AMLO in his labyrinth

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The symbols

As the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) lives in his own house, and not in Los Pinos, the former official presidential residence, which since 1 December has become a cultural center open to the public; he goes to work in the Palacio National in his personal Jetta, holds a daily meeting about security at 6.00 in the morning and at 7.00 am speaks with journalists on anything and everything. He put the presidential plane up for sale, travels in tourist class on commercial flights and queues up to board just like any other passenger.

His disbanded the presidential guard, the security corps for the head of state, vehemently rejects the idea of having a bodyguard although he created a detail of civilian “assistants” who organize his movements. He says 'Hi' to people in the street, has a coffee at some corner stand, hears requests, poses for selfies and says over and over that he will not disappoint. He reduced his salary 108,000 pesos per month (about $5,400) His party, Morena which has a majority in Congress passed a law which regulates the salaries of public officials, keeping them below this limit.

Convinced that the origin and driving force behind the Mexican situation is corruption and that it can only be fought against in the same way as stairs are swept, “from the top down”, López Obrador resorts to the language of symbols and to the prominence of his position to show a public life free from luxury in a country with an extraordinary level of inequality, “You cannot have a poor country with a rich government”.

With a program of changes led by greater public investment and a strong social policy, he has no undertaking more emblematic, more visible and perhaps more recognized than his own engagement in the ranks of the austere and transparent, something he has used to turn his mandate into a didactic exercise.

The Shake-ups

The barrage of the government´s first decisions have shaken the country in several ways. The cancellation of the construction of a new international airport for Mexico City resulted in a clash with the bond holders that funded the operation and forces the government to find a negotiated solution and face the costs, such as pressures on interest rates, the debt, the risk prime and the exchange rate. After Congress agreed to increase the number of crimes where convicted could lead to an automatic prison sentence, specialists and human rights defenders warned that, since the judiciary is weak and corrupt, there is a risk of the jails being filled with innocent people. A widespread wave of opinions, including that of his own wife, is reproaching the president over his disregard for his personal security and demanding that he take responsible care of the head of the executive branch.

Without the guarantees and safeguards of a formal election, AMLO put the decision about the airport and a package of social and economic projects to a popular vote. The voting backed the government´s plans but turn out at the polls was scarcely one percent of the electorate in both cases. In defense of his main goal and in response to criticism over the recklessness of the referendum and the extremely low turn-out, López Obrador replied that big decisions must be consulted with the population and not taken in the solitude of offices.

The reduction of civil servant salaries unleashed protests, resignations, early retirements and an unheard of rebellion by judges and magistrates who claimed their income was a guarantee of their independence. To arguments that there could be a possible reduction in qualified state technicians and professionals and their replacement by inexpert staff, the government and its party have replied with data on high salaries and spendthrift expenses in congress and in the judiciary.

Inclined to improvise in public, López Obrador replies to the critics. He calls the press that is hostile to him “fifi” (conservative, elitist) He often attributes disagreements to concerted campaigns. Government supporters join in these responses in social media and networks, opponents raise the tone and discussion becomes polarized. The new government has only been in power for a few weeks and the political climate is strained.

In contrast to these tugs of war, the government reached an agreement with the business sector and unions to increase the minimum wage by 16 percent to take it to the equivalent of US $153 per month On the northern border which is directly impacted by the US economy, the increase is twice as much, monthly wages reach $264.

The budget for 2019 is based on a reallocation of budget items and a reduction in current spending. Spending on health, defense, job creation and the oil industry are up, but the plan follows orthodox premises, rigorously meeting its financial obligations, a primary surplus and a public deficit of 2 percent. Although Mexico is the OECD country that collects the lowest amount of tax revenue and one of the lowest amounts in Latin America, there are no immediate tax hikes included in the budget. The big question is whether the private sector will have enough confidence to invest, as the president is asking it to do.

López Obrador appointed Division General (highest rank)  Luís Cresencio Sandoval González, 58, as minister of National Defense. He has a postgraduate degrees from the US and is the former assistant military attaché in the embassy in Washington, and before his appointment was the commander of the military region which includes the turbulent northeastern state of Tarpaulins. What is most remarkable about his promotion is that, for the first time in three decades, the defense minister comes from an operational command and is not a staff officer. This broke the dynamic of the changing of the guard which has prevailed in the high command during the time that Mexico has been submerged in the spiral of narco-violence and with a single stroke, the career ladder of an entire generation of top ranked officers was sidelined.

History and Milieu

López Obrador turns to history in all possible ways. He is proposing an attack on inequality and corruption that he refers to as “The Fourth Transformation”, a discrete episode equivalent to the great milestones of the last two centuries, (Independence, Reform and the Mexican Revolution) A former member and public official  of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, which was hegemonic for almost 80 years ) he broke with that party and grew close to social movements. In the Eighties he moved towards the opposition front headed by Cuauhtémoc Cardenas and then to the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), both groupings which, at one time, represented the left. He has run for president three times, perhaps there is no leader like him who has traveled the length and breadth of Mexico. The alliance that was victorious in last July´s presidential elections represents a broad spectrum of opinions, ranging from the traditional left to groups of evangelical Christians. His caudillo-style leadership, his oratory, and his emphasis on large multitudes could make him seem Perón or Vargas. However, whichever way you look at it, the AMLO phenomenon cannot be examined with conventional tools and neither is there any way of sticking conventional labels on him.

Submerged in internal problems López Obrador doesn´t seems very interested in playing a protagonistic role with his foreign policy.  His attention is focused on his immediate surroundings, the United States and Central America. He has had conversations with Donald Trump which both have described as positive and has promoted a regional plan to foster development of the isthmus and to reduce migration. Apart from this, mines on the road to a relationship with the neighbor to the north are an agenda which includes arms trafficking, drug smuggling, human trafficking and the ratification of the new North American trade agreement, among other issues, which means that the future promises to be very volatile when this road is combined with the unpredictable behavior of the current head of the White House.

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