Apr 5, 2018

Mexican presidential candidate frontrunner outlines 'New Deal' plan in border city

Presidential Candidate Lopez Obrador Offers Mexico
a 'New Deal' in border city Juarez, Mexico

Kent Paterson/Correspondent
The Digie Zone Network                                                                                            

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks to supporters
in Juarez, Mexico. (Courtesy photos)

JUAREZ, MEXICO - Defying local fears of a poor turnout because of the Easter holidays, the people arrived by the thousands. They were old, young, students, teachers, workers, indigenous and non-indigenous, believers and non-believers. Entire families came in tow.

Withstanding a hot sun warming up Easter morning, enthusiastic supporters of Mexican presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is popularly called, gathered at the Benito Juarez Monument near downtown Juarez, where their man delivered a stinging critique Mexico's economic model and propose sweeping changes that will benefit the nation's financially struggling majority.  

While waiting for Lopez Obrador to speak, maquiladora (border export factory) worker Jose Lopez said he liked the three-time presidential contender because "he's more transparent than others." Like many juarenses, Lopez said low wages and high living costs make getting by a difficult proposition. "You buy a television in December and you pawn it in January," Lopez said. "(AMLO) can solve some of the problems we have here, like hunger and delinquency." 

Glenda Simental also works in a maquiladora, earning the equivalent of about $77 per week. The single mom said she grappled not only with rising food costs but expensive school fees for her children, despite a law that prohibits schools from charging mandatory fees. “You have to work a lot. It’s not easy to support kids in school, "Simental sighed. “Many principals won't allow students in without paying.” Declaring her reasons for supporting Lopez Obrador, the 16-year resident of Juarez said simply, “He has good proposals… "we want a change."

As people filed onto the monument grounds, a taped tune of the popular Mexican rock/ska combo Panteon Rococo, La Carencia, played to the popular mood. Now as then, the 2002 hit song’s words resonate with many:  

 ..Now you can't get ahead

  And dozens and dozens of years have passed

  Well, in a globalized world

  The poor people have no place

  And scarcity is up

  And wages down... 

Besides colorful tee-shirts and caps representing the three political parties that form AMLO's "We Will Make History Together" electoral coalition, banners from other organizations and social movements peppered the campaign site, displaying the presence of the small farmer-based  National Ayala Plan, the Popular Socialist Party, Progressive Social Networks of Ciudad Juarez and, of course, the former Mexican contract workers, or braceros, who continue struggling for compensation owed to them for work in the U.S. decades ago and  meet weekly at the Benito Juarez Monument in a stubborn effort to keep their movement alive even as many of the old farmworkers die off.   

Taking a humorous swipe at stories that have attempted to link Lopez Obrador to Russia, a sign held above the crowd read "Russian Teachers for AMLOvsy." In addition to people from other parts of Chihuahua state, Lopez Obrador’s supporters came from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and El Paso. 

Lopez Obrador's three opponents also held Easter day events: Ricardo Anaya at a famous religious center and migrant-sending region in the state of Jalisco, Jose Antonio Meade in tropical Yucatan and Margarita Zavala in violence-torn Mexico state.

Professor Lopez Obrador?

Attired in a plain white shirt and casual slacks, Lopez Obrador took to the stage. After several weeks of an official time-out decreed between the primary and general phases of the 2018 election campaign, the candidate's Easter Sunday appearance in Juarez marked the kick-off of his general campaign, which will last almost three months until election day on July 1, per electoral ground rules.   

AMLO's Juarez speech was splashed with Mexican history, indigenous cosmology, nationalism, and modern global politics and economics. He began his talk by reminding the audience how Paso del Norte (the old name of Juarez) was the place where President Benito Juarez and his cabinet found refuge while resisting the conservatives and French invaders during the 1860s.

In May 1911, the renamed Ciudad Juarez was the scene of the "decisive battle" of the Mexican Revolution that overthrew dictator Porfirio Diaz and led to Francisco Madero's ascendancy to the presidency, AMLO said. "That's why we decided to start our campaign here,” he added. 

The 64-year-old politician also cited contemporary considerations for choosing Juarez, high among them the economic squeeze on the working class and the women's murders, or femicides, "that continue happening across the country...it wasn't a coincidence that Pope Francisco came here more than two years ago."

Lopez Obrador came to Juarez at a delicate and uncertain moment in the city’s history. Though new businesses are opening up and a smattering of tour buses is again visible on the streets, deep scars remain from the so-called drug war of 2008-2012 that left upwards of 12,000 murdered and tens of thousands or more displaced, according to various academic and media accounts. Although juarenses are known for their tough spirit, many locals worry about continued crime and a new spurt in drug-related violence. 

