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What Does President Biden Need To Understand About Mexico?

Early in his presidency Joe Biden will be forced to deal with a number of issues related to Mexico including asylum seekers at the border, ongoing disputes related to trade, how to respond to “Dreamers” and other long-term undocumented residents, and evolving problems relating to organized crime and violence. In engaging with Mexico, Biden finds himself liaising with one of the most enigmatic and charismatic leaders in the Americas. Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is a uniquely polarizing and controversial figure. He is pro-coal and hostile to renewable energy. He disparages feminist activists and promotes traditional family values. He is anti-elite but fosters close alliances with some of Mexico’s billionaires. He is anti-neoliberal but favors cash handouts over improving government capacity. Foreign analysts and observers often struggle to characterize him. Is he a socialist? A progressive? An old-school conservative? Lopez Obrador brands himself as a leftist who battles Mexico’s “conservatives,” but he also openly embraced former U.S. President Trump and has offered a cold initial reception to President Biden. To discuss Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador and the current state of US-Mexico relations, I reached out to Patrick Iber, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery: Under López Obrador’s leadership how is the relationship between government and society evolving in Mexico?

Patrick Iber: It's an interesting question, because President López Obrador has long operated in a kind of hybrid space between a political leader and a leader of a social movement. Especially after the elections of 2006, which were officially a narrow loss for López Obrador but which he believes he won, he operated a shadow government and a protest movement together. With the official founding of MORENA in 2014, López Obrador built a connection between his political party and that social movement. And of course in 2018 he was elected with 53% of the vote in a three-person race. Especially because he positioned himself as a representative of the people and against Mexico’s elites, López Obrador seems to think that Mexican society is now in charge of the government. It's clear that many Mexicans agree: López Obrador's frequent tours put him in touch with ordinary people and many people appreciate the social programs he has put in place. Those programs may not be as effective as advertised: up to this point, total social spending hasn't changed much when compared to the years before López Obrador took office, and what you have seen so far is mostly the conversion of government services to direct cash benefits. That may actually lead to a reduction in important state capacity. In addition, because of significant economic contraction in the year of the coronavirus, 17 million people fell below the poverty line. Still, the social programs are popular, and there have been overdue increases in the minimum wage and there are increases in pensions on the way. López Obrador’s approval ratings remain in the low 60s—down from the initial euphoria, but still very strong, especially given his government's abysmal response to the pandemic.

If López Obrador sees himself as representing society, it also helps to explain why his response to social critics is so frequently to accuse them of occult conservatism, or representing special interests rather than the general will. This has happened since the beginning with international NGOs. It has also happened with environmentalists critical of his developmentalist projects, like the new oil refinery at Dos Bocas or the proposed Tren Maya. It has also happened with feminists: there have been major instances of direct action since López Obrador took office, carried out by women demanding an end to discrimination, sexual assault, and femicide. In 2019, for example, there were over 1,000 killings of women and girls targeted because of their gender; few are ever investigated and up to 77% of Mexican women report feeling unsafe. López Obrador really doesn't get it: he responds that protests by activists are designed by his political opponents to make his government fail, and promises that the end to neoliberalism that his government represents will be the solution to the problem. It's not wrong to say that economic well-being is important, but the problem goes beyond that and certainly isn't a matter of "special interests." So when you ask “how the relationship between government and society is evolving,” it’s essential to notice that López Obrador has a hard time imagining that there’s any difference between his government and society at large. What worries me about that is that governments of the left are usually at their best when they have powerful and independent social movements pushing them while also holding them accountable. But independent social movements don't really fit into López Obrador's view of the world.

There's a school of thought, quite evident among the pro-López Obrador media, that their president is a great genius, whose apparent errors are actually far-sighted decisions reflecting his acumen and long-term vision. In that sense, his apparent "conservatism" is just a reflection of the conservative views of much of the population of the country, and the fact that he isn't in lockstep with the agenda of the urban progressive left is a sign of his wisdom. After all, he has an approval rating above 60 in Mexico. But even supposing that that argument is correct, it does have implications for how we understand his project. It would still mean that we're missing something important by describing López Obrador simply as a "leftist." 

Read entire article at Forbes