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President AMLO's Misguided Nostalgia Creeps Toward Despotism

Mexico's socialist president is determined to restore a 'strong' presidency he believes will put things right in Mexico. To many, he is starting to look like another tropical dictator of sort.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — Napoleon Bonaparte once declared that one must be petty to win power, but high-minded and generous in its exercise. Three years into his presidency, Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) seems only to have grasped the "petty" part. He doesn't — or refuses to — understand the difference.

Instead of governing, which he has said is "so easy," he has devoted himself to dividing Mexicans while he forwards his own agenda. That essentially consists of sweeping away everything pertaining to the last 40 years. It is entirely understandable, as his project clashes head-on with the reform policies and gradual development of state institutions undertaken over four decades.

People protest against Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City — Photo: Jose Pazos Fabian/EFE/ ZUMA

What he wants is to build on his own vision of how this country should work. That means reviving his recollection of Mexican history, and as he remembers it, a society living a golden age in the 1970s, under an all-powerful presidency. In this mental caricature of our recent history, the president could impose his will, which meant the country worked, the economy grew and there was order. Those of us who remember the 1970s know that the decade's two presidents, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo, were precisely the initiators of a period of economic instability that would soon run out of control.

The author of a book on the palace at Versailles once observed that King Louis XIV had built it, Louis XV enjoyed it, and Louis XVI paid for it. Mexico's history in the mid-20th century isn't so different. Stabilizing development allowed the economy to grow, Echeverría and López Portillo (who presided over the so-called "tragic 12 years') enjoyed its fruits and in the 1980s, Mexicans had to pay for their leaders' frivolity and (personal, political and financial) recklessness.

He isn't just peddling nostalgia, but an extravagant dream that may become a nightmare.

The 1980s were a convulsive period. There was an economic crisis and almost hyper-inflation, excessive debt, tremendous anger and distrust, and repeated attempts to restore a semblance of order and stability in all aspects of national life. Various attempts to return to the period of stabilizing growth failed, until the country finally realized this was no longer possible. This was because the world, and Mexico, had changed; and that led the country into a period of political and economic reforms. These were partial and unequal, but without a doubt restored a measure of political and economic order in the country. Their costs however included loss of control over parts of the country and rising crime.

A key part of those reforms was to build institutions (including a new Supreme Court, an electoral body and an independent rights commission) meant to instill confidence among the public, businesses and other sectors of society. The new institutions were not all equally effective, but had a shared logic: to confer certainty, and act as checks to an all-powerful executive branch. The aim (at least) was to move toward a modern economy and democratic society.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Mexican president José López Portillo toast during a luncheon hosted by the President of Mexico in 1979 — Photo: Public Domain

The problem for Mexico is that the presidential vision is sharply at odds with realities and public expectations in the 21st century. Many ordinary folk voted for AMLO, either believing in him or out of disgust at the state of things. Yet he isn't just peddling a nostalgic foray into the past, but an extravagant dream that may become a nightmare. This may well be why the presidential party took a drubbing in recent, regional and legislative elections.

As the Chinese journalist Deng Yuwen has observed, the essence of democracy is to restrict the power of the state, while an unfettered concentration of powers is the ultimate cause of social problems. President AMLO is starting to get a taste of both.

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