In a lengthy discourse brimming with numbers that might even have passed as an economic  professor's lecture, Lopez Obrador slammed Mexico's "neo-liberal model" of trickle down economics, blaming it for 30 years of economic stagnation while enriching a few at the expense of the many.

Corruption, meanwhile, was "institutionalized" in the political realm, transforming graft and theft into "the principle function of political power," the former Mexico City mayor maintained. Under a Lopez Obrador administration, the federal government would stop acting as “a factory for the new rich,” the presidential hopeful promised.

As drones from media organizations hovered over the crowd, AMLO laid out plans for the rebirth of Mexico and a revival of the internal economy.  “The national economy is going to produce what we consume here in Mexico,” he insisted.

In an astute recognition of Juarez as a magnet-like city that attracts migrants from across the Mexican Republic and beyond who preserve family ties back home,  Lopez Obrador detailed proposals aimed at creating jobs by rebuilding earthquake damaged infrastructure in southern Mexico with human hands instead of machines;  planting more than two million acres of fruit and timber-producing trees in the southeastern section of the country;  running a bullet train in the international tourist haven of the Mayan Riviera; rebuilding ports on the Gulf and Pacific coasts; and deploying a new freight train for transporting the goods of the Asian trade to the U.S, among numerous measures. 

For Juarez and the northern border region, AMLO proposed a free trade zone like the special economic regimes that existed at different times in the northern frontier of Mexico dating back to the 1800s. The new zone would move Mexican customs regulations and inspections to about 18 miles outside Juarez and other border locales.

Eliciting applause, the onetime partner of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in the redevelopment of downtown Mexico City, pledged breaks for the border, including the elimination of an income tax, the lowering of high gasoline prices to U.S. levels, and the slashing in half of the highly unpopular value added (sales) tax from 16 percent to 8 percent.

Justifying the tax cuts, the candidate specifically mentioned the percentages of equivalent taxes charges in U.S. border states where many Mexicans shop, including New Mexico, saying the Mexican tax should conform to the neighbors' taxes.

AMLO's border proposals put pressure on the other candidates to focus more attention on a region that, like the U.S. side, is often marginalized or misunderstood in national politics.

In Juarez, Lopez Obrador additionally promised to double the minimum wage in the envisioned free trade zone in 2019, provide support to students and young people embarking on careers, scuttle a controversial education reform law, double senior pensions, pay farmers guaranteed prices, and extend Internet and cellphone service to the entire country.

His campaign pledges form a 50 point political program published in the newspaper of Lopez Obrador’s National Movement for the Regeneration of Mexico (Morena) political party, Regeneracion, which was distributed en masse at the Juarez campaign rally. In U.S. political terms, think New Deal. 

Critics deride the Tabasco-born politico as an irresponsible populist who will wreck the economy and lead Mexico down the path of Venezuela. In an important political shift, however, the campaign of Lopez Obrador’s leading opponent, Ricardo Anaya of the conservative PAN party, is apparently shirking the Venezuela/communist imputation in favor of one that likens AMLO to a Mexican historical figure: former President Luis Echeverria (1970-76), a man who is remembered for the economic crises and violent bouts of repression against opponents during his administration.  

“The thesis of food self-sufficiency, of timber, of this and that authoritarian, nationalist or statist idea of Lopez Obrador,  appear like two drops of water, those of Luis Echeverria,” former chancellor and current Anaya campaign coordinator Jorge Castaneda told Proceso magazine. “They aren’t from (Hugo) Chavez, Evo Morales or the Kirchners. They are from Echeverria.”

Lopez Obrador insisted again in Juarez that revenue is available for his planned reforms, and it can be sourced by slashing the perks and privileges of the federal bureaucracy to the tune of almost $30 billion.

Inevitably, the left nationalist political leader addressed U.S.-Mexico relations, and without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, demanded a mutually respectful relationship between two neighbors.  

The international press coverage quickly picked up on Lopez Obrador’s vow that he would not to allow Mexico to be a "piñata" for any foreign government. “Social problems aren’t solved with walls or by force,” he said.

Less noticed by the international media were AMLO's Juarez statements about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Stressing that he was not against NAFTA, Lopez Obrador nevertheless criticized the pact for not living up to expectations. “If NAFTA benefited Mexico, our economy wouldn’t be stagnated,” he told the assembled crowd.

