Why Mexico's López Obrador Is Playing With Fire

The new president is uniquely positioned to fix the country's long-ignored economic shortcomings. But he should work with the system, not brush it aside, writes economist Luis Rubio.

Mexico City
Mexico City
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — Some years back, as China prepared to receive the heads of the intergovernmental Asia-Pacific forum APEC, the city government of Beijing shut down factories and banned millions of cars from circulating. The idea was to cut pollution and give a cleaner impression of the city.

And yet, a phone application was enough to show the Chinese capital's alarming pollution levels, in spite of the curbs. So what did the government do? It immediately set about resolving this outstanding pollution problem — by blocking the application!

Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, seems to be taking a similar approach. Instead of solving problems, he insists on destroying what was already working in Mexico, and in some cases working very well. Despite some tremendous shortcomings and unresolved issues, the country was actually on the right track in recent times, and clearly doing much better than it was in the 1970s and 80s.

The strategy of labeling everything from before as bad and corrupt is having a negative impact: The jobless rate is rising, the economy diving, and a total lack of investments is exacerbating the first two indicators. The president, however, is not prepared to recognize that his strategy is the cause of these phenomena. Nor will he acknowledge that should things continue, his approach will duly plunge the country into a vast crisis. Markets are already sending signals of distrust regarding Mexican debt, and starting to anticipate risks that may, if unchecked, provoke just the crisis the president says he hopes to avoid.

Our core problem isn't that the finances of Pemex, the state oil firm, are out of wack. Yes, that's a major concern. What's really threatening the economy is the government's idea that it should do away with the existing system. Rather than start anew, the government needs to identify the country's problems — some of them recent, some of them long-standing — and take steps to fix them. These are problems that have been ignored for decades. And it was to fix these problems that voters chose López Obrador as president. He has a unique mandate to do so.

Andrès Manule Lòpez Obrador, Mexico's president — Photo: Arturo Monroy/Notimex/Newscom/ZUMA

The economic strategy that Mexico has followed in recent decades is the only viable one. But it has to be done properly. It is no coincidence that all nations, literally, have followed a similar path, because there is simply no other way. The exceptions are Venezuela or North Korea, examples that speak for themselves. Even Cuba has, in its own modest way, entered the logic of globalization.

López Obrador's starting point is that everything done since 1982 was wrong. This is mistaken for two reasons: First, it does not acknowledge that the 1982 crisis was the result of an excessively prolonged strategy of developmental stabilization that helped provoke a decades-long debt crisis. Second, it ignores the fact that the inward-looking, pre-1982 approach ran its course because it could no longer meet the needs of an increasingly demanding population and because the world, its technologies, production and communication modes were changing.

Simply put, the economic strategy Mexico followed after 1982 may have been flawed — and all efforts should be made not to repeat mistakes — but it was the only plausible way.

López Obrador has the legitimacy and necessary leadership to do what previous governments could or would not do: remove enduring obstacles to development that are today the bases for the low growth rates that have dogged Mexico for so long. Our problems are related to outdated social and political structures that favor what one local writer has called the "extortion economy." It is an economy where the authorities, trade unions, monopolies, bureaucratic systems and criminals extort money from citizens, consumers, traders, businessmen or students, impeding nationwide growth.

If the president really wants economic liftoff and to give poorer Mexicans new opportunities, his strategy should be to end this endemic, and rampant unaccountability. But by consolidating sectoral fiefdoms, rewarding obstructive unions and cultivating firms that block competition, he is doing the opposite.

Provoking union disputes, attacking energy firms or stoking tensions can only dampen growth and curb investments. If the president insists on destroying what has been established here, expect a crisis as big as 1995, or worse.

If there is no progress in the southern, rural state of Oaxaca, it is because publicity-seeking unions and political structures block it. One only need observe successful parts of the country like Aguascalientes or Querétaro to see what favorable political and business settings can create.

Now, does the president want to turn the entire country into something like the state of Oaxaca? What is the path he has chosen to ensure that those below, people with fewer privileges and less money, have the same rights and opportunities as those above them? Is it to lift them up, or push everyone else down to their level?

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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