Mexico’s AMLO Gets Massive Mandate to Stand Up to the US

As the center-left candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wins the presidency by an overwhelming margin, Laura Carlsen and Alex Main talk about the election results, what this means for Mexico, and how it will affect U.S.-Mexico relations.

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist frontrunner in Mexico’s presidential race, won Sunday’s election by an overwhelming margin with fifty-three percent of the vote. That is at least twenty-five ahead of his nearest rival. This is according to the preliminary results that were released Sunday night. Here is Lopez Obrador speaking at his victory speech.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: I call on all Mexicans to reconcile and put aside their personal interests, no matter how legitimate they may be, the best interests, the general interests, are the nation’s interests. As the Mexican revolutionary Vicente Guerrero said in the past, the nation comes first. I will not disappoint you, I will not betray the people. I uphold ideals and principles that I consider the most important in my life, but I also confess that I have a legitimate ambition. I want to go down in history as a good president for Mexico. Thank you very much, with my heart. Viva Mexico.

SHARMINI PERIES: More precise results are expected to be announced during the day today. This is the first time in Mexico’s modern history that a leftist won the presidency. Lopez Obrador’s main rival in the race, Ricardo Anaya of PAN and Jose Antonio Meade of the PRI conceded defeat long before the official results were announced, based mainly on exit poll results published shortly after voting centers were closed on Sunday. For almost a hundred years, the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party and briefly the conservative National Action Party governed Mexico.

All that changed last night, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is fondly known by his initials, promises to create more equality, less violence and to fight for Mexico’s endemic corruption that has steeped into the state and beyond. Joining me now to analyze the results of Mexico’s all-important election is Laura Carlsen and Alex Main. Laura is the director of Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. She focuses on U.S. policy in Latin America and grassroots movements in the region. Thanks for joining us today, Laura.

LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And also joining us is Alex Main. He’s a senior associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. And Alex is there observing the election in Mexico City. Thanks for joining us, Alex.

ALEX MAIN: Great to be back.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Laura, let me start with you. Let’s start with the mood in Mexico and what this historic victory means for Mexican people.

LAURA CARLSEN: Last night, people poured into the central plaza, called the Zócalo, as soon as they heard the confirmation that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had been elected president. The margin was even greater than we expected. It was already expected that he had a twenty to thirty point margin, but fifty-three per cent of the vote was even more than many people expected. In the Zocalo, it was filled.

He came out and spoke, he gave a message that began with trying to reassure international financial community that he was not going to expropriate, and then began to talk about his platform of what he calls “the fourth transformation of Mexico.” He’s already seen it, everyone’s really already seen it in historic terms. There was independence, there was reform, there was a revolution and now there’s Lopez Obrador. So, there’s a lot of expectations. In many ways, it will be difficult to fulfill them all. But there’s a lot of hope now for a real change after so many years of a very conservative, neoliberal economy and a disastrous drug war.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Laura, now you were one of the people that were leading the election observer teams. Tell us about some of the findings of the observer team.

LAURA CARLSEN: It was interesting, because we managed to mobilize one hundred international observers from all over the world, mostly Europe, Latin America and the United States, as well as more than two-hundred independent observers. So, we had teams in pretty much the entire country, all though concentrated in the central part. And what we saw is first of all, people came out to vote. We’re talking about, they’re saying like sixty-three percent of the voter registration list, which is extremely high, and also doesn’t take into the count the number of people who wanted to vote and who couldn’t because of glitches in the system or because of of purposeful obstacles to exercising the vote, which indeed we saw in the field.

You know, voting centers that didn’t have sufficient number of ballots, for special voters that were out of their district, long lines, voting centers that opened late and thus reduced their hours in which they could attend, to this to this huge outpouring of voters. We also saw a lot of fraud. We’re not talking about a new era in terms of the Mexican electoral system. Lopez Obrador’s margin, and he knew this from the beginning, was so large that it made it impossible to flip this election. But that doesn’t mean that the usual operators that have refined methods of fraud and vote buying over decades weren’t out there, because they were. And in fact, they may have an impact on some of the local and national elections. But for now, everybody’s focused on the presidential and they’re excited to see what comes next.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex, let me go to you. Tell us about what you observed and also the reaction of the United States to the results.

ALEX MAIN: Sure. So, the route that I was in in the north of the state of Mexico which sort of surrounds Mexico City, was really rather quiet. There weren’t a lot of incidents and those that we saw were very minor. This contrasted really a lot with my previous observation experience also in the state of Mexico, last year for their gubernatorial election, where all sorts of shenanigans were going on in broad daylight. But then, of course that was a much closer race. And many actually do think that race could have been stolen in favor of the PRI candidate, certainly the one in the state of Mexico. In this case, as Laura was saying, the margin is just so enormous that I think it didn’t make as much sense, perhaps, to invest in the usual sort of fraud during these elections, although as Laura rightly noted, it certainly was happening. We have reports from other parts of the country where there was vote buying going on, voter intimidation and so on.

