On a Sunday in February, hundreds of Mexican immigrants gathered in Olivar Plaza in downtown Los Angeles to watch Andrés Manuel López Obrador give a speech. López Obrador, who is the leading candidate in the 2018 Mexican presidential race, pledged to defend Mexican immigrants against xenophobia in the United States and argued that Donald Trump had cleverly positioned Mexicans as a scapegoat for rural working-class Americans. “Mexicans . . . who have immigrated to the U.S. fulfill the same function today as the Jewish people who were stigmatized and persecuted during Hitler’s time,” he said to his supporters, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles for the event.
While the Trump administration has been busy signing executive orders to deport millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants, López Obrador (or AMLO, as he is popularly known by his initials), a charismatic left-wing populist politician and former Mexico City mayor, has been on the road rallying Mexicans in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and El Paso, Texas, among other cities. In the June 4 Mexican state elections, López Obrador's left-wing party lost by a mere 3 percent against the ruling centrist party, an auspicious outcome for López Obrador's 2018 presidential bid.
The phenomenon of Mexican presidential candidates campaigning in the United States is not a new one. It dates back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. But in 2017, López Obrador, with his simple populist platform that has remained consistent throughout his two-decade political career, is uniquely positioned to become the first left-wing Mexican president since the 1930s. López Obrador — whose style and message has been compared to Senator Bernie Sanders’ — ran for president in both the 2006 and 2012 elections, losing to Felipe Calderón in 2006 by a mere 0.58 percent of the vote.
Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Act in 1993, U.S. and Mexican presidents have largely collaborated. More cynically, the United States has dictated the terms of the relationship to cooperative Mexican elites and technocrats, who are enriched by NAFTA. But the relationship changed after Donald Trump announced his entry into the U.S. presidential campaign. In his first campaign speech in New York City on June 16, 2015, Trump infamously called Mexicans "rapists” and criminals. Since then, Trump has delineated a sharp departure in U.S. policy toward Mexico: he intends to dismantle NAFTA, deport millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants and fortify a 1,954-mile border wall.
As a string of articles from right-wing news outlets like the National Review and Breitbart point out, Trump’s antagonism toward Mexico will have consequences, possibly in the form of a viable left-wing presidential candidate. The likelihood of a burgeoning left-wing populism in Mexico is compounded by factors such as stagnant wages, rising narco-violence and an incumbent president with a record low approval rating of 12 percent.
President Enrique Peña Nieto is part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a centrist authoritarian party run by Mexican elites, and marred by decades of corruption and financial ties to Mexico’s drug cartels. In January 2017, the Peña Nieto administration revealed that it would raise the price of gasoline by 20 percent from $3 to $3.60 per gallon, an announcement that was met with a succession of protests and lootings in Mexico City.
“It’s the gasoline. It’s the water. It’s the electricity. It’s the narco-wars. It’s the corruption,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College. “Added to [Trump], there is a massive protest movement in Mexico over the economic situation, and the price of gasoline. It adds an additional feature that the traditional elites cannot control as easily.”
López Obrador — who had a 90 percent approval rating as the mayor of Mexico City — marks an attractive alternative to the Mexican political elite. His appeal to poor and working-class Mexicans stems from his disavowal of Mexico’s two establishment parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the Party of National Action (PAN), which have had a stranglehold over the presidency since the 1930s.
As mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, López Obrador rebuilt the city’s crumbling infrastructure, subsidized subway fares and school supplies, provided food subsidies to mothers and increased pensions for the elderly. If elected president, he has pledged to support renegotiations for NAFTA, increased public services spending and a revival of the Mexican countryside —though he has yet to outline a detailed agenda.
López Obrador has many detractors from both the Right and the Left in Mexico. The establishment has attacked him for decades, fishing for corruption scandals, but finding few, and invoking ideological ties to the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. During his 2006 bid for president, López Obrador was vilified in a series of TV ads suggesting that he would usher in an era of poverty, unemployment, and austere “Chavismo” in Mexico.
Some socialists, on the other hand, have labeled López Obrador and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which he founded in 2014, as false bourgeois populists, pointing out that the MORENA party has collected $200 million in public funds.
On February 13, protesters in New York City disrupted López Obrador’s rally, alleging ties between the presidential candidate and the mayor of Ayotzinapa, where 43 students went missing in 2014.
“[López Obrador] himself has never been tarnished,” said Alexander Main, a senior policy associate at the Center for Economic and Research Policy in Washington, D.C. “Close advisers have been linked to [corruption]. There’s a lot of dirt on everyone else . . . . He has always had a modest existence."
During his tenure as mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador was famously chauffeured in a compact Nissan — a sharp contrast from President Peña Nieto, who owns a $6.5 million all-white mansion and flies a $218 million private jet.
In the 1990s and 2000s, during a period known as the Pink Tide, Latin America experienced an influx of left-wing leadership including Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Unlike the majority of its Latin American counterparts, Mexico — due to the hegemony of its two reigning centrist parties — never built a viable left-wing party. But despite that reality, the presidential elections set for July 1, 2018, provide a window for Mexico to usher in a new era of leftist politics after decades of unbroken neoliberal leadership.
“[He] has to be able to create the context for an important social change in Mexico,” said Tinker Salas. “This has to be seen as a way of rescuing the nation, because if not now, I don’t see it in the coming future.”