Mexico’s Fourth Transformation: AMLO and the Global Left

AMLO insists that the neoliberal era is over and that his priority is to redistribute wealth and income to the poor and marginalised, to indigenous people, women, young people.

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For decades Mexico seemed unchanging, locked in a corrupt one-party state under the PRI (Spanish acronym of the Institutional Revolutionary Party) which maintained a relatively progressive foreign policy but remained apart from the dramatic struggles unfolding elsewhere in Latin America. 


When the PRI was finally defeated in 2000 it was by the right-wing PAN which offered more of the same, but worse. For three six-year presidential terms (2000-2018) PAN and PRI alike imposed unbridled neoliberal policies with greatly increased inequality and corruption.


AMLO’s great election victory


But in July 2018 came dramatic change with the victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) and his MORENA (Movement of National Renovation) party. Coming from the left of the traditional establishment, AMLO ran for the presidency twice before and was defeated, partly by fraud. But this time he won dramatically, with 52% of the vote in a three-way race, something unprecedented for decades. Not only that, but his party won at all levels of government: both houses of Congress, most state governors and assemblies and many local governments.


This came about because this time he ran a different type of campaign, concentrating on a few basic themes: real democracy, fighting corruption, and an end to impunity. He mobilised a vast mass movement, especially among the young. The Mexican people wanted real change, but had no faith in the traditional left.


Mexico’s importance is obvious: the second largest population in Latin America, 130 million (after Brazil’s 210 million), the third largest territory (after Brazil and Argentina), and its crucial situation bordering the USA, in some ways a curse but of enormous geopolitical significance.


So when AMLO won, and then was inaugurated in December 2018, I decided it was time for to go back to Mexico for the first time in more than a decade, and with my partner Luisa I was there for nearly six weeks in June-July 2019.


The “Fourth Transformation”


What we found was fascinating. AMLO is not Hugo Chávez, and Mexico is not Venezuela. AMLO’s style is very different: calm, measured, polite. But he is quite clear that he is proposing a radical programme of change: the “Fourth Transformation” in Mexico’s history (the first three being the independence struggle against Spain from 1810 to 1821, the liberal Reform movement of 1855-72 under indigenous President Benito Juárez, and the epic Revolution of 1910-20).


From day one AMLO led by example, slashing his own presidential salary by 60% and calling on all high public officials (over 30,000 of them, both elected and appointed) to do the same, and refusing to live in the traditional presidential mansion which has been turned into a museum and public meeting hall.


He holds morning press conferences (mañaneras) every working day, Monday to Friday at 7 am, where he and his ministers present policy and field questions from all and sundry. These sessions typically last about two hours, and the President responds to all with remarkable patience and openness.


AMLO insists on dialogue, constantly criticising the conservative opposition but always recognising their right to their opinions and refusing to use censorship or force: time and again he quotes Benito Juárez’ dictum, “Nothing by Force, Everything by Reason”. With his ministers and staff he constantly travels round the country, talking and listening to people in local communities.


So what, you may ask, is he actually doing? What is his programme?


He has not undertaken large-scale nationalisations or indulged in dramatic anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist rhetoric. But he insists that the neoliberal era is over and that his priority is to redistribute wealth and income to the poor and marginalised, to indigenous people, women, young people and all those previously excluded.


Civic Austerity” and the end of corruption


The resources for the new welfare programmes come not from increased taxes or expropriations but from ending corruption, stamping out tax avoidance or evasion, and eliminating wasteful and excessive public spending. This is summed up in his most misunderstood slogan, “Austeridad Republicana”, “Civic Austerity”.


This is not austerity as we understand it, making cutbacks to social services at the expense of the poor: it is putting an end to luxury spending by public officials, to expense-account meals, first-class travel, five-star hotels stays at public expense and the like. No private cars or aircraft, no unnecessary travel, no gold-plated pensions: all public servants must live modestly.


Corruption under previous governments is investigated and those responsible are brought to justice, not in arbitrary fashion but in any case where private citizens or organisations bring documented cases to court: the government encourages justice (unlike previous practice) and ensures that all proceeds of crime confiscated by the courts are carefully documented and then invested in social programmes.


