President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) believes that Mexico needs to go back to its roots and achieve happiness through a pathway of denial. That’s the vision López Obrador celebrated back in July 2019 when he visited the Huasteca region of Mexico and extolled the virtues of an old horse-powered sugar mill: “trapiche” in Spanish. The “trapiche” is a primitive technological device that arose in the 16th century which was used to extract juice from sugarcane and as an ore crusher in mining. Therein seems to lie the convergence point of president López Obrador’s vision: Mexico should summarily go back 400 years.
Economic indicators show how president López Obrador is achieving his goal: Mexico’s economic contraction is accelerating, unemployment is growing without limit and without doubt the human tragedies -product of the Mexicans lack of income and growing need- are becoming more acute. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the dimensions of unemployment in Mexico, as well as the tally of deaths in saturated hospitals, are substantively larger than those recognized by the authorities, at least in public. Deceit lies at the heart of the presidential project.
The problem is not that the pandemic gave rise to this indeed unfortunate scenario but, rather, in that prior to the pandemic the Mexican government had already produced a recession without possibility of recovery. President López Obrador attacks Neoliberalism as the causal factor of the ills afflicting the country, but that is mere rhetoric. Evidence demonstrates that López Obrador’s vision is not that of development nor of progress (howsoever these are defined) but rather of a return to a very basic way of life, perhaps ancestral, all subsidized by crude oil. After losing the presidential election in 2006, López Obrador famously said: “The hell with institutions!”. Now we know it he meant it for the entire modern Mexico, the Mexican production capacity, and the country’s eagerness to be better, civilized and developed. The president’s plans –both in writing and those he presents in his daily reflections- reveal a fundamentalist conception of life that starts with the recreation of agricultural self-sufficiency, the promotion of self-employment by revitalizing old trades (like the horse-powered sugar mill), bringing back bartering, and a simple and moral life. Religion is always an instrument to advance his vision.
The religious component is key in president López Obrador’s because everything is judged through a moralistic filter determining who or what is or is not corrupt. Contrary to what many of his acolytes assume, this has to do with an extremely conservative vision of life in which the definitions of corruption, honesty and mettle are all relative and not absolute. What matters are not the actions themselves (stealing from public funds, the abuse in the sale of goods and services to the government or any individual behavior) but instead the purpose for which they are undertaken. If they contribute to the presidential goals, redemption is not long in coming. Any action, conviction, or behavior that that is not conducive to the presidential project is corrupt, neoliberal, therefore contemptible and, yet more importantly, immoral. The preacher in the pulpit decides who lives and who does not.
From this perspective, it is perfectly explainable why economic growth (a central target in the president’s criticism of so-called Neoliberalism) no longer matters, violence can be ignored and knowledge is considered reprehensible. Moreover, it is very convenient to pretend that there’s no reason that government can be held accountable for the country’s situation. Behind this lies the reality of a massive portion of the Mexican population that has endured the “education” made (im)possible by two teachers unions (the CNTE and the SNTE) both sponsored and validated by López Obrador himself. What is relevant is not consistency but expediency, wholly under the disguise of moral posturing that so far is able to maintain a relative high level of approval among enough number of voters who still believe the president. In a world of fundamentalist poverty, education and health are irrelevant, because a higher authority says so. This very same authority follows a single rationale, the only one that matters: the electoral.
The problem with president López Obrador’s vision is that it arises from a fallacy: that people are foolish and do not understand anything. That is, that the average Mexican can be lied to, cheated and duped because they have no way of grasping what is going on. The reality is precisely the opposite. The majority of Mexicans may have been furious with the flagrant corruption and arrogance of his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto, as well as with the promises and mistakes of technocrats and with the day-to-day sub-standard treatment of the population by bureaucrats and politicians; but they know well –they see it on television and hear it from their relatives in the U.S.- that the world works on the basis of openness, democracy and markets. Many Mexicans may see president López Obrador as faultless, but that becomes irrelevant when the dilemma they are faced with is between an old horse-powered sugar mill and a real job. Mexicans know that the future lies not in 16th-century technology but in the ultra-modern manufacturing plants of the Mexican Bajío region or the Mexican North. The fact that many Mexicans receive money transfers from the government does not deceive them, even while it naturally compels them to do what’s necessary not to lose them.
The world of the old horse-powered sugar mill leads nowhere and makes it clear that the present Mexican government has no future and that its demise will end up being accelerated by a pandemic that lays everyone bare and makes evident what does not work. But the cost of all this will be enormous.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof