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President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Administration Described As The “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico

With growing signs of anti-migrant sentiment in Mexico, containing migration costs Lopez Obrador little in political terms, and is balanced by his push to grant work visas for migrants.

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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waves as he arrives for a meeting with dairy farmers in La Chona de Encarnacion de Diaz, Jalisco, Mexico, March 9, 2019. VOA

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s first 100 days in office have combined a compulsive shedding of presidential trappings with a dizzying array of policy initiatives, and a series of missteps haven’t dented his soaring approval ratings.

Lopez Obrador has answered more questions from the press, flown in more economy-class flights, posed for more selfies with admiring citizens and visited more genuinely risky areas with little or no security than several combined decades of his predecessors. He’s also surprised many by maintaining a cordial relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, helping contain Central American migrant caravans while resisting U.S. efforts to oust the leftist government of Venezuela.

High ratings, many initiatives

The folksy perennial candidate took office Dec. 1 and by the end of his first month, Lopez Obrador’s approval rating surpassed 80 percent. He has taken full advantage of that mandate to move quickly on many fronts — perhaps too many.

“Every week he announces at least one or two things,” said Ivonne Acuna Murillo, a professor of political science at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. “Sometimes the speed of the issues he is putting on the agenda is such that an issue they put out in the morning is displaced by another in the afternoon.”

FILE - Mexico's President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador greets supporters in Mazatlan, Mexico, Sept. 16, 2018.
Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador greets supporters in Mazatlan, Mexico, Sept. 16, 2018. VOA

Before Lopez Obrador had even taken office he held a referendum on the partially constructed $13 billion Mexico City airport. He used the resulting vote as a green light to cancel a project he had campaigned against.

During his first month in office, Lopez Obrador launched a military assault on the country’s fuel theft gangs, dividing the security of Mexico’s critical pipelines and refineries between the army and the navy. The hastily planned offensive created gas shortages across the country, but somehow didn’t dampen his popularity.

This month, he overrode complaints by human rights campaigners and got the Congress and state legislatures to approve constitutional reforms creating a heavily militarized National Guard that he touts as the key to getting control of Mexico’s runaway violence.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, center, sits with an assistant as he travels in economy class aboard a commercial flight from Guadalajara to Mexico City, March 9, 2019.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, center, sits with an assistant as he travels in economy class aboard a commercial flight from Guadalajara to Mexico City, March 9, 2019. VOA

Daily press conference

A typical day starts with his 6 a.m. Cabinet meeting, focusing on security, where he gets the daily crime report. At 7 a.m., he steps on the dais at the centuries-old National Palace to start a free-wheeling, open-ended press conference that often goes for 1½ hours.

From there he might hold a meeting on the initiative of the day, and then around noon he flies off — tourist class, fielding hugs and taking selfies with fellow passengers — to some provincial city, where he’ll meet with local leaders, eat at some modest local cafeteria, then hold another open-air rally and take some more hugs. Then he’ll catch another tourist-class flight to Mexico City. (He says he gets to bed early).

The part of the day he most clearly enjoys? Pressing the flesh and handing out time-tested one-liners at rallies in provincial towns, essentially, the same thing he has been doing for the last 20 years on the campaign trail as a three-time presidential contender.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, center right, poses for selfies with travelers as he arrives for his commercial flight to Mexico City, at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico, March 9, 2019.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, center right, poses for selfies with travelers as he arrives for his commercial flight to Mexico City, at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico, March 9, 2019. VOA

No imperial presidency

“He is a bit messianic, meaning evangelical. He’s out there preaching all the time,” said Federico Estevez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “He’s Bernie Sanders with power.”

“I’m not sure if this a good governance model, but it’s an exceptionally good political one,” Estevez said.

It’s easy to lose sight of how different this all is, unless you’ve lived through decades of Mexico’s distant, imperial presidency, in which the president seldom appeared beyond orchestrated speeches, or as a motorcade of luxury vehicles speeded to the president’s personal airplane hangar for flights aboard the presidential jet to carefully guarded events.

Gone are the motorcades, gone is the jet, gone is the security, gone is the official presidential residence. You’re more likely to see Lopez Obrador buying himself a $1 styrofoam cup of coffee at a convenience store or eating beans at a roadside restaurant, than to see him rubbing elbows with foreign dignitaries.

