December 12, 2019 Print

Luis Rubio's book launch for Unmasked: López Obrador and the End of Make-Believe hosted by The Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.

“The reality of a Mexican in the face of power is reminiscent of the famous exchange between former Argentinian president Carlos Menem and the mother of singer Facundo Cabral: reportedly, Menem warmly greeted the singer’s mother with pleasantries: “Madam, I am a great admirer of your son. Please tell me if there is anything I can do for you.” After a brief silence, the mother allegedly replied, “Not screwing me would suffice.”

—Luis Rubio, Unmasked: López Obrador and the End of Make-Believe

Whoever holds the reins of political power often determines the narrative that drives public policy change. In Unmasked: López Obrador and the End of Make-Believe, Luis Rubio of Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute takes on the problems of corruption, insecurity, violence, and economic instability that have plagued Mexican politics for decades and emerges with a hopeful set of alternatives that could impact the country’s future. 

A Global Fellow with the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, chairman of the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC), and author of forty-eight books, Unmasked makes the case that Mexico’s repeated failures to introduce inclusive structural reforms were at the root of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s success in the 2018 election. In Mexico, politics has always superseded economic concerns; the party in power has acted to preserve a tight grip on the country through (often broken) promises and a piecemeal approach to progress that has actively favored the wealthy. The country’s inflexible bureaucracy has never prioritized upward mobility—and as a result, millions of Mexicans left behind have felt increasingly marginalized, a condition that the charismatic López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, was able to turn to his advantage. During the campaign, AMLO’s populist approach made those who believed themselves to be victims of a lopsided system feel that they were finally being heard by the candidate’s sympathetic ear. Rubio calls it a “quasireligious fervor that generates not followers but believers,” and notes that this almost-messianic style of leadership has put a public spotlight on the weaknesses of Mexico’s classist society. 

Income disparity in Mexico has been skillfully exploited by AMLO. Rubio points to the example of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which became the main driver of growth in the Mexican economy in the 1990s. In Canada, the government acted to help all business owners understand the benefits of free trade and competition in a healthy economy—and small businesses thrived. Mexico ignored business-friendly reforms, and those who profited from the change were people who were already wealthy. Again, what could have been an opportunity to reinforce the benefits enjoyed by a prosperous middle class never took flight. 

In addressing “what is to be done?”—a title not lost on the author, Rubio is adamant that creating a new Mexican paradigm that is predicated on an institutional structure that guarantees equal access for all under the rule of law must come first. Mexico’s political history is rooted in the concentration of power that, once held, is not willingly relinquished. As Rubio notes, social programs, like those promised by AMLO and his Morena party, win votes but do not solve the root causes of poverty. Mexicans are legendarily wary of government institutions, so using his office to build trust in government will help AMLO solve problems rather than just being another corrupt politician who thrives on breaking his word. Fighting inequality, increasing productivity, and enforcing the rule of law will help achieve the prosperity that all Mexicans crave. 

Unmasked: López Obrador and the End of Make-Believe by Luis Rubio is available in PDF format.