AMLO: The Populist Charmer
QUERETARO, Mexico -- He's been compared to Bill Clinton, a Mexican political rock star. Crowds of 50,000 have festooned him with floral wreaths, adulation and the uber-macho nickname "rooster."
This, I had to see for myself. So Campaign Conexión hit the road early Wednesday, journeying 125 miles northwest of Mexico City to attend a campaign rally for Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Polls put the former Mexico City mayor neck-and-neck with conservative Felipe Calderón. But by all accounts, López Obrador leads in the charisma contest, and for any political junkie who has endured the twang of Ross Perot, the growl of Bob Dole and the Howard Dean SCREAM, an AMLO rally seemed a must-do.
As we approached the Plaza de Armas here, the narrow stone-paved streets rang out with the chant "Oh-Bra-Door! Oh-Bra-Door!" Warming up the crowd, a local politician called out in Spanish: "What do the people want?" "Obrador Presidente," they replied. "Now Vicente will go!"
And then shortly after noon, under a blazing sun: "El proximo presidente de la Republica."
Bottom line: The guy is good. But as the late Lloyd Bentsen would say, "he's no Bill Clinton."
Nevertheless, López Obrador may well win the July 2 presidential contest in part because of his stump style, a rich blend of spicy colloquialisms, fist-waving and promises to first and foremost take care of the poor.
"Duro!" the crowd hollered, using the word hard to praise his strength.
In the six-year term of President Vicente Fox, more than 4 million Mexicans have emigrated from the country and its low-paying or non-existent jobs, López Obrador reminded the crowd. Fox, López Obrador continued, promised to create 1 million new jobs, but the nation's economy has gone in the opposite direction.
"This is what we don't want to see happen in our country," he boomed into a bank of microphones, gripping the podium with one hand.
By Mexican standards, Queretaro is a quaint city of a million or so people, touted as one of the cleanest in the nation. Children in uniforms, fruit vendors and T-shirt hawkers gave the rally a festive quality not often found at U.S. presidential campaign events, where Secret Service precautions and President Bush's hand-selected audiences produce a more choreographed flavor.
Wednesday's crowd was no more than 5,000 people, modest by AMLO standards, though locals say this is PAN territory, referring to Fox and Calderón's National Action Party.
The eldest of eight children who grew up in a lower-class family in the rural state of Tabasco, López Obrador takes pride in his humble beginnings and modest adult lifestyle.
While the "other candidates are on private airplanes" or helicopters, he is riding on a campaign bus, López Obrador boasted to cheers. "We sometimes do 1,000 kilometers a day, 3 or 4 rallies. We're going to keep going."
If AMLO wins, it will be in large measure because Mexicans want change. A vote for Calderón, on the other hand, is an endorsement of incumbency, a vote for the same policies in a slightly smaller, less handsome frame.
Delivering his litany of promises, López Obrador said that under his leadership no young person would be denied access to public universities. Government subsidies for the elderly would rise, he said, and gas and electricity prices would fall. He also pledged to bring together the many and varied factions in this nation of more than 100 million, including church officials, indigenous leaders, farmers, scientists and artists.
AMLO is aware that many in Mexico, particularly elites in political and corporate circles, are fearful that a López Obrador presidency would thrust the nation into economic chaos. But for the past three days, in rallies across the nation and again here in Queretaro, the candidate promised that he would not be "anti-business" -- only anti-influence peddling by businessmen with political connections. "We don't want businessmen to be afraid," he declared, shifting tone from strident to reassuring.
But the bumper stickers said it better than the candidate: "Sonrie. Vamos a Ganar," a cartoon AMLO says on the stickers affixed to countless cars, strollers and t-shirt. "Smile. We're going to Win."
Campaign Conexión will be on the trail with Calderón next. Watch for that first-hand report on Monday.
Want to read more about the presidential campaign, Mexican politics and culture? Campaign Conexion has compiled a few of the best articles, book reviews and other sources. Please feel free to send along other suggestions for Mexico-philes, Latin America lovers or other smarty-pants types.
For an academic analysis of the implications of the Mexican election, read Pamela K. Starr's "Challenges for a Postelection Mexico: Issues for U.S. Policy," published this month by Council on Foreign Relations.
"Stakes are high for the United States in this election as well: A politically and economically stable Mexico is critical for finding a solution to the migration question, coordinating binational efforts to fight drug trafficking, enhancing competitiveness of important sectors of the U.S. economy, and fostering U.S. security," according to a release on the article.
"The winner will face many of the same domestic policy challenges as his predecessor-fiscal dependence on volatile petroleum revenues, enormous pension liabilities that expand with Mexico's aging population, insufficient investment capital in the energy sector, declining global competitiveness, weak job creation and growth, corruption, inadequate rule of law, and increasing crime,'" Starr writes.
"Although the United States justifiably felt let down by Mexico's delayed and tepid statements of sympathy after 9/11 and its lack of support for the Iraq war, U.S. officials seem to have underestimated the depth of Mexican disappointment at having fallen off the U.S. foreign policy agenda."
"Only nine days before, financier Alfredo Harp Helu, the president of Mexico's largest bank and a close associate and friend of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's, had become the country's latest kidnapping victim, held for a $50 million ransom. Suddenly, Mexico was reeling. Kidnappings and political assassinations - all on the heels of a grass roots revolution in January that burst out in Chiapas, a state so poor, so desperate that, in the words of Carlos Fuentes, "even the rocks are screaming.
"On January 10th, Mexican newspapers received the first communique from a man calling himself Subcomandante Marcos. It began: 'Here we are, the dead of all times, dying once again, but now with the objective of living.' By week's end, Marcos had conquered the international media just as he had taken Chiapas. He was hailed as Robin Hood, the Lone Ranger, Geronimo, the 'first postmodern guerilla hero,' even the reincarnation of his movement's namesake, Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary Mexican peasant leader, who was tricked into an Army ambush, but who some insist never died."
And more recently, Newsweek reporter Joseph Contreras has written "Tan lejos de Dios" ("So Far from God"), reflecting on an earlier stint in Mexico in the 1980s and how the nation has changed since then.
Finally, a sweet postre from Mexico's ambassador to the United States.
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