The Contradictions of AMLO and MexicoRoundup
tags: Mexican history, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, AMLO
Humberto Beck teaches history at El Colegio de México. He is the author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought.
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.
On December 1, 2021, Mexico City’s central public square, the Zócalo, began to fill with supporters of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It had been two years since there had been a public gathering of this size. Buses arrived from around the country, some organized by municipalities governed by AMLO’s party, Morena, and some by labor unions. After hours of musical performances, the president appeared. His supporters were happy to see someone that they looked up to both as a politician and as a moral authority. In his speech, AMLO highlighted the government’s signature policies and plans for the future. “In three years,” he said, “more than ever before, the mentality of the people has changed, and that is the most important thing of all.”
While AMLO’s supporters celebrated and the president touted his respect for the Constitution, a much smaller group had gathered about ten miles from the city center. Outside the gates to the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, students had organized an occupation in protest of the government-appointed rector who has led the institution since November. CIDE is a prestigious public university that focuses on training students in the social sciences. While the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México has more than 200,000 students, CIDE has just 400. It was founded in 1974 under left-wing nationalist President Luis Echeverría to train experts who could advise him on economic policy. In the 1990s, however, it became known for professors who completed doctorates abroad, which, in some cases, included training in market economics. AMLO alleges that during the neoliberal era that he so frequently criticizes, the institution “ended up abandoning public service.”
The CIDE students don’t see it that way. And when the new rector arrived last fall and contravened established practices in the university regarding faculty promotion and retention, they went on strike. Many worry that in an environment in which AMLO tends to equate public service with support for his government, there is real danger to academic freedom for those involved in research or advocacy that diverges from the government’s plans and policies. These fears are connected to other attacks on academia. Earlier in 2021, the Mexican government drew international criticism over its handling of a corruption case against several scientists who had received state support; the government overruled court decisions that favored the scientists and threatened them with severe laws normally used against drug traffickers. Students and faculty alike worry that AMLO’s administration has placed academics among its targets—and that it is using the politics of austerity to attack institutions that he perceives as hostile to his aims.
AMLOFest and the student occupation at CIDE were hardly equal in scale, and the contrast between them suggests something of the nature of AMLO’s government. Although the president continues to enjoy approval levels around 60 percent, his disapproval ratings have increased from a low of 14 percent in 2019 to 39 percent this February. While the government retains its popularity among broad swaths of the population, the president’s actions have alienated an increasing number of voters. AMLO judges almost everything according to how it affects his image. He has boasted during one of his morning press conferences that his net favorability ratings are second only to Narendra Modi’s on the world stage, apparently without awareness that it might be an unflattering comparison. AMLO reserves for himself the right to decide who belongs to the authentic people, and who is part of the self-interested elite. In his with-me-or-against-me logic, critics—including not just academics but also journalists and activists for various causes—are presented as motivated by the defense of their privileges and the old regime. Many of AMLO’s supporters echo these criticisms; pro-Morena journalist Gibrán Ramírez dismissed the occupation of CIDE as a “picnic.”
AMLO is Mexico’s first left-wing president since the country’s transition to competitive democracy in the late 1990s. When he was elected in 2018, many hoped that by reducing extreme inequality and corruption, as he promised to do, his presidency would deepen and expand democracy. Though some worried about his “populist” qualities, populist movements are not entirely inimical to democracy: they can bring new voices into politics, empower and integrate marginalized groups, and dismantle networks of privilege. But these movements can also imbue charismatic leaders with symbolic power, attack independent institutions and social movements, and build new networks of privilege based on loyalty. In the years since his election, these conflicting populist tendencies have coexisted in AMLO’s Mexico. But in the past year, there have been more frequent and more serious episodes in which AMLO has overstepped the bounds of democratic leadership. He has embraced the personalization of authority as the best way to advance his political project.
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