MEXICO CITY — In the aftermath of the killing of another journalist in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dedicated a press conference to the dire need to protect the press. But halfway through the event, he started attacking his critics in the media for being conservative and elitist.
The incident highlighted both López Obrador’s promise to address Mexico's most pressing issues head on, and his alarming instinct to fight anyone who gets in his way.
López Obrador rode a wave of populist support to the presidency last year by promising a transformation of society and an end to the corruption that has defined Mexican politics. Six months into office, his love affair with the Mexican people is going strong: He’s raised the minimum wage and tussled with powerful criminal organizations. His approval ratings hover around 75 percent.
But critics see an alarming authoritarian streak in the president's outsider approach, such as his vilifying media outlets that cover him critically, his disregard for Congress and regulatory institutions, and his cozy relationship with the military. Some even see similarities to U.S. President Donald Trump.
“I used to say I thought López Obrador and Trump were similar in superficial ways. I now think it’s not just superficial,” said Roberta Jacobson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, who left the post on May 5. “They don’t credit any opposition to what they want to do as being a legitimate part of democracy.”
She added that both also operate with a savior complex. “I call it the ‘I alone’ rhetoric. ‘I alone can change the system that has screwed you people all your lives.’”
Man of the people
Indeed, López Obrador isn’t shy about his disdain for Mexico’s political class. He campaigned on a platform of putting the poor first and getting rid of the “mafia of power,” a reference to the small group of Mexican political and business elites that have ruled the country for decades.
And he’s acted on his promises. Since taking office in December, he raised the minimum wage by 16.2 percent to around $5.20, and doubled the minimum daily wage along the northern border to around $9.30.
“He has a gut sense of what will play well with the Mexican people.”
He expanded a pension program for the elderly, so that Mexicans who receive a small government pension now receive $133 every other month — double the amount previously. He has visited isolated towns that haven’t had a presidential visit in decades, if ever. He cut his own salary by 60 percent, to around $68,000, and barred federal workers from earning more than him.
In a political gamble, he temporarily shut off major pipelines in January to crack down on fuel theft, which have cost state-run oil company Pemex around $3 billion a year. The shutdown resulted in hours-long waits at the pump, but a majority of Mexicans said they supported López Obrador and it burnished his image as a strong leader willing to take on criminals and the elite alike.
Just as meaningfully, he solidified his image as a man of the people with symbolic gestures: He drives around in a white Jetta, sold the presidential airplane and refused to live in the presidential palace, instead turning it into a public museum.
“He has a gut sense of what will play well with the Mexican people,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, adding that political analysts often underestimate López Obrador’s ability to connect with his constituents, whether through his slow-manner of speaking or colloquial dialogue.
“He makes them believe he is with them, for them, and of them,” Wood said.
López Obrador’s “man of the people” approach may get things done, but it comes with risks. Political analysts say he’s shown a tendency to take unilateral actions and run roughshod over Congress when it stands in his way, retaliate against critics as morally bankrupt when they disagree with his decisions, and engage in the same lack of transparency that he often rails against.
These traits were on display from the moment he took office in December. He immediately cancelled a nearly half-built $13 billion airport project because he said it was tainted by corruption and would be too expensive to complete. López Obrador justified scrapping it by pointing to the results of a referendum that drew just one percent of voters. As an alternative, he proposed his own airport project for $4.1 billion. He said consultations had already been done with nearby communities, but didn’t say how or when they were done.
In April, López Obrador took an axe to his predecessor’s education reform, issuing a memorandum instructing his government to ignore an overhaul of Mexico’s education system, despite the changes being approved by Congress. He said the overhaul, which implemented tougher teaching standards, punitively punished the teachers’ union.
”He is a warrior. He is fighting all the time.”
Then, in one of his most bullish power plays to date, López Obrador completely disregarded the Senate’s rejection of his nominees to sit on an independent energy regulatory commission. The Senate twice voted them down for lack of qualifications — they were long-time employees of state-owned oil company Pemex but didn’t have experience in the electricity market they would be overseeing. López Obrador responded by appointing them anyway.
