Mexico: Has AMLO Compromised on Human Dignity?

By Alexandra Délano*

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a meeting in 2018, during which U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo was present

Mexican Foreign Secretary- designate Marcelo Ebrard participates in a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Mexico City on October 19, 2018. State Department photo/ Wikimedia Commons

Mexico has always negotiated with the United States from a position of weakness – it depends on its northern neighbor economically and politically more than the other way around – but the recent negotiations, compromising its commitment to human dignity in exchange for avoiding tariffs, may be among the worst outcomes. Tariffs on Mexican products would surely be costly for Washington, as business leaders and Republican legislators have stated recently, but the much greater economic threat is to Mexico. As a result, Mexico has consistently sought to keep the issue of migration separate from trade and other priorities – a delinking that both countries have accepted for the sake of advancing economic integration.

  • Trump has destabilized that tacit agreement by asserting that maintaining the status quo in commercial relations will depend on new steps by Mexico to support expansion of barriers on its northern border, to better control its southern border, and to stop the flow of migrants from Central America. In addition to imposing the tariffs, Trump threatened to abandon the newly negotiated North American Trade Agreement (“USMCA”) and even to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has opted for a strategy of minimizing confrontation with Trump. This has implied concessions such as accepting the return of persons awaiting asylum hearings in U.S. courts. Even though this policy, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (or Quédate en México), is not in an official agreement, and even though it does not go to the extreme of establishing Mexico as a “safe third country” – which would obligate migrants to claim asylum in Mexico instead of having the option of continuing their journey to the United States – it is an attempt to appease Trump and maintain the fragile balance in the relationship.
  • AMLO has taken other steps to placate Trump. For example, Mexico and the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL) recently announced a development plan for Central America that, although limited in scope and without apparent funding, is an important step towards addressing root causes of migration in the region.

AMLO’s government negotiated to increase its control of the southern border and to continue to host asylum-seekers awaiting a court hearing in the United States. It did so in the absence of an integrated migration strategy, and without a commitment to invest resources, at a time when the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) was just cut 20 percent. The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is also ill-positioned to assume a greater role without addressing its need for the resources and measures necessary to root out corruption and reduce its over-reliance on detention and deportation. Officials from these organizations were not even included in the negotiations – further reflecting the lack of vision and interagency coordination on the migration challenges. Not surprisingly, the INM Commissioner resigned days after the agreement was announced.

  • Mexico’s policies also appear to neglect the need to strengthen multilateral mechanisms to compensate for its weakness in the face of U.S. pressure. Mexico has traditionally been one of the most active promoters of multilateral agreements on cooperation on migration issues, including the Global Compact on Migration approved last year, but it appears unable to build on these accomplishments to either counterbalance Trump’s pressures or guide an internal policy on what to do. It has also failed to build support among G20 allies, including Canada – its second most important trading partner and a player in the extractive activities implicated in driving emigration and internal displacement in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s migration policy at this point is very far from the ideals laid out by López Obrador. His primary concern has been to pursue the impossible goal of containing Trump without harming other interests. Above nationalist posturing – claims that Mexico will never negotiate away its dignity – is the need to protect the dignity of persons. A migration policy that prioritizes migration control and that is based on the mood swings of the United States’ government does not meet this basic criterion. It leaves Mexico in the same weak, isolated position from which it cannot negotiate agreements on labor mobility, humanitarian protection, and economic development. Mexico seems to have made a strategic error in response to Trump’s most recent tantrum – one likely to reoccur under even more challenging conditions as the 2020 election nears.

June 25, 2019

* Alexandra Délano is chair of the Global Studies Department at the New School in New York City. This article is adapted from her essay in El País on June 5, Lo que está en juego en las negociaciones con Estados Unidos: la dignidad humana.

Mexico: Gambling That Austerity Will Be Enough

By Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid*

Mexico City's Paseo de La Reforma

Mexico City’s Paseo de La Reforma / Flickr / Creative Commons

While continuing to emphasize his goal of reversing neoliberalism in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is pursuing a budgetary policy with austerity – not much-needed fiscal reform – as his top priority, at least for 2019-20. In his inauguration speech last December, AMLO repeated campaign themes deriding the neoliberal policies implemented in Mexico since the mid-1980s, blaming them, as well as rampant corruption, for the country’s slow growth, rising inequality, and widespread poverty. Since then, however, the President’s speeches on economic policy and his Secretary of Finance’s main policy documents have stated that all public-sector operations will be subject to strict austerity.

  • They have indicated that 1) there will be no fiscal reform in the first three years of the administration; 2) fiscal revenue will not increase this or next year as a proportion of GDP; and 3) in this period, the public sector will not incur additional debt. In other words, the implementation of AMLO’s proposed social and economic programs will depend on the availability of public revenues subject to the strict constraint of no additional resources through public borrowing or any tax reform. The government has made sharp cuts to government personnel and wages and eliminated various public entities, including ones created to attract foreign investment and tourism.

