The Immovable AMLORoundup
tags: neoliberalism, Mexico, globalization, Mexican history, Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Humberto Beck is a professor at the Center for International Studies at the Colegio de México in Mexico City. He is author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought.
Carlos Bravo Regidor is a political analyst and professor at the Journalism Program of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, CIDE, in Mexico City.
Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico in 2018, he promised a government “for the good of all, with the poor coming first.” He pledged to break with neoliberalism and its attendant inequalities, violence, and corruption. After more than two years in power, AMLO remains rhetorically committed to a vision of equality. But he has pursued this vision with a set of very fixed ideas. As new challenges have emerged, he has not adapted. His inflexibility threatens to undermine the promise that his election represented.
His government’s handling of the coronavirus is emblematic of this problem. When COVID-19 cases began to surface in Mexico last spring, AMLO’s response bordered on denial. A total lockdown would have been difficult to pull off in a country where a majority of the population earns a living from informal work. “I can’t stop working,” one hamburger vendor told reporters. “If I don’t sell, I don’t eat. It’s as simple as that.” But AMLO’s own activities demonstrated a lack of concern about spreading the virus. Initially, he made no changes to his practice of making trips around the country, which brought him into close contact with thousands of his supporters. He also promoted deadly misinformation. At the end of March, during one of his daily morning conferences, AMLO took out a pair of “amulets” and said that they would protect him and the country from the pandemic. Even after catching and recovering from COVID-19 in early 2021, AMLO chooses not to wear a mask in public.
As the number of cases rose, the government suspended large public gatherings and in-person schooling but avoided imposing a mandatory lockdown. Inconsistent public messaging encouraged voluntary restrictions, asking Mexicans to maintain safe social distance. Despite many people having little choice but to keep working outside of their homes to survive, Mexico experienced an 8.5 percent reduction of its gross national product in 2020, its worst economic contraction in almost ninety years.
In keeping with AMLO’s commitment to “republican austerity,” direct financial support has been minimal. Big business, he announced, had evaded taxes and didn’t deserve support: “No more bailouts like those given to banks in the era of neoliberalism.” But AMLO’s government has offered little help to ordinary people either. Some benefits were dispersed early, but there was no large-scale effort to provide insurance or basic income to the millions who found themselves short of work. Mexico’s coronavirus relief spending remains among the stingiest in the world: less than 1 percent of GDP. That figure is dwarfed by the relief policies of other Latin American countries; Chile and Brazil’s relief packages, for instance, amounted to about 8 percent of GDP.
While the flaws in the government’s response to the coronavirus are particularly acute, similar patterns appear in other policy areas. AMLO continues to decry the faults of neoliberalism, but his government is, for the most part, failing to build an effective alternative to it. Yet even as former supporters have slowly stepped away from the government and criticism has mounted, AMLO’s level of popular support remains high. As of January 2021, his approval rating was around 62 percent. His enduring popularity depends partially on what he has delivered, but even more on what he still represents.