Enrique Krauze’s op-ed in the New York Times (“Bringing Mexico Closer to God,” June 28, 2006) about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s leftist presidential candidate, reveals more about Krauze’s conservative outlook than about the true prospects of a López Obrador administration. Lacking substantive facts, Krauze mixes a few casual remarks with his own personal impressions to project the ghost of “messianic populism” onto López Obrador’s future presidency.
But the main threat to Mexico’s fragile democracy is not a ghost. It is, instead, the brutal reality of the country’s social inequality. Twelve years after NAFTA was implemented — official sources attest — almost fifty percent of Mexicans still live in poverty. Measures of wealth dispersion are dismal, comparable to those in Brazil, Haiti, and sub-Saharan Africa. Many Mexicans are under the impression that Felipe Calderón, the candidate of the right, “has failed to convey real concern for Mexico’s poor,” as Krauze puts it, because he has no actual concern for Mexico’s poor.
There can be no political stability in Mexico and — therefore — lasting growth without narrowing the gaping economic divide between the rich and poor. López Obrador’s redistributive policies promise to be effective without disrupting private ownership and markets; not only compatible with the growth of the economy but actually growth inducing. Wall Street seems to have grasped this. Joydeep Mukherji, Standard & Poor’s specialist in Latin America, recently told CNN en Español that foreign investors’ real concern was Mexico’s ability to grow in the long run, which depended on stable social conditions, and dismissed short-term turbulence should López Obrador win.
López Obrador has been quite consistent in his economic policy stance, pledging to respect the autonomy of Mexico’s central bank, rejecting fiscal and monetary policy gimmicks, and ruling out increased indebtedness. While fulfilling his vow to tackle inequality will require a substantial hike in tax revenues, López Obrador intends to accomplish it by eliminating tax privileges for the rich and well connected, limiting tax evasion, fighting corruption, and reducing the top bureaucracy’s frivolous spending and outrageous salaries. Krauze dismisses it as demagoguery, but it is credible.
As mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador proved to be a resourceful penny pincher. With a limited budget, subject to strict oversight by a federal congress dominated by rival parties, he began to rebuild the central areas of Mexico City devastated by the 1985 earthquake, improved public transportation by expanding old metro lines and building new ones, tackled traffic congestion (a large contributor to air pollution) by building surprisingly efficient elevated bypasses, and provided subsidies to single mothers, the elderly, and the disabled — all on a shoestring. Private investment in Mexico’s capital reached rates it had not had in decades. His mayoral experience convinced him that corruption and waste are a gigantic diversion of public resources. His fiscal plan is not inconsistent with his social agenda.
The “free markets” credo and the “pull-yourself-by-the-bootstraps” moralising of the PAN lack popular appeal. Backed by the financial and political muscle of prominent businessmen with strong conservative leanings, to the poor, this discourse smacks of hypocrisy — doublespeak where helping the rich at public expense becomes a “stimulus to private investment” and helping the poor turns you into a “populist.” Aware of this, Calderón’s campaign strategy defaulted to fearmongering, saturating the airwaves with negative messages.
A López Obrador victory, Calderón claims, will be a prelude to economic crises, foreign capital flight, authoritarian rule, expropriations, militarization, and violence. Intentionally or not, Krauze’s article fits in this strategy. But, to judge by the massive attendance and enthusiasm in López Obrador’s campaign meetings and rallies, the strategy has not worked. Popular instincts may prove prescient: In the long run, the real danger is inaction in the face of Mexico’s monstrous inequities. A monarchical presidency under López Obrador, on the other hand, is in Krauze’s imagination only.