López Obrador in Mexico: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old?

Photo Source Eneas De Troya | CC BY 2.0

Andrés Manuel López Obrador achieved on July 1 what he openly and obsessively strove for during 14 years: he was elected president of Mexico. But at what costs and with what sacrifices of professed ideals? His election has triggered a bizarre array of flattering and exaggerated responses from U.S. left commentators: that he’s a “radical socialist”, a person who will focus on relationships with Latin America and criticize the U.S., and that he’s a critic of neo-liberalism. It’s probably true that 45 years ago he trained himself as a politician and organizer by memorizing speeches of Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro, but the company that he keeps recently is quite different.

López Obrador (AMLO) railed for years against what he called “la mafia del poder” (the mafia of the powerful), but more recently, as his last campaign took shape, he was making peace with various magnates, especially in the right-wing-Catholic-dominated industrial city of Monterrey, a few hours from Laredo, Texas. His main contact for this purpose was Alfonso Romo, who has made his money from private school ties, marrying an heiress,  the Oxxo convenience store chain, the manufacture of beer and cigarettes, Coca Cola bottling, genetically-modified organisms, and, according to this article in the Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, ripping off his  richer in-laws. Romo is also a benefactor of the Legionnaires of Christ, a right-wing Catholic group now discredited via accusations of sexual abuse and fraud against its founder, Romo’s close associate Macial Maciel. And now Romo is set to be the coordinator of López Obrador’s presidential cabinet and as such organizes constant “encounters” between the president elect and business leaders and has tantrums when more progressive leaders of AMLO’s political party, like writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, make comments that Romo considers to be too radical.

Within a week of his election, López Obrador had kissed and made up publicly with most of the members of the mafia del poderexcept former president Carlos Salinas. (We don’t know whether he has smoked the peace pipe in private with Salinas. He has, publicly, with Trump, by phone and through mutual praise on their social networks.) Is this the same López Obrador who, while accusing election fraud in 2006, said “To hell with their institutions”? Yes. Is this the same López Obrador who, a few months earlier during that 2006 campaign, presaging Trump’s comments in the wake of Charlottesville, said “I condemn violence wherever it comes from”? Yes. This little-criticized, never retracted comment from López Obrador was in response to a police riot in the village of Atenco–crucible, then and now, of opposition to the construction of a new airport. State troops under the command of then governor (now president) Enrique Peña Nieto and federal thugs commanded by then president Vicente Fox broke into houses, allegedly and probably raped more than 40 women, beat indiscriminately, and shot a few people.

One of AMLO’s broken promises that has most disappointed supporters, former supporters,  independent progressives, and small farmers has been his having reneged on his pledge to cancel construction of this new Mexico City area airport on farm land and a lake bed in Texcoco. His opposition never had deep roots: he didn’t speak of ecocide nor of the rights of campesinos, for example, but many activists hoped that, despite this superficiality, he would make good on his promises for reasons of fiscal integrity. He vaguely attacked contract irregularities like lack of bidding in some cases, but before the election was already promising the (mostly U.S. and Spanish, except the Slim family) contractors that he would honor financial commitments to them even if it meant transferring their work to a different project or to the conversion a military airport  in another part of the metropolitan area to civilian use. Within a week of the election he was meeting with big business groups and magnates like Slim and Romo. The pseudo-solution is a plebiscite scheduled for October 28 in which the population decides, mostly on the basis of pro-airport propaganda, whether to continue or not with the construction. But the three options will all be YES: continue the construction as is now in course, privatize it, or transfer it to the military site. The logical option, that a new airport is not a priority for the population, is not under discussion. Recent federal statistics indicate that 45 per cent of employed Mexicans earn the minimum wage of about five dollars a day and that only 4.5 per cent earn more than 700 dollars a month. Who is buying airplane tickets? López Obrador has a shady history of using surveys to avoid taking a stand or to impose conservative decisions: he once proposed one about GLBTI rights and obviously shows disdain for the principal that human rights and ecological needs are not subject to popularity contests. The man designated to be secretary of transportation, Javier Jiménez Espriú, is a former airline executive and cabinet official in previous neo-liberal administrations. Just before the election he was saying that 16 per cent of the construction was completed; two weeks later, he suddenly said it was 31 per cent.  He never explained this miracle; mainstream media helped by saying it was “30 or 40 percent”. There was no visible construction until a few days ago. What they have spent about three years doing has been to dry Lake Texcoco (really) and to mine hundreds of millions of metric meters of tezontle, a soft, iron-like rock that absorbs moisture, to create layers of dryness above the lake bed and thus avoid flooding and sinking. The process of drying the lake includes drying and paving the nine rivers that flow into it. This threatens the 388 species of birds that live year-round or part time in the area, including 137 species of North American migratory birds.  All of this brilliance comes from the mind of British rock star architect Norman Foster, principal author of the project. His Mexican associate is Fernando Romero, son-in-law of Carlos Slim, one of the richest people in the world. This video traces one of the rivers, Río Texcoco, from its source in the mountains to where it has been and is being destroyed by federal and local authorities as it courses toward Lake Texcoco. Note especially the last seven minutes.

Slim went from rich to richest thanks largely to his alliance with privatizing ex-president Carlos Salinas and now with all of Salinas’ successors, now including López Obrador. Slim and his family hold a plurality of the contracts related to the new airport. Tezontle and other stones are trucked to the sites (of the airport and connecting highways) thanks to the destruction of over 140 hills and mountains in five states within a hundred miles of Texcoco.

