AMLO Time: Big Promises May Soon Haunt Mexico's New President

The outgoing Mexican president consolidated Mexico's macroeconomic foundations. His socialist successor, the wildly popular López Obrador, may turn out to be a bigger disappointment.

Trouble ahead for AMLO
Trouble ahead for AMLO
Luis Rubio

MEXICO CITY — Changes in government are paradoxical. It is the end of one administration, which knows it failed to deliver on what it promised initially, and the start of a new one, reaching for the sky. Whichever the country or moment in history, political transitions are always a study in contrasts between optimism and pessimism, far-out expectations and realism due to experience. Governments always have a promising start, while the end comes sooner than you think.

There is nothing new in this. It is human. In Letter to His Father, the author Franz Kafka divided the world into three parts. The first was where he lived, in a subordinate state and obedient to laws made specifically for him; in the second was his father who imposed his authority, issued orders and administered punishments, and the third was where everywhere else lived, happy and carefree. Kafka referred to his father, but he could have been talking about life in society or about a change in government: the insiders, the outsiders and those who pay the price.

In Mexico, the end has come for one the most arrogant, and incompetent, administrations in its modern history. It was a lethal combination that made it impossible for its successful reforms to settle and become the foundation of a better future. Its arrogance prevented it from understanding that in the age of pervasive and fluent information, politics is about explaining and convincing, not imposing an idea, hoping posterity will justify your actions. Its methods did not just entail its failure, but paved the way for the worst possible succession scenario.

Obsessions are more evident than strategies.

What comes now is an administration that has generated the greatest expectations we have ever had of a government, but is working on the premise of Mexico being a poor country unable to lift or transform itself. While the outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, imagined a grandiose future but had no idea -or predisposition- of how to actually build it, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known to Mexicans as AMLO, is stirring unfeasible expectations but does not actually believe in a successful future. He is only vaguely clear on the urgency of getting everybody aboard the development project and not just the usual beneficiaries. His vision is backward looking, and modest.

Peña Nieto believes he is leaving a country at the peak of its development. AMLO hangs onto poverty and focuses on a country that has left behind so many Mexicans. The debate around the city airport, whose construction will be canceled after a popular referendum found the public against it, illustrates the contrast: Peña Nieto with an expansive vision but failing to convince the public, and his successor who can only visualize limited projects for a poor country devoid of possibilities.

AMLO has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve, but no clear project for doing it. The strategies he has sketched out since his campaign and especially in these long months before taking office,show a tendency to alleviate the symptoms, like poverty or unemployment, rather than tackling the problem at its roots. There is a confusion there between causes and symptoms, and a natural inclination to build political client bases and loyalties. Obsessions are more evident than strategies, and his problem is that this will mitigate shortfalls and resentments but not satisfy the enormous expectations he has created.

Peña Nieto leaves behind a polarized country where citizens despise politics and politicians for their corruption and incompetence. But this Mexico also enjoys an infinitely more solid economic foundation than the majority of our southern neighbors, and enormous potential for the future. Beside shortcomings, mistakes and corruption, the new governing team seems unable to see the good things on which it can and must build. With its eagerness to judge rather than evaluate, it will soon find the limits in inconsistencies, as shown in the differing approaches to the airport and Yucatán peninsula Mayan train projects.

Some years ago, a former Colombian civil servant told me an anecdote which seems relevant now. Freshly appointed as a deputy minister, he was brimming with confidence. One cold and rainy evening, he entered his chauffeur-driven, ministerial vehicle, and soon his car reached a traffic light, where he saw a gentleman getting soaked in the rain as he waited for a taxi. It turned out it was his predecessor in the ministry. The paradox of power, he reflected, is that it is temporary. You either use it for progress, or waste it and end up in the dump of public opinion.

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