A New Revolution? Mexico Still Waiting as López Obrador Nears Half-Year Mark
MEXICO CITY — After his landslide victory last year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico promised a staggering transformation of his country — on par with independence from Spain and the Mexican Revolution.
But five months into his term, the new Mexico he says he is building looks an awful lot like the old one he swore to leave behind.
Corruption was a hallmark issue for Mr. López Obrador during the campaign, a national scourge he vowed to end. Yet his government has announced no major prosecutions of public officials or other prominent figures on corruption charges since he took office.
Beyond that, in his first three months, his government awarded more than 70 percent of its contracts directly, without competitive bids, according to Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, an anticorruption group — a sharp reversal from Mr. López Obrador’s promise to break with that tradition.
On security, another pivotal issue for Mexico, he promised during the campaign to withdraw the military from the streets, undoing a contentious crime-fighting strategy that has led to widespread human rights abuses.
But instead of following through, Mr. López Obrador ended up guaranteeing the military’s role in domestic security, while homicide rates in Mexico continue to hit their highest levels in more than two decades.
On migration, Mr. López Obrador began his tenure by opening his arms to migrants heading north, criticizing the enforcement approach of the previous government. But more recently, his administration has taken a harder line as well, increasing the detention and deportation of Central Americans and others entering Mexico.
Far from countering the stiff measures taken by President Trump along the border, Mr. López Obrador has often gone along with them, wary of a dust-up with his most important trading partner.
“He makes these grand statements: ‘Neoliberalism is over,’ ‘Corruption is over,’” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst in Mexico City. “He’s more worried about intensifying the message of change than actually embarking on the difficult and uncertain labor of making change happen.”
Mr. López Obrador has also alarmed many Mexicans with his threat-tinged attacks on the media, including his admonitions that reporters should “behave well” or “you know what will happen to you” — an ominous warning in one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a journalist. At least six journalists have been killed since he took office.
Over the weekend, about 6,000 protesters took to the streets to call for Mr. López Obrador’s resignation, frustrated with his polarizing language and leery of his administration.
Still, Mr. López Obrador remains wildly popular in the country: The most recent polling places his approval rating above 60 percent. That is largely because he understands the historical distance between the nation’s rulers and its people — and has vowed to close the gap.
He put the presidential plane up for sale and now flies coach around the country. He converted the presidential palace into a public cultural center. He cut the highest salaries for public employees and raised the lowest, and his office says all public servants are required to declare their assets and potential conflicts of interest.
These actions reflect his common touch, a rarity among the country’s leaders, whose excesses and indifference have been longstanding traditions.
A spokesman for the president said the new government had made other changes as well, including altering the Constitution to make corruption, fuel theft and electoral fraud serious felonies. More legislative changes are on the horizon, the president’s office says, in areas like labor law and education.
Mr. López Obrador has also announced a broad range of new programs for the poor, a central promise of his campaign. If successful, he says, his programs could lift some 20 million people out of poverty during his six-year term — despite widespread questions over how he will pay for them all.
“For the first time in decades, there’s a president who talks to the vast majority of Mexicans who not only felt excluded but despised,” said Carlos Heredia, an associate professor at CIDE, a Mexico City university.
The new president also has an immense advantage in the legislature: majorities in both houses. With the opposition largely broken, there are few checks on his power, which gives him great freedom to pursue his agenda but has also led critics to fret over his confrontational behavior.
His political dominance was on display early on in his tenure when he canceled a $13 billion airport project, a decision that cost the nation dearly because the bond holders who backed it were repaid.
But Mr. López Obrador has won over many Mexicans with his unusual accessibility, in particular the televised news conferences he holds every morning at 7.
From his podium, he answers questions on the day’s events and holds forth on everything from infrastructure to baseball. By contrast, his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, held only a few news conferences that allowed questions in his entire six-year term.
These sessions also broadcast Mr. López Obrador’s erratic side — his thin skin, his churlishness and his tendency to launch into meandering soliloquies.
His many public complaints have led his supporters to condemn journalists as well, unnerving many of them.
