In a scene in Gael Garcia Bernal’s movie Chicuarotes, a group of young teenagers in a marginalized neighborhood in Mexico City ask: “why do we only get to have candy whose date has expired?” That is the life of millions and millions of Mexicans. Excluded, forgotten, permanently exposed to the allures of consumption, but never able to get anything of much value with their extremely limited means. No decent jobs, no decent salaries, no decent anything for them.

Mexico’s shift to an open market economy in the early 1990s did not live up to its promises. A small portion of the country did well, very well. For vast swaths of the population, however, exposure to the vagaries of a highly internationalized economy in the context of a brutally skewed social order has meant living on the edge or, simply, falling from it. The same goes for the transition to pluralistic and competitive electoral democracy. Many benefits, but mostly concentrated in a few. Greater pluralism yes, but within narrow confines: more transparency, yes, but so long as it did not upset traditional oligarchic arrangements; greater independence for the Judiciary, certainly, but no real attempt to build an impartial system of justice or to expand access to it for the many. And to lace it all up, since 2009, violence spiraling out of control with much of its horrific cost falling, once again, upon the voiceless.  

This social reality is what explains López Obrador’s rise to victory in July 2018. His protracted electoral campaign grew from it and was organized around the battle against the political project (i.e., “neoliberalism”) that López Obrador and his supporters see as responsible for it. He never offered anything else. And he, certainly, never promised that he would take up the market-democracy project to implement it “correctly”.

Numerous aspects of López Obrador as president are open to criticism. Not pursuing the old neoliberal project he explicitly set out to dismantle, however, is hardly one of them.  

Interestingly, many of AMLO’s most vocal critics insist on judging him with the old parameters and to condemn him for not carrying their project forward. An eloquent example was Lopez Obrador’s cancellation of the Texcoco airport. His critics, along with much of Mexico’s economic and social elite, were infuriated by it. The decision was far from well processed, but should have not been very surprising. López Obrador had promised to cancel that project repeatedly. Why did his opponents not believe him? Did they overestimate their own power to stop him from cancelling an airport that was the symbolic condensation of their own interests and dreams?

AMLO and the political phenomenon he represents are a very peculiar political beast. Populist (in part); neo-traditionalist (in part); orthodox in macroeconomic terms; decidedly opposed to conflict with the US; uninterested in the world at large; drawing (part) of its rhetoric from that of the post-revolutionary regime; marked by its leader’s charismatic features and religious undertones; strongly majoritarian and evincing only light concern for democracy’s liberal elements (individual liberty, pluralism and minority rights). In brief, the “4T” is many, often contradictory, things. One thing it is not is the democracy-market project in new guise. Insisting on “evaluating” as if it were, might be useful politically, but not very helpful analytically. 

At the broadest level, AMLO and his 4T are the Mexican version of the backlash against neoliberal globalization hitting growing parts of the Western world. One of its commendable aspects is that it has taken place within the existing institutional framework. No small feat, given Mexico’s institutional fragility and potentially explosive mix of hyper-concentration of income and wealth, social exclusion, and high levels of violence raging through large parts of the country. 

In light of Lopez Obrador´s promises as well as of the country’s social realities, I identify these other positive aspects of his ascent to power:  

  1. The arrival of Mexico’s egregious social inequality and exclusion at the center of the country’s government agenda and public conversation.
  2. Broad social support for a transformational agenda, along with a notable ability to build vast networks of adherents organized territorially. These networks are worrisome to AMLO’S opponents as they see them as fundamentally clientelistic and electorally driven.  I view them as a potentially beneficial collectively, however, because of the long overdue need to rebuild the government´s territorial presence as a condition for governability.
  3. The high priority awarded to preserving macroeconomic stability.
  4. Considerable adeptness in managing the complex relationship with the United States, particularly under Trump.  
  5. Deftness in altering the balance of power between big business and government in favor of the latter. A government less subservient to big business is positive as it opens the way for less inequitable strategies for economic growth. López Obrador has done this by strengthening government credibility and by passing legislation that sharply raises the risks of noncompliance. In sum, by significantly shoring up the government’s dissuasive capacities.

On the negative side:

  1. Lack of a clear security strategy and persistence of extremely high levels of violence.
  2. Economic stagnation produced by high levels of uncertainty, strong delays in the execution of government spending, and grave disruption in the regular communication flows between government and private business.
  3. Highly deficient operation of the government bureaucracy due to draconian cuts in budget and personnel, a highly personalistic and centralistic style of government, and unusually deep and pervasive processes of oversight.
  4. Clear authoritarian inclinations. For instance, impatience, if not outright neglect of institutional limits; lack of respect for centers of authority -the press, academia, civil society organizations- not controlled by the government; and low appreciation for checks and balances, individual liberties, pluralism and minority rights.

AMLO´s presidency offers Mexican society an opportunity to look at its deep-seated problems anew and to tackle them with a set of strategies and tools very different from those which had led us to the dead end from which he rose. Whether the opportunity bears fruit is an open question. For now, though, that opportunity is the only we have to try to move peacefully to a country where poor children and teens have access to more than dated or rotten candy. 

Opinions express here are solely those of the author.