Mexico First?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a 2012 rally. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@ProtoplasmaKid

The upcoming Mexican presidential election will be fought over economic reasons, and putting "Mexico first" will be front and center.

Mexico is the third largest trade partner of the United States, the location of considerable foreign direct investment and is closely linked with its North American neighbors economically through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With the election of Donald Trump, the nature of U.S.-Mexican relations has become highly uncertain, as the new U.S. leader has signaled that NAFTA is up for renegotiation, that U.S. jobs will not be lost to its southern neighbor and that tighter border security will be imposed. One consequence of Donald Trump’s “America first” campaign is that the U.S. president could find himself after the 2018 Mexican elections looking face-to-face with another blunt-talking nationalistic populist, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or Amlo as he is popularly known.

Lopez Obrador is the sixty-three-year-old founder of the leftist Moreana Party (the Movement for National Regeneration). He was a successful mayor of the nation’s capital, Mexico City (2000-2005), and has run for the presidency twice before (2006 and 2012). In 2006 he was only narrowly defeated.

Although the country’s two major parties, the centrist PRI (Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) and conservative PAN (National Action Party) have yet to select their candidates, Lopez Obrador is already campaigning across Mexico. His platform promises to clean up the country’s corruption, clear out the political establishment (who he calls the “Mafia of power”), provide better pensions to the elderly, create jobs and launch a massive new infrastructure program. Like Trump, Lopez Obrador promises to listen to the people and offers change from business as usual.     

Mexico has a long tradition of populist leaders. In many regards, the Mexican Revolution was born of populist currents that sought to use the state’s resources to benefit the majority of the population, many of which were originally outside of the political system. Mexican populism also includes elements of nationalism, such as using Mexican capital and controlling national assets, and corporatism, which seeks to build up labor, farmer, middle class and even business associations and integrate them into the state.

One of Mexico’s most famous populists was Lazaro Cardenas, who fought in the revolution and went on to become president. In 1938 he nationalized the country’s oil industry, which had long-standing consequences as the oil company, Pemex, remains state-owned.

The ruling PRI forcefully moved away from populism during the 1980s as more market-oriented leaders assumed control in the midst of a major economic and debt crisis. The more technocratic faction that rose under the de la Madrid, Salinas de Gortari and Zedillo administrations reshaped the economy to make it more internationally competitive. However, the populist current remained in Mexican politics, with part of the PRI’s left wing splitting off in 1988 and rallying around Cardenas’ son, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who was only narrowly defeated at the polls for the presidency by the official PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Lopez Obrador is clearly a part of Mexico’s populist tradition, in some respects a political heir to Cardenas. 

Another important factor at work is that the current PRI government is discredited in the eyes of the public. President Enrique Pena Nieto, who began with considerable promise in December 2012, is now seen by many Mexicans as presiding over a corrupt, uncaring and inept government. While the first two years were good for Pena Nieto in that he introduced important economic reforms and reduced the body count associated with the country’s drug wars, the following period has been problematic. Economic growth struggled to remain above 2 percent, the oil industry hit a major slump in 2014 and only now is emerging and violence is again on the rise.

The government was also embarrassed by the escape of Mexico drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman from a federal prison, the Ayotzinapa incident (the disappearance and murder of 43 student teachers), and a scandal that involved the president’s wife buying a $7 million mansion from a firm that won lucrative contracts with Pena Nieto’s government. 

Another major reason for Lopez Obrador’s improved chances at the Mexican presidency is Trump. The U.S. leader’s comments during the presidential campaign were hardly complementary. In 2015 he stated, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And, some, I assume, are good people.” Such comments, together with the threat to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to redo the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have done little to create a warm and friendly image of the U.S. president.

Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico in August 2016 did little to improve matters. In an effort to head off a possible economic shock from Trump’s proposals to build the border wall, impose steep tariffs on Mexican goods and renegotiate NAFTA, Pena Nieto invited Trump to Mexico. This was a disaster for the Mexican president as nothing positive for his country came out of the meeting, while Trump looked like more of a statesman for visiting a country hostile to him. The Mexican government still has not recovered in opinion polls from the visit.