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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.

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

Mexico-US Tariff Deal: Questions, Concerns for Migration

Washington and Mexico City both took victory laps Saturday over a deal

Mexico, US, Tarrif
People enter the U.S. at the Otay Mesa port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, Calif., June 8, 2019. - U.S. President Donald Trump touted on Saturday his deal averting tariffs on Mexico, a plan economists warned would have been disastrous for both nations. VOA

As Washington and Mexico City both took victory laps Saturday over a deal that headed off threatened tariffs on Mexican imports, it remained to be seen how effective it may be, and migration experts raised concerns about what it could mean for people fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Other than a vague reiteration of a joint commitment to promote development, security and growth in Central America, the agreement focuses almost exclusively on enforcement and says little about the root causes driving the surge in migrants seen in recent months.

“My sense is overall the Mexican government got out of this better than they thought. The agreement though leaves a lot of big question marks,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s good that the two sides reached an agreement which allows both of them to save face, but it’s not clear how easy it is to implement.”

Guard deployment

Mexico, US, Tarrif
Migrants sleep on a sidewalk in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico, June 8, 2019. President Donald Trump has put on hold his plan to begin imposing tariffs on Mexico, saying the U.S. ally will take “strong measures” to reduce the flow of Central American migrants toward the U.S.border. VOA

The deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops appears to be the key commitment in what was described as “unprecedented steps” by Mexico to ramp up enforcement, though Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero said that had already been planned and was not a result of external pressure.

“I have said before, migration into Mexico also has to be regulated … orderly, legal and safe,” Sanchez Cordero told The Associated Press. “So the National Guard that we were going to deploy anyway, we’re going to deploy. It’s not because they tell us to, but rather because we’re going to do it anyway.”

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Mexican measures

Mexico was already increasing enforcement with detentions, deportations and checkpoints. In recent weeks it broke up the latest migrant caravan, snuffing out most of the appetite for traveling in large, visible groups.

If Mexico does more as promised, it’s likely to be seen in intensification of those same efforts, experts said — raids on hotels where migrants stay or on bus companies transporting them north to the U.S. border. The two countries also agreed to share information on and disrupt people-smuggling networks, a new focus seen earlier this week when Mexico arrested two migration activists and froze accounts of over two dozen people alleged to have organized caravans.

A concern is that even more aggressive enforcement could put migrants with legitimate asylum claims at risk of being deported from Mexico to the dangers they fled in the first place. Also, Mexican security forces are known for often being corrupt and shaking migrants down for bribes. A renewed crackdown is seen as making migration through Mexico more difficult and more dangerous, but doing little to discourage Central Americans desperate to escape poverty, hunger and violence.

Mexico, US, Tarrif
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard gets ready to talk to reporters as he leaves the State Department in Washington, June 7, 2019. VOA

“People are fleeing their homes regardless of what the journey might mean and regardless of what chance they may have for seeking protections in Mexico or in the United States,” said Maureen Meyer, an immigration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, “simply because they need to leave.”

Human element missing

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“It seems like in all these discussions [about tariffs and immigration], the human reality of these people and why they’re leaving Central America was lost,” she continued. “It was ‘what can we do to stop them,’ and not ‘what can we really do to create the conditions in their home countries so that people don’t have to leave.’ ”

Another key element of the deal is that the United States will expand a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP. According to Mexican immigration authorities, since January there have been 10,393 returns by migrants to Mexico while their cases wend their way through U.S. courts.

MPP has been plagued by glitches and so far has been introduced only in California and El Paso, Texas, and Selee said there are logistical hurdles to further expansion. Right now the MPP figure of 10,000 or so represents “a drop in the bucket” compared with overall migration, he added.

Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who led the negotiations, said the agreement does not include any quotas.

Mexico, US, Tarrif
A woman waves a Mexican flag prior to a speech by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally in Tijuana, Mexico, June 8, 2019. VOA

If MPP does roll out on a mass scale along the United States’ entire southern border, it could overwhelm Mexican border cities. Mexico promised to offer jobs, health care and education for returnees, but has little infrastructure to do so. Currently most shelters and support programs are run by the likes of NGOs and the Roman Catholic Church.

And if the program were to include places like Tamaulipas, the Gulf coast state where cartels and gangs control large swaths of territory, migrants could be at even greater risk.

Dangerous area

“This is an area that the U.S. government considers that it’s not safe for any American citizen,” Meyer said, referring to the State Department’s highest-level warning against all travel to Tamaulipas because of crime and kidnappings. “And yet it’s OK for us to send people back there?”

Still, the deal was hailed by many in Mexican industry and politics.

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Arturo Rocha, a Foreign Relations Department spokesman, tweeted late Friday that it was “an unquestionable triumph for Mexico.” Avoiding tariffs sends a calming message to ratings agencies worried about a possible trade war, he said, adding that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government had won U.S. recommitment to Central American development and resisted “safe third country” designation, a concession sought by Washington that would have required asylum seekers to apply first in Mexico.

However, Abdel Camargo, an anthropologist at the Frontera Sur College in southern Mexico, said that by accepting MPP returnees, “Mexico does not become a safe third country but de facto is going to act as one.”

Some such as ex-President Felipe Calderon of the conservative opposition National Action Party questioned whether Mexico was truly master of its own migratory policy. But Jose Antonio Meade, a five-time Cabinet minister who lost last year’s election to Lopez Obrador, praised Ebrard for avoiding damaging tariffs “in the face of very complex conditions.”

In San Jose del Cabo for a summit of North American mayors, Juan Manuel Gastelum of Tijuana, across from San Diego, said he’s fine with more migrants being returned to his city as long as the federal government invests in caring for them. He added that the threat of tariffs may have been necessary to force his country’s hand.

“How else was Mexico going to understand that it is not right to leave migration uncontrolled?” said Gastelum, who is also a member of National Action.

Tijuana rally

Meanwhile, a rally later Saturday in Tijuana that Lopez Obrador called to defend Mexican pride and dignity was expected to take on more of a festive atmosphere.

“It was [originally supposed to be] a meeting to show support for the incoming governor … that turned into a demand for peace and respect on the tariffs issue,” local restaurateur and businessman Francisco Villegas said. “But since the tariffs issue was sorted out by having Marcelo Ebrard and his team up there, it is now turning into a celebration.” (VOA)