“Not only is he sending this message to the people, he is also sending it to governors and municipal presidents across the country,” said Juan Pardinas, the director of the newspaper Reforma, a favorite target of the president. “Those kinds of attacks have a trickle-down effect.”
The government describes these confrontations as healthy, part of the back and forth any democratically elected leader should have. After all, the news media “criticize the government and exercise their rights to dissent,” the president’s press office said in a statement. “And we in the same way respond and argue daily without hatred or rancor.”
Of course, these are still the early days of his administration, and even Mr. López Obrador’s critics acknowledge that Mexico’s deep-seated problems would take time for anyone to fix.
Mr. López Obrador says his administration is already taming problems, including the country’s rampant violence. “We have controlled the situation, according to our data,” he said at a news conference in mid-April. The numbers of homicides, he said, “have not increased.”
It was unclear whether he was in possession of different data than the figures published by his government, which show homicides in 2019 on pace to surpass 2018, the deadliest year since the government started publishing the statistics.
Mr. López Obrador’s strategy to combat the violence resembles the past policies he once denounced.
The last two administrations authorized the military to lead the fight against drug traffickers, which curbed neither trafficking nor violence. During the campaign, Mr. López Obrador — widely known by his initials, AMLO — promised to take a different approach.
Then, shortly before he took office, he seemed to reverse himself, proposing a new security force under military command made up of military personnel and the federal police to combat crime.
Though the force, called the National Guard, will now fall under civilian control, and no commanders will be active military members, some critics question whether the new approach is r just a rebranding of the old one.
Mr. López Obrador’s government says it must act immediately to stem violence. To safeguard human rights, a historically weak point for the military, the government says it has signed an agreement with the United Nations for training.
More broadly, it contends that its investments in programs to attack the origins of the problem — poverty and a lack of opportunity — are also part of the national security strategy.
Some of Mr. López Obrador’s policies seem to reach back in time for inspiration.
On energy policy, he plans to spend billions of dollars on a refinery, betting his country’s financial solvency in a quest for what he calls energy sovereignty. Some analysts believe he wants to return to a time when governments saw national energy companies as sources of national pride and engines for development.
“He is a 1960s president thrown into the present,” said Jorge Chabat, a professor of political science at the University of Guadalajara. “AMLO’s main problem is that he was born 50 years too late.”
Rather than continue the opening to private energy investment that began under his predecessor, Mr. López Obrador has halted it. Now, he is spending public money in a bid to restore the dominance of Mexico’s two state-owned energy giants, the oil company Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission.
“I think there is a lot of ideology behind it,” said David Shields, editor of Energía a Debate, a magazine that covers the industry. “They want to move in a nationalistic direction.”
Energy analysts say the strategy will prove costly and unproductive, particularly at Pemex, which is struggling under more than $100 billion of debt while oil production hovers near its lowest level in four decades.
One area where the new president came out swinging was migration.
Upon taking office in December, Mr. López Obrador promised a humanitarian approach to migrants, moving away from what he described as the enforcement-first approach of his predecessor, Mr. Peña Nieto.
In perhaps his boldest initiative, his administration in January began offering arriving Central American migrants an expedited, year-long visa that allowed them to work and travel anywhere in Mexico.
And then, in a matter of weeks, the generosity came to a screeching halt.
After more than 13,000 people applied for the permission — with many saying they were encouraged to head to Mexico by the new program’s existence — the approach was canceled.
Since then, the López Obrador administration has taken a gradually harder line against undocumented migration, seemingly in response to pressure from the Trump administration and from communities overwhelmed by migrants.
Mr. López Obrador’s government says it remains committed to treating migrants with dignity, and plans to invest billions of dollars in Southern Mexico and Central America to address the poverty that drives people to seek economic opportunity elsewhere.
It says it is not acquiescing to Mr. Trump’s demands, but few believe that.
“The conflict between pleasing Trump and being consistent with human rights and a humanitarian migration policy is defining this administration’s” response to migration, said Mr. Heredia, the CIDE professor.