The new Mexican sexenio—the six-year presidential term mandated by Article 83 of the Mexican Constitution—officially began on December 1st. In front of nearly 4,000 attendees, among them 20 Heads of State, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)—former Mexico City mayor and three-time presidential candidate—was sworn in as Mexico’s first leftist president at the San Lázaro building, house to Congress, where AMLO’s MORENA party holds a comfortable majority. Almost 3 miles away from San Lázaro, a crowd of approximately 160,000 people gathered at Mexico City’s downtown plaza to witness a peaceful transition of power, with millions more tuning in through radio, TV and social media.
As expected, President AMLO’s first address to the nation focused primarily on his campaign promise to end corruption and impunity, which he promises will result in “la cuarta transformación,” or fourth transformation, a new era that, just like independence from Spain, the 1858-1861 reform and the 1910 Mexican Revolution, will completely transform Mexico and shift power back to the hands of the people. But unlike his July 1st conciliatory victory speech, this first address was full of mixed and contradictory messages of hope, direct attacks on previous administrations, and other unspoken hints, casting even more doubt over how AMLO will rule the country over the next six years.
Security and peace-building
AMLO vowed to establish a new political regime uprooting corruption and impunity, but with a policy of amnesty. He promised to forgive past corrupt practices and officials, and rethink the role of the Armed Forces.
A longtime critic of former President Felipe Calderon’s failed war on drugs—a strategy also executed by the Enrique Peña Nieto administration—AMLO promised to remove the army from the streets and shift violence and insecurity policy to address the root causes of corruption, underdevelopment and underemployment. But rather than rethink the role of the Armed Forces, AMLO’s National Peace and Security Plan—announced a week prior to the inauguration and addressed in detail in his first official speech—will continue assigning public security tasks to the military, contrary to his campaign promise and against international recommendations of removing the army from the streets.
AMLO also reiterated his willingness to start all over and avoid a witch-hunt against officials who have been guilty of corruption in the past in favor of a policy of forgiving, moving on and working to prevent future venality from occurring.
As he said these words, AMLO was interrupted by members of Congress—and joined by the public outside—that shouted in unison numbers 1 to 43, as a tribute to the 43 Ayotzinapa victims. To his credit, two days later the new president did enact a Truth Commission, integrated by the victims’ families, government officials and international observers, to solve the case of the 43 disappeared students, a good sign that will hopefully lead to answers to one of Mexico’s most painful episodes. But with the president’s new forgiveness approach to justice, a solution to numerous other cases of corruption will come no time soon or, worse, become a forgotten matter.
Economic growth and investment
For AMLO, economic policy comes down to his famous phrase, “por el bien de todos, primero los pobres” (for the good of all, the poor come first). Since contending for the presidency for the first time in 2006, and in his many travels across the country since, AMLO has called out social and economic inequality, a legitimate claim in one of Latin America’s most unequal countries. And just as on the campaign trail, in San Lázaro AMLO promised to defeat poverty and inequality and to reactivate the economy, reversing the neoliberal economic model, while at the same time functioning under an austere federal budget.
The problem? The numbers don’t add up.
AMLO’s rejection of neoliberalism is not new. In his book, La Salida, he provides an analysis on the performance of the neo-liberal model in Mexico for the last three decades, a policy he claims is the most inefficient in modern history. A great portion of his inauguration day speech was dedicated to blaming neoliberalism for poor economic growth, insufficient levels of oil and energy production, the concentration of income in the hands of a few (I’ll give him that), the increase in the public debt, migration, and even chronic diseases like diabetes, among many other supposed neo-liberal maladies that in his view, didn’t exist prior to the eighties. Given his public statements against the reforms approved under the Mexico Pact in Peña Nieto’s administration—the now former president was notably uncomfortable during the speech—we can be sure that, at the very least, a partial dismantling of neo-liberal policies will be set in motion.
With a majority in Congress, AMLO will easily first target the education and energy reform he so fiercely advocated against in the past. We’ve already seen some action in that ground, with the cancellation of the 13 billion Texcoco airport, backed by minimum public support through an irregular referendum (less than 1 million people cast their vote in favor), undermining investor faith and pushing the Mexican peso to a four-month low.
In addition, AMLO is convinced that a combined strategy of redirecting the funds saved by eliminating corruption, slashing public officers’ salaries, selling the presidential airplane, and reducing government publicity spending will supply enough resources to fulfill his 100-point government plan, boost development, finance infrastructure, and reinvigorate the electric and oil industry, all without raising taxes or gas prices above inflation.
