Mexico’s presidential front-runner is at war with business elites who warn he’ll wreck the economy

Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador greets supporters during a campaign rally in Mexico City's Benito Juarez district on May 7, 2018. Mexico will elect a new president July 1.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

He calls them the “mafia of power” and says they wield their political influence for personal gain.

They call him the next Hugo Chavez and warn that his leftist economic policies could turn Mexico into Venezuela, a country beset by food shortages, crime and crippling inflation.

Less than two months before Mexico’s July 1 presidential election, front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is clashing with the nation’s business elite in an escalating war of words that has calcified battle lines and helped send the peso tumbling.


In recent days, Lopez Obrador, of the National Regeneration Movement, has accused some business leaders of secretly trying to build an alliance against him. He says they have sought to persuade the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party to abandon its third-place candidate, Jose Antonio Meade, in favor of second-place candidate Ricardo Anaya of the National Action Party, whom Lopez Obrador is beating in the polls by double-digits.

Business leaders feel more comfortable with Anaya, whose party was in power for the two previous presidential terms and who, unlike Lopez Obrador, is not advocating major economic changes.

Lopez Obrador says the efforts against him are part of a “dirty war” waged by wealthy tycoons who want to stop him and who have enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary Mexicans, 40% of whom live below the poverty line.

“They don’t want to stop stealing,” Lopez Obrador said at a campaign event last week.

Business leaders say they are wary of Lopez Obrador’s plans to make Mexico less reliant on foreign trade as well as his proposal to roll back changes that opened the nation’s energy sector to foreign investment. They are worried he will cancel construction of a planned $13-billion airport in Mexico City, which he believes is too expensive.

A full-page advertisement taken out in newspapers Thursday by the Mexican Business Council rejected accusations that leaders are trying to forge a political alliance against Lopez Obrador, calling his claims “slanderous and offensive.”

A separate ad published Monday by another coalition of business groups decried political rhetoric that holds “companies responsible for most of the ills afflicting the country.”


“Companies are part of the solution, not the cause of the problem,” the letter said.

Billionaire Carlos Slim, a major investor in the airport project, held a rare news conference last month criticizing Lopez Obrador’s opposition to the plan. “Suspending the project means suspending the country’s growth,” Slim said.

Lopez Obrador says the country will grow with investments in its lower classes. Narrowing the inequality gap is his primary fix for many of Mexico’s problems, including spiraling violence that claimed nearly 30,000 lives in 2017. According to Oxfam, four Mexican billionaires are worth as much as the nation’s 20 million poorest people.

The growing spat between Lopez Obrador and Mexico’s business class marks one of the most divisive moments yet in the presidential campaign. Anxieties over the divide, along with fears about the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement, helped weaken the peso this week to less than 19 on the dollar.

Lopez Obrador’s critics have specifically sought to compare him to Chavez, the Venezuelan president who sparked an economic crisis after he nationalized oil companies and other foreign assets. Chavez, who died in 2013, was succeeded by his vice president, Nicolas Maduro.

Last month, ads appeared on Mexico City buses featuring photographs of Lopez Obrador alongside Chavez and leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president. “Populism in Latin America,” it read, as if promoting a new television show: “Coming soon.”

Lopez Obrador has said he believes the ads were funded by two of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, but nobody has taken responsibility.


Political parties have also embraced the tactic. A recent television spot released by Meade, the PRI candidate, features clips of Lopez Obrador interwoven with images of street protests and burning vehicles. “Choose: Fear or Meade,” a baritone voice says at the end.

An ad from Anaya’s campaign splices together speeches from Lopez Obrador and Chavez in which each promises to hold a public referendum on their presidency every two years. Chavez held a vote to abolish term limits after taking office.

Comparing leftists political candidates to Chavez is a classic technique across Latin America, said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a think tank in Mexico City.

“Venezuela has become the boogeyman of the Spanish-speaking world,” he said.

It is a potent symbol: In 2016, nearly three-quarters of Venezuela’s population lost nearly of 20 pounds on average per person because of a lack of available food, according to a survey by local nonprofit groups and universities.

Lopez Obrador’s opponents employed similar tactics in 2006, which may have cost him the presidential election. That year, business groups funded attack ads comparing Lopez Obrador to Chavez and calling him “a danger for Mexico.”

Lopez Obrador lost by less than a percentage point. He claimed election fraud and paralyzed Mexico City for weeks with protest camps along a main boulevard. In 2012, he ran again and lost by a larger margin to current President Enrique Peña Nieto.


In recent weeks, Lopez Obrador has addressed the Venezuela comparisons head on, saying Mexicans should not be influenced by those who don’t want change.

“Don’t let them scare you,” he said in a campaign ad.

His economic advisors insist they will not kick out foreign companies, as Chavez did. They say that combating corruption — endemic during Peña Nieto’s six-year term — will make Mexico more attractive to investors. Last year, Mexico’s top anti-corruption watchdog uncovered millions of dollars in irregularities in a contract between state oil company Pemex and Odebrecht, the Brazilian engineering company that has acknowledged paying bribes in multiple countries.

David Smilde, senior fellow at the think tank Washington Office on Latin America and a professor at Tulane University, said comparisons between Lopez Obrador and Hugo Chavez are exaggerated. The Mexican candidate does not come from a military background, as Chavez did, and Mexico’s economy is much more diverse than Venezuela’s, which is dependent on oil. That dependence allowed Chavez to easily consolidate power after he expropriated oil projects, Smilde said.

Lopez Obrador’s five-year term as mayor of Mexico City gives the clearest picture of how he would govern, Smilde said: “If you get beyond the rhetoric and look at his actual record, he seems like a moderate progressive trying to work outside of Mexico’s traditional political class.”

Alejandro Poire Romero, who served as interior secretary under then-President Felipe Calderon, to whom Lopez Obrador lost in 2006, said Lopez Obrador’s nationalist economic agenda is out of step with the market-driven reforms that have dominated Mexico in recent years.

“His economic platform implies a very significant departure from a lot of policies that have been the consensus of different presidents and a large majority of elected representatives over the last 25 years,” Poire said. “Major shifts do imply great risks.”


Now a dean at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, Poire said Lopez Obrador demonstrates other worrisome parallels to Chavez, notably a distrust in government institutions and a frequently stated belief that he will change his country’s history. “There are overtones that do indicate an aggrandized sense of self in history,” he said.

So far, the criticism of Lopez Obrador doesn’t seem to be working. His pledges to reduce inequality have won him broad support, particularly in the poorest parts of the country. In a recent poll by Reforma newspaper, 48% respondents said they plan to vote for him. Anaya was in second place, with 30%, and Meade in third, with 17%.

Twitter: @katelinthicum

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.