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In Mexico, López Obrador Takes Power—and the Difficult Dance with Trump Begins

(Source: newyorker.com)

The inauguration, last Saturday, of Mexico’s new President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was a remarkable occurrence in several ways. Not least was the fact that he is the only left-winger to come to power this year in a hemisphere swinging fulsomely to the right, in one country after another. As a case in point, in Brazil, the ultra-rightist former Army officer Jair Bolsonaro, who will assume office in January, has promised a “Brazil First” administration, and has been greeted effusively by John Bolton, Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, as “a like-minded” partner.

Not only is López Obrador, who is popularly known as AMLO, not a camp follower of Team Trump; he is a veteran leftist nationalist who wrote a book last year titled “Oye, Trump,” (“Listen up, Trump”), in which he stands up for the rights of his country’s migrant workers in the United States. He is also Mexico’s ultimate Comeback Kid, having run in two previous Presidential elections, in 2006 and 2012, both of which he lost. He was narrowly defeated in the 2006 election, and he claimed fraud, refused to concede defeat, and donned a white-red-and-green Presidential sash of office in his own, parallel inaugural ceremony. He carried on protesting for months afterward in the Mexican capital, along with thousands of his loyalists, before giving up.

This time, however, the swearing-in ceremony was for real. In fact, following his landslide victory in the elections held in July, López Obrador, who recently turned sixty-five, in many ways became Mexico’s de-facto President during the country’s unusually long five-month transitional period, as he regularly held forth on national issues with his cabinet-to-be and even convened several consultative referendums on upcoming policy initiatives. (This system of transition came about during the seven decades, from 1929 to 2000, in which the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, ran Mexico as a single-party state, and Presidents picked their successors in a closed-house system known as the “dedazo.”) But, on Saturday, after donning the real Presidential sash, handed to him by his unpopular predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, of the PRI, in a dramatic ceremony in the National Congress, López Obrador became Mexico’s legitimate leader, with a mandate to lead the country for the next six years. With his MORENA Party holding a majority in both legislative houses, he has promised nothing less than a “refoundation” of the Mexican state.

During his acceptance speech, López Obrador made it clear that his Presidency will be very different from previous ones: he pledged to reduce his salary by sixty per cent, to sell the lavish Presidential jet, and to eliminate the Presidential guard corps. He arrived for the inauguration in his white Volkswagen Jetta, having also foresworn the Presidential limousine. In an emphatic reiteration of the main plank of his campaign, López Obrador also promised to extirpate public corruption, which, he said, had degraded the governments of his predecessors and shamed the nation in the eyes of the world. With Peña Nieto seated only feet away, he described the outgoing President’s term in office as “inmunda”—unclean—and raised the issue of what to do about bringing corrupt public officials, including ex-Presidents, to justice. He said that he had come to the decision that it was better to leave things as they are and to “move on with the future,” rather than dwelling on the past. If Mexico were to set about punishing all its corrupt public officials, he said, waggishly, there wouldn’t be enough prisons to hold them. But, he added, in the end, “the people” will have the final say. As he spoke, television cameras focused on Peña Nieto, who wore a frozen look, repeatedly touched his brow, and fidgeted in his seat. (His government was marred by a number of high-profile cases involving flamboyantly crooked state governors in the PRI, and by the 2014 “Casa Blanca” scandal, which involved a mansion that his wife bought in an apparently cozy deal with a contractor.)

López Obrador also broke from convention in other ways, including by ignoring widespread criticism of his decision to invite Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s controversial leader, to the inaugural luncheon at the National Palace, which stands on the Zócalo, the vast plaza that is the ancient Aztec heart of Mexico City. As the new President hailed Maduro—and other leftist guests, including President Miguel Díaz-Canel, of Cuba, and President Evo Morales, of Bolivia—opposition lawmakers stood and chanted, “Dictador! Dictador!,” and held up signs reading, “Democracia sí, Autoritarismo, no.” But Maduro’s presence had less to do with underscoring the bond of friendship between the two leaders than with López Obrador’s desire to signal that Mexico was once again a free and sovereign nation. (Under pressure from Trump over immigration, the Wall, and NAFTA, Peña Nieto’s government had fallen increasingly into lockstep with the United States on many issues, including a hostility toward Venezuela, in contravention of Mexico’s tradition of nonalignment.) Moving right along, López Obrador also confounded many of his more militant allies, by hailing the presence of “Mike and Karen Pence” and of President Trump’s daughter Ivanka. Trump himself, López Obrador added, had so far treated him “with respect.”

