Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) doesn’t miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. He is not the political genius that many fellow pundits describe. Time and time again he has been presented with priceless opportunities that, if seized, would have made him invincible. He has not done it. The president cares more about showing his resentment and proving that he is in charge, at the cost of permanently hindering his project or, worse still, of canceling any possibility of development for Mexico.
The first opportunity presented itself to AMLO right before he took office with the now-scrapped Mexico City New International Airport. If he had supported the project, AMLO would have put his detractors in trouble. As incoming president he had the perfect narrative to go against his campaign promise of canceling the endeavor by arguing that he simply refused to waste such vast resources. Anything that went wrong would have been attributable to the previous administration, and AMLO would have been left to kick off the largest public works in Latin America. Instead, he canceled it. Mexico was left without an airport that would have generated billions of dollars in complementary private investment at a key moment. If that was not enough, Mexican taxpayers had to pay the full bill of an airport that they would never get to enjoy. AMLO’s evidently irrational decision brought huge international discredit on to Mexico.
The protests against femicides in Mexico in early March presented him with another opportunity. AMLO could have owned the cause. He could have marched with women, expressing disgust against gender violence triggered by bad policies of previous administrations, and confirming his unwavering support to the feminist movement. AMLO would have accumulated vast political capital. Instead, he condemned the movement and reviled protesters, causing unnecessary division around an issue that had widespread support.
AMLO could have stolen someone else’s thunder by blessing the recent financing agreement between the Inter-American Development Bank’s private sector arm (IDB Invest) and Mexico’s business leaders. Again, AMLO had an optimal narrative available to him, stressing that the deal confirmed that there was no need for his government to contract new debt or pressure the Mexican treasury to provide relief to small and medium-sized businesses. Instead, AMLO criticized “the ways” of the businessmen for arranging the deal directly with the IDB, showing his intransigence against everything that he does not coin. At a time when Mexico urgently requires private investment, his clumsy reaction reminds investors why he will never provide a reliable environment. His resentment against them dwarfs the pressing need for investment resources.
The supply chain disruption caused by the pandemic gave the AMLO government another unparalleled opportunity. Having successfully ratified the USMCA, Mexico could attract much of the industrial capacity seeking to re-shore, or near-shore closer to the US. In the midst of that transition, AMLO called for an illegal referendum that forced the closure of a US $ 1.4 billion brewery owned by Constellation Brands in Mexicali, already under construction. AMLO proved to international investors that in Mexico he is above the law.
The OPEC Plus meeting last month also provided AMLO with a timely opportunity to shut down the least efficient tranche of Pemex’s oil fields (somewhere around 350 thousand barrels a day), avoiding costly losses. He would have been able to justify that the state-owned oil company did not reach the production goals he had promised, saving face by blaming the shutdown on compliance with the OPEC Plus agreement. Instead of that, his team became the laughing stock of the meeting by refusing to reduce production, putting the final resolution of the meeting at risk.
AMLO’s obsession with taking credit for everything that happens in the country makes him own, without a doubt, the worst decline in the Mexican economy since 1932. The fault will end up being entirely his, since he insists on being the lightning rod in the worst storm to hit Mexico since the Great Depression.
The terrible pandemic underscores the limitations of AMLO’s administration. It is not the same to see things from the sidelines, leading the opposition, ranting against the corrupt elite, criticizing Mexico’s low economic growth, and promising to put an end to cronyism, than to deliver results as President, bringing together a country that he himself has divided, when we need to face united an unprecedented crisis. AMLO doesn’t know where to start.
Instead of cleverly mustering political capital by taking advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to him, AMLO has preferred to double down on consolidating his populist authoritarian project. AMLO knows that his party (Morena) will lose control of Mexico’s Lower House in the 2021 elections. That is why he recently proposed to hold on to the power of the purse, which is constitutionally vested in Congress. He wants to retain control over the budget, even at the cost of permanently weakening checks and balances.
The coming disaster is solely and exclusively AMLO’s fault.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv