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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Mexico: Land of Pandemics and Hope, Perhaps

After decades of neoliberal misrule, the country is fighting to recover from more than just COVID.

December 1, 2020, was the second anniversary of Mexico’s passage into a new era under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the maverick, left-leaning populist of upper-class nightmares. His call for a universalist welfare state raised hopes among his impoverished compatriots, and intensified the oligarchy’s media war to hasten his downfall. In the COVID-19 battlefield of the past year, right-wing depictions of inept federal officials culpable for a colossal death toll are disingenuous, but a logical tactic in this latest iteration of a class struggle. In reality, the calamity has less to do with the current president than with the 36 years of neoliberalism his election upended.

Confirmed coronavirus deaths now exceed 195,000 in Mexico at the time of publishing, the third largest total after the United States and Brazil, though authorities say the real number may ultimately be closer to the excess deaths total, which was “about two times higher than the reported number of Covid-19 deaths” between March and mid-November 2020. Yet both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) have praised the government of López Obrador, or AMLO as he is often called, for its crisis response. It was early January 2020 when health officials started activating the country’s epidemiological monitoring system, including airport screeners for coronavirus. In February, AMLO’s health department hosted an epidemic-readiness workshop for Caribbean and Central American health teams. It also closed schools and non-essential activities much sooner than Italy, Spain, or the U.S.—in late March, when COVID-positive cases totaled 367, not thousands.

Mexico’s later place on the pandemic timeline required its own schedule for mitigation measures. Yet domestic and international media sounded the alarm over Mexicans going about their normal lives a day after Donald Trump’s emergency declaration north of the border, where the virus had spread sooner. Meanwhile, the contrast between Trump’s subversion of scientists and AMLO’s support for his pandemic czar, Health Deputy Hugo López-Gatell—an infectious disease specialist entrusted with actual decision-making powers—has gone unnoticed in the press.

In June 2020, to reopen the economy, López-Gatell introduced a coronavirus stoplight. Every week, a new color-coded map of Mexico’s 32 states is unveiled, each one in red, orange, yellow, or green, signaling an alert level—based on the latest infection numbers and hospital capacity data—and appropriate activity restrictions enforceable by state authorities. (In practice, politics and other factors have led to uneven state-level cooperation, but the program’s mere existence disputes the notion of an aloof federal government.)

A week later, the WHO added López-Gatell to a prestigious expert panel tasked with drafting international guidelines for a post-COVID-19 world.

There is no doubt that a full accounting of the government’s handling of the emergency would find plenty of errors and bad decisions by federal officials, including AMLO and López-Gatell. Particularly before the lockdown in March 2020, public confusion was fed by mixed messages stemming from an apparent personality conflict between the health deputy and the unruly president—who sought to calm people’s nerves by saying “don’t stop going out, we’re still in the first phase” and professing his faith in amulets, as well as showing a personal disregard for physical distancing. But the germ’s newness, too, explains some early miscalculations in Mexico and elsewhere, such as the disease’s lethality, longevity, and the utility of facemasks

Indisputably though, media claims of a passive (or worse) federal approach to the contingency contradict reality.

Mexico’s Pandemic of Chronic Diseases

For Mexico, the die had been cast long ago: a humanitarian disaster was inevitable in the face of the new threat, given the neoliberal regime’s aggravation of poverty, dismantling of the health system, and spawning of a “pandemic of chronic diseases.”

During a joint interview in March last year, WHO and PAHO officers Jean-Marc Gabastou and Cristian Morales, respectively, applauded the government’s preparedness. But they remained grim about the nation’s outlook. “Many things have been done right,” said Morales, “but that doesn’t mean everything will come out right.” Mexicans would perish at higher rates than others, he said, in spite of their relative youth. Asked to explain, Gabastou jumped in: “There are more young people here, yes, but it’s the second or third country in diabetes and obesity.” 

Indeed, government data showed in February 2020 that 3/4 of adults and 2/5 of teenagers in Mexico were obese or overweight—an important contributor to diabetes, hypertension, and kidney disease. A 2016 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also noted that, “with 32% of the adult population obese, Mexico ranks as the second most overweight nation in the OECD and almost one in six adults are diabetic.” 

In fact, diabetes first emerged as the leading cause of death in 2003, the top driver of amputations, blindness, and kidney failure.  People living with severe complications of the disease took up 1/3 of the nation’s hospital beds.

As it turns out, an analysis of nine countries’ COVID-19 fatalities last year showed a strong correlation with comorbidities, linking deaths to obesity (42 percent of the time), hypertension (40 percent), and diabetes (17 percent). Finally, supporting Morales and Gabastou’s prediction, sadly, another study reveals that people younger than 65 made up 62 percent of Mexico’s coronavirus deaths last spring. That number was only 4.5 percent in Canada and less than 8 percent in Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Sweden. In fact, Mexicans under 65 were ten times more likely to die than Germans in that age group.