Lopez Obrador rode a wave of popular discontent with corruption in Mexico, and has attracted a near-unquestioning devotion because of his own honest, rumpled style.

“The advantage that Andres Manuel has as leader is that he arrived with a backing that no president has had in Mexico,” said Benjamin Arditi, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Lopez Obrador has already had spats with NGOs, regulators, environmentalists, outside experts and ratings agencies. His campaign against crime and violence has yielded few results. He chafes at those who ask for feasibility or environmental impact studies for his pet projects.

Results less rosy

But hardly anyone notices.“There is a devotion, something almost religious,” said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Training. “It makes people believe only what he says, against everything that experts or ratings agencies or international organizations say. They don’t matter, it only matters what he says.”

At least two ratings agencies have downgraded their outlook on Mexico’s debt to ‘negative’ since he took office. His decisions, like the one to cancel the airport project, “don’t generate the slightest bit of confidence,” Crespo said, “and that is going to have a cost, is having a cost, in terms of capital leaving, or money not being invested.”

For Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s foreign policy boils down to simply non-intervention, and he leaves the field to his top diplomat, Marcelo Ebrard.

Migrants from Central America line up for food at an improvised shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Feb. 21, 2019.
Migrants from Central America line up for food at an improvised shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Feb. 21, 2019.

Remain in Mexico critics

But some critics say Mexico is doing Trump’s bidding by accepting the U.S. “remain in Mexico” program and by restricting the movement of caravans of Central American migrants.“Remain in Mexico” makes Central American asylum applicants await resolution of their cases from the Mexican side of the border.

“It is a U.S. policy that once again subordinates Mexico’s immigration policy,” said Oscar Misael Hernandez, an immigration researcher at the College of the Northern Border in Matamoros.

Others saw it as a pragmatic calculation that U.S. courts will soon put a halt to the program. Allowing it in the meantime helps U.S. relations and helped Mexico win a $10.6 billion U.S. commitment for regional development, meant to create jobs in Central America and southern Mexico so fewer people feel compelled to leave.

With growing signs of anti-migrant sentiment in Mexico, containing migration costs Lopez Obrador little in political terms, and is balanced by his push to grant work visas for migrants.

The new administration’s most widely criticized misstep was Lopez Obrador’s decision to ax funds for nonprofits working on issues ranging from promoting art and culture to providing domestic abuse shelters, arguing the “intermediaries” were too often used to siphon away government funds. Lopez Obrador wants to give the money directly to the people who needed it, but experts say that won’t work for complex social services like day care and shelters for battered women.

Mariana Banos, whose Fundacion Origen offers support services to women, often through partnerships with other organizations and local governments, said many groups will have to shut down because they depend entirely on government funding.

She scoffed at the corruption allegations and urged the government to reconsider.

“You have to work hand-in-hand, not create a divide, not stigmatize,” she said.

Despite the frictions there are lighter moments to “The 4-T,” a play on Lopez Obrador’s description of his administration as the “fourth transformation” of Mexico.

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Lopez Obrador sometimes laughs at his own jokes. He posts Facebook videos from roadside restaurants, with impromptu lectures on the health benefits of coconuts or local fruits. And Mexicans crack up at his frequent, folksy catch phrases like “Me canso ganso,” equivalent to “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”

Enterprising designers have come up with a web app that allows people to make resolutions and receive a text message from an AMLO-bot saying “Monica, you’ll lose weight this year, or I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” (VOA)

Next Story

President Donald Trump Lifts Metal Tariffs on Canada, Mexico; Delays Auto Tarrifs

By removing the metals tariffs on Canada and Mexico, Trump cleared a key roadblock to a North American trade pact his team negotiated last year

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President, Trump, Metal, Tarrifs
FILE - A worker is pictured at a steel plant in Monterrey, Mexico, Aug. 27, 2018. VOA

Bogged down in a sprawling trade dispute with U.S. rival China, President Donald Trump took steps Friday to ease tensions with America’s allies: lifting import taxes on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum and delaying auto tariffs that would have hurt Japan and Europe.

