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AMLO: How Mexico’s New Leftist President Has Navigated Corruption, Inequality and Trump

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As President Trump continues his threats to close the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the flow of asylum seekers, we look at the response from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the first four months of his presidency. In Mexico City, we speak with Humberto Beck, professor at El Colegio de México and co-editor of “The Future Is Today: Radical Ideas for Mexico.” He says that while López Obrador doesn’t want to openly confront Trump on stopping immigration, “he knows that sending back migrants to Central America is sending back these people to unlivable situations.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump is continuing threats to close the southern border if Mexico does not stop the flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. border. But he partially backed off his warning in remarks at the Oval Office Tuesday, saying Mexico had increased its apprehensions of immigrants since he first made the threat last week.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m ready to close it, if I have to close it. Mexico, as you know, as of yesterday, has been starting to apprehend a lot of people at their southern border coming in from Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador. And they’ve—they’re really apprehending thousands of people. And it’s the first time, really, in decades that this has taken place, and this should have taken place a long time ago.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Trump said he would “100 percent” follow through on his plan to close the border if no deal was reached with Congress on immigration. He also said he wanted to, quote, “get rid of judges” in immigration cases. Economic and policy experts warn a border closure between the U.S. and Mexico could result in billions of dollars of losses to the economy by disrupting trade and the daily flow of goods and people between the two countries. Members of Trump’s own administration have expressed concerns with the possible closure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said closing the border would be, quote, “catastrophic.” But Trump said Tuesday he was willing to shut the border anyway, saying, quote, “Security is more important to me than trade.”

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his administration would help regulate Central American migrants passing through Mexican territory to the United States.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] I was asked to be prudent, and I think that’s the best thing, to have a policy of friendship with the U.S. government, a relationship of good neighbors with the U.S. government, and to act with a lot of caution, to not get hooked in a confrontation, in a row. … Of course, we have to help, because Central American migrants pass through our territory, and we have to bring order to that migration, so that it’s legal and, at the same time, for human rights to be protected. So that’s where we are at. But let’s stay calm. The thing is, we would enter into this dynamic, and I prefer love and peace. Of course I take it seriously that we should act with caution.

AMY GOODMAN: As Trump’s border showdown continues, we turn to look at the first 100 days of the presidency of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s first leftist president in decades. In Mexico City, we’re joined by Humberto Beck, a professor at the College of Mexico, co-editor of The Future Is Today: Radical Ideas for Mexico.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Humberto Beck. Can you talk about both what AMLO is saying about the border, how he’s dealing with President Trump, but, most importantly, what these four months of this presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador have been about?

HUMBERTO BECK: Sure. Thank you for having me.

Well, I think López Obrador doesn’t want to confront Trump openly, but he’s trying to create some bridges of cooperation with other aspects, other dimensions of the U.S. government. For example, he had a meeting recently with a U.S. congressman about the possibility of creating some kind of inversion program in southern Mexico and Central America. I think that’s what he wants to do, because he is not really trying to stop the flow of migrants, because he knows, even though he doesn’t want to acknowledge it openly, because he wants to avoid this confrontation with Trump—he knows that sending back migrants to Central America is sending back these people to unlivable situations because of violence. So, I think that what he wants to do is just not to confront Trump openly, try to work in some kind of cooperation program with the U.S. and try to create what could be, if it is ambitious enough, some kind of Marshall or neo-Marshall program, but with southern Mexico and Central America.

And about the first months of the López Obrador presidency, I would say that there is a very powerful change in the discourse of the government, of the federal government. If you contrast what a president like López Obrador says to what the recent—the other recent presidents of Mexico have said, there is a real change. So, for example, López Obrador is one of the few Mexican politicians who talk about inequality as a main problem of Mexico. And I think he’s right. So, that’s, to a great extent, the reason why he won last year the elections. But now the question is to find out whether he’s really going to deliver in that sense. So, so far, he has created a very ambitious social spending program that is going to be funded, according to his calculations, with cuts in government spending in other areas, especially what he considers to be excessive spending of Mexican government officials. So, this is probably going to work for a while. But in the long run what is needed is a deep tax reform, because in Mexico, you know, the richer classes, the richest people, really don’t pay taxes. So, I think a program of such spending as ambitious as López Obrador’s cannot really be sustainable if there is not some kind of deep, radical tax reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Humberto Beck, I’m wondering if you could comment on the enormous popularity, even greater that he has now than when he was elected—there’s some polls showing he has 80% favorability rating among the population—and to what degree the style that he’s adopted, for instance, selling the presidential jet—not only the presidential jet, that was just basically put into service in the last presidency, but also selling 60 other government-owned jets, refusing to live in the presidential palace, holding daily press conferences to reach out to the press and the public about his stance, closing the notorious—the most notorious prison in Mexico, where many had been tortured over decades—to what degree this has had an impact on the population saying this really is a different kind of politician.

