What does AMLO’s victory mean for Mexicans—and people in the United States?

What does AMLO’s victory mean for Mexicans—and people in the United States?

An opinion piece by John Tutino 

In this opinion piece prepared by Center for Latin American faculty member John Tutino, he challenges popular assumptions about the implications of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) electoral victory. Professor Tutino then ties the election's results with global economic and political trends, challenging the reader to see beyond the headlines and examine deeper structural challenges.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the election as President of Mexico, with allied majorities in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. When inaugurated he will be in position to move an agenda—a rarity in a world of fragmented power. So what does he seek?  Simply said: an end to corruption and violence and new openings to lives of shared welfare and opportunity for Mexicans. Can such goals be realized? That is uncertain in a nation defined by concentrated wealth and mass poverty and marginalization, conditions that are not “Mexican” but generated by an economy led by international banks and U.S. capital, and tied to U.S. markets—including drug markets.

For pursuing those goals, AMLO is maligned as another Hugo Chavez, the military strongman who took Venezuela’s government by force and rewrote the constitution to perpetuate his rule. Yet AMLO worked for decades within Mexican electoral politics, served as Mayor of Mexico City, and when denied a presidential victory by a razor thin (and much debated) margin in 2006, led peaceful protests, then moved on within a system stacked against him. When established powers de-legitimated themselves so thoroughly that AMLO drove toward his historic victory (by the largest margin in decades), others compared him to Donald Trump. Yet AMLO has no history of taking wealth on the backs of working people, no history of demeaning women and minorities, no history of using divisive politics to claim power and favor the rich. AMLO is repeatedly labeled a populist. If that means promising to serve the people—what politician is not a populist? And AMLO is almost always called a leftist? If that means he intends to benefit the people, why is that an insult?

Can he limit corruption and political/cartel violence and build an economy that serves the people? The economy of concentration and the politics of corruption cannot be remade overnight. But a government working to end graft and inhibit violence can make a difference; a government supportive of worker rights and higher earnings, better education and needed services can bring improvement. A majority of Mexicans see hope in AMLO. The people and government of the U.S. should respect their vision.

With better incomes, education, and more secure lives, Mexicans would more likely remain at home, buying more goods made in Mexico and the U.S. On that, AMLO and Trump appear to agree. Both emphasize that their people have lost jobs and earnings under NAFTA. Both are correct. (In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty documents that economic concentration is the dominant pattern of our time.) Can NAFTA be remade to limit concentrations of wealth and broaden social gains in both nations? Can we rise above recriminations and engage such questions? Recriminations also drown discussions of the drug economy. It is driven by U.S. demand. Every serious analyst knows that rising consumption of opiates and other substances came when industries fled, employment vanished, incomes dropped, insecurities spread, and futures became scarce in U.S. cities, suburbs, and small towns (see Sam Quiñones, Dreamland). The drug economy is a precipitate of globalization—in the U.S. and Mexico. That conversation, too, seems prohibited. The U.S. talks of treatment for consumers—a necessary response to a corrosive problem. It pressed Mexico to make war on the cartels while doing nothing effective to inhibit consumption, thus escalating violence in Mexico while blaming Mexican suppliers for U.S. consumption. Why not work together to address the social dislocations that fuel drug consumption in the U.S. and the economic dislocations that leave too many Mexicans with no livelihood beyond the drug economy?

AMLO appears ready to ask such questions. Can globalized capitalism be turned to deliver secure work, solid incomes, and promising futures to people on both sides of the border? Can the U.S. find effective means (meaning the delivery of secure lives across the nation) to bring down drug consumption? The slanders thrown at AMLO suggest that many prefer to avoid such conversations in search of solutions. Better to deflect, slander—and blame Mexicans. The ultimate question becomes: why?

John Tutino is a professor of history and international affairs in the School of Foreign Service and director of the Americas Initiative in the College. He joined the Georgetown faculty in 1993 and was a member of the Latin America Initiative Faculty Committee (2016-2017).  He recently published The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 (Princeton University Press, 2018).