Picking Up Neoliberalism’s Mess of Poverty and Illness

Key features of Mexico’s neoliberal period have been the rise of joblessness and the stagnation of wages, basically ensuring the development of economic informality (and drug trafficking) as the new national folklore. Today most people subsist as street vendors, day laborers, housekeepers, or doers of any other under-the-table work that comes their way. This unprotected workforce (which heavily overlaps with the 42 percent of people in poverty and the 37 percent labeled as “vulnerable” in government statistics) has been largely unable to stay home, unlike formal-sector workers who have remained on company payrolls during the lockdown. Overcrowded housing, buses, and subways have also likely helped the virus spread among the working class.

Indeed, the main catalyst for AMLO’s epic landslide in the July 2018 election was mass economic desperation, compounded by illness. The third-time candidate’s overarching promise was to end the nation’s pauperization that had been accelerating since the 1982 debt crisis. That year, eager young technocrats gained new sway over Mexico’s fiscal policies, quickly secured elite support, and then seized control of the ruling, corporatist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, in its Spanish acronym). After deftly sidelining the party’s labor and popular factions, they proclaimed the nation a free market paradise. What they actually created, however, was an unfettered kleptocracy, scrapping whatever remained of the PRI’s social principles and hastening the overconcentration of wealth and power.

Since the start of his single, sexennial term in December 2018, AMLO has grown social spending’s share of the federal budget to 24 percent, the most in a decade. He’s also hiked the minimum wage a stunning 51 percent; strengthened labor laws (including new rules for teleworking); tightened junk-food regulations; and launched a national infrastructure program. To optimize anti-poverty aid, he eased eligibility rules, qualifying 70 percent of households for some form of assistance, and dismissed middlemen—a traditional source of corruption and patronage—freeing more cash to put into people’s pockets. 

In truth, media fixation on AMLO’s “austerity” policies overlooks the fact that Mexico’s original (pre-pandemic) federal budget for 2020 was its largest in history: The president’s widely publicized cutbacks—what he calls austeridad republicana—are mainly part of a reallocation, not a reduction, of expenditures.

The biggest advances by the AMLO administration may be in healthcare, however. These include the hiring last year of 70,000 health personnel, a step toward solving a massive shortage. In 2017, Mexico had 2.4 physicians for every 1,000 residents, compared to a 3.4 average among OECD countries, “and less than one-third the number of nurses and hospital beds per 1,000 population than the OECD average.” 

By last November, the government had built out 130 hospitals out of 326 incomplete projects left over by past administrations. At many of these sites, construction had either faced serious delays or had stopped altogether, an inventory found in 2019, after their funding dried up, got illegally diverted, or was sidetracked when contractors failed to deliver. 

The most promising change in health policy, however, is the federalization of health services for the uninsured, who are the majority in Mexico. Although a work in progress—partly because eight state governments are not yet on board with it—the overhaul includes the creation of the Institute for Health and Wellness, or INSABI, which will provide free, universal healthcare to anyone with a government-issued ID.

On the other hand, recouping the nation’s pre-1982 living standards will take time. Persistent precarity and a retreating state ensured the longest workweek in the OECD, at 41 hours, compared to 34.2 hours for U.S. workers. The rising cost of local staples after 1990 helped drive a proletarian switch to ever-cheaper, high-calorie meals and drinks—and worsening health. 

In a regrettable case of poetic injustice, when diabetes became Mexico’s top killer in 2003, the president happened to be Vicente Fox (2000-2006). He was the first to come from the National Action Party (PAN) but, more importantly, he was the man the Coca-Cola Company credited with taking back from Pepsico the nation’s No. 1 spot among carbonated beverages. During the brutal “cola wars” in the 1970s, Coke and Pepsi’s expansion had managed to raise Mexicans’ soft drink consumption per capita to an annual 529 bottles by 1980, second only to the U.S.’ 713 bottles.

Twenty-three years later, with five diabetics’ deaths per hour, Fox faced calls to crack down on industry antitrust violations and illegal ads targeting children, and get junk food out of schools. Instead, his government arrived at “the same diagnosis” of the health crisis as Pepsico, Kellogg’s, and Nestle—and partnered with them on a healthy lifestyles campaign that underscored the role of personal behavior over any need for regulations. By the end of his term, Mexicans were drinking more sugary soda per capita than people in the U.S.

