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Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

28 February 2019

Is AMLO really a leftist, or is he a traditionalist, an authoritarian, or … something else?

A few days ago, MexFiles posted on the sausage-making that went into the National Guard bill… initially attacked (not without merit) not just by the various opposition parties, but by some on the broad leftist Morena front as well. The oppostion on the left felt betrayed that AMLO campaigned on a “Hugs not drugs” response to rampant criminality but proposed, and pushed mightily, for a military controlled National Guard.  Did he change his mind, or have the realities of governance in a complex country faced with new challenges change his mind?

Vanni Pattiná(a research professor at the Colegio de México´s Centro de Estudios Históricos looks delves deeper into the seeming condundrum of a utopian leftist campaign, and the hard realities of governance. 

Originally published as “López Obrador y la cuarta transformación: más allá de lo caricaturesco” (El País Edición América, 26 February 2019).  My translation.

That Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a polarizing figure is a given. Even before winning the 2018 Presidential election, and even moreso now, his statements and addresses are not always translated into policy. In these first few months as leader of the nation, with some justification, the twists and turns and abrupt turn-around from his speeches, have led to heated debate in this country.

Civil rights were substantially expanded during his tenure as head of the Mexico City government but have seemed to have disappeared from his agenda. More importantly, his recent statements about the central role of the traditional family as a brake on the expansion of crime seem to suggest the adoption of a rather conservative social agenda. These are just some of the examples of the abrupt changes of direction or of the apparent incongruity that have marked both the electoral campaign and the first months of López Obrador’s tenure as Chief Executive.

A good part of the Mexican commentocracy seems to attribute these incongruities to the new President’s personality, saying he is incoherent or erratic or even authoritarian with a scant appreciation of democratic values or practices. However, there are two factors, related to structural causes, that would help understand this problem in a somewhat deeper way. In the first place, it is necessary to take into account the different ideas of what is the “left” as conceived by the president, party activists, members of the cabinet and Morena voters . Secondly, it is necessary to understand how applying campaign promises collides with the operational the Mexican state and its institutions.

As to the differing definitions of the left, we can take the classic definition of Norberto Bobbio* as a reference, López Obrador would be defined as being on the left, since the redistribution of wealth is indisputably at the center of his program. . However, as various observers have claimed, he is a socially conservative leftist leader: not a particularly surprising position in Mexico, where movements that could be defined as leftist, such as that led Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution, allowed for the ideological coexistence between a radical egalitarianism and a conservative vision of society. John Womack**, probably one of the deepest scholars of Zapatismo, began his famous book about the revolutionary leader stating it was just a story about peasants who didn’t want to move (literally) and that’s why they revolted. As Héctor Aguilar Camín points out, in his commentary on the new translation of the book, not wanting to physically move in the face of the expanding modernizing Porfirian hacienda system, also implied cultural and social resistance to the process of modernization. In that sense, López Obrador is in a tradition where left and political modernity can be split without apparent contradiction.

Coupled with this, among the president’s supporters and the voters, redistribution of wealth is not the only factor defining the left. A core part of López Obrador’s movement is identified with a broader progressive agenda, which includes civil rights, a less hierarchical value system and less paternalistic political practices. The tension between these concepts of the left, united by the question of inequality and separated by different visions of society, generates unresolved and continuous tensions. Far from trying to reduce them, the leader of Morena seems on the contrary to accentuate at times his social conservatism, speaking with some success in some regions of the country, which seem to communicate a more moderate cultural perspective.

The second thing to consider is that inconsistencies in the discussion and policy proposals of the fourth transformation*** are related to the limits the state’s institutional weakness imposes on realizing certain campaign proposals. I don’t think there any doubt that López Obrador has a different vision of the relationship between State and society than that of his predecessors, a perspective that also affects the security problem. If the images are worth something, and in politics they are, one should not underestimate the fact that one of his first acts as constitutional president has been to meet the parents of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa normal school, murdered by organized crime in collusion with the municipal authorities of the State of Guerrero in circumstances still to be clarified. It is a strong signal, which marks a different sensitivity to the problem of violence in the country and its harmful effects on society and its most vulnerable sectors.

The problem is that despite his good intentions, López Obrador is confronted with institutions whose level of weakness and decomposition it seems even he was unaware of when taking the reins of the state machine. In fact, if we look at Mexico beyond its capital [where he headed the government], we can not avoid seeing the difficulty with which state, federal and local institutions operate in vast regions of the country. Here, far from the capital, a dysfunctional federalism — encouraged during the democratic stage undertaken by the country after the year 2000 , in conjunction with the disappearance of the party-State — the persistence of patronage and caciques [local political/economic bosses] have systematically eroded the consolidation of a functional state. If we add to this the presence of organized crime, which over the last decade has increasingly undermined the ability of the state to exercise its functions in the territory, we can see that, in terms of institutional consolidation, the situation is much more complicated.

It is probable that some of the recent decisions, such as the creation of a National Guard, apparently inconsistent with the electoral campaign proposals, or the decision to create super-delegates, showing scant sensitivity to the existing federal institutional framework, respond, in reality, to the need to reinforce the political coordination capacity of the center over the regions and to regain control of the territory lost during the last six years. It is true that López Obrador’s obstinate demand that the National Guard be under military supervision, in a country in which there have been multiple proven violations of human rights by the Army while performing internal security tasks, generates legitimate befuddlement. However, whether López Obrador is correct or not, it is undeniable that these public policy proposals aim at recovering some basic functions of any modern state, such as the control of the territory and the coordination between federal entities and central power, in a context of great complexity, and confronting the challenges that low institutionality and the pervasive presence of organized crime pose. Political movements on the left have a more utopian outlook than those on the right: therefore, the impact of reality, when they become the government always generates rumblings, criticism and disenchantment.

As can be seen, the problems described here are knotty ones, difficult to resolve, which will continue to exert an important influence on the speeches and policies of the current government. I think it is legitimate that observers, journalists or citizens underline, even with vehemence, the cacophony that sometimes marks the discourse and the implementation of the policies of the new executive. This is a crucial task in any system that is defined as democratic. Yet, if as Albert Camus said, “banality is the worst enemy of information”, we have to demand a more rigous analysis of the causes of our problems. The challenges facing this Administration and the country itself require attempts to reflect on the situation and, above all, knee-jerk reactions.

*Italian political theorist and socialist (1909 -2004) who argued that the “left”believes in attempting to eradicate social inequality, while at the same time arguing for separation of powers and limits on state power

. **English language edition Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, Vintage Paperback 1970. New Spanish language translation by Francisco González Aramburo, Fondo de Cultural Económica, 2017.

*** The implication is that Mexico had three previous transformations in its political structure: Independence, the Juarez era reforms, and the Revolution. López Obrador’s program is said to the the fourth.



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