In 2018, I wrote a column calling the soon-to-be-elected Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, a left-wing version of Donald Trump. Readers were unpersuaded. The comparison between the two men, wrote one person in the comments section, "was absurd." Another called the column "shockingly ignorant."
Let me recant. AMLO isn't just another version of Trump. He's worse, thanks to being a more effective demagogue and bureaucratic operator.
That was again made clear when Mexicans took to the streets Nov. 13 in demonstrations against AMLO's efforts to gut the National Electoral Institute, known by its Spanish acronym, INE. Over three decades, the state-funded but independent public agency (previously called the Federal Electoral Institute) has been vital to Mexico's transition from one-party rule to a competitive democracy in which incumbent parties routinely lose elections — and accept the results.
So why would the president — who won in a landslide and maintains a high approval rating, thanks to a cult-of-personality style of politics and a policy of cash transfers to the poor, his core constituency — go after the crown jewel of the country's civil institutions? Isn't he supposed to represent the forces of popular democracy?
AMLO's answer is that he merely aims to make INE more democratic by having its members elected by popular vote after the candidates are nominated by institutions under his control. He would also reduce INE's funding, take away its power to draw up voter rolls and get rid of state electoral authorities. In a Trumpian turn of phrase, AMLO calls his critics "racists, snobs and very hypocritical."
Reality is otherwise. AMLO is a product of the old ruling party, the PRI, which dominated nearly every aspect of Mexican political life from the late 1920s to the 1990s. Ideologically, the party was split between two wings: modernizing technocrats vs. statist nationalists. But the party was united in its devotion to patronage, repression, corruption and, above all, presidential control as a means of perpetuating its hold on power.
AMLO may have belonged to the statist wing, but his ideas about governance are straight out of the old PRI playbook, only this time in favor of his own Morena party. "His thrust all along has been to re-create the 1970s: an overpowering presidency with no counterweights," Luis Rubio, one of Mexico's leading thinkers, wrote me Monday. "He has thus gone on to undermine, eliminate or neutralize a whole network of entities meant to become checks on presidential power." That includes the Supreme Court, the country's regulatory agencies and Mexico's human rights commission. INE and the country's central bank are among the few entities that have remained relatively free from his control.
What would it mean if AMLO were to get his way? His six-year presidential term expires in 2024, and it's unlikely he would remain formally in office. But there's an old Mexican tradition of rule from behind the scenes. Stuffing INE with cronies is the first step back to the old ballot-stuffing days that characterized the Mexico I grew up in during the 1970s and '80s.
But it also marks a deeper deterioration, in three important ways.
First, there's the ever-expanding role of the military under AMLO. "The military is now operating outside civilian control, in open defiance of the Mexican Constitution, which states that the military cannot be in charge of public security," notes Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. "As a result of presidential decrees, the military has become omnipresent: building airports, running the country's ports, controlling customs, distributing money to the poor, implementing social programs and detaining immigrants."
The second is that the Mexican government has effectively capitulated to drug cartels, which, by one estimate, control as much as one-third of the country. That was brought home two years ago, after the Trump administration handed back to Mexico a former defense minister, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who had been arrested in California and accused of working for the cartels. AMLO promptly released the general. Eight of the world's most dangerous cities are now in Mexico, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Opinion, and 45,000 Mexicans fled their homes, fearing violence, in 2021.
Finally, AMLO's new statism works even worse than the old one. An attempted overhaul of Mexico's health system has led to catastrophic medicine shortages. He has invested heavily in the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, which is still managing to lose money, despite record high commodity prices. Welfare spending is up by 20% over the previous administration, but AMLO has done away with one of Mexico's most successful anti-poverty programs, which tied aid to keeping kids in school.
AMLO's defenders may rejoin that the president remains popular with most Mexicans, thanks to his professed concern for the very poor. That's often been the case with populists, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to the Kirchner governments in Argentina. But reality has a way of catching up. What Mexicans increasingly face under AMLO is an assault on their economic well-being, personal security and political freedom and the rule of law itself. If Mexicans aren't careful, this will be their road to Venezuela.