounts for 15 to 20% of all homicides in Mexico (with only 5% of the population).10 He has since said that federal intervention in the State had been planned for four months and was necessary, whatever the position of Governor Sinhué (of the right-wing PAN party).11

Organised Crime and Politics

In what is looking more and more like an systematic offensive by organised crime (with political overtones), on the morning of June 26th the head of Public Security in the Mexico City Governor’s administration, Omar García Harfuch, was subject to an attempted assassination in the capital. Shortly after he left home in an armoured vehicle the car was attacked by a gang of heavily-armed men; two of his security officers were killed but he himself only received minor wounds. Authorities declared that the assault was the work of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación; several of the assailants were captured and over the next few days there were several more arrests and vehicles, arms and other goods were seized by authorities in houses around the capital.12

Alarming as this attack in the heart of the capital may seem, it is significant that the intended victim escaped almost unscathed and that the authorities were able to capture a large number of the assailants and other suspects with minimal use of force. In a special public statement on June 27th AMLO spoke of his determination to continue the campaign for peace and security, and stressed that intelligence was central to the government’s approach.13 This is a crucial difference with previous governments which tended to rely on spectacular police operations with large-scale bloodshed.

Organised crime is an inherited phenomenon with deep roots, and AMLO correctly points out its intimate connections with corruption which he regards as the country’s greatest problem. But what is more serious, indeed explosive, is the growing evidence of close ties between organised crime and the old political establishment, and hence with leading figures of the current opposition.

Former President Felipe Calderón (2006-12) of the PAN (National Action Party), prominent in recent media attacks on AMLO, is widely suspected of such ties, and his Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, is now on trial in the US accused of having allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to operate with impunity in return for multi-million dollar bribes. This case is linked to another very serious matter, “Fast & Furious”: a secret operation carried out in 2009 by the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives of the US Department of Justice) which appears to have violated Mexico’s sovereignty.14 The growing evidence that Calderón may have authorised this as well as García Luna’s corruption means that he is now in real legal peril in Mexico.15

AMLO has avoided direct accusations on these matters, preferring to let the legal process in both the US and Mexico run its course. But he insists that “The law must be applied equally…There can be no agreements with organised crime…no complicity”.16 He has also taken the opportunity to reassert Mexico’s unflinching determination to defend its sovereignty: when the “Fast and Furious” issue hit the headlines, he asked his Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard to send a diplomatic note to Washington requesting clarification, and declared categorically: “This is very serious, and never again will we permit the violation of our sovereignty”.17

Not surprisingly, a central aspect of the opposition offensive is the media. The main TV channels and most radio stations are overwhelmingly anti-AMLO, and the establishment newspapers such as El Universal and Excelsior likewise; they are now accompanied by Reforma, a liberal daily founded in the 1990s which is now often the most hostile to the 4T Transformation, and also, sadly, by Proceso, a weekly news magazine with a leftist tradition but which is now more and more a vehicle for anti-government views. The only prestigious paper which is still balanced and reliable is La Jornada.

The President insists nevertheless on his absolute respect for freedom of speech and repeats frequently that he will never apply censorship. He praises the social media, and his own daily Mañaneras which have over 7 million followers on Twitter are a valuable instrument in promoting the 4T. But the opposition of course makes use of social media, with ex-President Calderón being extremely active and many “bots” spreading distortions and outright lies.

In recent weeks opposition journalists such as Carlos Loret de Mola, an influential journalist who appears regularly on the Televisa TV channel, runs an online journal called Latinus and also writes for El Universal and the Washington Post, have become very outspoken in attacks on AMLO and the 4T; and Loret de Mola specifically has launched a campaign against the Secretary of Public Administration in AMLO’s cabinet, Irma Eréndira Sandoval, and her husband John M Ackerman, an intellectual and journalist who holds joint Mexican and US citizenship and has a prominent media presence with regular broadcasts on the UNAM (National University) TV channel and 800,000 followers on Twitter. Loret has made serious allegations of financial wrongdoing against the Sandoval-Ackerman family and they are taking him to court for libel in both Mexico and the US.

But what is striking here is that this has unleashed a vicious campaign against the couple on social media, and similar hysterical attacks on other progressive journalists are now multiplying. It looks as if Mexico is the latest scenario of the weaponisation of the media by the extreme right which plagues many countries in our dystopian era: all the more important, then, to combat lies and distortions and to disseminate the good news about Mexico’s Transformation.

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 david.raby@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @DLRaby.

3 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 14/05/2020, accessed 23/06/2020.

4 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 20/05/2020, accessed 23/06/2020.

5 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 05/06/2020.

7 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 09/06/2020 & 10/06/2020, accessed 24/06/2020.

8 noticiaszmg.com/zmg34395.htm, accessed 21/06/2020.

9 www.jornada.com.mx/ultimas/politica/2020/06/17/asesina-comando-en-colima-al-juez-uriel-villegas-y-a-su-esposa, accessed 23/06/2020; and Conferencia de prensa matutina, 17/06/2020, accessed 23/06/2020.

10 www.jornada.com.mx/ultimas/estados/2020/06/21/tras-enfrentamientos-en-celaya-el-marro-amaga-con-mas-violencia, accessed 23/06/2020; & Conferencia de prensa matutina, 22/06/2020, accessed 23/06/2020.

11 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 25/06/2020, accessed 26/06/2020.

14 cuartanoticia.com/2020/05/21/rapido-y-furioso-y-ii, accessed 24/06/2020, and Jorge Carrillo Olea, “Del affaire Calderón”, www.jornada.com.mx/2020/05/15/opinion/019a1pol, accessed 24/06/2020.

15 politica.expansion.mx/mexico/2019/12/10/quien-es-genaro-garcia-luna, accessed 24/06/20; and Conferencia de prensa matutina, 04/05/2020, 05/05/2020, 08/05/2020 & 08/06/2020.

16 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 08/06/2020, accessed 24/06/2020.

17 Conferencia de prensa matutina, 08/05/2020 & 11/05/2020.

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