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The Empire Strikes Back Against Mexican President AMLO

Summary:
The Economist urges Mexican voters to vote for anyone but AMLO and the US government is up to its old tricks: funneling money to political opposition groups.  Andres Manuel López Obrador enjoys pride of place on the cover of the May 29-June 4 edition of The Economist. Above his picture is the headline “Mexico’s False Messiah.” An editorial inside the magazine compares AMLO, as the president is commonly known, to “authoritarian populists” such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But unlike them, AMLO has been able to escape the limelight, the newspaper said. “This is partly because he lacks some of the vices of his populist peers. He does not deride gay people, bash Muslims or spur his supporters to torch the Amazon,” The Economist said. “To his

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The Economist urges Mexican voters to vote for anyone but AMLO and the US government is up to its old tricks: funneling money to political opposition groups. 

Andres Manuel López Obrador enjoys pride of place on the cover of the May 29-June 4 edition of The Economist. Above his picture is the headline “Mexico’s False Messiah.” An editorial inside the magazine compares AMLO, as the president is commonly known, to “authoritarian populists” such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But unlike them, AMLO has been able to escape the limelight, the newspaper said.

“This is partly because he lacks some of the vices of his populist peers. He does not deride gay people, bash Muslims or spur his supporters to torch the Amazon,” The Economist said. “To his credit, he speaks out loudly and often for Mexico’s have-nots, and he is not personally corrupt. Nonetheless, he is a danger to Mexican democracy.” As such, voters in each locality should “support whichever opposition party is best placed to win”.

President López Obrador responded to the article by describing it as “propagandistic” and highlighting the arrogance of a British weekly newspaper seeking to advise Mexicans on how to vote in next Sunday’s election:

“These foreign magazines and newspapers dedicated themselves to applauding the neoliberal policies [of past governments]; they’re in favor of privatizations, and they always kept quiet in the face of the corruption that reigned [in Mexico.]… It’s like me going to the United Kingdom and asking the English to vote for my friend [Jeremy] Corbyn of the Labour Party. I can’t do that because that’s a decision for the English. So why don’t they respect [us]?”

The Economist is not just a British newspaper. It has nearly a million subscribers in North America (far more than the 270,000 in Britain), and several hundred thousand in the rest of the world. Its readership has always comprised the crème de le crème of the financial and business elite. Within a decade of its founding, in 1843, Karl Marx described it as the organ of “the aristocracy of finance.” Not much has changed since then. As the New Yorker wrote in 2019, since the early nineties The Economist has served, alongside the Financial Times, as “the suavely British-accented voice of globalization.” And it is that voice that is now calling upon Mexican voters to frustrate AMLO’s electoral ambitions.

High-Stakes Election

This coming Sunday (June 6) Mexico will hold its biggest ever mid-term election. And the stakes could not be higher. As of six days ago 88 candidates had been killed by narco gangs. It’s a stark reminder of how strong a grip organized crime continues to hold on Mexican society.

According to the latest polls, MORENA, the umbrella movement led by AMLO, is likely to win both the congress and the senate with comfortable margins. But it’s unlikely to secure an absolute majority, which means it will still depend on other parties to pass new laws. And that is about the best result the financial and business elite, both inside and outside Mexico, could hope for.

The one thing they definitely don’t want is for AMLO to further strengthen his grip on political power in Mexico. If MORENA won an absolute majority in both legislative chambers, AMLO would be able to sign into law just about any bill. The opposition parties are exceptionally weak right now, largely because they have done such a bad job of governing in the past. Many of their members, including some of the most corrupt, have switched to MORENA, which has hardly helped MORENA’s popularity. As a friend told me, MORENA is like a garbage truck picking up old trash along the way.

The Economist cites a slew of reasons why AMLO represents a threat to Mexico’s democratic government. They include the legally questionable referendums he has held on infrastructure projects; the wide range of government tasks – including supervising large construction projects – he has entrusted to the military; his slashing of the budgets of public watchdogs; and his repeated clashes with the National Electoral Institute. 

There are plenty of other things the AMLO goverment has got wrong, as Kurt Hackbath reports in Jacobin magazine:

It has been too timid on a number of fronts, including reining in the privatized free-for-all of the mining and banking industries, attacking the nation’s grotesque wealth inequality, and defending migrants against US pressure.

It has been inactive on indigenous rights, insensitive to protests surrounding the plague of feminicides, and inadequate in creating a long-term environmental vision in the face of climate change. Its budget reductions have cut too close to the bone in a number of areas, including science and culture. And despite the fanfare of a new National Guard, the violence has not abated.

AMLO also failed to respond effectively to Covid-19. Like Trump, he played down the fears in the early days of the pandemic, with disastrous results. His government has partially made up for that in recent months by allowing the Institute of Social Security and Mexico City local authorities to recommend the use of ivermectin in the early treatment of Covid-19. According to the mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Scheinbaum, the medicine has reduced hospitalisations by as much as 76%.