As part of the “Vive Saludable” campaign, then-health secretary Julio Frenk—whose role in loosening tobacco regulations may have later cost him the WHO’s directorship—appeared in corporate-sponsored ads and events that critics likened to junk food commercials. In 2006, the same year he helped legalize cyclamate (an artificial beverage sweetener still banned in the U.S.), Frenk explained the importance of supporting a processed food industry willing to improve their products: “We see it in the growing number of food companies seeking the advice of nutritionists” as they redesign their snacks to make them more nutritious.

In the words of consumer activist Alejandro Calvillo, subsequent health secretaries followed the pattern, standing by the industry’s right to “self-regulate.” Doing so effectively made the officials the “cooks and waiters” that served up Mexico’s “obesity and diabetes epidemics…” just in time for “la Pandemia.” 

By 2015, diabetes fatalities had more than doubled, nearing 100,000 that year, or 11 per hour. In early 2020, people were dying from the disease at 14 per hour, or an annual 120,000. 

Dismantling of the State

Not only did Fox’s election in 2000 interrupt the PRI’s 71-year hegemony, it also marked the end of Mexican life expectancy’s 40-year upward trajectory. It has stagnated at 75 ever since. Hailing from the socially and fiscally conservative PAN, whose economic philosophy the PRI had adopted in the 1980s, Fox cheered the informal economy, tried placing a 15 percent sales tax on food and medicine, and continued his predecessors’ work of decentralizing and privatizing public health and healthcare.

Decentralization of public functions was a period hallmark, touted as the answer to excessive presidential power. PRI and PAN politicians worked in step to transfer health duties to state authorities (vowing continued federal funding while actually paring it down). The reorganization’s architects had probably wagered that state officials would soon raise their own taxes to cover local needs. But with few oversight tools in place, the changes simply gave governors vast unchecked authority and the freedom to run states like personal fiefdoms. 

The danger courted by the federal abdication of health responsibilities was clear as early as 1989 and 1990, when a measles outbreak claimed 8,150 lives (mostly children), following the national vaccination program’s breakup. Then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), preoccupied with securing U.S. and Canadian support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), relented on that narrow front, recreating a federal entity to coordinate states’ immunization efforts. Two decades later, a think tank’s report also partly blamed the health system’s fragmentation for failing to prevent diabetes.

But the system has failed to cure the sick, too, particularly when they are poor. HMO-style public institutions have covered most of the formally employed since the mid-1900s. Increasing unemployment, however, as described in a paper co-authored by Frenk—who as Fox’s health secretary created the Seguro Popular, a deceptive insurance scheme targeting the poor—had shrunk those formal sector programs’ coverage to 49 percent of the population by 2000, and to 45 percent by 2008. 

Meanwhile, for the uninsured majority with informal livelihoods, seeing a doctor typically involves paying cash at a private practice. In 2007, according to Frenk’s paper, half of the health bills in the country were paid for out of pocket. Moreover, a quarter of Mexico’s health costs that year were from drug purchases, of which patients paid 75 percent in cash. By 2018, while the share of direct health payments by patients had dropped to 42 percent, the figure was still among the highest in Latin America: closer to Haiti’s 44 percent than El Salvador’s 29 percent, and far higher than the OECD average of 14 percent. 

Another option for the uninsured is going to a free or low-cost government health center. But the public’s deep distrust of these state-run facilities tend to make them an option of last resort. In fact, doctor avoidance is so common that underdiagnosis can be called an epidemic itself, making it hard to know the true extent of diabetes, cancer, or, for that matter, COVID-19. The fact that over 200 prescription drugs were reclassified for over-the-counter sale in the 1990s, from antibiotics to antidepressants and heart medications, only reinforced the sense among poor people that they are not just alone, but free to self-medicate—an extremely common practice.

Even when at death’s doorstep, the poor quality of care popularly associated with public hospitals and clinics—so frequently burdened with staff and equipment shortages, corruption, and a reputation shaped by haunting tales of malpractice and abuse—leads many sick people to postpone a doctor’s visit until it is too late, or to forego it altogether and choose to die at home.

Aside from the neoliberal policies that kept health spending near the bottom of global rankings, the degree of autonomy states gained with decentralization is crucial to the equation. It has allowed graft and abuse of power to fester, particularly in areas under direct gubernatorial control, like healthcare. Although state officials are sometimes prosecuted, even those convicted may avoid justice—like the former governor of Aguascalientes, who was convicted of faking the purchase of a 14-million-peso tomograph, but spared prison time after returning the stolen money, a case called “emblematic” by anti-corruption advocates. As the OECD report also notes, federal authorities “have limited levers to address concerns around efficiency or quality,” given laws that make states the sole deciders over their resources. 