AMLO needs around $34 billion to cover 14 of his biggest projects, plus bond repayments to cover debt issued to fund the cancelled airport, that the president expects will come from the 2019 budget to be presented December 15. But AMLO will soon have to deliver a realistic answer as to how and when these savings will start flowing. The Mexican people and AMLO’s ambitions will likely need more when the charm of a populist president traveling on commercial flights, or the novelty of irregular referendums, wears out.
During his campaign, AMLO spoke little about foreign policy. After the July 1st election, both AMLO and then Foreign Secretary-designate Marcelo Ebrard repeatedly stated that, once in office, Mexican foreign policy would adopt a stance of non-interventionism. On December 1st, AMLO publicly reaffirmed that Mexico will adhere to principles of non-intervention, self-determination of peoples, peaceful settlement of disputes and cooperation for development. Both AMLO and Ebrard have quickly reached out to neighbors, allies and foes in the Hemisphere.
Contrary to an expected rough start given both Donald Trump and AMLO’s confrontational styles, communication among the two leaders has been positive and regular, as demonstrated by the warm welcome AMLO’s transition team received at the USMCA negotiating table. And during his inaugural speech, the first foreign delegation AMLO addressed was that of the United States, thanking Vice President Mike Pence, Second Lady Karen Pence and First Daughter Ivanka Trump, who attended in place of President Trump. In fact, Ivanka was seated between AMLO’s wife Beatriz Gutierrez Müeller (she’s asked not to be called First Lady) and Claudia Sheinbaum, sworn in as the first woman Mayor of Mexico City last Wednesday. Barely a day after the inauguration, Foreign Secretary-Designate Ebard flew to Washington, D.C. to meet State Secretary Mike Pompeo and discuss, among other topics, migration and the Central American caravan.
AMLO directed subsequent “thank you for coming” messages to his Latin American counterparts, starting with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And, right after the inauguration ceremony ended, the four countries announced, through a joint declaration, their intention to work on a Comprehensive Development Plan to tackle migration and development. The plan includes asking Canada and the U.S. to pitch in funds to finance programs and projects to target poverty, foster employment and curb migration.
Judging by these messages and actions, President AMLO and his (now Senate-ratified) Secretary are ensuring quick wins ahead of big foreign policy tests ahead: finding a common solution to the accumulated and new asylum petitions by the 8,000 people caravan stationed in Tijuana, guaranteeing the ratification of USMCA, and avoiding as much as possible a 2020 campaign-mode President Trump, who will most certainly take an aggressive stance against Mexico again.
Yet, under the idea of maintaining friendly relations will all governments and peoples of the world, AMLO has hinted toward a dangerous rapprochement with dictatorial regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Nicolas Maduro’s attendance at AMLO’s inauguration triggered a heated public debate over whether he should be welcomed into the country, and raised questions about the administration’s future stance on the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and Mexico’s participation in the Grupo de Lima. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega failed to attend the full day inauguration and Maduro missed the ceremony in San Lázaro, but even so, AMLO thanked Maduro for his attendance during his speech, triggering a protest from legislators—mainly from the PAN party—that chanted “dictator, dictator” for a few seconds and displayed a banner with the inscription “Maduro, you are not welcome.”
Maduro did show up at a private reception following the swearing in ceremony, but perhaps in an effort to avoid even more public outcry, the Mexican Foreign Ministry tweeted pictures with all international leaders and heads of state but one—Maduro. From the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry’s Twitter, we know an official picture was taken, and although this is no guarantee that AMLO will develop stronger ties with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “Troika of Tyranny,” the U.S. administration will certainly be turning a wary eye to its neighbor at the South.
It was always clear—both to Mexicans and foreign analysts closely following the elections—that AMLO in power meant not only a change in government, but a political regime change. Considering the levels of corruption, poverty, violence and insecurity that have dragged the country into a state of public despair, a profound and radical change is most welcome.
But as the inauguration date drew near and AMLO started switching gears, uncertainty grew larger as to how Mexico’s new president will see out his term free of corruption and rid of impunity. After his inauguration speech, and especially as he appoints close allies to strategic posts (the latest being nominations to the Supreme Court), AMLO’s “fourth transformation” is looking more like a shift in power to the hands of a few new faces—but with little clear policy framework or guidance.