Days after Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) made references about me during one of his regular morning press conferences, a friend asked me sardonically: “How does it feel to be a conservative?”. The president had described me as being part of a group of “conservatives that are, very hypocritical and given to doublespeak”. This had to do with a message I sent on Twitter reporting data from Mexico’s Chief Audit Office (ASF), which had disclosed that AMLO’s decision to cancel the construction of Mexico City’s new international airport had cost three times the amount acknowledged by his administration.
Maybe the president’s anger against me had to do with my recently published book: My Word is Law: AMLO in Mexico’s National Palace. An excerpt of the book’s first chapter (titled The King) had been published in Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper days earlier. As he usually does, AMLO reacted as an angry monarch, furious at one of his subjects for being critical.
The president is a public employee whose salary we all pay with our taxes. While AMLO wastes his time attacking citizens for criticizing him, Mexico recorded over 185,000 coronavirus deaths. Moreover, AMLO not only has “other facts” (the Mexican version of “alternative facts”) but also “other concepts”. According to the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) liberalism is the “the political doctrine that postulates individual and social freedom in politics and private enterprise in economic and cultural affairs, limiting the intervention of the State and public authorities in these areas”. It is a definition in keeping with contemporary liberalism. I have always defended openly and explicitly the liberal agenda.
That is not the case with AMLO. The president is a statist because he believes that the private sector should be under the control of the State and that the latter should have monopolies in economic sectors such as energy. AMLO is also a conservative on social issues. He has gone as far to say that people “want to change the role of women…but that tradition in Mexico is that daughters always look after their parents”. AMLO does not want women to have the right to decide about their own bodies. Moreover, his governing coalition includes a conservative evangelical party and he constantly resorts to religious symbols in his discourse.
During another of his press conferences, AMLO went against me again after capping off a protracted harangue with “conservatism is synonymous of authoritarianism.” AMLO is the authoritarian and is one more reason proving why he is a conservative. We liberals believe that no one is absolutely right (which does not mean that all reasonings are equally valid). We liberals believe that debate is enriching. Authoritarians, on the other hand, believe that only their world view is valid and right. AMLO has ordered that the Mexican Congress should not change a single comma of bills he has proposed for approval. AMLO believes he possesses the truth.
In a strict sense, AMLO is backward-looking. He believes that a better world lies in the past and wants to turn back the clock. Four decades ago, the Mexican economy was closed, there was no democracy, and human rights were trampled on with no shame or consequences.
AMLO is a master at playing with symbolism. In Mexico’s 19th-century national history, the good guys are the liberals, and the bad guys are the conservatives. AMLO’s strategy is simple: reinforce the good vs. evil narrative. The good guys are with him, and the bad guys are those who dare criticize him. People want to be one of the good guys. It does not matter if AMLO is a good guy, let alone if he thinks like them. He is the beloved leader, so they will adapt.
Whoever president AMLO criticizes walks into a trap: if you do not reply, you are conceding. If you do, then you come in handy as a public distraction to avoid talking about Mexico’s actual problems. If the critics were merely interested in cashing in (as he claims we are) the easiest thing would be to settle in and heap praise on him. If we did that, we would be huge hypocrites. What is true is that those who praise AMLO are seeing all kinds of good returns.
AMLO has the power. No other recent Mexican president ever had so much. But AMLO loves playing the victim card and many of his followers buy into it. Unfortunately, he is not using all that power for the benefit of Mexicans. A politician whose only concern is winning elections and amassing power, while not safeguarding the country’s best interests and people’s lives can only be defined as a politician committing treason.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom