Free Societies

AMLO—is Mexico headed back toward the road to serfdom?

Editorial credit: Javier Garcia /
Roberto Salinas Leon

Roberto Salinas León | Director, Center for Latin America

On Dec. 1, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, will become the next President of Mexico for the six-year term of 2018-2024. His stunning victory represents a watershed moment in the nation’s transition to a modern democracy. AMLO won with almost 53 percent of the popular vote; and his party, Morena, was able to capture majorities in both legislative houses, in addition to securing control over a large handful of state governorships and state assemblies.

He is, in short, set to become a leader with massive “super-presidential” powers, with the political basis to change constitutional law and effect major policy changes—virtually at will. To critics, the re-emergence of a new hegemonic party structure is the equivalent of a “re-loaded” version of what Mario Vargas Llosa famously denounced as a “perfect dictatorship.” To adherents, AMLO’s stunning ascent constitutes a national verdict against the abuse of political privilege, cronyism, and endemic corruption across all of Mexico.

AMLO’s messages during the first days as president-elect have been met with welcome, if cautious, enthusiasm. His future cabinet appointees have promised a form of governance consistent with the principles of fiscal austerity, open trade, and collaboration with the private sector. The peso has appreciated against the U.S. dollar by a margin of 10 percent, against all odds; and financial markets seem to have discounted the so-called AMLO effect, seeing the latter as more akin to Lula’s progressive pragmatism in Brazil, than Chavez’s utopian conceit to erect a Bolivarian socialist revolution. AMLO’s willingness to participate in the last stages of the NAFTA renegotiations, and to stand tall in favor of greater trade integration on all borders, has also impressed the economic and financial establishment.

His incoming chief of staff, Alfonso Romo, a well-known businessman (although with skeletons in his crony closet of his own) from the prosperous northern state of Nuevo León has even proudly asserted that the AMLO administration will “respect rights to property as an inherent human right.” AMLO is fond of citing his hero, Benito Juárez, Mexico’s great leader of the 19th century, who is famous for his liberal lore “el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (respect for the rights of others is peace).

His latest aim is to transform Mexico into a country similar to Sweden, Norway, Denmark or New Zealand—examples of transparency, productivity, with virtually no corruption, and with a firm commitment to “combatting inequality” (whatever that means).

This image of AMLO constitutes a clear attempt to distance his political persona from the archetype of a typical 21st century populist, an authoritarian tropical messiah (as historian Enrique Krauze aptly dubbed him) who is the self-proclaimed incarnation of the popular will and who enjoys privileged access to the truth.

Yet, his historical record tells a very different story—one characterized by intolerance and demagoguery. In 2006, shortly after he lost the presidential elections (by a narrow margin, of 0.6 percent), he proceeded to sequester Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue, paralyzing all activity in the area for over two months, in protest of fraud by the “mafia in power.” A few months later, he inveighed against the very idea of the rule of law, angrily claiming “to hell with institutions.” His attitude toward dissent is dismissive, typical of populist zealotry: agreement is met with nationalist celebration, whereas disagreement is branded as hiding a vested interest, or being part of an identity group whose aim is to exploit “the poor.” The topic of discussion does not matter: electoral polls, public finance, the energy sector, governance and the rule of law, even crime and corruption. If you dare to disagree, you are not merely adhering to a falsehood; you are also committing an act of treason.

(This attitude of either-you-are-with-me or you-are-against-me, incidentally, seems to be just the other side of the coin shared by his counterpart in Washington.)

Still, it is significant that in AMLO’s effort to temper his messianic impulse, he has been able to win cautious praise from leading intellectual voices. Mario Vargas Llosa, the great anti-populist, was clear (if careful) in his declaration just days after AMLO’s electoral triumph: “we hope López Obrador is a successful and (classical) liberal President.”

Time will tell whether AMLO’s administration is a first step toward a road to serfdom. It is arguably safer to claim that his intolerant and illiberal temperament represents a serious obstacle toward addressing Mexico’s set of political and economic problems, as well as to the broader aim to progress toward an open society. Indeed, beyond the facade of “moderation” lies a series of genuinely worrisome concerns.

For instance, consider the implications of his party, and the movement he led during the electoral contest. Both are telling cases of this illiberalism. Morena stands for Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional, namely, movement of national regeneration. And his political constituency, Juntos Haremos Historia, embodies a historicist dimension, reminiscent of Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “the aim is not to interpret history, but to change it.” Not surprisingly, AMLO has described his broad political project as, alas, Mexico’s Fourth Transformation.

The re-birth of a nation, the transformation of popular sovereignty for the benefit of all, a transcendental change from an unjust and corrupt-ridden past to a new society governed by a moral leader destined to impart equality, justice, and goodness. A savior, and a saint. It is unsurprising, therefore, that one of AMLO’s chief priorities involves the construction and approval of what he calls a “moral constitution”—an ethical set of national rules that will focus on both material progress as well as the “well-being of citizens’ souls.”

Such fatal conceit contrasts with the moderate pragmatism exhibited in recent claims. As prominent intellectual Isabel Turrent has stated, the uncertainty governing AMLO’s future administration is derived from a problem of multiple personalities—the “many faces” of AMLO, so to speak. He is a master political operator one moment, able to strike alliances with anyone and everyone, ranging from questionable business personalities (Romo) to rabid Naomi Klein-like figures such as critic Paco Taibo II (who stated that all neo-liberal reformers should be “executed” as traitors to the nation). He can then switch faces to a kinder, gentler leader, whose moral purity will cleanse all political souls—including notoriously corrupt figures such as the perpetual head of the teachers’ union (Elba Esther Gordillo, recently released from jail) or Manuel Bartlett (the architect of the 1988 election fraud, now appointed head of the Federal Electric Commission). There is also the angry, resentful AMLO, who has used old Leninist rhetoric of class warfare to breed a politics of hate and prodded the clash of identities between the yuppie privileged and the rest of Mexico.

Which AMLO will govern Mexico in the next six years? All faces generate uncertainty; and all represent a threat to the idea of a free and open society. There is a nostalgia that is present in AMLO’s policy platform, a certain yearning for a past when the imperial polity imposed law and order via a patrimonial arrangement with syndicates, governors, private sector leaders, and the media. His list of promises, like his party membership, admits a bit of everything and anything. AMLO has promised to revise all new energy contracts made after the landmark energy liberalization of 2013; but he has also promised to revitalize the state-owned enterprise PEMEX, building a new refinery, and re-structuring six others. No cost-benefit analysis has been presented, which seems essential in light of the exorbitant cost this initiative will entail.

Add to this a doubling of pensions for all retirees; or, the immediate decentralization of all ministries from Baja California to the Riviera Maya; or, firing of 70 percent of the workforce in federal bureaucracy; or, the immediate transition to agricultural self-sufficiency; or, fresh subsidies to lower gasoline and electricity prices, as well as to forgive past due bills; or, the cancelation of the multi-billion dollar airport now in the midst of development for Mexico City, and reconstruction of another airport, at another location. The list goes on and on…

The fiscal math involved in this gamut of fantasies is an irrelevant datum. For, such is the will of an all-mighty caudillo with a national mandate. This is not a government for the people; it is a government of AMLO. If such massive round of federal expenditures carries a large opportunity cost, or if they entail either higher taxes or a greater load of public debt, so be it. L'état, c'est moi.

The proposed experiment of a moral constitution to improve the health of our souls is the greatest source of concern. It almost seems as if AMLO pictures himself as a modern St. Benedict that, a la Macintyre, arrives by the destiny of popular will, able to save us from the barbarians that have governed society, and transform all citizens into new paradigms of civil virtue, in accordance with a pre-conceived design of what constitutes the good life. What comes next? Committees for Ethical Verification?

In this, one is unavoidably reminded of Doug Bandow’s quip against latter-day compassionate conservatives: government may be good at some things — Bandow drolly offered as examples: raising tax rates or killing people — but it should simply stay out of the business of shaping souls.

At bottom, López Obrador is an example of the warnings expressed by Raymond Aron in the last century—a potentially dangerous law in democratic systems is that, in admitting all comers as political contestants, it opens the door to anti-democratic demagogues bent on imposing their will. Turrent herself expresses a deep concern about the concentration of power in a new mono-political figure, with a propensity to impose a policy model that is “statist, protectionist, of a central planning type, against the law of supply and demand, or the law of comparative advantage—a model that has never worked, anywhere, at any time.”

True enough. Yet, one must hope Mexico can withstand an inexorable authoritarianism of the populist AMLO of old. The electoral result of July 1, 2018, one must also hope, is more a wholesale repudiation of a vicious circle of cronyism and corruption, than a democratic mandate to “regenerate” the nation, still less to cleanse our civic ethics. Such hopes are grounded in the areas of progress attained in Mexico in the past quarter century, including greater competition, price stability, and trade integration. And, hope is also grounded when we see how other Latin American countries have shied away from the road to serfdom, or, contrariwise, when we see countries like Venezuela tragically imploding amid a miserable experiment with 21st century central planning.

If this hope is to remain real, however, it entails understanding the very significance and defending the precise consequences of Benito Juárez’s famous idea: Entre los individuos, como entre las Naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz…Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.