But I think it’s also important to remember that the process isn’t over. There’s counting that’s continuing that’s going to be at the district level. I believe that begins on Thursday. And there is a possibility for fraud to occur, and it could occur at the congressional level in particular, where at the moment, MORENA, this very new party created and for which AMLO, Lopez Obrador, is the leader. This appears to have a strong majority, which is really quite extraordinary since the party didn’t exist just a few years ago. But a lot can happen at the district level of counting and I think it’s important for people to continue monitoring what’s going on there. In terms of the relations with the U.S.

So, Lopez Obrador I think has been very careful to sort of suggest that he wants strong relations with the U.S. And in a sense, he’s somewhat on the same page as the Trump administration in wanting to renegotiate NAFTA, perhaps not with exactly the same goals, but with some of the same goals in any case. But he has also alluded to policies of the U.S. that he doesn’t agree with and he’s done this in recent speeches. I think it’s important to highlight this because it hasn’t gotten much attention in the media, but I think the message is very clear, certainly to Mexicans, where he is you know basically said Mexico will not accompany any sort of hegemonic projects. He didn’t mention the U.S., but he mentioned hegemony, where he said Mexico would not support intervention, was going to stick to its constitutional principles of non-intervention, and where he really emphasized the importance of resolving conflict peacefully and diplomatically.

And he kind of put this all together in his speech, and I think it was very clear that it was directed at the U.S. and a signal that going forward under his government, Mexico wouldn’t be sort of toeing the line of the U.S. State Department agenda, that they were going to begin distancing themselves after. And I think this latest administration of the outgoing President Pena Nieto was perhaps the closest that Mexico has ever been in cooperating on all sorts of issues, including some of the U.S.’s worst policies in Central America, in Honduras for instance.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Laura. Let me go to you. Most analysts are predicting or assessing the situation and comparing it to a presidency like that of the Brazilian president Lula’s reigin Brazil, and that this presidency of ANLO would be similar to that. What are your thoughts on the kinds of positions that Lopez Obrador actually took during his campaign, some of the controversies that have been taking place on cross-border issues and of course, regarding NAFTA? Do you think that Lopez Obrador will stand up to the United States on some of these controversial matters that Alex has identified here, including and NAFTA and the border issues that are currently going on?

LAURA CARLSEN: Yes, I think he will. It remains to be seen to what degree, but he actually has to. There’s no possible way that he can carry out the type of transformations that he’s put forth. If he continues to toe the U.S. line on the neoliberal economic model and on the drug war and the repression of migrants that has been imposed on the Mexican government for the last years. What he’s talking about, probably it’s fair to make the comparison to Lula, because in the general sense, although we’re going to see different kinds of specific policies, what he’s talking about is greater involvement in the state for redistribution of wealth. We’ve got a very unequal country, here so there’s a small number of mega-billionaires and over half the country living in poverty.

He’s talking about social programs that would spread the wealth more. He’s talking about going after corruption that would prevent the super-rich from having, essentially, privileges within the system itself at this point. And he’s also talking about this greater role of the state, not only in redistribution but in regulation and in national planning. Right now, he has said that he will immediately sit down with his cabinet which was actually announced quite a bit before the election. So, everybody already knows who they are and where they’re coming from, and there’s a broad range of views there. There are some businessmen involved, there are some people more traditionally leftists, and there’s just about everything in between.

However, he thinks that this is something he can reconcile. It’s another big challenge, like in the form of Lula. It could be difficult. Everybody knows it could be difficult, but they’re going to sit down and go to work, according to him, on this. And there will be times when he has to take a strong stand. Everybody’s saying that because of the friction between their positions and their ideologies, the relationship between the United States and Mexico will actually deteriorate. I completely disagree about that. I think that it’s actually at a low point right now with the constant Mexican-bashing from Donald Trump that’s affecting not only Mexico, but Mexicans living in the United States, and with many of the policies the increasing pressure to crack down on Central American immigrants coming up over Mexico’s southern border, especially.

The relationship is really very, very negative right now. The only aspect in which people say that it’s even good is the fact that the Pentagon’s essentially running Mexico’s national security apparatus because of what they call corrupt cooperation, but what is really intervention through the drug war. If we have a president that stands up to that, Mexico can begin to defend its own interests and the two nations will be forced to negotiate in such a way that they’re actually bringing to the table representation, at least on the Mexican side, of what Mexican interests are. And I think that standing up to Donald Trump is is a good model for his type of bullying within the world.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex. Many people on the left and many governments on the left in Latin America are hoping that this AMLO victory will be beneficial for the region as a whole, particularly given that the region has been shifting more and more to the right. Now, do you believe that AMLO will stick his neck out and defend the region’s democracy and region’s right to govern themselves without U.S. interference?