By removing the metals tariffs on Canada and Mexico, Trump cleared a key roadblock to a North American trade pact his team negotiated last year. As part of Friday’s arrangement, the Canadians and Mexicans agreed to scrap retaliatory tariffs they had imposed on U.S. goods, according to four sources in the U.S. and Canada who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement.

In a joint statement, the U.S. and Canada said they would work to prevent cheap imports of steel and aluminum from entering North America. China has long been accused of flooding world markets with subsidized metal, driving down world prices and hurting U.S. producers.

Some in Washington were urging Trump to take advantage of the truce with U.S. allies to get even tougher with China.

President, Trump, Metal, Tarrifs
FILE – Newly manufactured Subaru vehicles await export in a port in Yokohama, Japan, May 30, 2017. VOA

“China is our adversary,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “Canada and Mexico are our friends. The president is right to increase pressure on China for their espionage, their theft of intellectual property and their hostility toward the rule of law. The president is also right to be deescalating tension with our North American allies.”

Earlier Friday, the White House said Trump was delaying for six months any decision to slap tariffs on foreign cars, a move that would have hit Japan and Europe especially hard.

Trump still is hoping to use the threat of auto tariffs to pressure Japan and the European Union into making concessions in trade talks. “If agreements are not reached within 180 days, the president will determine whether and what further action needs to be taken,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Trade weapon

In imposing the metals tariffs and threatening the ones on autos, the president was relying on a rarely used weapon in the U.S. trade war arsenal — Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 — which lets the president impose tariffs on imports if the Commerce Department deems them a threat to national security.

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But the steel and aluminum tariffs were also designed to coerce Canada and Mexico into agreeing to a rewrite of North American free trade pact. In fact, the Canadians and Mexicans did go along last year with a revamped regional trade deal that was to Trump’s liking. But the administration had refused to lift the taxes on their metals to the United States until Friday.

The new trade deal — the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement — needs approval of the legislatures in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Several key U.S. lawmakers were threatening to reject the pact unless the tariffs were removed. And Canada had suggested it wouldn’t ratify any deal while the tariffs were still in place.

Trump had faced a Saturday deadline to decide what to do about the auto tariffs.

Taxing auto tariffs would mark a major escalation in Trump’s aggressive trade policies and likely would meet resistance in Congress. The United States last year imported $192 billion worth of passenger vehicles and $159 billion in auto parts.

Legitimate use?

“I have serious questions about the legitimacy of using national security as a basis to impose tariffs on cars and car parts,” Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Friday. He’s working on legislation to scale back the president’s authority to impose national security tariffs under Section 232.

President, Trump, Metal, Tarrifs
FILE – Robots swing a cab and bed into place for a new heavy duty pickup truck on the assembly line where Chevrolet Silverado trucks are being built at General Motors Flint Assembly in Flint, Michigan, Jan. 30, 2019. VOA

In a statement, the White House said that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has determined that imported vehicles and parts are a threat to national security. Trump deferred action on tariffs for 180 days to give negotiators time to work out deals but threatened them if talks break down.

In justifying tariffs for national security reasons, Commerce found that the U.S. industrial base depends on technology developed by American-owned auto companies to maintain U.S. military superiority. Because of rising imports of autos and parts over the past 30 years, the market share of U.S.-owned automakers has fallen. That has caused a lag in research and development spending that is “weakening innovation and, accordingly, threatening to impair our national security,” the statement said.

The market share of vehicles produced and sold in the U.S. by American-owned automakers, the statement said, has declined from 67% in 1985 to 22% in 2017.

But the statistics don’t match market share figures from the industry. A message was left Friday seeking an explanation of how Commerce calculated the 22%.

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In 2017, General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Tesla combined had a 44.5% share of U.S. auto sales, according to Autodata Corp. Those figures include vehicles produced in other countries.

It’s possible that the Commerce Department didn’t include Fiat Chrysler, which is now legally headquartered in the Netherlands but has a huge research and development operation near Detroit. It had 12% of U.S. auto sales in 2017.

The Commerce figures also do not account for research by foreign automakers. Toyota, Hyundai-Kia, Subaru, Honda and others have significant research centers in the U.S. (VOA)