Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The housecleaning of political establishments worldwide continued apace with the Mexican election this week. Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement trounced the mainstream political parties that have ruled Mexico since the early 20th century. Desperate to escape the violence and endemic corruption that plague daily life, Mexican voters finally chose the only alternative that has long been on offer but never before tried.
Unlike anywhere else in the world, a left-wing populist will now face a right-wing populist across a shared border straddling a free trade zone that has woven a deep web of interdependence between two nations over the last 25 years. “America First” will meet “Mexico First,” from ideologically opposite standpoints. Yet, the same issues of national dignity, immigration and the suspicion of NAFTA are of central concern to both leaders.
President Trump blames NAFTA for destroying manufacturing jobs in the United States as companies moved south. President-elect López Obrador blames the North American agribusiness giants and corn subsidies for running small farmers out of operation in Mexico, driving them north to make a living.
Despite his concerns over agriculture, López Obrador has nonetheless come to see the benefits of NAFTA for his country as a whole. If you drive along the main highway in central Mexico’s manufacturing corridor between Guanajuato and Querétaro, you will see the giant factories of Volkswagen, KIA, General Motors, the Canadian aerospace company Bombardier and others that have made this part of the country prosper with a solid and growing middle class.
What is true about NAFTA for Mexico is also true for the United States. “Some 14 million jobs today rely on trade with Canada and Mexico,” former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo recently wrote in The WorldPost, “while the nearly 200,000 export-related jobs created annually by the pact pay 15 to 20 percent more on average than the jobs that were lost. And the integration of supply chains has made it clear that NAFTA saved the U.S. auto industry from possibly collapsing and taking all those manufacturing jobs with it.”
If Trump, like López Obrador, was to reevaluate and also acknowledge the positive links between economies, the leaders of these territorially contiguous nations might find common ground. A renegotiated NAFTA could be the pragmatic bridge between divergent populisms.
“What happens in the next six years in the U.S.-Mexico relationship depends less on López Obrador and more on Trump,” writes Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “Both leaders today stand at a crossroads: they can ensure that Mexico and the United States remain partners in success, or they can become accomplices in failure. At stake is the security and prosperity of millions of Americans and Mexicans and, despite the challenges inherent to such an asymmetrical relationship, more than two decades of a success story of convergence and greater interdependence.”
As with all revolts by populists against a moribund political class, much of the appeal rests in the human tendency to place hope in simple solutions to complex problems, executed by a charismatic leader.
“The newly elected Mexican president seems to believe that the answer to the country’s predicaments lies not in the strengthening of Mexico’s institutions but, quite simply, in the man himself,” León Krauze writes. “Corruption will be resolved ‘because the president won’t be corrupt,’ López Obrador has said. In his most recent book, he itemizes a list of lofty goals, including slashing crime by 50 percent, the ‘complete eradication of political corruption,’ massive reforestation of millions of trees, and an end to poverty, hunger and emigration — ‘no one, for hunger or poverty, will have the need to abandon their place of birth.’”
Krauze is skeptical about how López Obrador will manage such feats. “If he is to be believed, he will do it mostly through the magical radiance of his own example. Time and time again during the presidential debates, he insisted most of Mexico’s troubles will come to an end when corruption finally disappears, which will in turn happen by his honest appearance on the scene, wearing the presidential sash.”
It is perhaps not surprising that this was the meme behind the mandate in a literary culture steeped in magical realism. But in truth, there is merit in the matter.
Every Mexican president in memory has come to office declaring a crackdown on corruption. One of the first things Carlos Salinas did when he came to office in 1988 was arrest the corrupt head of the oil workers’ union; the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, jailed the head of the powerful teachers’ union for embezzlement. In short, they focused on the corruption of others.
Far from a gimmick, López Obrador knows that the corruption and impunity that has so corroded social trust in Mexico starts at the top. Nothing is more important than breaking from the image of imperial presidents above the law cemented into the minds of Mexicans by previous experience. He understands that no other action is credible unless he personally walks the talk.
But Sergio Muñoz Bata fears the worst. “Given his explosive temperament and inclination to insult and disqualify those who disagree with him,” writes Muñoz, “I dread his six years in government. Magical solutions don’t exist. With or without López Obrador, Mexico’s biggest problem will continue to be its intermittent rule of law. To eradicate corruption, a country needs strong institutions, independent courts and a watchful press, and these can’t be fully built in six years alone.”
For Muñoz, either López Obrador’s self-proclaimed “fourth transformation” of Mexico modeled on three historical breaks from the established order — independence from Spain in 1821, La Reforma period that began in 1854 that instituted a constitutional order and the revolution in 1910 — will replicate the violence and chaos that accompanied those upheavals or will end up not changing much at all.
Finally, Mexican historian Héctor Aguilar Camín credits the election itself with restoring the credibility of Mexico’s damaged democracy. “If López Obrador’s promises of change are excessive,” he writes from Mexico City, “they only speak to the size of the hope his candidacy inspired. That hope drove an overwhelming civic revolt against the status quo, against discredited parties that don’t represent the interests of ordinary people and the corrupt governments that emerge from them.”
Whatever the distance between those hopes and what can actually be accomplished, Aguilar Camín concludes: “The critical point for now is that democracy in Mexico has a new legitimacy conferred through the triumph of those who were most dissatisfied with it.”