HUMBERTO BECK: Well, that’s definitely one of the main aspects behind his popularity. So, I think people in Mexico feel that there’s a sense of authenticity in what López Obrador says and what he does. So, this symbol, for example, of the selling the presidential plane was really important in his discourse about austerity—but austerity not in the sense, in the neoliberal sense, of cutting especially social spending, but austerity in the sense of cutting off the excessive, let’s say, luxuries that many government officials used to have before he came to power.

He also has made this policy of having every day, very early in the morning, probably about to start right now, these conferences with the press. So, this is also a very important change, because the previous president, Peña Nieto, almost practically never had a free, open, spontaneous encounter with the press. So, López Obrador has changed that. And so, this, I think, adds up to this sense of authenticity that he can—that he displays and that is really perceived by the Mexican public.

However, I think there are a couple of issues that might turn problematic in the next years. So, for example, there has been also an important change in discourse about security and about the fight against crime. But the concrete measures that this new government is about to adopt are ambivalent in that sense. So there might be a clash between the sense of the discourse that the president has adopted and the actual implications of the policies, such as the creation of this so-called National Guard, that is supposed to be a hybrid between military and civilian elements, but that leaves open the door for a continuation of the policy of militarization that has characterized Mexico in the last 12 years, that has created a great toll in human suffering through the disappearances of tens of thousands of people, the murder or killing of hundreds of thousands of people, and a large amount of human rights abuses on the part of the military in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the killing of journalists—I think we’re up to maybe the fifth journalist, a radio journalist, Omar Camacho, who was just killed in Sinaloa—the targeting of them, and what AMLO is doing about this?

HUMBERTO BECK: Well, I think he acknowledges the problem, but he hasn’t really addressed it in a specific way. So, but that issue of the relationship between the new government and the press is really important, because, of course, there is the issue of the killing of journalists that has been going on for almost a decade in Mexico, but there is also the issue of the relationship between the government and the press in general. So, that might be also one of the problems coming in the next few years, because AMLO has adopted—as he’s known in Mexico—has adopted this attitude of sometimes confronting the press and saying that they are not really honest, that they—he is not using the word “fake news,” but somehow implying that they are disseminating false information, that they want to attack him. So, I think that that creates an atmosphere for the media that is not the best for liberty of speech.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about his labor policy, as well, because one of the things that he did was he doubled the minimum wage in the northern border areas. That led, very soon afterwards, in many of the maquilas, to strikes by workers demanding sharp increases in wages. And surprisingly, the government remained neutral. Because I remember back in the days of Salinas or even Cedillo, if workers went on strike, especially in the foreign-owned maquilas, the government would intervene and even arrest strike leaders at the time. But at least the government, in this stage, remained neutral. How has he been seen in terms of his labor policy so far?

HUMBERTO BECK: Well, I think this change in the attitude toward labor policy is part of this larger turn in bringing back inequality as a main issue of the new government. So, one of the things that they have done is to, I think, try to vindicate dignity of workers through, as you mentioned, the increase in the minimum wage and also through this respect against strikes. And also I think what he’s trying to do is to, let’s say, create a new equilibrium between, let’s say, labor and capital. So, even though AMLO is far from being a radical—so, all of this talk about he being a new Maduro or a new Chávez is not really true. So, he’s not really—he doesn’t really want to expropriate industries. He doesn’t really want to abolish private property or something like that. But he really wants to create this—as I mentioned, this new equilibrium between the factors of production. And so, I think there is a real opportunity there of increasing the quality of lives of workers in Mexico. However, there are also, in that area, some aspects that are—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

HUMBERTO BECK: —that might become sources of trouble in the future. So—so, sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

HUMBERTO BECK: So, for example, I was thinking of—

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, Humberto Beck, we’ll have to leave it there, but we’re also going to do an interview in Spanish at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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