2019’s Man of the Year in Latin America will be Andres Manuel López Obrador, the newly-elected President of Mexico. No-one has generated such huge expectations, both at home where Mexicans have showered him with votes and also abroad where he is expected to restore Mexico to the place among the concert of great nations which is its due but where it has found it hard to remain. As always, of course, some believe in him and others have their doubts; some are enthusiastic and others are worried. There are the optimists and the doom-sayers; and all have their good reasons.
AMLO, as he is known, is no sudden meteor: he is a long-serving old-school politician. Long-serving: he has been Mayor of Mexico City and has spent a lifetime in politics; no dilettante, no stranger to infighting but a seasoned navigator equally capable of a redeemer’s ideology and a manager’s pragmatism. And old-school: his roots are well established in the robust soil of Mexican nationalism, and indeed in its very soul, the social reformist inspiration of Lazaro Cárdenas.
His honeymoon will probably last quite a while and make his task easier for a number of reasons: he enjoys a considerable store of trust; the country has fallen so low in recent years that it will not take much to raise it a little higher; his promises of greater social justice, less inequality, more security and absolute honesty win people to his cause; the world around him smiles on those who invoke “the people” and rage against “neoliberalism”; and everyone is now so terrified at what Bolsonaro might be going to do in Brazil that the bugbear of Maduro – to whom AMLO was being likened until recently – has disappeared from view. Not bad, for starters.
What will he do? Or rather, what does he want to do? His priority is the poor, he says, and he has invoked the name of Pope Francesco as his guide: who knows what Benito Juárez would have said about that, the star of Aztec nationalism, the proud freemason implacably opposed to the Church throughout his life. But times change; Mexico is at least as Catholic as any other country, and “the people” so dear to AMLO and so often invoked by him are Catholic, too; the anti-clerical state is a thing of the past. To start with, he has raised the minimum wage, as consistency demands. Cue bursts of applause, as expected. What next? His guide will be the old nationalist formula, with its Damascene conversion to Catholic social doctrine: more state action, more social spending, more market restrictions, more trade union protection; austerity, frugality, dignity. Government is a moral science. “At last!”, some will say. “What, again?” I sniffily reply.
But with prudence: a redeemer, but also a manager, we said. It is true that the sources of his inspiration are no different from those of Chávez, or those which his godfather Cárdenas once found in Castro; but AMLO is neither Chávez nor Castro, and Mexico today is not the Venezuela of twenty years ago or the Cuba of sixty. So, he says his inspiration is Lula, the original Lula, on the side of the poor but with proper house-keeping. Look: he promises fiscal surpluses and macroeconomic discipline, to keep the markets calm and investors onboard, to keep away from ideological rants, negotiate on the new NAFTA with Trump and keep Mexico in the Pacific Alliance. And look: he chooses competent ministers, even moderate ones. True, the start has spluttered a bit: he has already locked horns with the judiciary, and the markets were not delighted with the bizarre referendum he held to finally settle the work needed for the new airport. But how could one dislike a President like AMLO? It will not be long before he fills the void left by those mythical Latin American figures so beloved of Europeans.
His most fervent fans already talk of a “fourth historic transformation”. Maybe. They overlook the fact that in saying such things they bolster the fears of those who are already suspicious that he may turn out to be the usual dictator who tramples freedom in the name of “the people”. The usual millenarian leader who squanders wealth on cosmetic projects, leaving posterity a black hole that cannot be filled. Maybe the original Chávez, too, was “prudent”? And did not Fidel himself teach that the first thing was to “seize power” and then lash out? What about old Cárdenas? He didn’t only carry out land reform: he established a virtually one-party regime, a “perfect dictatorship” that lasted seventy years! Not to mention his first disciple, Jose Luís Echeverría, who ravaged the Mexican economy like a swarm of locusts. Lula inherited a country newly reformed and moreover had a decade with a strong wind behind him: even so, his star was already fading after two terms. Those who believe in AMLO should lower expectations rather than raising ghosts.
So far, in fact, this is indeed AMLO’s greatest risk: that he will disappoint; and the higher people’s hopes, the greater the risk. Mexico is a troubled and complicated country, multi-faceted and self-contradictory: there is no panacea, and even if there were no-one would have a monopoly in it. What is needed is a better-established rule of law, more honesty, more inclusiveness and greater stability: healthier institutions – in short, a better democracy. Trying to do too much, we sometimes do harm. That is the long and the short of it: AMLO will have been a success if in six years’ time he leaves the place better ordered than he found it, and in a sounder condition.