Mexico’s new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO), was sworn in on Saturday after a five-month transition period following the election. Lopez Obrador swept to power after two earlier, failed attempts at the presidency, and has used the long interim since the election to begin shaping the contours of an agenda that he says will root the money out of Mexican politics.
“Starting now, transformation is underway, ordered and peaceful but at the same time radical, because we will end the corruption and impunity that impede Mexico’s rebirth,” Lopez Obrador said during his inaugural address.
Lopez Obrador, who did not shy away from politicking and discussing his future policies in the waiting period before his inauguration, is entering office with a 56 percent approval rating. His predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, saw his popularity plummet to 28 percent before he handed over the reins of the executive.
Pena Nieto, whose 2012 defeat of Lopez Obrador marked the return to power of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party after 12 years as the opposition, leaves behind a formidable national debt, a slow economy, and continued high rates of poverty. Perhaps most significant, however, was his government’s response to the drug war and the violent crime surrounding it, a legacy that Amnesty International calls “one of the worst human rights crises in the hemisphere.” The organization released a long statement on Friday, documenting the president’s efforts to turn complete control of the conflict (and public security in general) over to an essentially extrajudicial military and the countless abuses that were visited on the civilian population as a result. Looking forward, the organization took a decidedly skeptical approach to the incoming administration of Lopez Obrador: “With the departure of Peña Nieto’s government and with no certainty that the new government will fight against impunity, victims of human rights violations continue to have their rights infringed and face a difficult journey on the road to truth, justice and reparation, all of which are necessary to build a future in which such atrocities and suffering can never be repeated.”
There has been heavy criticism of Lopez Obrador for his changing approach to the dual crises of drug violence and military lawlessness. Throughout the campaign, he advocated reversing Pena Nieto’s destructive “war on drugs,” which is understood to have bred more violence than it prevented. In mid-November, however, the president-elect announced his National Peace and Security Plan, which would amend the Constitution in order to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling limiting the role of the military. Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a researcher in the CIDE Drug Policy Program, said in a New York Times op-ed that if Lopez Obrador follows through, “the militarization of Mexico will not only deepen, but could become irreversible.” The president’s plan, Madrazo Lajous points says, would legitimize the military’s current, de facto grip on public security, and give it a foothold in criminal investigations and prosecutions. The plan, introduced by the new president’s MORENA party, would involve establishing a National Guard under the command of the military with a more broadly defined role in society.
As part of his stated goal to wash out government waste and corruption, the president has also promised to institute a series of austerity measures. These include laying off 70 percent of non-unionized public servants and revising plans for public works projects — cancelling the construction of a 13 billion dollar airport and giving the go-ahead for a railroad through Mayan territory. Remaining public employees will reportedly be required to work six days a week to make up for the cutbacks. Lopez Obrador cited the results of two controversial public referendums conducted by his party as his mandate.
Just like Bernie Sanders in 2016 — and for many of the same reasons — Lopez Obrador been routinely compared to Trump by writers and pundits in the United States. Such analyses, if they can be called that, tend to culminate in vague comparisons of the two as populists, and demonstrate more than anything the U.S. political establishment’s reaction to having a socialist in the neighborhood. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the only recognizable thing about Lopez Obrador so far is his Security Plan.
As for his government’s relationship to the United States, Lopez Obrador has found an immediate source of conflict with his more gaudy American counterpart: the border. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was among the foreign dignitaries in attendance on Saturday at Lopez Obrador’s swearing in ceremony, and was scheduled to meet with Mexico’s new foreign minister for lunch. The incoming government has asked the United States to ramp up its asylum process and invest 20 billion dollars in the the several Central American countries from which people are fleeing. In exchange, it says, Mexico will allow people to stay while they wait for asylum proceedings to take place. Lopez Obrador is also now tasked with deciding whether or not to keep federal troops at the border, which have already begun relocating asylum-seekers to government-run centers. In Tijuana, the epicenter of the crisis, local officials have declared a state of emergency.
The former mayor of Mexico City, President Lopez Obrador has fitted himself out with the accoutrements of a leader devoted to paring down government excess and corruption in the name of combating poverty. He’s retiring the presidential plane, travels without much evident security, and put on display the opulent, formerly private Los Pinos presidential residence, which was opened to the public on Saturday.
“It’s like I am entering the Palace of Versailles,” said one of the first visitors. “I imagine the French people when they entered. It is obscene to see this ostentation compared to the misery.”