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!"

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
AMLO greets supporters upon his arrival in Queretaro on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Cultura Links

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.

Two items from renowned Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, an article in the New Republic titled "Tropical Messiah," and his magazine

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."

For some historical perspective, take a look back at Ann Louise Bardach's 1994 Vanity Fair interview with Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos.

"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.

By Editors |  June 22, 2006; 9:01 AM ET  | Category:  Campaign Conexión
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Wasn't there a Mexican who was president of the OAS and ran into some trouble?? Do you know anything about the OAS?? Who is President now and who is head of Protocol??

Posted by: Wainwright | June 22, 2006 10:22 AM

The writter of the article failed to mentioned these little details on Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador:

He was a member of the old PRI political party (he joined it in 1976). He was in fact, the president of that party in his home state of Tabasco, Mexico.

Most of the members within Obrador's PRD party (up to 48%), are made up of PRI members. The very political party itself (PRD) was created by two ex PRI members (Cuauhtemoc Cardenas & Munoz Ledo).

So it's funny that some badly informed mexicans (and reporters) will buy Obrador's comments that CHANGE will come to Mexico through him.

In fact, with the PRD and Obrador, they (Mexicans) will only see the indirect return of the PRI to the presidency.

Such fools. I expect 8 millions of mexicans to cross over to the US in the next 6 years Obrador is in power. Just wait and see...

Posted by: Angry Aztec | June 22, 2006 04:27 PM

AMLO ex-member of "the old PRI polical party"? Well the PRI candidate has recently pronounced the demise the old PRI...

Angry Aztec forgets that distinguished ex-PRI members, such as Alfonso Durazo, held important positions in Mr. Fox's cabinet (until he had to resign amidst a power struggle with Mrs. Fox). And what about former Foreign Affairs Secretary Castañeda, ex-member of the Mexican Comunist Party? PAN should be extremely proud of its shinning candidate to govern Mexico City, Mr. Sodi, who has happily belonged to the three major parties...

Angry Aztec has such accurate figures (48%)on past political afiliation of PRD members that he may be helpful in updating that party's membership records... By the way, he also conveniently forgets "the small detail" that the actual PRD was founded not only by disgruntled members of the left wing of the PRI, but also by members of left of center political organizations such as the PSUM (Mexican Unified Socialist Part).

What fools is Angry Aztec referring to? Those Mexicans who are fed up with the financial policies that have made the rich richer and the poor poorer? Haven't been 30 years time enough to show the benefits of the neo-liberal policies? Perhaps it is time to change course...

Posted by: pasilla | June 22, 2006 06:35 PM

AMLO Financial Politics really are not new, as he's mencioned. Old PRI applied them and the results can be observed in the two big Mexicans economical crisis: one in 1983 and the other in 1994. Why do Mexican people prefer to see the goverment as a father instance that an administrative & security assurance entity? Good question. AMLO is gaining votes because he is a populist politiscian. In fact, the conservative Calderon has the best ideas for jobs generating.