The amounts saved by ending wasteful luxury spending, fighting tax evasion and confiscating the proceeds of corruption already amount to billions of dollars. It has just been announced (4 April 2020) that the government has uncovered some 400 unsupervised and untaxed public sector Trusts worth nearly US$40 billion. It is through clamping down on such massive tax evasion and corruption that the government is able to pay for its ambitious programmes without raising taxes.


A true Welfare State


The funds thus obtained are invested a whole range of projects to benefit those in need: Pensions for Seniors; Incapacity Benefit; Scholarships for Children in Extreme Poverty; Grants for Young People in neither education or employment; and other benefits which did not previously exist. It should be noted that, contrary to some unfounded criticisms, these benefits are not conditional, and also they are paid directly to the beneficiaries, avoiding possible corruption by intermediaries.


The Sembrando Vida (“Sowing Life”) programme is aimed at small farmers, and provides funds, tools, seeds and other supplies to support forestry in combination with growing crops; it has already created 230,000 jobs and the reforestation of 500,000 hectares. It has just been announced (April 2020) that Sembrando Vida is to be extended to another 200,000 beneficiaries.


Where the previous government had imposed an “Educational Reform” favouring privatisation and undermining teachers’ rights, AMLO’s government put an end to this and introduced a programme called “The School Is Ours” in basic, primary and secondary education. It means that all 170,000 schools throughout the nation now have increased funds and each community manages its own school budget. Senior officials I interviewed in the Ministries of Education and Culture were excited about the scope of the new measures, although recognising that they represent a big challenge.


Another inspiring initiative is the creation of over 100 “Benito Juárez Public Welfare Universities” in severely deprived areas to benefit these sectors of the population.


In Public Health the government is expanding and integrating Mexico’s patchwork system of sectoral public and private health care to create for the first time a real NHS, through Salud para el Bienestar – “Health for Welfare”. Many new hospitals have been inaugurated and others upgraded and the system is rapidly improving; these changes were under way before the Covid-19 pandemic, and are now being rapidly increased with an emergency programme to deal with the pandemic (I will discuss this in another article).


Economic policy


In economic policy, the approach is to strengthen and improve the public sector while working with the private sector on a basis of transparency and strict adherence to fiscal rules. The national oil company PEMEX and the Federal Electricity Commission, both partially privatised by previous governments and quite inefficient, are being modernised and redeveloped by the state which is also promoting renewable energy, especially through local community projects. A new refinery is being built at Dos Bocas, Tabasco to end the absurdity of Mexico exporting crude oil and importing petrol. It should be noted that when the oil was nationalised in 1938 by the great reforming government of Lázaro Cárdenas, the industry was rebuilt over the following decades to serve domestic development, promoting the petrochemical industry and the broader economy; Mexico did not export crude oil again until the 1970s when the transition to neoliberalism began to take hold. De-industrialisation reached extreme levels under the ultra-neoliberal governments of 2000-2018, and this is what AMLO is now correcting.


The railway system, privatised and run down by previous governments (with passenger services being ended entirely) is being revived, with some new suburban lines around Mexico City and a major new passenger and freight line, the “Mayan Train”, in the southeast. This has been much criticised by some environmentalists and indigenous groups, but should reduce more polluting road and air traffic in the region. It is following the route of a previous railway built in the 1930s by Lázaro Cárdenas (and later abandoned), so the lands affected are already public property. The project involves careful consultation with local communities and is designed to benefit them.


The promotion of small and medium enterprises is a central focus of economic policy. Up to a million small businesses have received credit on easy terms from the federal government in what amounts to a very significant boost to the economy while also reducing inequality.


A Public Welfare Bank is being established to provide banking services throughout the country, including in remote areas not served by commercial banks, and also to eliminate discriminatory or corrupt practices which have been all too common in the banking system.


Human Rights and Public Security


On the very sensitive and controversial issue of human rights, AMLO insists that all areas of government must make this a priority, and also constantly proclaims his absolute commitment to civil liberties and freedom of expression, even for his most vitriolic opponents. He is working closely with the national Human Rights Commission and has made the search for justice for the families of the 43 students disappeared in the Ayotzinapa massacre of 2014 a priority, meeting with them personally and regularly.


