Perilous time for Mexico’s democracy

Under AMLO, it’s starting to look like an autocracy

In the run-up to the 2000 presidential election Vicente Fox, candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) made an unprecedented campaign appearance at a meet-and-greet rally in Chicago, home to one of the largest Mexican-American populations in the U.S.

Fox, a hulk of a man about a foot taller than the average Mexican, with an equally imposing moustache, was the first candidate to visit with the Mexican diaspora in the U.S. who are not permitted to vote in elections back home anyway.

The biggest surprise, though, came on July 2, when Fox broke the one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had dominated Mexico’s political life for over 70 years, as predictably as a Chinese dynasty.

Fox’s breakthrough election was made possible in large part by the work of the Instituto Electoral Nacional (INE), an autonomous election monitoring organization that was, ironically, established under previous administration of President Ernesto Zedillo of the PRI.

Now President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known by his initials AMLO, wants to hobble the INE through a series of draconian cuts in its budget and personnel. His plan is being challenged before the Mexican Supreme Court—and by huge street protests throughout the nation.

AMLO’s victory in 2018 was his third time at bat. He had unsuccessfully run and lost in 2006 and 2012. After his narrow loss in 2006, AMLO claimed massive electoral fraud and refused to accept the results which in fact had been verified as clean by international observers. He promised, but failed to provide, proof of electoral fraud, in a hollow maneuver reminiscent of, hmm, a U.S. president, the one with the crow’s nest of dyed red hair, who still hasn’t conceded losing the 2020 election. AMLO lost in 2012 by a large margin.

In 2018 AMLO and his MORENA party finally won the presidency, by a large margin, and polls indicate he is still very popular.

But now AMLO seemingly wants to in effect perpetuate MORENA’s political supremacy by emasculating the electoral monitoring agency that might get in the way of that goal.

Indeed, what other reason might there be to “reform” an organization that by all reports has performed its mission admirably?

Hail to the Chief

Just as alarming is the rapid mission creep of the Mexican military, which under AMLO has been assigned an unprecedented portfolio, from building and running the new Mexico City airport; the proposed operation of a resuscitated Mexicana de Aviación, which went bankrupt in 2010; the construction and management of the Mayan Train in Yucatán; running the country’s immigration enforcement and customs, and greater involvement in internal security.

As as result of these expanded duties, during the first three years of AMLO’s presidency, the military’s budget increased an average of 16 percent annually, in contrast to cuts in other areas of public administration, according to a study by the London School of Economics.

AMLO’s most dramatic decision, early in his administration, was to scrap construction of a new Mexico City airport, already underway, relocate it to an military base, and put the military in charge of the project.

The new airport is open for business alright, but the tab of abandoning the original project and moving it to a different location has risen to an astonishing $20 billion dollars. Compare that with the complete, and by all reports dazzling, renovation of La Guardia Airport in New York, which cost $8 billion. Cost overruns of the Mayan Train also have been astronomical.

AMLO cites high public trust in the military for his expansion of its duties. But human rights and political observers view the ascendant role of the Mexican military as a bad omen, particularly in Latin America with its long and nefarious history of military coups and stifling of democratic institutions.

By law, expats cannot get involved in internal Mexican politics. But that doesn’t prevent us from observing events around us and wondering, with some alarm, if our new home of Mexico may not be turning into another laboratory of autocratic rule, in the mold of Hungary, Turkey and until recently, Brazil and even our own United States.

16 thoughts on “Perilous time for Mexico’s democracy

    1. As I mentioned to another reader, we read news about the States down here, and our home country doesn’t sound like such a great option either, particularly in my hometown of Chicago where crime is a serious problem. Thank you for your comment.


  1. Phil

    Al, you may want to delete the first “into” in the last sentence of your essay. It confused me and I had to read it several times. Phil in Phoenix


  2. Will you and Stew please just become naturalized Mexican citizens? You meet all the criteria, you’re good enough, and by God, this country needs your votes.

    You’ll thank me once you have that carta de naturalizacion in your hands as well as your INE and ink-stained thumb.


    1. It’s a thought and I’ve casually looked into it (a couple of friends have naturalized) but the process seems onerous, particularly for Stew who hardly speaks Spanish. Even then, I don’t think we could make much of a dent on AMLO’s popularity ratings right now.


      1. The process is very easy and straightforward. It has never been so easy. And now that you and Stew have passed your 60th birthday, it’s even easier. The Spanish test is very easy, so simple that the average 2nd-grader could pass it. It’s on the level of “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.” Stew will pass it with flying colors. You don’t need a facilitator or a lawyer. Just follow the directions, gathering up the necessary paperwork, and hie yourself to the nearest SRE. And afterward, you both will stand just a little taller, look a bit leaner, and even more handsome than ever.


    1. Except that the news coming from up north, about such problems as crime, mass shootings and toxic politics does not sound very encouraging either. Portugal might be a nice place to settle down. Or Costa Rica.


  3. Deborah S.

    We moved to Guadalajara in August of 2018 as permanent residents, and bought a home the following year. Our intention was to make Mexico our “forever home.” We were disappointed in AMLO — the attacks on journalists, the dismissal of women and women’s security, the Mayan Train and the many ill-advised or ill-timed measures such as centralizing the purchase of prescription medications and leaving cancer patients without their treatment drugs, etc. But the failure of the federal government to address the severity of COVID and its effect on the most vulnerable, and the subsequent rise in crime, left us feeling unsafe. If our only choice had been to return to the States, we would have stayed in Mexico. Fortunately, my husband is Canadian and I became a naturalized Canadian citizen shortly before we departed for Mexico. We’ve been in Nova Scotia since July 2022. We miss our friends, our neighbourhood and our neighbours, the Tapatio culture and food, and we may try the snowbird experience next winter. But moving back is not an option.


    1. If you follow AMLO’s trajectory it resembles Orban’s in Hungary, Balsonaro in Brazil, and even Trump in the U.S. Attacks on the media, for one, screwing around with the electoral system to try to stay in power, and the general self-serving “populist” demagoguery. Then that airport business in Mexico City is a major boondoggle, to abandon the original plan already financed through government obligations, and start all over again. Canada is beautiful Plan B, after Mexico. But for us, the possibility of returning to the States, barring some medical emergency, becomes more remote by the day. Thank you for your comment.



  4. Miriam

    Absolutely Mexicans living abroad can vote in Mexico’s elections. Go to the website votoextranjero dot mx for more information. (I’m not putting the actual link to avoid having my comment blocked by the spam filter gods.) And I believe that the murmuring that AMLO wants to set himself up as a dictator is much overblown fear-mongering. Believe me, I am well-versed in Latin American history and politics, with both lived experience and first-hand accounts of close friends from countries throughout the region over the past 40+ years. I was in Guatemala during the military coup in August 1983. I firmly believe that democracy in Mexico will hold fast. But having political power being solely in the hands of those who are accustomed to pulling all the strings hopefully will remain a thing of the past. If exchange rates are any indication, the markets certainly seem to have more confidence in Mexico than Canada or the US these days. I personally believe that Mexico, her economy and her people have a bright future.


  5. Miriam: Thank you for your comment and optimism about Mexico. I hope you’re right. What I meant to say was that at the time of Fox’s visit to Chicago Mexicans abroad could not vote in elections back home. Thanks again for your comment and clarification.


  6. Democracy is under attack all the time, everywhere. And when folk decide they like the brand of populism they are offered because it suits them personally, fascism makes inroads. And when folk decide to turn a blind eye to or to tolerate the folk promoting this crap, fascism starts to win.

    But it’s also true that when folk become marginalised, ignored and left in poverty, then they aren’t going to see how democracy works for them either. Mexicans have had that in spades for a few decades.


    1. I’ve always had this notion that the reason working class folks root for some creep like Trump, and other so-called populists is that the neoliberal economic policies of Maggie Thatcher, Ron Reagan, and others weakened unions and gave free rein to the rich to rape, pillage and plunder under the banner of “free markets.” The working folk left behind may not be able to articulate why they support assholes like Trump, except them feeling in their guts that they’ve been screwed—and want revenge.


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