Politics, too, may have factored into whether previous presidents helped prosecute or rescue corrupt state officials. According to one academic paper, federal funds were sometimes funneled “secretly” to states that, through mismanagement or corruption, had amassed unsustainable debt. Yet other times, federal auditors would be sent to investigate crimes perpetrated in a governor’s office. 

In 2012, one case in the small southeastern state of Tabasco (where AMLO is from) provided a snapshot of the problem. After the state health agency’s collapse under the weight of untenable debt, an audit found that insurance payments had been diverted and that certain employees had gotten inexplicable cash rewards. Meanwhile, financial turmoil had left local hospitals understaffed and starved for equipment, supplies, and medicine. One legislator’s lament captured the situation: “Most worrisome is the vulnerability and risk now faced by those needing public medical services… Surgeries, transplants, laboratory tests, nuclear medicine, treatment for cancer and HIV patients have all been suspended.”

Whether because of corruption or inefficiency—and governors’ unwillingness to raise taxes—several state health agencies accumulated similar unwieldy debt loads over the years, which may help explain their difficulty in caring for patients. 

In times of COVID-19, such financial problems are equally likely a cause for several states’ failure to uphold their side of an intergovernmental partnership in which they must execute critical, time-sensitive tasks like conducting tests; reporting test data to a central database; tracing and isolating contacts; and enforcing movement restrictions. Even with federally provided supplies, a distraught López-Gatell bewailed during a press briefing in July, delayed reporting from state health personnel had deprived the national COVID-19 stoplight of the necessary data.

He also complained then, and again months later, about states’ noncompliance with federal guidance, with some turning a blind eye toward businesses’ “accelerated reopening” in spite of their assigned stoplight color, causing new outbreaks. Entrepreneurial resistance to lockdown measures, egged on by powerful rogues like Ricardo Salinas Pliego—Mexico’s second wealthiest billionaire, and owner of TV Azteca—was probably one reason, but another may be partisan intransigence. Of the 32 governors, 26 are with opposition parties, several of whom have led a crusade to discredit López-Gatell as a proxy for AMLO. 

Pro-Oligarchy Journalism

Whatever his administration does, however, the media’s falsehoods, omissions, and distortions paint an alternate reality in which AMLO is destroying Mexico. As an example, Joaquín López-Dóriga—formerly a news anchor at the nation’s largest broadcaster, the notorious Televisa—regularly cites the high death toll to simplistically surmise that the government failed in its duty to protect the people. Like others, who routinely portray López-Gatell as dishonest or incompetent, the journalist likes to misrepresent the epidemiologist’s position on facemasks, implying that he opposes their use. In reality, he has repeatedly offered a qualified recommendation of mask wearing, explaining (in perhaps overly complex terms for a lay audience) the danger of over-relying on masks that may be worn incorrectly. 

(López-Dóriga, who is still one of Latin America’s most influential media figures, and one frequently cited over the decades by the New York Times and other international outlets, regularly seeks a graphologist’s insight on his news show into a famous person’s character by way of their signature. On one occasion, a year ago, before the coronavirus had gained ground in Mexico, the graphologist analyzed the health deputy’s scrawl—and said nothing of note then. But, curiously, once the pandemic was well underway three months later, López-Dóriga had her re-examine López-Gatell’s signature. That time she found that he was vain, insecure, stubborn, and a control freak, traits that gelled with the criticisms being hurled at him from the right by then.)

Global media have also questioned Mexico’s use of a sentinel model of epidemiological vigilance, rejecting universal or broad-based testing, and resulting in one of the world’s lowest test rates. In May 2020, news reports suggested an intent to hide the pandemic’s true extent, since registered fatalities seemed low. López-Gatell denied nefarious motives, while allowing that total deaths could be much higher—perhaps three times higher in Mexico City—than the official number. But he sustained that, for health planners, the symptom and infection-rate data generated by selective testing outvalued knowing the exact case count.

Replicating other mass testing regimes would have been a “waste of resources,” in López-Gatell’s eyes. Particularly in a country of 129 million—the tenth most populous in the world—and one without effective contact tracing (without which testing serves little purpose), resources were better used to improve healthcare, he argued. This especially made sense at a time when national leaders and health experts around the world believed it was highly likely that, sooner or later, most people would become infected, and that it was best to try to “flatten the curve” to avoid overwhelming hospitals.

At the height of this debate over the summer, even the WHO’s Gabastou went out of his way to back López-Gatell on the matter of testing. In fact, while drowned out by talking heads, these views are echoed by health experts positing that widespread testing “at frequent-enough intervals to impact the disease’s spread is impractical, expensive, and unlikely to [succeed],” or that “reducing the focus on testing could enable greater attention on higher-yield efforts.”