In order to deal with the massive problem of violent crime, AMLO took the bold but controversial decision to establish a new National Guard, a military security force replacing the corrupt Federal Police. National Guard members are trained in human rights and directed to work systematically with local communities to deal with public security; the head of the new institution is a woman with decades of experience in the military and in community work, and with a very impressive curriculum in social work, psychiatry, security and intelligence work.


On a related and very sensitive issue, that of migration, AMLO has recognised that Mexico cannot determine US migration policy, and however unjust Washington’s exclusion of migrants and refugees may be, Mexico cannot allow uncontrolled passage through its territory of those whose only aim is to enter the US, many of them manipulated by organised crime. AMLO has reiterated Mexico’s outstanding record of welcoming refugees who want to stay in the country, and those who apply for asylum in Mexico are well treated.


Sovereignty & Self-Determination


Finally, there is the very difficult problem of relations with the Colossus of the North. The new government arrived at a very difficult moment, with the Trump administration in Washington and a right-wing offensive throughout the hemisphere. AMLO could not, and did not, seek open confrontation with US imperialism or align Mexico ostentatiously with Cuba, Venezuela and the ALBA countries.


Rather, and sensibly, he and his very capable Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard have reasserted Mexico’s long-standing tradition (abandoned by the preceding neoliberal administrations) of non-intervention and respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of all nations. They refer to the Estrada Doctrine of 1830 and quote great 19th-century liberal President Benito Juárez with his dictum “Respect for the Rights of Others is Peace”. They insist on seeking good relations with all countries, and have shown remarkable skill in maintaining such relations both with Trump’s US and with Venezuela, Cuba and China and virtually all countries in between.


Given the level of integration of the Mexican and US economies promoted by the neoliberal administrations – 80% of the country’s foreign trade is with the US – AMLO had no option but to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement. But he successfully resisted pressure from Washington to link trade with the migration issue, and Trump’s threat to slap a 25% tariff on Mexican goods. He has also enjoyed success in defending the rights of the 30 million first- and second-generation Mexican migrants North of the border, while showing respect for US citizens and enterprises in Mexico.


This careful diplomacy has allowed Mexico to reassert its international presence as an impartial defender of democracy and sovereignty. The most dramatic instance of this was its bold and decisive action in granting asylum to President Evo Morales of Bolivia at the time of the military coup in that country. Realising that Evo’s life was in danger, Mexico offered asylum without waiting for a formal request, and when he accepted the offer they acted with remarkable speed and efficiency, sending an air force plane with both military personnel and diplomats on board to negotiate last-minute authorisations to use the air space of various countries. This almost certainly saved Evo’s life.


Mexico also plays a leading role in the recently-formed “Puebla Group” of progressive Latin American nations and political leaders, and its positive actions have been reinforced by the electoral victory in Argentina last year of President Alberto Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández (no relation). The Mexico-Argentina alliance is a vital counterweight in today’s context to the extreme right axis of Brazil, Colombia, Chile and the coup regime in Bolivia.


AMLO’s firm but respectful approach has wrong-footed opponents both at home and abroad. Those who mistake his calm and politeness for weakness have often been surprised, as with the asylum for Evo Morales; another dramatic surprise just occurred (mid-April 2020) at the OPEC+ meeting of oil producing countries, where Mexico’s young female Energy Minister Rocío Nahle refused pressure to conform to the general agreement on a 23% cut in production and obtained an exceptional arrangement by which Mexico will only cut back by 6%. This amounts to a cut of 100,000 barrels per day out of the present 1,750,000, and not a cut of 350,000 as would have been the case. The reason for this is AMLO´s determination to rebuild the industry to serve domestic needs, and his success in facing down Trump, Putin and the Saudis (among others) is remarkable.


Finally, AMLO’s insistence on social and economic justice for the great majority will sound familiar to UK readers – “For the Many, Not the Few” – and it is not surprising that Jeremy Corbyn attended his inauguration in December 2018.


David Raby is an academic, expert on Latin America, and author of Democracy & Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today published by Pluto Press in 2006.
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