Posted by: Elias | June 23, 2006 12:49 PM

Let's set the records straight, for those who have not an accurate memory of Mexican political history, from there, we can start talking about economic policies in both leading sides: left and right.
The PRI was the institutional party emanated from Mexican revolution in 1910, it was created as a tool to maintain the political and social stability in times of great power struggles that held the country in a weak state. At almost the same moment, ultra-catholic conservatives, most of them from the people that revolution took the power away created PAN, as an answer to the social equity proposed at that time by the president Cardenas -the very one that expropriated oil from foreign hands-. PAN, was spawned from "the cristeros" a anti-democracy, pro-church radical and violent movement that paid paramilitary men to fight against the weak newborn post-revolution government, of course, they lost. They created PAN and inside of it there was the extreme radical conservative fascist wing, called "Yunque" that were accounted for many terrorist actions and kidnapping in the 60's and 70's, one of their foremost prominent members was Diego Fernandez de Ceballos, PAN candidate in the 1994 election, senator for the 2000-2006 legislature.
PRI with time, and power, as any absolute power became corrupt, but as they still held the revolution's flag, their national policies where more social, at those times Mexico had yearly grow rates of 6-9%, the big problem was that it was an isolated economy and there was a lot of corruption inside the government, so, although there were not as many poor people in the country, there was also social discontent.
At the end of the 60's and through 70's there where many leftist movements that were systematically repressed by the government, the role of PAN became more like a sidekick than an opposition, while they were granted some congress places and money for the party. They even had the same candidate than PRI in 1976: José Lopez Portillo.
Mexico knew no real crisis back then, and if had then been an honest government, instead of a corrupt one, Mexico could have been a lot better.
Lopez Portillo started playing with the economy, buying and selling national banks started to be the government's policy: buy expensive, sell cheap. After he came Miguel de la Madrid, the first that came from the Chicago neoliberal school, that had as a thesis a completely unregulated market, limiting governments role as a security guard, mainly, keeping the social movements on a low profile. The banks broke, the government had to buy them again at a great cost. In 1985 there was a major earthquake in México City and many of the government built social interest houses came down. That was mainly because of the corruption of the contractors that used cheap materials while they charged for the expensive ones, again, corruption made great damage to the citizens. Instead of readily accepting it's mistake, they tried to cover all up and denied international aid, when they did they made business with it. Social discontent grew up, along with leftist organizations, and many prominent left wing members of PRI, who saw no democracy or social will inside the party collided in a single left front that had as candidate the Michoacan state former governor and son of the president Cardenas: Cuahutemoc Cardenas Solorzano. The social support for his candidature was enormous, and everybody suspects that he won the election indeed, despite the great mobilization of government's resources to buy peoples vote for Carlos Salinas. On the night of the elections, the government's controlled electoral system was shut down, and the next day they said that PRI won again, on the beginning both opposition candidates were pleading against the election, the PAN candidate had a mysterious car accident and lost his life. Of course given the high heat and social discontent, Cardenas didn't died, but as he was committed to a democratic process, he held the people's rage down and stayed on the democratic path, from there PRD was created as the first real (and left wing) opposition to the government.
Mexican economy finally opened up and NAFTA was signed, state's third biggest business was sold to private hands and every social subside was shut down -calling it a "thing from the paternalist past"- the neoliberal economy at it's top. By the way, not counting the 1983 crisis (were economy dropped 6%), the average grow rate after 1982 got down to 3%, inflation was controlled but at a great cost, foreign exchange was also artificially sustained in the Salinas rule. There was one moment, as Mexico got in to the WTO, where most Mexicans were made to believe that México had a foot in to the first world. At the same moment banks were being sold to national private hands again. In 1994 the EZLN rouse up as the NAFTA started. The camping against the left was that peace where only to come from PRI, and that the left would make the conflict grow. Zedillo, whose administration started with a 6% drop and a 300% devaluation do the peso, did made up for the economy in his rule, and held yearly grow rates of 4-5% , mainly by reinforcing ties with the USA and attracting external investment. But the national banks broke as bankers made huge frauds that ended up in a taxpayers debt (instead of being rescued but to be paid after by the rescued banks), after that, national banks were sold to foreign capital in much less than what was paid for its rescue. Meanwhile the taxpayers had a great debt, and a few bankers were enormously rich, of course, they took care of the government's officials and congress men so they had protection and no one stepped in jail.
As telecommunications (TV and Telephony) were already in private hands, the next step was selling the other strategic sectors, so the government could only depend on taxes to sustain itself, but as there was a real opposition, that could not be done, even though they applied the same formula as with telephony: to demonstrate how bad administrator the state was, and how unprofitable the sector was in states (state, representing public interest's and property) they stopped reinvesting in the oil and electric industry, waiting for the moment where it brake down.
Government's critical opposition (PRD) and oil international prices didn't let that happen and the anti-democracy in Mexico started to shine in the international markets, the free trade with EU had a price: the votes should be counted now. So, the people in the power had a bright idea, if before PAN and PRI launched the same candidate, why not launch a candidate that represented their interests straight from PAN? Vicente Fox had a great media campaign and he indeed won the election, voted by a majority of people who willed a change and where unaware of who was still pulling the strings.
Economy had a big drop and had three years of consecutive negative grow, it was only when the stratospheric oil prices when it started do have a modest grow, that no Mexican outside the close circle of power has seen. The people from the PAN had a great 6 years of suspiciously very lucky business and the president's step sons became from middle class to millionaires in just 5 years. The bakers that committed fraud were even more protected and 4 million Mexicans had to migrate to the USA, affecting their economy as well. Mexico dropped from being the 9th economy of the world (even with its intrinsic inequity, where 10% of the citizen's held 80% of the wealth) to the 14th, even having those stratospheric oil prices and being the 5th world's oil producer ant the 9th exporter.
Of course, there were many disappointed people, and the left re-gained straight. It also won México's city government in 1997 and again -by a vast majority- in 2000, with Lopez Obrador. While he was ruling 70% of the private investment was done in México City and a third of the national economy was produced in the city. The corruption in the government went down (not eliminated yet, but on track to be eliminated) and the monthly check of the government officials as well, including the top positions, but making those of the base workers grow higher than inflation. With the money he saved, he made great investments in the public infrastructure, health and education; he also started programs to grant the more needed citizens a historically deserved aid, especially for the people of the third age, thus lowering long term costs on public health and improving the quality of life of the citizens. The result: 85% of the people from his city will vote for him as a president. By the way, he also improved the health of public finances and reduced the financial cost of the state's debt, that said by the congress, not only by him.
What's at stake in this election?
For the right wing party and those business man wannabe that were connected with them, now losing their connection and their privileges. For the ones that made frauds that cost zillions to Mexican citizen, being investigated and maybe put to jail and made pay. For the politicians who protected them, something similar. For the rest of the honest national and international real business men, they will have a country where to invest, with clear rules and clean transparent methods, for the citizens, better opportunities, and reduction of the poorness, that will indeed reduce the violence and crime spawned by a country with a few very, very rich men, a ever shrinking middle class and a ever growing 45% of the population well below the poverty's line.
There will be no honest people that will lose in this election, rich, middle class and poor, every honest person in Mexico should smile; we are going to be back in track.

Posted by: Amilcar Alzaga | June 23, 2006 04:19 PM

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