AMLO’s Achievements

Even The Economist concedes that AMLO has done some good things along the way, “such as bumping up pensions and subsidizing apprenticeships for the young. Though a leftist, he has kept spending and debt under control, so Mexico’s credit rating remains tolerably firm.”

The AMLO administration has also helped to improve the lives of the millions of rural and urban poor who were essentially hung out to dry by previous administrations. But it has made powerful enemies as well. Some of the positive things it has done have hurt the profits of some of the world’s largest corporations. They have also threatened the power base and fortunes of some of Mexico’s political and financial elite. Here are a few examples:

  • The AMLO administration has strong-armed global corporations into finally settling their decades-long tax debts with the Mexican state. Coca-Cola bottler Femsa, and brewer Grupo Modelo, a division of the world’s largest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, last year paid hundreds of millions of dollars in current taxes and back taxes. As a result, the Government was able to raise more funds in 2020 than 2019, without raising taxes on the middle classes.
  • It has also passed one of the strictest food labeling laws on the planet, in a desperate bit to halt Mexico’s obesity epidemic. Many states have introduced legislation making it much more difficult for retailers to sell junk food and sugary drinks to children.
  • The government has sharply increased the minimum wage, which for decades had been one of the lowest in Latin America. It has also lowered the retirement age to qualify for pensions, increased governmental contributions and reduced commissions and reformed housing benefits to assist debtors and halt eviction.
  • It has also passed a bill to curtail the outsourcing of personnel to third party firms, which had enabled corporations to skirt health and safety regulations and avoid paying taxes and social security.
  • By rolling back some of the sweeping energy reforms unleashed by AMLO’s predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto, the government has tried to reducing the country’s reliance on gasoline imports from the US and strengthen Mexico’s energy independence.
  • AMLO has also passed a presidential decree phasing out the use of the herbicide glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, and banning the cultivation and importation of genetically modified (GM) corn. The aim is not only to improve human health and protect the environment but also to bolster Mexico’s food sovereignty.

In foreign affairs AMLO has also charted a more independent course. As Jacobin magazine reports, in the last three years “Mexico has exchanged its former slavish devotion to Washington for a rigorous defense of its own national sovereignty. It has reined in the actions of US intelligence agencies, refused to recognize Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, called a coup a coup in Bolivia, bucked the Organization of American States, and sent a plane to rescue Evo Morales.”

The Empire Strikes Back

None of these policies will have endeared AMLO to the editorial board of The Economist. Or for that matter policymakers in Washington DC. In the name of safeguarding Mexican democracy, the magazine’s editorial board exhorts citizens participating in the June 6 municipal, state and federal elections to “support whichever opposition party is best placed to win, wherever they live… The opposition parties should work together to restrain the president. … They should learn from him too. He is popular partly because they did a poor job of helping those left behind during the long boom that followed economic liberalization in the 1980s.”

The Economist also urged the US government “to pay attention” to what is happening in Mexico, as if it wasn’t already.

“Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbor. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings”.

The US government is already doing a lot more than just issuing quiet warnings; it is also funding political opposition groups in Mexico. As the investigative magazine Contralinea recently reported, both the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have been financing the organization “Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity” (MCCI). Founded by Claudio X. González Jr, the son of the long-serving president of Kimberley Clark Mexico, the MCCI investigates political corruption. But the Mexican government says it is also a political actor.

González Jr has publicly spearheaded the charge against MORENA in this year’s election by organizing the coalition of parties arrayed against it and funding candidates. He has also played a prominent role in efforts to block key pieces of AMLO’s legislative agenda in the courts.

In response to the revelations, Mexico dispatched a diplomatic note to the US on May 6 asking it to clarify the matter. At his press conference the next morning, AMLO described the US government’s funding of MCCI as a form of golpismo, or coup promotion, and likened it to the participation of US ambassador Henry Wilson in the overthrow of President Francisco Madero during the Mexican Revolution. “It’s an act of interventionism that violates our sovereignty … Our Constitution forbids it. You can’t receive money from another country for political ends.”

Given the role both USAID and NED have played in financing and organizing coups across Latin America, AMLO’s concerns are well-founded. An exposé last year by The Intercept revealed the extent to which the US Department of Justice orchestrated the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash in Brazil, which led to the downfall of Dilma Rousseff’s government, the imprisonment of former President Lula just as he was preparing to run for office again, and the eventual election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

Like Lula, AMLO is trying to steer a more independent course for his country, both in the realms of economic policy and foreign policy. But in doing so he has threatened the economic and geopolitical interests of its giant neighbor to the north. And that neighbor also happens to be Mexico’s biggest trading partner, purchasing around 80% of its exports. 

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