The project coordinator, designated several years ago by outgoing president Peña Nieto, is Parsons Corporation of Pasadena, California. This group is the source of the 31 per cent completion statistic. Parsons is one of two U.S. war profiteers now associated with López Obrador. (The other is Bechtel, of which Reagan flunky George Schultz was once director. Bechtel is being hired to participate in the “revitalization” of the Mexican petroleum industry by AMLO, historic opponent of the privatization of the Mexican petroleum industry.) Parsons not only profits from war the old-fashioned way, which is getting permission from the occupying country to go into the occupied country. When the U.S. invaded and took over Iraq in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, Parsons received hundreds of millions of dollars to build hospitals, clinics, and prisons, many of which were never finished. When the company was prohibited from receiving further U.S. government contracts it went looking for new friends like Mexico. Jiménez Espriú cites Parsons as if it were a credible and objective source of information about the state of the airport project. Parsons has been the subject of three damning reports in The New York Times, including this one.

The discourse of Peña Nieto and the business class has become the discourse of López Obrador: that no one can deny the need for a new airport and the question is only where to put it and whether it should be bigger than the current one or the biggest in the world. Few want to remember that the same forces built an airport in the nearby city of Toluca less than 15 years ago. Many of the few Mexicans who can afford to fly frequently live in the west of Mexico City, on the road to Toluca. But that airport is largely abandoned.

In his previous campaigns, López Obrador promised to build high-speed trains from Mexico City to Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Nuevo Laredo. A plan of this nature would obviate the need for more domestic air service, democratize the right to travel, and reduce pollution. The only thing similar to this that is in the works now is a “tren maya” which would run from Cancún to the Mayan ruins of Palenque in the north of Chiapas and pass through the states of Tabasco and Campeche. If you are asking where the hell is Campeche that is the point: this train will not serve significantly populated areas. It will further AMLO’s goal of bringing pork-barrel projects to his home state, Tabasco, where he also plans to build refineries and other oil-related infrastructure. No one seems to have told him that Volvo will stop making gasoline-powered new-model cars in 2019, and that Norway is banning gasoline-powered cars in 2025, China and India in 2030, and France and Britain in 2040, according to the comrades at CNN Business. Antonio Gershenson is a petroleum expert who worked in AMLO’s administration in Mexico City. He shares with the president-elect an extreme affinity for the expansion of oil production but criticizes the new airport and the limited nature of plans for passenger train construction. López Obrador has said that a high-speed train is not possible in the states where the Tren Maya would flow. Gershenson maintains that this is not true and that when future cabinet members visit China they should see how it is done there with elevated rail lines to avoid environmental damage. He proposes a high-speed train to the gulf state of Veracruz, rich in oil, gang violence, and low-cost tourism, as an example of how to reduce air travel.

He has begun to promise in recent days to prohibit fracking and measures in tune with this vision are being introduced in congress.

Pension crisis? What pension crisis?

For the average citizen, there are two realistic possibilities: inadequate pension or no pension. But the ruling class sees another kind of pension crisis and argues that there is no fiscal base upon which to pay current and future pensions. López Obrador lately sides with the latter and has proposed to raise the retirement age to 68. He may want to look at how people reacted to that proposal in France. Or Nicaragua, where a certain ex-leftist is reeling. To be fair, López Obrador has proposed going national with the universal old-age nutritional pension that he instituted in 2001 in Mexico City and raising it to about 2,000 pesos a month (slightly over 100 dollars). This is something, but is only for people over 70. And in a country like Mexico where unemployment and its flipside, overwork, are the order of the day and where diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, respiratory diseases, homicide, and car accidents make it a challenge to live to 70, government alms for grandparents are not enough. Part of what may be fueling the new administration’s desire to “reform” pensions may be its Bush-like refusal to raise taxes. Far from being a “radical leftist”, López Obrador does not even invoke the traditional social democratic or liberal value of progressive taxation and says all the money for social programs will come from cutting top officials’ and congress members’ salaries in half, cutting unspecified costs related to “corruption”, and eliminating pensions and perks for former presidents.

In foreign policy, his choice for secretary of foreign relations is Marcelo Ebrard, one-time leader of the youth sector of the PRI. López Obrador named him police chief of Mexico City, moved him to another post after a lynching scandal, and handpicked him to be his successor in the mayor’s office. (After finishing his term as mayor he faced another scandal involving faulty construction of a subway line and disappeared further, this time to France, land of his oligarchic ancestors.) While police chief, Ebrard convinced López Obrador to hire Rudy Giuliani, who had just left the post of mayor of New York amid accusations of racist practices in law enforcement. Giuliani pretended at the time to set up a firm that would consult local governments about security issues and Ebrard was his first client in what some saw as anti-coup insurance: Guiliani would tell his buddies in the presidency, the CIA, and the FBI that López Obrador was a good guy and that there was no reason to mess with him. It is not clear whether Giuliani and Ebrard maintain contact now that one is Trump’s personal attorney and canine defense force and the other will represent Mexico internationally.

In memory of Jesús Ramos Arreola, forestry engineer, neighbor who spoke against the destruction of a hill in his community,Tlamanalco, for the exploitation of tezontle. He was murdered in his home on September 29.

Johnny Hazard is somewhere where the banks won’t find him, but he can often be reached at jhazard99@yahoo.com.