Two Cheers for Mexico’s AMLO: A Great Victory for the Left

Commentary Number 477, July 15, 2018

On July 1, 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his initials as AMLO, was elected President of Mexico by a sweeping margin. He won 53% of the votes. His closest rivals were Ricardo Anaya (of PAN) with 22% and José Antonio Meade (of PRI) with 16 percent. In addition, his party alliance, MORENA, won a majority of the seats in the legislature.

His victory has been compared to that of Lula in Brazil and that of Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain. But Lula did not come near having a majority of the votes, and his broad party alliance included reactionary groups. Corbyn is still struggling to maintain control of the British Labour Party and, even if he succeeds, faces a difficult election.

AMLO by contrast has probably the largest margin of victory ever of any contender in a multiparty relatively honest election. He will have no trouble remaining in power in the single six-year term permitted by the Mexican constitution.

So, why only two cheers? A look at Mexico’s history will clarify my reserve. The so-called Mexican Revolution of 1910 overthrew an oppressive and very undemocratic regime, which is why it is seen as the beginning of the modern state in Mexico. It did not, however, result in relative peace and stability. Quite the contrary! The two decades after that saw constant violent struggles between various armed militias, none of which were able to prevail.

However, following the assassination of a major candidate for the presidency, a de facto arrangement was able to bring about a certain degree of stability and greatly reduce the violence. The party that guaranteed this relative stability went through name changes and eventually became called the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI.

The system PRI evolved was based on Mexico’s constitutional requirement of an election every six years on July 1. The incumbent could have only one term. His successor was chosen by a behind-the-scenes negotiation among PRI leaders. The actual election was in effect a formality. With the exception of one politically radical period from 1936 to 1942, the PRI system of arranged elections resulted in governments with highly corrupt elites and ones that had little to offer to the bottom third to half the population.

The PRI system eventually reached a point of high popular discontent. It led to the emergence of a major challenger in the end of the twentieth century called the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). PAN was built on a Catholic base that was reacting to Mexico’s and PRI’s strong anticlerical program.

PAN won the election in 2000, thereby ending PRI’s monopoly of office. In addition to PRI and PAN there emerged also a social-democratic party called the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). Mexico had now become a country of competitive elections. How much difference did this make? Not all that much.

AMLO ran as the PRD candidate in 2012 but was cheated out of his majority. He fought hard against the “false” winner, but with little support from the PRD. AMLO now built his struggle for power out of a rejection of all three major parties.

Why wasn’t he similarly cheated in 2018? The 2012-2018 PRI government used extreme violence against the opposition. They shot and killed student protestors. This led to widespread uprisings from underneath that made it impossible for PRI to cheat the results once again.

AMLO put forth a truly left program. He ran on a platform of significant increase in material distribution to the very large poor[I1]  underclass. He called for the ending of the so-called pensiones[I2]  by means of which enormous sums were paid to ex-presidents. AMLO was advocating instead pensiones for the poor. This is where his program was similar to that of Lula with his Bolsa familiar and his Hambre cero. The difference is that AMLO cannot be ousted from power, as was Lula.

AMLO calls his proposal nini (neither nor). For those that are neither students nor workers, who constitute a very large group of young people. He calls for payments to them to survive while they obtain the skills through government programs that will make them employable.

The Latin American left has hailed AMLO’s election, seeing in his victory a possibility of re-igniting the so-called pink tide in Latin America that had had many reverses in the last decade. The United States is clearly worried and unhappy. Trump is already trying to co-opt AMLO.

I too hail AMLO’s victory. But I worry about the fact that, unlike Lula, he has shown little taste for becoming a Latin American and not merely a Mexican leader. He is in a very strong position in Mexico for the moment, but not one impervious to counter-pressures. He cannot really do it alone. He needs the Latin American left just as they need him. We shall have to see how he navigates negotiations over NAFTA.

Finally, just like all popular leaders who have fought hard and successfully to come to power, I wonder how much he reflects on the limitations of being a charismatic figure. Too much self-assurance has been the downfall of many a leftist populist leader. Nor has AMLO indicated much tolerance in the past for those who question the prudence of some of what he does.

So, two cheers yes – loud ones, with hope for the best.

Donald Q. Trump, Prestidigitator

Commentary No. 476, July 1, 2018

A prestidigitator is a public actor who seeks to make viewers believe that what they see is what he is really doing, but it is not. In the famous example, he saws the woman in half and then he shows you that she is still in one piece – due, he claims, to his exceptional magical skill.

Donald Z. Trump is an extremely talented prestidigitator. Using his constant flow of contradictory tweets and his ceaseless use of insults, both his core supporters and his fiercest opponents think they know what he is doing. But in fact they fail to observe the actual actions of Donald G. Trump.

