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amlo

¡AMLO!

A new day is dawning in Mexico with the decisive victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in the presidential election, and his capture of control of both chambers of Congress. For two decades he has been a player in national politics, first as a successful mayor of Mexico City, then as a three-time candidate for President, AMLO is a left-populist to go with Donald Trump as the right-populist. Where Trump consolidates his base with xenophobia and tax cuts, AMLO has based his campaign on ending corruption, controlling epidemic violence, and raising the standard of living of the poor mass of the population. Both men gained popularity by running against their respective political elites.

Both men make claims to unique personal charisma: Trump’s famous “Only I can fix it!” theme is matched—by AMLO’s implicit claim, “¡Yo solo puedo con éste!” (“I alone can do this”).

But AMLO’s values are diametrically opposed to Trump’s. AMLO wants to end corruption; Trump is the embodiment of kleptocracy. AMLO wants to reduce inequality; Trump’s policies are increasing it. AMLO seeks to control violence by attacking its roots in society; Trump seeks to control violence by more violence.

Although both men have made an initial effort to get off on the right foot with each other, it is hard to see how this relationship could be anything but tense and prone to conflict.

Both men have been critics of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but obviously have totally different grievances. For example, Trump complains of manufacturing jobs lost to Mexico, while AMLO criticizes the import of subsidized American corn that has driven most Mexican small farmers off the land.

Although both men have made an initial effort to get off on the right foot with each other, it is hard to see how this relationship could be anything but tense and prone to conflict.

It remains unclear how AMLO will move from campaigning to governing. It may be, like Trump, he will find perpetual campaigning more comfortable than focusing on the exacting details of policy. But when he was Mayor of Mexico City, AMLO proved a quite able and pragmatic administrator, and there is little doubt that he is both smarter and better educated than his American counterpart.

Somehow, AMLO has to find the resources to tangibly improve the lives of most Mexicans. That’s bound to come at the expense of those with higher incomes, and major corporations, but he must at the same time be sufficiently attentive to conventional ideas about managing the economy so as to avoid spooking investors and sending the country into recession. He cannot afford to be seen as another Hugo Chávez.

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Somehow, AMLO needs to get a handle on pervasive violence from drug cartels, corrupt police, and petty crime. Cynically, he could do a lot by simply taking the pressure off the cartels, but that would amount to handing them unchallenged control of their respective territories. A more creative approach might focus on improving the conditions that drive people to enter the drug trade as the only way to make a living. But the fundamental reality that he cannot change is the raging American demand for all the major drugs that are produced in or transported through Mexico, whether heroin, marijuana, cocaine or others. This gives new meaning to the old Mexican proverb: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

Ending corruption is perhaps AMLO’s biggest challenge. He relies on his own well-established reputation for incorruptibility, but that doesn’t get him far in a society where for generations the most reliable route to getting rich has lain not through private enterprise but through political office, where every successful business person has always known that the key to success is “investing” in politicians who can be helpful for a price, where every citizen has always known that the only way of getting what she needs from the government is to pay bribes.

On this point perhaps the clearest historical parallel to AMLO’s anticorruption campaign lies not in Mexican history, but rather in Paraguay, where an austere tyrant named José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia ruled from 1814 to 1840. Famously austere in his personal life, according to Wikipedia:

Francia lived a spartan lifestyle, and apart from some books and furniture, his only possessions were a tobacco case and a pewter confectionery box.[19] Francia left the state treasury with at least twice as much money in it as when he took office, including 36,500 pesos of his unspent salary, the equivalent of several years' pay.

To realize his radical, Jacobin-inspired vision, Francia imposed total isolation on his country, enforced with draconian cruelty. Nevertheless, after his death, succeeding rulers opened the country again and resumed the old corrupt ways. Within a generation, Paraguay would be invaded by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The Paraguayan War totally devastated the country, killing the vast majority of the male population.

One suspects AMLO will not choose this route. But how he can eliminate corruption remains a vexing question.

impeachment unavoidable

At least he will try. Trump, on the other hand…

John Peeler