Lastly, the U.S., Britain, Belgium, and Spain—leaders in both tests and deaths per capita, according to World0meter—illustrate how the “testing is key” mantra alone fails to capture reality. Countries with lower death rates, generally, have at least one major advantage that Mexico lacks: a comprehensive healthcare system; a smaller or less globalized territory easier to safeguard; a better wellness index score; the facility to set and enforce curfews; or bigger coffers to pay people to stay home. 

Particularly with COVID-19, it has been tempting to criticize the president’s thriftiness, as many constantly do. But even though Mexico’s national budget in 2020 was its largest ever, the fact that it was only $291 billion USD—less than half what Spain spent in 2019, $621 billion, on about 1/3 the population—is the result of a deeply rooted anti-tax culture that, with difficulty, AMLO is now trying to change. Moreover, in 2018, 13.4 percent of federal spending went to pay off the national debt, three times the OECD average. In 2020, payments were dropped to 11.4 percent of the national budget, but they equaled 3 percent of the GDP, the most ever. Mexico’s debt at the end of 2020 was 53.5 percent of the GDP.

Pundits, politicians, and CEOs have urged the president to borrow, as other countries have done, in order to increase spending and to “give emergency grants to major Mexican corporations”—the very beneficiaries of rampant tax breaks, loopholes, and evasion he is working to end. It is important to remember as well that Mexico’s ownership class is usually the only demographic to gain from the country’s costly borrowing habit. Workers are still paying off the $65 billion bank bailout that a PRI- and PAN-dominated congress converted into public debt in 1998. For background: banks had only been reprivatized a few years earlier—sold for pennies in questionable deals—after having been rescued in 1982 by way of a compensated nationalization.

But determined to make do, AMLO went on a budget-cutting spree—including in areas already trimmed when he first reshuffled spending priorities—to muster the pesos needed for additional aid to households and small businesses, and to buy scarce, in-demand ventilators, PPE and, eventually, vaccines. What’s more, even some of his own allies have grumbled that the cuts were too much, some complaining that AMLO’s scissors had mostly spared funds earmarked for the debt-laden government oil and electric companies—which the president wants to rescue from the insolvency his predecessors hoped would justify their sale—and ongoing public works that the media terms “AMLO’s pet megaprojects.” These included an oil refinery and the Tren Maya, a 948-mile railroad linking tourist destinations in the impoverished Southeast.

AMLO should be scrutinized like any other leader, of course. Many of his more contentious decisions are at least tentatively defensible for their potential collective good, but the lack of principled, fact-based journalism in Mexico robs citizens of independently verified details on government affairs. It has just never been part of most media business models, centered as they are on serving advertisers, among which the federal government was first. Rare confrontations with the rich and powerful were usually the work of a renegade journalist, who often faced consequences. These ranged from job loss—as in the case of the celebrated newswoman, Carmen Aristegui, whose radio show was canceled after publicizing a secret real-estate deal involving then-President Peña Nieto’s wife—to violence, like when the lesser-known Lydia Cacho was arrested and tortured after shedding light on “powerful men in a pedophilia ring that preyed on young girls.” 

Now that the former opposition is running things, broadcasters and newspapers pretend to be watchdogs for transparency and good governance, while peddling devious reads that provide an incomplete or misleading view of facts, events, and circumstances. 

(AMLO’s career-long feud with a slanderous establishment media, whose daily hits he feels as president he must keep responding to—sometimes with unstatesmanlike mockery and name-calling: “preppy press”, “sellout journalists”—has further exacerbated the problem of news reporting in a country with one of the highest murder rates for journalists. Although the alleged perpetrators are most often linked to organized crime or state government corruption, the president’s complaints of biased reporting have fed into a narrative that he, too, is attacking press freedom.)

In December 2019, weeks before news of COVID-19 first broke, López-Gatell cited “conflicts of interest” as one reason previous administrations failed to tackle malnutrition illnesses. “In other words, serving private interests over public ones” contributed to the lack of comprehensive policies, he said, while describing “a very large epidemic in the country,” based on the extent of diabetes, hypertension and hypercholesterolemia, and the fact that three in four adults had excess weight or obesity.

Yet nobody has ever been made to answer for the million-or-so lives lost to diabetes alone under two presidents, the PAN’s Felipe Calderón (2006-12) and the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18). No newscasters or analysts ever chastised those who made Mexico a world leader in the comorbidities tied to COVID-19 lethality. What’s more, the news establishment’s belligerence toward a well-liked president—the first in generations to encounter more fans than hecklers wherever he travels “because in him they see an honest and well-intentioned man who supports those who have less”—is as dissonant as it is telling of the media barons’ own distance from the average Mexican.