In fact, since López Obrador won the election, he and Trump have exchanged hearty greetings and expressions of good will. In a tweet this week, Trump congratulated him for his “tremendous political victory with the great support of the Mexican People,” and went on to predict that the two men will “work well together for many years to come!” Perhaps. But at the heart of the nascent relationship lies a number of unresolved issues, notably the question of how Mexico intends to deal with the thousands of Central Americans who have travelled to its northern border seeking asylum in the United States. Trump has made it clear that he wants Mexico to serve as an outlying waiting room for the migrants, and to police its southern borders to prevent more people making the trip. In response, López Obrador has made diplomatic noises, while repeating that he would like to see a stepped-up program of U.S. investment in the economies of the poor regions of southern Mexico and Central America, so that people there can find the means to sustain life, and to stay put. For now, both men seem content to talk past each other.

López Obrador’s populist streak, meanwhile, has some observers in Mexico, and in the United States, worried. In October, he held a referendum on whether or not to continue with the construction of a thirteen-billion-dollar airport for Mexico City, and, when a majority of the respondents voted against it, vowed to scrap the project. It was something that he had previously promised to do, suggesting that vested interests linked to the previous government were involved in the plan, which was too expensive and environmentally unsound (it was to be built on a former lakebed). But the way that he justified the decision—just a million ballots were cast, representing a less than two per cent of eligible voters—suggested a cavalier approach to democratic practices and provoked jitters among investors, causing both Mexico’s stock market and the peso to temporarily lose value.

In subsequent polls, López Obrador put some of his own pet schemes to the public. These included an oil refinery to be built in his home state of Tabasco, the construction of two railroads, and an enormous tree-planting project in the South. Unlike the airport, these projects met with overwhelming public approval, and so they will presumably go forward. Other popular proposals include starting an apprenticeship program for more than two million young people and doubling pensions for the elderly.

On Saturday, López Obrador promised further public consultations with the public, arguably the most important of them to be held in two and a half years, when he intends to put his own mandate to the test in a referendum. If, by then, the Mexican people are fed up with him and want him out of office, he said, he will honor their decision. He spoke of a young man on a bicycle who, earlier that morning, had caught up with his Jetta on the way to the inauguration and told him that he could “not fail Mexico.” “I promised him I wouldn’t,” López Obrador said. “I do not have the right to fail.”

Later, after lunch, López Obrador came out onto the Zócalo. In an unprecedented ceremony, held in front of tens of thousands of people, he was fêted by representatives of Mexico’s seventy-plus indigenous groups and participated in a traditional cleansing ceremony. Amid chanting, drumming, and incense burning, he received a symbolic baton of leadership, and huge applause broke out when, at one point, he dropped to his knees as part of the ritual.

After the ceremony, López Obrador began to deliver another speech, in which he repeated many of the promises he had made in the morning—and which went on for two hours. I was standing on a balcony overlooking the plaza during this speech, and noticed Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, standing nearby. As he snapped a smiling selfie, with López Obrador as his backdrop, it occurred to me that, if things were to go Corbyn’s way in the ongoing drama of the Brexit negotiations, he could become his country’s Prime Minister—indeed, its own AMLO. The two men, who have met and like each other, have followed similar trajectories, in a sense, both having spent years to the left of center stage before finally taking the leading role. López Obrador, of course, already has it. After the Zócalo rally, Corbyn tweeted that López Obrador’s election showed that “a progressive agenda of transformation can win and challenge the power of the few.”

That same day, as López Obrador had promised, Los Pinos, a nineteenth-century complex that has been the official Presidential residence since 1934—but where he has refused to live—was opened to the public for the first time. (It is to become a museum.) Thousands of people streamed through the doors, agog at the palatial life style their leaders had enjoyed. Several days later, visitors were still arriving, peering into the empty bedrooms, with their walk-in closets and his-and-hers Presidential toilets, and gazing at a vast living room, adorned with a rather banal landscape painting, and at a modern white kitchen, which looks like something out of a home-interiors magazine. On a walkway leading to the residence, lined with bronze statues of the former Presidents, a middle-aged woman stopped to stand next to Peña Nieto, saying that she would take a picture with him, “Since nobody else wanted to.” In Mexico, perhaps, the times are changing.

More Info: newyorker.com

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