ALEX MAIN: Well it’s very hard to say. Obviously, his track record- he was the mayor of Mexico City, he’s held positions in Mexico that didn’t involve foreign policy. So, he’s at this point, really sort of a blank slate in terms of his positions towards these other countries and towards, for instance, some of the integration mechanisms that were pushed by Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina and so on in the last decade. It seems doubtful at this point that he will emerge as sort of a regional leader wanting to embrace these various left movements, particularly as there are very few that are left in power in the region at the moment. And you know, it’s just not clear that he will play a very active role.

I think he’s very much focused, he’s really a nationalist, he’s very much focused on Mexico. It also remains to be seen sort of what personnel he appoints to key positions. There has been some talk, for instance, of Alicia Barcenos, who is the head of the CEPAL, the United Nations economic program for Latin America, who’s really quite progressive, certainly on the economic front. And you know, we could expect good things from her. She may have a very key role in the upcoming administration and that could certainly signal sort of a shift from Mexico focusing on the U.S. and turning more towards the rest of Latin America, trying to sort of develop stronger trade relations and cooperation in general in Latin America. But it’s really hard to say at this point where he’s going to go exactly.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alex. Let me get your thoughts on the NAFTA agreement that is being renegotiated as we speak, knowing both sides of the demands that the Trump administration is making, and of course, Pena Nieto’s positioning and the dialogue that’s going on. There’s still five months off his presidency remaining here. Your projections for the NAFTA agreement?

ALEX MAIN: Well, this is a good point, that there are five months left for Pena Nieto. But I think it would be difficult politically for Pena Nieto at this point to sort of carry on with the negotiations on his own without taking into account, obviously, this major political transformation that’s happening. You would be essentially spitting in the face of the Mexican electorate if he were to do that. So I guess I expect that the negotiations will, to some extent, be on hold. And I mean, certainly on the U.S. side given the congressional involvement, they’ve kind of run out of time for this year. So, I do think that they’re going to stretch into AMLO’s mandate. AMLO is what Lopez Obrador is frequently referred to, by his initials.

And there, I do think we can expect Lopez Obrador to have a very strong position about improving labor conditions, respect for labor rights, and certainly increasing wages for the average Mexican worker and having an agreement that does that. And also- and perhaps Laura can speak more to this, she’s very familiar with it as well, certainly I think more from you than I am. But he has supported the idea of labor mobility. I think that that would be a very controversial idea in the U.S, the idea that you know that people can sort of migrate, like in most trade agreements really. I mean, when you look around the world where there are strong trade agreements, you have free markets for labor as well as everything else. And obviously, that would change the equation enormously, if Lopez Obrador were to make any progress on that front. But I expect it’ll be very, very difficult given the Trump administration’s position on immigration.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Laura. Let me give you the last word on that topic, which is when we think of the EU, we also know that there is a free movement of labour within the EU member states. And so, therefore what Lopez Obrador is desiring in terms of the NAFTA agreement is consistent with that. Your thoughts on that possibility and why the U.S. might resist this.

LAURA CARLSEN: It’s consistent with any common sense approach to economic regionalization, which is what NAFTA is. And it’s appalling that it wasn’t taken into account. It’s what’s created these huge contradictions that we see in the relationship today that immediately provoked massive out migration from Mexico. What Lopez Obrador has said is that we want to create conditions within the country and within Central America that make it a choice for people to leave. So, people can, he says, stay home happily. Because so much of this migration we’re seeing from all the region is forced migration. The chances that Donald Trump will accept any concept of this are virtually nil.

And so, what Mexico is going to have to do, and there’s still not a real blueprint for this, is to begin to present itself as a model of a humane and rational approach to global migration. Because we know this is a global problem and we experience it very acutely here because of the breakdown of conditions of security and of basic well-being in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, that just seems to be getting worse. He’s going to have to present Mexico as a model of that, whether the United States comes along or not. And it’s definitely not going to come along. Donald Trump is presenting himself as a model of repression and criminalization against migrants, is refusing to allow the immigration issue to be seen in the context of labor issues and labor mobility.

And so, now we have an opportunity, even though the the sphere of impact, which is to say what we can do with a United States government against this idea, is very limited. But there’s this opportunity to at least be a different kind of model in terms of Mexico’s treatment of Central American migrants, which up to now, has been complete subservience to the Trump model of repression and criminalization symbolized- are not just symbolized but expressed in the Plan Frontera Sur, which is the southern border initiative funded by the United States, at least in part through the Mérida Initiative, to crack down, deport and prevent Central Americans, many of whom are refugees from terrible conditions, from going up to the U.S. border.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. I’ve been speaking with Laura Carson, she’s the director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy in Mexico City, and also with Alex Main, Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington D.C. I thank you both for joining me today.

LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you.

ALEX MAIN: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.