On March 6, I met and heard Mexican politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speak in a private setting as he made a stop in El Paso, Texas, on a speaking tour of the U.S. Having served as Mayor of Mexico City from 2001 to 2005, he ran for president on the leftist PRD party’s ticket in 2006 and 2012, losing both times in elections awash in accusations of fraud. In 2012, he formed the new National Regeneration Movement Party (MORENA), which has taken liberal social and economic positions. He is a populist, often compared to Bernie Sanders, who has called for a restructured trade and diplomatic relationship with the U.S. He is again a candidate for president in Mexico’s 2018 elections, and is considered a frontrunner.
I viewed Donald Trump’s presidential election as being a boost to Lopez Obrador’s candidacy, because of the condescending manner in which the new U.S. president has framed Mexico and the U.S.’s trade relationship with this country. I fully expected Lopez Obrador to fire back and say that Mexico doesn’t need the U.S., but I was surprised to see him take calculated stances on the U.S.-Mexico relationship that seemed to outflank Trump in their scope and creativity. He seemed polished and confident during his talk, and subsequent question and answer session.
Lopez Obrador stated that Mexicans have spent many years waiting for real change in Mexico, but this hasn’t happened. The real change he said his party is proposing is to eradicate corruption in the country – this is what he calls Mexico’s biggest problem. It impedes almost every sector in Mexico. Corruption flows from the top down, and in politics, national politicians down to mayors of towns engage in corruption, and it becomes a part of life.
He stated that corruption claims a minimum of 10 percent of government funding. It is a major problem that corrupt people are not shamed, and privileged people can operate with impunity when they engage in corruption. According to Lopez Obrador, the first step in getting rid of corruption is to reestablish justice. “We need to start prosecuting people, not only in the executive branch, but also in the judicial sector.” The executive branch appoints judges and then when corruption occurs, there is no prosecution.
If corruption can be controlled, there are going to be abundant resources for development, which can be put to productive use for the benefit of the nation. Under a Lopez Obrador presidency, the focus will be on the public, private, and social sectors.
The liberated funds from corruption eradication will first be used to help the southern part of Mexico, which he says has been neglected for too long. He advocated taking a south-to-north development focus. Using Cancun as an example of a successful southern project, he wants to develop tourism sites in southern Mexico. He also wants to develop two new refineries in the south near the Gulf of Mexico, so that “we don’t have to keep importing 60 percent of our gas.” Currently, Mexico has six refineries and a new one has not been built for 30 years. Expanding ports of entry and developing train routes for container cargo are also priorities.
On Mexico’s northern border, he is proposing a 25-kilometer free trade zone in order to provide investment opportunities for the private sector. In addition, he wants to reduce personal taxes and standardize Mexico’s value-added tax to the sales tax being charged on the U.S. side – he was quick to claim that economists say that this will not create inflation.
He wants to increase workers’ wages in Mexico, which he says are some of the lowest in the world, for both line and specialized workers. An auto worker makes $3 to $5 per hour in Mexico and in the U.S. this is $35 per hour. In a classic populist statement, he said, “We need to have income distribution or we will not have peace and tranquility in Mexico.”
As for the Trump administration’s stance on free trade, Lopez Obrador believes that the U.S. cannot pursue a protectionist stance, because U.S. companies are competitive due to their relationship with Mexico, especially in the border region. He stated that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross himself has auto parts manufacturing plants in the border region. U.S. auto companies could not compete with other international companies without their relationship with Mexico.
As a final point, he stated that the campaign of hate against Mexicans in the U.S. really concerned him, and, “If the U.S.’s circumstances are bad, it isn’t because of Mexico or immigrants. Yet, this rhetoric was successful for Trump because he got elected. However, he won’t be successful or reelected by using a campaign against immigrants again.”
Lopez Obrador struck me as a politician who is not in his first rodeo. He is very familiar with the issues and is taking his message to Mexicans in Mexico and throughout the U.S. His platform appears to be Mexico’s age-old balancing act of advancing social causes without scaring away investors or creating uncontrolled inflation in the economy. Whether Mexico buys into his populist stances and sweeps him to power in his third try remains to be seen.