Poor people’s health problems have never headlined like violent crime, despite being more serious. The drug war—the crackdown on “crimes against public health”—sent the homicide rate skyrocketing in 2011 to 23.6 per 100,000 residents, per government data, but that same year saw a diabetes death rate of 70 per 100,000. Then, while homicides dropped somewhat for a few years before climbing back up to 29.3 per 100,000 by 2018, diabetes fatalities rose steadily, registering 86 per 100,000 in 2016, 2017, and 2018. By comparison, in the U.S., deaths from diabetes in 2018 were 21.4 per 100,000

Still, the media’s preference for violence makes sense from a business perspective. Sensational crime stories are good sellers, and are less fraught than holding presidents and billionaires accountable for the diabetes holocaust.

Oligarchic interests are also why opinion-shaping enterprises worked to defame political interlopers. After 1988, when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas—son of iconic President Lázaro Cárdenas, and a critic of the PRI’s neoliberalization—was robbed of the presidency, a vicious character assassination of “Fidel Castro’s compadre” helped foil his comeback in 1994 and 2000. With AMLO’s rise, media forces then fought the “Mexican Hugo Chávez.”

As with many a shakeup in communications technology, however, a political earthquake followed. Emerging online information sources—users of Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as a grassroots army of Youtubers—ultimately checked corporate media’s influence to some extent. And in 2018, AMLO seized the moment, winning 53 percent of votes (and a stunning 31 percent margin), while his fledgling party—National Regeneration Movement (MORENA)—took both chambers of congress. As he savored victory, the president-elect thanked the benditas redes sociales (“blessed social networks”).

It was the culmination of a people’s saga to reclaim a government hijacked decades ago by hundreds of plutocratic families. But while the electoral loss was disappointing for the holders of Mexico’s wealth, AMLO’s proposals are hardly radical. He speaks the language of social democracy, after all, not socialism; he battles tax evasion, but refuses to raise taxes; he rails against shady billionaires, but he is a willing dealmaker. Further, MORENA’s menace is undercut by strife among its big tent membership, and some of its lawmakers’ inexperience and susceptibility to lobbyists. The elite’s control of mass media, moreover, remains intact, with its power to mislead and stir chaos to destabilize non-compliant presidents.

In resistance mode, the media has double-downed on the disinformation, and has made inroads into social media. Televisa and TV Azteca—the broadcasting duopoly whose integrity makes Fox News seem ethical—underreport AMLO’s accomplishments, push damaging rumors, and air few alternative viewpoints. In April 2020, a prominent TV Azteca news anchor declared that everything López-Gatell said was untrue and that he should be ignored. Media personalities perform skillful charades of debate and analysis that uncritically dismiss inconvenient facts, but weaponize petty, and classist, issues against the administration.

A common epithet for AMLO’s increasingly virulent disparagers is golpistas (“coup plotters”). Among them are a retired archbishop, who warned against the country’s slide toward communism; former President Calderón, who told fellow Latin American conservatives that “an armed rebellion” may be needed to “halt the pandemic of populism;” and well-heeled suburbanites who periodically attempt street protests.

A violent overthrow of Mexico’s president is almost unimaginable today, a century since the last one, but preceding rightist coups in the Global South has often been propaganda aimed at delegitimizing democratic leaders. The game plan is a CIA favorite for installing friendly dictators, involving minimal force and containable fallout. In Brazil, as a matter of fact, where broadcasters also enjoy considerable clout, Dilma Rousseff’s ouster in 2016 shows that a media junta can fell regimes as capably as a squad of generals.

In any case, AMLO’s literal toppling need not be an imperative: tarnishing his image could jeopardize his reformist agenda, especially without a leftist counterweight to right-wing pressure.

For their part, Global North news media may not have a direct motive for slamming AMLO, but their journalistic apathy toward nonwhite, peripheral societies has led even “newspapers of record”—like the New York Times, The Guardian and El País—to uncritically amplify, and reify, the narratives of reactionary Mexican editors.

Mexico’s Struggle for Electoral Democracy

It is often said that Mexico became a democracy in 2000, when the PRI admitted losing to the PAN’s Fox—a first since its 1929 creation. But the PRI’s rightward shift over the preceding years had lessened the moment’s meaning. Essentially, it amounted to an intra-elite transfer of power, and the forging of a bipartisanship derisively called “PRIAN” ever since.  Marring the contest as well were the classic irregularities, including coercion and vote buying. Meanwhile, the left-leaning Cárdenas never stood a chance, stifled by a dozen years of redbaiting, and hundreds of assassinations that decimated the activist ranks of his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). In Chiapas, the persecution of the Zapatistas’ indigenous constituents raged on, too; a new guerrilla war brewed in Guerrero; and Mexicans everywhere still reeled from the bank bailout.

