by Leslie Layton
In 1988, I traveled with Andrés Manuel López Obrador – the man expected to win Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico — during his gubernatorial campaign in the southern state of Tabasco. I covered his quirky, upstart campaign for the San Francisco Chronicle, often riding in the back of his family’s little Volkswagen, largely because I sensed that he’d eventually be influential nationally, if not someday elected president.
This is to suggest that this passionate, fierce and bloody presidential race has been in the making for a very long time, and because 30 years ago a younger López Obrador was already a skilled politician. He was charismatic and smart, and he seemed to just need the right moment to stake his claim to the presidency and deliver power to the Mexican left.
He lost the Mexican presidency in the 2006 and 2012 races, but in the former, by a margin so narrow that the electoral results were in question for years.
This year’s presidential race seems to have delivered his moment. López Obrador promised to fight corruption, poverty and violence and it was what exhausted Mexican voters, disillusioned by both the ruling and far-right parties, were hungry to hear. He built a coalition so diverse – he’s learned the danger of tight elections — that some worry he’ll be obliged to make too many compromises. He’s so far ahead in the polls that victory seems inevitable.
His victory could be good for Mexico, for the United States and for Americans worried about immigration from Mexico. Yet, on the eve of this election, as Mexicans are brimming with hope and excitement in places like Twitter and at Mexico City’s Stadium Azteca, I worry. As a journalist who worked 10 years in Mexico, I’ve seen U.S. intervention destabilize Latin American leaders who weren’t pliant enough.
In the U.S. mainstream press, stories about this election already range from factual to confused to alarmist. Business writers wonder whether López Obrador has adopted a more moderate tone only to win the presidency. He’s occasionally misidentified as a Trump-style populist. A June 28 Bloomberg News column entitled, “The Real Problem with ‘Mexico’s Trump’” explores the possible implications of a López Obrador presidency – calling him “Mexico’s Trump.”
To suggest, even in a headline, that López Obrador can somehow be categorized as a Mexican Trump is to misportray who he is. López Obrador coined the campaign phrase “mafia of power” to describe the ruling class, but in Latin America, that language has a context that Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” never really had.
A lot of things can go wrong before the ballots are counted, and they’ve gone wrong in other Mexican elections marred by fraud, chaos and violence. During this election season, candidates and politicians have been killed in record numbers. In 2006, I stood in the Mexico City Zócalo on the night of the presidential election as would-be voters protested an announcement that polling places had run out of ballots and would close – right in the heart of the capital.
Twelve years later, I worry more about my government, about a Trump administration that may feel threatened by a candidate who isn’t easily bullied, about a president who is impetuous and arrogant. I worry that U.S. meddling might cheat Mexico out of this rare chance to try a different and progressive approach to its problems.
In the past, we’ve waged war, sponsored coups and quietly fomented resistance to democratically-elected leadership to protect corporate interests. Think U.S. intervention almost anywhere in the hemisphere: Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras. And the U.S. mainstream media has often become a tool in helping to undermine leaders our officials don’t like by depicting them as authoritarians.
López Obrador has spent much of the past 30 years in steadfast organizing, relying on rhetoric that Mexicans find compelling, becoming more politically pragmatic as he nears his ultimate goal. In 1988, I watched as indigenous residents of Nacajuca, Tabasco, complained they had inadequate sewage service and police protection. López Obrador urged them to form a committee to work with a new left-of-center political party to resolve their problems.
Now, 30 years later, it’s hard to say what he’ll get done as president of a country so deeply troubled by drug trafficking, poverty and pollution. But as mayor of Mexico City, he provided pensions to the elderly, expanded freeways and restored historic neighborhoods.
He’s said he’ll seek a cordial and dignified relationship with President Trump, but it’s also hard to say how he’ll be received by this administration. We should be skeptical when we hear that López Obrador has turned virulently anti-business. We should insist that the U.S. government respect Mexico’s sovereignty during this election and the coming sexenio.
At a time when so many Americans feel disempowered and betrayed by their own government, foreign policy tends to slip from our newscasts, social-media feeds and list of worries. But Mexico deserves to be free of the tentacles of the Trump administration.
It deserves the democracy Mexicans wish to build and the chance to reform itself in a way that protects the interests of Mexico, not the interests of U.S. business or our own political class.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.