At the same time, AMLO plans to change the composition of public expenditures significantly to accommodate his top-priority projects, among them Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro (a massive transfer of $180 per capita for an ambitious, and, in many ways, welcome apprentice program for up to 2.3 million youngsters); Sembrando Vida (planting a million trees); Adultos Mayores; and investment to put in place a Maya Train, building from scratch a new crude oil refinery in Dos Bocas, and revamping an airport in Santa Lucía.

More in line with AMLO’s stated intention of overturning neoliberalism, what Mexico really needs is a profound fiscal reform – strengthening public revenues, modernizing public investment strategies, and strengthening its development banks – to foster growth and equality with long-term debt sustainability and greater countercyclical capacity. It is a paradox that the new government chose to commit itself to a severely austere budget, reflected in cuts in public expenditures and an increased primary fiscal surplus.

  • The decision to refrain from tax reform, coupled with drastic austerity, imposes acute limits on the new administration’s ability to strengthen and modernize infrastructure, reduce income inequality through fiscal tools, or strengthen its capacity to act in a countercyclical way – not to mention alleviate major lags in the socioeconomic conditions of the poor population. The IMF, OECD, World Bank, ECLAC, the Centro de Investigación Económica y Presupuestaria (CIEP), Grupo Nuevo Curso de Desarrollo (UNAM), and many local think tanks have systematically underlined that Mexico’s tax revenues as a proportion of GDP are extremely low. According to the estimates of UNAM, CIEP, and others, those revenues are at least six percentage points short of what is needed to meet long-standing needs in infrastructure, health, pensions, education, and overall social security and protection concerns. By reducing the bureaucratic apparatus and public-sector wages virtually across the board, the administration runs the risk of further weakening the state’s technical capabilities in some key areas of public policy and thus undermining its ability to correct course.
  • The underlying reasons for the new government’s commitment to austerity seem to be more political than economic. It has stated that a significant amount of resources can be freed up by abating the rampant corruption, and it apparently believes that before implementing fiscal reform, the government must prove to the citizens that it can deliver efficiently, effectively, and with honesty. Whether there will be sufficient achievements in terms of economic growth and inclusion and in eliminating impunity to convince the middle and upper classes to accept a progressive fiscal reform three years from now is an open question, but the answer will determine Mexico’s economic growth path and progress in the reduction of inequality, poverty, and corruption, and perhaps too its social stability and the viability of its democracy in the future.

April 16, 2019

*Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid is a professor of economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

Mexico: Will AMLO Bring a “Fourth Transformation” or Return to Authoritarian Past?

By Daniela Stevens*

President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Eneas / 500px / Creative Commons

A week before his inauguration, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) continues to stress his commitment to be a “good president” and leader of the country’s “Fourth Transformation,” but some of his early actions suggest that he will challenge political pluralism and destabilize the investment environment.  His sexenio could have a rocky start both politically and economically.

  • AMLO’s handling of a “national consultation” over the ongoing construction of Mexico City’s new international airport – a project that he criticized as corruption-laden – raised red flags about his intended governing style. Most observers say the consultation was unconstitutional and, with only one percent of registered voters participating, inconsistent with the President-elect’s pledge to respect the “people’s will.”  AMLO’s reaction to the criticism – asking “¿quién manda?” (who governs?) – was widely interpreted as a sign that the airport maneuver was not about careful financial planning but rather political power.  He held another referendum last weekend, a “consultation” with citizens on 10 projects on which he seemed to have made up his mind beforehand.  These referendums seem intended to legitimize his intentions and enhance his power.
  • He and his party, Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena), appear to be moving ahead with plans to increase control over public spending, eroding institutional checks on presidential power. The Morena majority in the Tabasco state congress, for example, last month approved a provision empowering the next governor, also from Morena, to assign public works and acquisitions directly, without public bidding.  If the Supreme Court does not deem the reform unconstitutional, the administration will build a refinery in Tabasco without any review of the integrity of the process.
  • To reduce imports of gasoline and natural gas, AMLO plans to halt oil exports and reserve production for national consumption only, as well as to build a new refinery and modernize six existing ones. Critics say such policies reflect an outdated vision of national sovereignty closely tied to oil, and that they would directly diminish Mexico’s creditworthiness, endanger the finances of state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), and, according to Moody’s, result in a two percent decrease in GDP.  Additionally, oil experts say, the emphasis on refining would detract from important efforts to expand exploration and production.  The country cannot immediately meet domestic demand for crude.  Similarly, the transition team seems to disregard the potential of renewable energies and the need to electrify transportation.

Morena proposals to reduce the autonomy of regulatory agencies are scaring investors as well.  A Morena Congressman, for example, is pushing to incorporate the energy sector’s regulatory agencies into the Secretariat of Energy, subordinating them to greater political control.  Although AMLO did not publicly support the initiative, his appointee as Secretary of Energy, Rocío Nahle, has already asked the director of the National Commission of Hydrocarbons, one of the regulatory agencies, to step down three years ahead of schedule.  Given its debt and deficits, Pemex can ill afford to strain its partnerships with private capital.