On the other hand, also in 2000, a swarthy troublemaker from the sticks became Mexico City’s mayor (a position he’d hold until 2005). In the tropical cadence of the rural Southeast, AMLO connected with an urban populace hurt by the volatilities of free trade, regressive fiscal policies, the erosion of social security, and declining living standards. The municipal welfare state he built earned him a loyal following in the megalopolis, where he founded a tuition-free city university; built affordable housing; and increased cash assistance for single mothers, disabled people, needy families with children, and anyone over 70.

But AMLO’s peculiar “republican austerity” philosophy did not win over all leftists. Calling for a lean government that serves the poor, it values well-designed social spending, but prefers eliminating waste—from tax evasion, corruption, excessive public salaries, and bloated bureaucracies—before raising taxes. Besides laying off thousands of city workers, the master politician irked allies by switching a pricey subway expansion for a cheaper, new bus-rapid-transit network and a highway project catering to suburban commuters; hiring Rudy Giuliani to consult on law enforcement; and partnering with multibillionaire Carlos Slim to redevelop (and gentrify) the dilapidated Centro Histórico.

Ultimately, AMLO was a wildly popular mayor, leaving office with an 84 percent approval rating and a soaring national stature. His plain, provincial presence, a reputation for hard work, and his own personal asceticism added to a growing reverence from humble people across Mexico who had never before recognized themselves in the political class. After a failed legal stunt by Fox to bar the firebrand from the 2006 presidential election, polls predicted AMLO’s victory.

Naturally, the media and the neoliberal parties worked in tandem. Dick Morris, the U.S. consultant helping Calderón (like Fox in 2000), ideated the campaign against the “danger to Mexico.” Enrique Krauze, a famous historian and magazine editor—whose op-eds are known to U.S. readers, and who more recently was accused by a former colleague of fabricating libel—dubbed AMLO the “tropical messiah,” and suggested that the former mayor, if elected president, would never step down. 

But the supposed radical also suffered from an enthusiasm gap among leftists—including the Zapatistas, who enjoyed a broad following at the time and who dismissed AMLO as a neoliberal in disguise—in addition to the PRD’s internal divisions.

In the end, Calderón appeared to win by the slimmest of margins, and election officials refused a full recount despite significant anomalies. Months of protests went nowhere. Over subsequent years, the PRD convulsed. Then, after another debacle in 2012, when Peña Nieto led the PRI back to power, AMLO founded a new party called MORENA.

Regenerating Hope in Mexico

MORENA’s acronym evokes the mestizo-brown complexion of most Mexicans, though it is uncommon in traditional circles of power. It is just as rare in television, film, and advertising: windows to a whiter, affluent Mexico, First World in lifestyle and mindset, with its own dialect and mannerisms. In another dimension, the darker, poorer 4/5 of Mexico, who live in the countryside and in the cities, subsist in jobs that range from dreary to dangerous. They perfect the art of servility for tourists and the rich, and crowd streets and plazas hawking food and wares. The latter is the country that made AMLO president, and among the best-rated global leaders.

AMLO’s 2018 signature proposal was the Fourth Transformation, a set of sweeping reforms delivering on the right to health, housing, nutrition, and education. The agenda’s name (4T, for short) is a reference to Mexico’s three historically transformative events. These giant steps toward liberty and justice were independence from Spain (1821), the establishment of a liberal republic (1857), and the Revolution (1910-20).

The last upheaval would be better described as a truncated revolution. The civil war produced the Constitution of 1917, the world’s first to incorporate social and worker rights, and which went on to serve as a draft model for the Soviet magna carta the following year. But rather than abolishing capitalism, Mexico’s revolution prescribed a mixed economy, keeping intact the economic elite that would in time retake every facet of public life.

The Revolution’s idealism and early social gains are largely what inspire the 4T as it moves to present an overdue, but cautious, challenge to today’s magnates. The full levying of stipulated taxes—an effective tax increase without raising rates—is up there with AMLO’s healthcare overhaul and other social policy reforms as evidence of his government’s new focus on the needs of the common people. Yet, AMLO’s readiness to deal with the devil remains clear, as evidenced by his partnering with Mexico’s economic overlords to negotiate the new NAFTA, or his approval of a pro-corporate proposal for pension reform

Revamping the expensive, corrupt government bureaucracy sapping public resources and citizens’ trust in institutions is also essential. Too many civil servants have profited from a culture of self-reward, while extending special opportunities to favored vendors, suppliers and contractors. Even without breaking laws, wide acceptance of the civil service as a gravy train is partly why Mexico’s public salaries are nearly 13 times its GDP per capita, more than twice the OECD average.