He is said to be a megalomaniac who has little self-control. These characteristics are said to account for the fact that Donald V. Trump is constantly reversing his public positions. But this is misleading. Donald B. Trump is pursuing single-mindedly a program of destroying what he does not like and furthering what he does like.

Donald M. Trump tells his core supporters that he is fulfilling his promises to end or curtail very severely all migration to the United States, especially by Muslims and Latin@s. Their belief that he is doing this accounts for the passionate and virtually unlimited political support they give him. He has however accomplished very little about migration and doesn’t really care about it.

He is prestidigitating and is able to use this rightwing support to maintain a significant amount of support from centrist voters by projecting an image of moderation compared to still more outspoken purveyors of rightwing policies. He is however not at all moderate in his actions. He simply seeks to persuade the viewer of his moderate credentials.

Since Donald L. Trump is prestidigitating simultaneously with two strongly opposed bodies of voters, he gives the impression of inconsistency or instability. However, the reality is the opposite.

When Donald W. Trump is uncertain how to play the immediate game, he falls back on his standard complaint about fake news in the media. He shouts that the hostile media cannot even get his middle initial right. This is the utmost in prestidigitation because it is he who constantly uses a different middle initial.

Can this go on forever? He faces the dilemma of every magician – that someone reveals publicly the secret of his magic. He is particularly virulent when he believes exposure is imminent. When magic is convincingly exposed as trickery, the prestidigitator loses all credibility and must take the first freight train out of town. Until then complaining about fake news sustains the game.

The G-7: A Demise to Celebrate

Commentary No. 475, June 15, 2018

An institution called the G-7 held its annual meeting on June 12-13, 2018 in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada. President Trump attended in the beginning but left early. Because the views on both sides were so incompatible, the group of Six members negotiated with Trump the issuance of a quite anodyne statement as the usual joint declaration.

Trump changed his mind and refused to sign any statement. The Six then drafted a statement that reflected their views. Trump was angry and insulted the protagonists of signing the statement.

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Sadrist Victory in Iraq: Victory for Whom?

Commentary No. 474, June 1, 2018

On May 12, 2018, Muqtada al-Sadr’s list unexpectedly won a plurality in the Iraqi legislative elections. This event shook up the entire political situation in the Middle East. It was greeted in other countries with expressions both of surprise and of dismay – notably in the unusual parallel reactions of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Yet, there was no good reason to be surprised and even less to be dismayed. Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory should have been no real surprise, since it was long in the making. There was even less reason to be dismayed, at least by anyone who wished to see a progressive outcome of the political turmoil in the region. Some of the reactions were amazing. Time magazine even made the bizarre suggestion that Muqtada al-Sadr was Iraq’s “version of Trump.”

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Trumpism: The Art of the Insult

Commentary No. 473, May 15, 2018

Since he became president, Donald Trump has insulted just about everybody with whom he has interacted. The one exception seems to have been close family members. They are not insulted, but when in disfavor simply ignored. He also has insulted every country on the globe, with the possible exception of Israel.

Insults seem to be a tool defining Trumpism, one that he uses constantly and with relish. There are two questions for the analyst of Trumpism. Why does he do it? And do they work?

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Columbia 1968: Some Personal Memories

Commentary No. 472, May 1, 2018

April 23, 2018 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Columbia student uprising in 1968. Since I was involved in the events in various capacities, I want to offer a testimony to what happened and what seems to me today the most important lessons we can draw.

May 1 is a famous date. It is Mayday, celebrating the Haymarket riots in 1886 and it is the date celebrating the worldwide events of 1968 that most commentators argue began in France. But actually Columbia predates Paris by a week as I often remind my French friends and is a better starting date for the celebrations.

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Lula Arrested: How Successful a Coup?

Commentary Number 471, April 15, 2018

On April 7, 2018 in Brazil Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva was arrested and taken to prison in Curitiba to begin a twelve-year sentence. He was Brazil’s president from January 2003 to January 2011. He was so popular that when he left office in 2011, he had a 90% approval rate.

Soon afterwards, he was charged with corruption while in office. He denied the charge. He was however convicted of the charge, a conviction that was sustained by an Appeals Court. He is still appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court.

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Recurrent Themes: Corruption and National Security

Commentary No. 470, April 1, 2018

People everywhere make claims and complain regularly about corruption and about national security. There is virtually no country in the world where this does not occur. If no one inside the country – whether citizen, resident, or transitory visitor – speaks publicly using such language, it is only because those in power respond with exceptionally harsh repression.

Otherwise, these themes are central to the politics and geopolitics of all countries in the world. The situation of a particular country is subject also to discussion about it by persons outside its boundaries. Citizens of the country in exile talk about it. Social movements in other countries talk about it. Other governments talk about it.

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