An earlier version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com
Just a few days remain before Mexican voters go to the polls, and a neck-and-neck presidential race is set to determine whether the wave of electoral victories for Latin American progressives will wash ashore far enough to lap at the toes of Texas.
The progressive leader in question is the former Mexico City mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is also known by his initials, AMLO. AMLO is campaigning under the slogan "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First." He consistently highlights the failure of corporate globalization to benefit the half of the Mexican population that lives below the poverty line. If AMLO comes out ahead on July 2, his rise to power would signal a momentous shift in Mexican politics. It would mark the first win for the left in the country’s post-one-party era and give the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) a long-forestalled victory at the national level.
While the Bush administration has been chagrinned by electoral results throughout South America, the countries being governed by new left-leaning presidents--Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Chile--have been far enough away to keep White House anxieties largely in check. If Mexico were to follow the trend, Bush officials would be treated to a more up-close-and-personal encounter with the Latin American New Left. Newspapers have seized on this image, London’s Independent profiling the "Firebrand on Bush’s Doorstep" and The New York Times Magazine warning of "The Populist Next Door."
The White House maintains an official policy of not intervening in other countries’ elections. Of course, this rule has often been violated in the past, especially with regard to our southern neighbors. During El Salvador's last presidential elections, U.S. officials went so far as to suggest that voting for a change away from "free trade" governance could endanger the flow of remittances--needed money sent back to Salvador from family members that immigrated to the United States. The threat sent a chill through the populace, and the right-wing candidate went on to score a decisive win.
Yet the Bush administration has learned the hard way that not-so-subtle interventions can also backfire. In a region where the "Washington Consensus" has become synonymous with economic policies that bolster the rich and punish the poor, disapproval from the North can become a sign of popular credibility. Washington’s criticism of Evo Morales in Bolivia during his first presidential run greatly enhanced his standing and ultimately helped him to win office earlier this year.
In February 2005, then-CIA director Porter Goss ominously warned that the 2006 presidential elections in Mexico were shaping up to produce "instability." The vague reference set off a firestorm in the country, and the White House has since remained tight-lipped in official statements. The Bush Administration now reiterates that it is willing to "work with whoever is chosen by the Mexican people."
The character assassination has thus been left to the conservative pundits. These commentators use "populism" more as a scare word than as a means of doing serious analysis of the Latin American situation. The reliably rabid opinion page of the Wall Street Journal published a column in March arguing that AMLO’s opposition to Fox’s pro-corporate economic policy signals "a worrying authoritarianism with moralistic overtones" and suggesting that an alternative path for development would qualify as "wild populist experimentation." Political advisor and Fox News commentator Dick Morris published a column in The New York Post with madcap accusations that AMLO’s campaign is being bankrolled by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Envisioning an elaborate conspiracy, he wrote: "Chavez is a firm ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro. Lopez Obrador could be the final piece in their grand plan to bring the United States to its knees before the newly resurgent Latin left."
Not that Morris cares about the facts, but AMLO has asserted for the record that he doesn’t even know Chávez. The main link between the two is a shared distaste for economic policies that have failed the region.
U.S. political consultants helped to introduce inflammatory charges into the Mexican campaigns. Coached by Morris’ ilk, AMLO’s rivals, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (the party of current president Vicente Fox) and Roberto Madrazo Pintado of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), produced a barrage of negative ads in recent months. The U.S.-style mudslinging set a new standard in Mexican politics. The Federal Electoral Institute had to step in to censure activity that went beyond the pale. It barred a series of ads that declared the candidate "a danger to Mexico" and that likened AMLO to Chávez. And it criticized Fox for violating the legal prohibition against the outgoing president campaigning while in office.
The negativity worked for a time, cutting into AMLO’s commanding lead and even placing Calderón ahead in the polls during one stretch. But the other candidates soon learned the peril of casting the first stone. AMLO responded with a charge that Calderón, as Fox’s energy minister, steered millions of dollars worth of government contracts to his brother-in-law; investigations into the accusation have remained a hot topic in Mexican papers for weeks. The contest between Calderón and AMLO is now considered too close to call. Madrazo is behind but lurks just close enough in the polls that an unlikely but conceivable late surge could give him a slim plurality.
When Vicente Fox won the presidency six years ago, he was heralded as something new for Mexico. His triumph ended over 70 years of one-party rule by the PRI and marked a revival for the country’s democracy. That much is true. But Fox took Mexico further down a path that was well established in the post-NAFTA era and that is very familiar in Latin America--a path known as neoliberalism or corporate globalization. The business elite did well under Fox. Growth in gross domestic product, however, averaged only 1.8 percent per year and there were few new jobs for working families. For many Mexicans, immigration to the North presented the only viable opportunity for escaping poverty.
In this context, what the pundits label as AMLO’s "dangerous populism" is actually a long-overdue concern for the plight of Mexico’s struggling majority. A combination of personal appeal and progressive policy-making allowed the center-left candidate to achieve approval ratings as mayor that, at times, pushed 80 percent. While in office, AMLO kept a modest Mexico City apartment rather than moving to one of the gated communities preferred by the elite, and he drove a none-too-glamorous Nissan Tsuru to work. He implemented social security pensions for the elderly, single mothers, and the disabled, and he undertook new public works to address severe traffic congestion. When well-heeled political opponents tried to ban him from running for president by pursuing an obscure misdemeanor charge against him, mass protests rallied in his defense, and his reputation as a defender of public interest over privilege was solidified.
Critics charge that AMLO’s social spending would bankrupt the country if applied at the national scale. But unlike, say, George W. Bush and his Republican Congress--which has created towering deficits by coupling Halliburton-friendly public spending with tax cuts for the wealthy--AMLO balanced his social spending with significant improvements in tax collection. The New York Times reported that he ultimately created a balanced budget in Mexico City.
With Election Day fast approaching, the question now is whether AMLO will be allowed to govern even if he is able to win. Parties that have stolen Mexican elections in the past may attempt to do so again. And bloody clashes in recent months between police and striking teachers, miners, and flower vendors in various states have suggested that protests against election irregularities may be met with severe repression.
None of this should be encouraged by new infusions of fear-mongering rhetoric. Promoting freedom abroad means supporting Mexicans' right to peaceful protest and public assembly, as well as their prerogative to choose a leader anathema to "free trade" ideologues inside the beltway. If democracy prevails and AMLO’s supporters turn out, we should hope to welcome a new progressive to the neighborhood.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus. He can be reached via the web site http://www.democracyuprising.com.