The veteran political leader stated it would be "convenient" to wait for the signing of a new trade agreement until after the July 1 Mexican election, with a new NAFTA containing provisions on wages and migration.

More than a quarter century ago, immigrant advocates who had hoped the free trade agreement would encompass the immigration question were sorely disappointed when the NAFTA negotiators excluded the issue from the tri-national pact.

Lopez Obrador’s comments in Juarez came before President Trump again threatened to scuttle NAFTA and, in a surprise move, announced the dispatch of U.S. troops to the border. In response, AMLO said in the state of Coahuila April 3 that Mexicans would peacefully demonstrate their opposition, dressed in white, along the length of the border if the U.S. militarizes the region.

(Trump’s announcement rapidly made headlines in the Mexican press as Mexican political actors swung into motion. Chancellor Luis Videgaray wrote on Twitter that the Mexican government had requested through “official channels” a clarification of Trump’s statement, while Jose Antonio Meade, presidential candidate for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling PRI party, tweeted that deploying U.S. soldiers on the border would constitute an “inadmissible offense against our country.”)   

 Yet Lopez Obrador's  concluded his Juarez speech on an optimistic note, telling his listeners, “I am confident the national crisis is ready to end and that nobody can obscure in a lasting way the name of Mexico or stop the cause of justice from triumphing….It may be an ideal, a utopia, something unachievable, but we are now many, those of you who are here enduring the sun and millions of more Mexicans who want peace with justice and dignity, sustainable development, the rule of law, well-being, the good life…”

Thousands of supporters then joined in shouts of “Viva Mexico” "President,"  "President," and "It's an honor to be with Lopez Obrador."  They raised clenched fists and belted out the Mexican national anthem.

The hefty turnout in Juarez marked a fresh chapter for the longtime presidential hopeful, whose previous runs witnessed weak support in the city and northern border region, historically divided between the PRI and PAN parties.

“Lopez Obrador’s movement has grown a lot in Chihuahua and Juarez," affirmed campaign activist Maria Eugenia Garcia.  

Team AMLO  

Apart from Lopez Obrador's wife Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, a platoon of prominent supporters including senatorial candidates from the Morena party accompanied their standard bearer to Juarez.

Among them was Nestora Salgado, a former woman commander of the indigenous-based community police in the southern state of Guerrero who was imprisoned by Mexican authorities in 2013, accused of kidnapping. 

Nestora Salgado and Nestora Salgado freed

Nestora Salgado

Charging that Salgado was framed-up because of the crackdowns she led on organized criminal bands, supporters waged an international campaign for her freedom that drew the support of several U.S. Congressional representatives.

Released from prison in 2016, Salgado is now running for the Senate on the Morena ticket in Guerrero. Nonetheless, the first-time candidate is not sure she’ll be able to campaign freely on her home turf.  

"I don't feel safe campaigning there because of the threats that have been made against me," Salgado told this reporter. A dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, Salgado credited the global grassroots for her release.

"Freedom was the fruit of the social struggle, not only of the Mexican people but also the international organizations that recognized the arbitrariness of the detention," she added.

In the event of a heavy vote for Lopez Obrador and Morena, Salgado is virtually guaranteed a seat in the Mexican Senate, an electoral outcome which is viewed with trepidation in some quarters of Guerrero’s ruling circles.

If she’s elected senator, Salgado vowed to be a "voice of the forgotten, to be the face of those who aren't seen." Above all, violence in Mexico needs to end, the candidate said. "We all want peace. We all have to make it happen, because it's not going to come on its own," Salgado added.

Though Lopez Obrador is leading in some polls by as much as 20 points,  the political landscape could well change between now and July 1.  After the general campaign commenced on Easter weekend, radio and television outlets (not to mention social media networks) in Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico were immediately saturated with candidate spots. In a clear bid for the huge but slippery Millennial vote, one noteworthy spot features the boyish-looking, 39-year old Ricardo Anaya chiding “Andres Manuel” for holding “antiquated” ideas.

With a record of fraud staining previous elections, the Lopez Obrador campaign is putting great stock in monitoring polling stations and ballot counting, as permitted by Mexican election law. Accordingly, Morena activists were very visible at Lopez Obrador's appearance recruiting attendees to defend the vote.

"More than anything else, it's citizens watching votes that are counted so the election is transparent," said Morena representative Maria Eugenia Garcia. "The goal is to have citizens at every polling booth so they are taken care of."


U.S. author-journalist Kent Paterson is an expert on Mexican politics. He former editor of Frontera-NorteSur, and is a correspondent for the Digie Zone Network.