It’s too early to assess how many of these actions reflect AMLO’s and Morena’s inexperience or a considered approach to governing, but the incoming leadership so far seems unaware or unconcerned that such measures undercut their stated vision of ushering in a “Fourth Transformation” on a par with the country’s three previous ones – independence (1810–1821), the Reforma wars (1857–1861), and revolution (1910).  The hints of authoritarianism, alongside decisions to appoint single-representatives in the states and to maintain a pervasive military presence in the streets, suggest AMLO’s tenure may indeed transcend history – as a government not different from the priista centralized governments of the 20th century, and the militarized calderonista administration (2006 2012) he vehemently criticizes.  After 1997, when the hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) – from which AMLO had already defected to lead the leftwing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) – lost the majority of the Chamber of Deputies for the first time, political analysts and academics pointed out the disadvantages of divided governments in presidential systems, such as political gridlock.  A unified government under AMLO, however, may not be the answer for Mexico either, unless progressives in Morena committed to democracy and its institutions find a way to restrain his impulses and keep his government on a democratic path. 

November 27, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Mexico: Tough Congressional-Executive Relations Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Piñata with the Mexican flag in the background

Bandera mexicana en el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México / Wikimedia/ Creative Commons

Whoever wins Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 probably will face a divided and cantankerous Congress – especially if, as appears likely, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Morena Party is the victor.  López Obrador has been ridiculed by the Mexican political class, some of whose leaders have called him the next Hugo Chávez, but most polls give the polemical candidate at least a 10-point lead over Ricardo Anaya of the coalition Por México al Frente.  In Congressional races, polls also give the advantage to López Obrador’s party and its coalition partners, including Partido del Trabajo (PT) and Partido Encuentro Social (PES), under the joint banner of Juntos Haremos Historia.  According to the Parametría poll, 32 percent of respondents intend to vote for Morena, five percent for PT, and two percent for PES.  Other polls give them higher numbers.

  • The formerly hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) appears likely to fall to third place due to President Peña Nieto’s poor performance and the party’s association with corruption, while the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), traditionally the largest leftist party, would be the fourth.
  • Under the most likely post-election scenarios, López Obrador’s coalition would constitute the largest minority in the Chamber but still fall short of the 51 percent absolute majority, except perhaps by the thinnest of margins. Under Mexico’s mixed electoral system – with both majority and “proportional representation” determining the allocation of Congressional seats – the larger parties lure the smaller ones into coalitions, but unity is often seriously challenged during legislative and other battles.

The traditional categories of left and right are growing obsolete in Mexico, as parties and candidates increasingly resort to opportunism rather than act based on loyalty to any particular ideology or party.  Personal and political grudges also often trump political agendas.

  • As a result, an alternative scenario may emerge in which alliances shift after election day in a way that enhances López Obrador’s power. Tensions between the left-leaning PRD and López Obrador, who was its leader for many years, were so deep that the candidate split with it and created Morena as a party in 2014, but opportunists in the party could well jump ship and join him if he wins by a comfortable margin.  In the PRI also, frustration with party leadership could also prompt defections, and López Obrador – a prominent Priista in the 1970s and 1980s – could also harness their backing.
  • Party switching from one election to another has long been a common practice of politicians in Mexico, but only recently have representatives switched parties in the midst of legislative periods. In particular the PRD’s ranks significantly dwindled as legislators elected under its rubric defected to join Morena. Were this to be replicated later this year or next, López Obrador’s congressional majority could be larger than polls suggest.
  • Party discipline in Mexico has been comparatively higher than in other multi-partisan presidential systems such as Brazil, because of the constitutional prohibition of consecutive reelection. In the past, incumbents did not have incentives to serve their constituencies because their careers depended strictly on party leaders, who centralized nominations to elective positions.  From 2018 on, representatives in both Chambers may run for reelection.  The promise of a Morena candidacy can fuel even more defections into its ranks if the party keeps growing its electoral base.
  • If Morena achieves such dominance, the Congress’s commissions, the equivalent of U.S. Congressional committees, could be important partners of López Obrador because the executive delivers proposals directly to them, and they, in turn, issue the final dictamen that the plenary votes on. Juntos’ influence in the commissions would translate into a fairly unexamined prioritization of the presidential agenda.

Even a comfortable victory on July 1 will not assure López Obrador a readily compliant Congress.  Most legislators in the Por México al Frente coalition, which includes PAN, PRD, and Movimiento Ciudadano stalwarts, will certainly constitute an obstructionist opposition.  How successfully they can sabotage the president’s agenda will obviously depend on their numbers, but unity in opposition to Constitutional amendments required by some of his campaign promises appears certain.  Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and in a majority of state legislatures – unachievable in any likely political configuration during a López Obrador administration.  His proposals for revocation of presidential tenure, lowering high-ranking officials’ salaries, and reversing education reforms– which would require Constitutional amendments – thus appear dead on arrival.  Absent reliable Congressional support, López Obrador would also have difficulty passing essential budget and revenue bills and gaining confirmation of important appointees such as the attorney general and key prosecutors.  No candidate would have an easy Congress, but the Mexican parties’ willingness to set aside petty divisions and coalesce behind pressing issues, at least early in the presidential term, appears lower than ever before.  Thus, López Obrador would have a lot riding on the willingness of some sectors of the opposition to defect.

May 24, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.