Over the last few weeks, at least in North America, there’s been some good news for the progressive left in places large and small. The biggest national victory in many years on the continent just occurred in the United States of Mexico, which elected a left populist, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (often simply called AMLO), to a six year term as the country’s president on Sunday, July 1st.
Lopez Obrador, 64, had already run for Mexico’s highest office twice, in 2006 and 2012, under the banner of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), formerly the country’s largest left wing party, which split from the then dominant PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in the 1980s. This time around, after leaving the PRD and founding his own MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) party just 4 years ago, AMLO sailed to an easy victory, despite some reports of irregularities at the polls.
Somewhat unexpectedly, MORENA, alongside its allies in smaller parties, also won majorities in both of the country’s houses of Congress and five of the nine governorships being contested.
Hopefully for AMLO, this support will make it easier to enact parts of his admittedly somewhat vague policy platform, which includes decentralizing the federal government, “eradicating” corruption, doubling pensions for elders and creating monthly scholarships for low income students. His tenure as the mayor of Mexico City in the early 2000s shows that at least in terms of the latter two policy ideas, he’s lived up to similar campaign promises on a smaller scale.
The PRI, which has governed the country through its control of the vast patronage networks it created during the all but 12 years of Mexico’s 101 year post revolutionary history that it held the country’s highest office, has been decimated and may never recover. While he was celebrated as a fresh new face when he came to power in 2012, the outgoing administration of Enrique Pena Nieto was marked by corruption, scandal and the drug war that had spun out of control more than a decade before.
While it didn’t touch Lopez Obrador personally, the campaign leading up to the election was marred by an unprecedented amount of violence in a country that has seen far too much of it since the turn of the century, with 132 candidates and workers from all parties killed, presumably by drug cartels.
Despite AMLO’s win, the sky has not yet fallen
As we might expect after watching Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the 2016 primary elections in the United States, AMLO’s campaign brought out the worst in the corporate media, not only in Mexico but in most of North America. Some compared him to Hugo Chavez and even Fidel Castro, ignoring both his long record and very different personal style from both of these men. Others, displaying a seemingly willful ignorance, have actually claimed the left leaning career politician is some kind of Mexican Donald Trump, mainly because both have been called ‘populists’.
Despite these comparisons, the reaction of business in Mexico to Lopez Obrador’s election seems to be to take a wait and see approach at least in part because he won’t take office until December. Besides this obvious reason, when he was mayor of Mexico City AMLO proved himself a pragmatist, maybe even a little too willing to accommodate big business, so the hysteria in much of the English language press seems typically overdone.
Part of the reason for the ambivalence that greeted AMLO’s win from Mexican and international business interests may also be his choice of Alfonso Romo, a well known businessperson, as his Chief of Staff. Quoted by the Washington Post a day after the vote, Romo told reporters that AMLO’s economic team had already met with “hundreds of hedge funds and institutional investors” before the vote, saying, “Up to now the markets are tranquil. What does that say? They have believed our plan.”
It also appears that younger voters may be ready to take Mexican democracy in new directions As reported by Canada’s Globe and Mail, a survey just before the elections showed that 92% of Mexican Millenial voters of all political persuasions planned to go to the polls and participate in the vote.
Younger voters make up 50% of the Mexican electorate so their interest in politics, much of it directed toward MORENA, is heartening and could be a game changer, especially during a crisis.
Ending the violence
Probably the most immediately important of AMLO’s promises is a crafting a new strategy to deal with the country’s war on drugs, which in the Mexican context is not a clever PR strategy but an actual war with all of the violence and terror that this implies. The militarized approach begun by then President Felipe Calderon in 2006 and continued under his successor Pena Nieto has resulted in some 200,000 Mexican citizens dead, with almost 30,000 killed in the last year alone.
While the role played by criminal gangs, who were often accused of being connected to the PRI’s patronage networks prior to Calderon’s presidency, should not be sugar coated, the strategy of going after the leadership of the country’s cartels led to power vacuums that resulted in even worse groups emerging from the ashes, like the Zetas in Veracruz and La Familia in Michoacon.
There was a perverse logic to the emergence of the former, some of them trained by U.S. Special Forces in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina but turning to crime, at first in the service of the Gulf Cartel and later on their own, using their skills to fight both their criminal rivals and Mexican security forces, including the military, which was deployed in large numbers to fight them and other criminal groups under Calderon.
The new generation of cartels, and one of the most vicious of these actually takes this as their name, are even more reckless and less calculated in their violence, a direct result of the way the drug war has been militarized in the country for the last 12 years.
“The failed strategy of combating insecurity and violence will change,” Lopez Obrador told supporters in a speech shortly after it became clear he’d won the presidential contest, “More than through the use of force, we will tend to the causes that give rise to insecurity and violence.”
AMLO created some consternation by saying during the campaign that he might offer amnesties to low level drug offenders like farmers who work with the cartels out of need rather than greed, but his idea that a good first step in ending the terror is to learn from and perhaps emulate the peace process in Colombia while returning the Mexican military to their barracks is an interesting one. It will likely be fought tooth and nail by both Mexico and its northern neighbor’s armchair drug warriors in the years ahead.
In New York’s 14th district, a progressive star rises
While AMLO’s win seemed likely the closer it got to election day barring fraud, two days before, in New York’s 14th district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, a new American voice emerged in Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who, under the banner of the Justice Democrats, went up against 10 term Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley from the left and won a stunning victory.
The 28 year old Ocasio Cortez, who proudly wears of the label of democratic socialist, spoke to the values of the diverse population of the 14th by engaging with them in a way that Crowley, who was the 4th most powerful Democrat in Congress, neglected to do, famously wearing out the soles of her shoes going door to door to speak to citizens.
Ocasio Cortez’s message obviously resonated in the district, speaking to the aspirations of working people of all ethnic groups in an intelligent and engaging way and acknowledging the failures of the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party in improving their lives, with the candidate saying in a campaign video that went viral, “It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us.”
The woman likely to be the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States’ Congress was unflappable in cable news interviews after the win, a more natural and sincere seeming politician than most of those we have seen on those networks for years. If she is able to stick to her articulated ideals, her quick ascension in the Democratic Party may turn out to be as important to the larger left in North America over time as AMLO’s historic win on the other side of the country’s southern border.