When the head of the commission criticized the appointees, López Obrador retaliated by using his morning press conference to accuse the regulator of conflicts of interest and demand his resignation. A subsequent government press release announced that the regulator was being investigated for “presumed tax fraud” — raising concerns of political retribution given that investigations aren’t normally announced before charges are filed.
Political analysts say it was typical López Obrador: demonize critics as unethical and even unpatriotic. In December, he characterized Mexico’s Supreme Court justices as money-grubbing and dishonest after some judges questioned his plan to cut government salaries.
Such characteristics are especially stark when it comes to López Obrador’s relationship with the media. In April, he told reporters, “If you go too far, you know what will happen.” It was seen as one of a series of troubling remarks that has licensed aggression toward journalists. He also demanded that a Mexican newspaper reveal its sources “in the name of transparency.” The newspaper had published the text of a private letter López Obrador sent to the king of Spain requesting an apology for the conquest 500 years ago.
When confronted with news that could threaten his agenda, López Obrador has chalked it off as false. He insisted that violence hasn’t increased, even though government figures show that the number of people murdered from Jan. 1 to March 31 increased 9.6 percent compared to the same period in 2018 — a particularly troubling statistic given that 2018 was Mexico’s deadliest year on record. It was the kind of dissimulation that has drawn comparisons to Trump.
Even skeptics of his controversial energy plan — which relies on turning Mexico’s feeble state-owned energy companies into dominant players like they were in the 70s and 80s — are portrayed as traitors. López Obrador suggested that business groups who support foreign investment are unethical, declaring, “Mexico is not a conquered land.”
While López Obrador has railed against contracts signed by his predecessor as rigged, his own record of transparency is hardly better.
Nearly 75 percent of government contracts were awarded directly, without a competitive bid process, according to Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity, a Mexico-based anti-corruption group.
“He believes the country should trust him,” said Pamela Starr, director of the U.S.-Mexico Network at the University of Southern California. “There is no need for formal anti-corruption laws because he will do what’s right.”
The military man?
Further unsettling observers is López Obrador’s surprisingly cozy relationship with the military.
López Obrador was largely critical of the military on the campaign trail, vowing to take soldiers off the streets because of previous human-rights abuses. But he pulled a 180 shortly before taking office when he announced the creation of a 60,000-member National Guard to address organized crime and violence.
The idea behind the National Guard is to create an alternative to the military, but it nonetheless consists of former military and federal police members. López Obrador only stoked concern that the force would further militarize public security in Mexico, when he pushed for generals to oversee the force. After backlash from human rights groups and even some allies, he conceded to place the National Guard under the control of a civilian agency.
“This is not somebody who came to power and thought, ‘the campaign is over.’”
Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City, said there are legitimate reasons López Obrador may have embraced the army, including the deep corruption within the police force.
But he said it also fuels concerns that he is using the military to empower his party.
“He's giving the army a certain stake politically,” Bravo Regidor said. “It’s as if he wanted the army to have an interest not only in him remaining in power but his coalition staying in power once he's out.”
For María Olga Noriega Sáenz, who sits on the board of the National Human Rights Commission, López Obdrador’s change of heart with military raises hard questions about his commitment to combating impunity.
“There is a lot of uncertainty and insecurity with respect to human rights,” said Noriega. “He says one thing and then does another. It’s very worrying.”
He has also struck a cozy relationship with state oil company Pemex that critics say verges on blind commitment, given the company’s long history of financial mismanagement.
But faced with troubling economic numbers, he has doubled down. In a surprise move, he scrapped bidding for an $8 billion refinery this month and instead said Pemex would build it — even though the six refineries Pemex currently operates are functioning at a third capacity because of low maintenance.
But don’t expect López Obrador to change course any time soon.
“He is a warrior. He is fighting all the time,” said Bravo Regidor. “This is not somebody who came to power and thought, ‘the campaign is over.’”
Cover: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds a morning press conference at the National Palace on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (GDA via AP Images)