AMLO’s corrective zeal, then, alienated not only the old regime’s sovereigns, but also its barnacles. As president, he slashed government pay across the board, and capped annual salaries at $60,000, including his own—to the chagrin of 35,000 public servants earning more than that, in a country where 96 percent of jobs pay under $9,000—and disappeared endless perks, unreasonable travel budgets, bodyguards, luxury cars, and generous bonuses. He centralized procurement functions to reduce discretion; reclassified government subcontractors as employees; insourced social services, increasing savings and supervision; attacked the plague of phantom employees on public payrolls; and canceled federal agencies’ unregulated trust funds.

To be sure, the 4T’s shrillest objectors are often those spurred by their own lost privileges, including members of the media. Federal ad expenditures in 2019 were barely a third of Peña Nieto’s in his first year. And among the hardest hit were journalists López-Dóriga and Krauze. After all, through their firms, the two men had collected over $18 million between them from the Peña Nieto administration over his six years in office. Pundits, authors, and academics—the court of intellectuals customarily wined and dined by presidents—lost status themselves, if not income or flattering appointments. AMLO calls them “accomplices” of the ancien régime, while one analyst, Gibrán Ramírez—part of a rising generation of leftist thinkers—reminds his readers that, “While the Mexican State was being dismantled, and privatizations moved forward, the intellectual left called for more plurinominal congress members… as governors grew their power and influence to create family fortunes,” the academic left called for improved federalism. 

But importantly, too: stricter control of taxpayer money may finally pull the plug on an institution called the chayote, the bribes public officials traditionally paid reporters for complimentary reviews.

A Historic Opportunity

The two concurrent pandemics of COVID and chronic disease bode many more dark days for Mexico, where the maddeningly slow arrival of purchased vaccines has moved the government to file a complaint with the United Nations. An optimistic outlook is hard to conjure at the moment, but for those yearning to see a freer, fairer country, the current government is the best development in over half a century. This is not due to AMLO’s leadership being flawless—personally, ideologically, or strategically—but to his convincing resolve to break the oligarchy’s stranglehold on the nation’s fate, an essential step toward true democracy.

Impressive feats on paper, like healthcare reform, are no guarantee of lasting change, of course (though retaining its congressional majorities in next year’s midterms would help MORENA consolidate gains). Conservatives and centrists remain highly unpopular, but the fractious party—too mired in discord to educate and organize since 2018—commands far less trust than its founder. The need for a united militancy on AMLO’s left to countervail the reactionary onslaught, and to nurture a social movement that holds its leaders accountable, cannot be overstated.

The absence of such a force may help explain AMLO’s deepening ties to certain members of the elite, and to the military. Though unhappy with his pro-worker agenda, industrialists stay close to the busy, peripatetic president who skips tedious bidding processes and directly awards contracts to the willing and reliable. Meanwhile, Mexico’s armed forces have gained previously exogenous duties—management of certain infrastructure projects, hospitals, airports, and part of the future Tren Maya, in addition to the formalization of their de facto role in law enforcement—sparking concerns about over-militarization. But bypassing civilian bureaucracies staffed by resentful public servants might be AMLO’s workaround for the lack of a strong political organization to support 4T initiatives.

Such actions are fodder for allegations of authoritarianism against AMLO—hurled, unironically, from PRI and PAN quarters—while his two-year overlap with Trump invited a host of trivial parallels between the two leaders. The most obvious is their shared penchant for churlish complaining about an unfair media. But whereas the Nazi-sympathizing billionaire owed his rise to sensational news coverage, the social democrat had to outsmart the media, maximizing his exposure by setting each day’s agenda with a daily two-hour press conference at 7am.

Either way, an organized left should ensure the president adheres to procedural rules and champions causes that, out of caution or ambivalence, he has not. Among these are tax reform, and the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion (though, in true maverick fashion, he suggests the latter be resolved via a women-only vote). AMLO also needs pushing to better protect the environment and indigenous self-determination—issues raised by the Tren Maya—and on questions about the macroeconomic wisdom of further investing in tourism.  

Finally, despite the public health and economic crises, AMLO’s enduring popularity—62 percent approval in December—may surprise the casual observer after a review of his press coverage. One reason could be Mexicans’ substantial economic gains in 2019, including an income spike of 24 percent among the bottom 1/5 of wage earners. But job creation has been slow, and job losses will be part of the ongoing recession—adding to MORENA’s need to organize and develop its bases. AMLO’s inspiration of previously unengaged masses to join the political process is a beautiful sight, but many such “Chairos” remain wide-eyed, gaining a reputation for intolerance of anyone criticizing the first living president they recognize as one of their own. The 4T’s failure would be a devastating setback to Mexican dreams of a nation of equals, the basis for real democracy. Let us hope this historic opportunity to empower a dispossessed people with the keys to their own destiny bears fruit.

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