It has been nearly three years since Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president of Mexico. His administration has clarity of purpose, but no other aim than to impose it dogmatically, relentlessly, and unsparingly. Circumstances are changing, but the president does not waver, oblivious to the consequences. Wasn’t that what the López Obrador himself and his followers claimed the previous Mexican technocratic governments did? Didn’t they said that the technocrats wanted to make reality fit their theories? Three years into the López Obrador administration it is already possible to glimpse what’s coming for Mexico, and it’s not a pretty picture. As US economist Thomas Sowell wrote in 1995: “Dangers to a society may be mortal without being immediate.”
The damage to the country is tangible. In the immediate term, the seriousness of what Mexico is experiencing can be seen by comparing 2018 figures and 2021 figures. Mexico’s household income fell 5.8 percent, while GDP is down 4 percent in the first quarter. The damage to the Mexican economy is enormous and it began with López Obrador’s decision in 2018 to shelve the construction of Mexico City’s new international airport. In a world in which information flows instantly, every action (and every statement) of a head of state has consequences. For Mexico, the president’s actions have all been detrimental to the growth of the economy and, therefore, to achieving his goals set in terms of economic growth along with inequality and poverty reduction. The only thing that has cushioned the fall of the economy has been the rise in remittances from Mexican migrants in the US, thanks to the hefty stimulus checks distributed by the US government as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic downturn.
The damages to Mexico’s political institutions are also tangible, but are, to a large extent, the result of the confrontational governing strategy that has been president López Obrador’s hallmark. Convinced that his way is the only way, López Obrador has not deemed it necessary (or useful) to open negotiations with opposition parties or other social actors. Although he publicly acknowledges from time to time the shortcomings that his strategy has caused (like when he spoke of crime as the country’s greatest challenge or when he met with Mexican businessmen to foster private investment), the López Obrador’s overall project has not changed one iota.
President López Obrador does not recognize that it is impossible to isolate one act from the totality of actions and that, in this age, everything impacts everything else, meaning that there has to be complete agreement between the administration’s discourse and its day-to-day actions. The lack of coherence means that everything in Mexico remains paralyzed, with ensuing economic, political, and social damage. Many, particularly the Mexican president’s acolytes, may think that these are minor tolls on the road to redemption or that there are factors (i.e. the Covid-19 pandemic) that have prevented the sweeping change promised. But no one can avoid seeing the worsening decline. Again, as Sowell says: the damage can be fatal even if it goes immediately unnoticed.
The key question for Mexico is how to deal with the consequences of this period of systematic, clearly self-inflicted decline. Mexican citizens gained effective freedoms, particularly in terms of freedom of expression in 2000 when the party in power changed for the first time in 70 years. Today, such freedom has been somewhat diminished by the day-after-day intimidation of the press from the Mexican president’s podium. Of course, many of those freedoms are somewhat abstract for those Mexican families living day-to-day and needing basic essentials. Add to this, the administration’s information overload that has generated expectations that are impossible to be met, especially when instant satisfaction is the cry of the day. What will happen when the expectations raised by López Obrador fall short?
The president has launched a campaign to “win back” Mexico’s urban middle class, the ones he has labeled as “ignorant”. López Obrador does not realize that their dissatisfaction cannot be solved with his patronage tactics. Given that the president’s goal is the subordination of all sectors of Mexican society, López Obrador is simply unable to use tools to win over the urban middle class.
The contradiction, and paradox, is glaring: those Mexicans who pride themselves to be middle class have achieved a minimum economic stability that allows them not to rely on the government. This is why trying to win them over with freebies is counterproductive. How can you attract this sector of Mexican society? Providing a truly safe environment, better public and health services, schools that allow social mobility and effective actions against corruption.
López Obrador may find it very appealing to attack Mexican presidents going back four decades. However, the memory of most Mexican citizens doesn’t go back further than his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, and who López Obrador protects. The contradictions remain archetypal.
López Obrador has devoted three years to trying to recreate an obsolete and unrepeatable Mexican system of social and political control. They have been three years of systematic deterioration. There are three more years to come. The damage to the country will be unfathomable. It is possible, but not certain, that the president will prevent Mexico falling into a financial crisis, but not the outcome of a presidential term full of potentially mortal damages.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubio