They hate him, but they made him

DENISE DRESSER is a columnist for the Mexican newspaper Reforma and a professor at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico.

MANY MEXICANS VIEW presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as a dangerous man. “He’s a fiery populist,” they say. “He’ll destroy the country,” they argue. “He’s a false messiah,” they insist. But the efforts to portray the left-wing leader as the Mexican version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez miss the point. Lopez Obrador is a symptom of deep problems that Mexico needs to address. Inciting hatred toward a man who is perceived as close to the dispossessed won’t eliminate their legitimate grievances.

And that’s the real danger for Mexico; that in their efforts to disavow Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s ruling elites disregard the conditions that produced him.

Lopez Obrador’s popularity is a symptom of Mexico’s failed efforts to modernize through halfhearted, neoliberal reform over the last 20 years. Mexico followed the free-market path mapped out by the “Washington consensus.” But it did it badly, with botched privatizations that transferred public monopolies into private hands and with economic reforms that benefited a handful of businessmen but not enough consumers.

The result: an economy that doesn’t grow enough, a business elite that doesn’t compete enough, an economic model that concentrates wealth and doesn’t redistribute enough of it and 50 million Mexicans living on less than $4 a day. For too many, the continuity offered by the National Action Party’s Felipe Calderon would mean simply more of the same.


It’s no wonder that Lopez Obrador receives the support he does. He is a providential politician created by a dysfunctional economic system. He exists and may win the presidency on July 2 because of everything that Mexico’s business and political classes failed to do: create real opportunities for ordinary people by reforming Mexico’s crony capitalism. They didn’t do so, and the privileges for the few at the expense of the many explain why Lopez Obrador’s message resonates. It’s as if he held up a mirror and confronted the country with an image that reflected the inequalities many refuse to acknowledge.

And that divide is what Mexico’s elites should fear the most. Instead of hating the man, they should hate the conditions that created him. There are too many Mexicans for whom the status quo doesn’t work. There are too many people who seek the deep transformation of a country that historically has excluded them, or forced them to cross the border in search of the social mobility they can’t aspire to at home. The best antidote against the rise of Lopez Obrador would have been an economic model that empowered the poor instead of largely ignoring their plight.

None of this is to suggest that Lopez Obrador would necessarily deliver the bounty he has promised. He may have correctly diagnosed Mexico’s ills, but he doesn’t offer the right solutions. Much of what he promises smells archaic and has yet to reflect the challenges that Mexico’s globalized economy faces.

He talks a lot about alleviating poverty but has yet to say how he would create wealth. At times, his rhetoric has been as confrontational as the hotheaded Venezuelan he’s frequently compared to. But that is where the similarities to Hugo Chavez end. Chavez has used Venezuela’s armed forces to carry out his project; Lopez Obrador could never do so. Chavez took advantage of the disintegration of his country’s political parties; Mexico’s are deeply entrenched and well financed. Chavez confronted the United States; Lopez Obrador understands that it would be suicidal for Mexico to pick that fight.

Lopez Obrador aspires to govern a country with a very different set of constraints. Mexico’s institutions and geographic position would force him toward a pragmatism that he has displayed throughout his political career.

Lopez Obrador probably isn’t the modern, visionary leftist that Mexico needs, but he isn’t a dictator in disguise either. He’ll soon learn that there isn’t an “alternative economic model” out there, and he’ll be forced to combine greater attention to the poor with macroeconomic stability.

Unfortunately, Mexico’s privileged elites are too busy stirring up fear to understand that. They don’t grasp that Mexico cannot continue limping along with minimalist reforms that leave the basic structure of power sharing and inequality intact. They don’t see that Mexico is a wealthy place with too many poor people. The real danger for Mexico isn’t Lopez Obrador; it’s the resistance of so many to share the country or govern it better.