López Obrador Is Cruising, Mexico Is Not

Crime, economic stagnation and erratic government decisions signal a long and bumpy ride for his presidency — and his country.

By Jorge G. Castañeda

Professor Castañeda is a specialist in Latin American affairs.

  • Dec. 12, 2019, 6:00 a.m. ET

So the first year of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidency of Mexico has come and gone, and there is both much and little to say about it. While no major catastrophe has come to pass, a bright new future seems more distant than ever. He is cruising, but his results are desultory.

According to most polls, Mr. López Obrador remains popular. On average his approval ratings are in the low 60s, roughly where two of his three predecessors — Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón — found themselves at the same stage of their terms. This is a remarkable feat, since his actual performance in the areas that matter to most Mexicans is dismal. The two most important ones — violence and the economy — are the worst in years. The survival of Mexico’s recent and precarious democracy is increasingly dim. The same Mexicans who applaud him personally disbelieve the success of his policies and disapprove of their results.

Mediocre economic growth over the past quarter-century contributed decisively to Mr. López Obrador’s election. Averaging less than 1 percent per-capita growth annually, Mexico’s economy was unable to lift people out of poverty, raise incomes for the lower and middle sectors of society, improve health and education or reduce inequality.

Mr. López Obrador promised 4 percent growth per year. In 2019, growth was nil, and in 2020 it will barely reach 1 percent, according to the most optimistic forecasters. Given the current fall of investment, many believe zero growth next year is a more reasonable estimate.

Unlike the situation 10 years ago, the last time Mexico fell into recession, today’s stagnation is not imported. The American economy is expanding, but the previous link between growth in both nations has disappeared. They have become uncoupled. The downturn is self-inflicted, largely resulting from erratic government decisions and high interest rates, seen as necessary to sustain an increasingly overvalued peso.

No economic growth, in a country with absurdly low tax take, means lower government revenue, which in turn implies less spending. The vast amount of money Mr. López Obrador wishes to grant directly to Mexico’s poor throughout his ambitious social programs were only partly delivered this year, while others have been cut back in next year’s budget. These homegrown challenges have yet to adversely affect the president’s popularity, but they inevitably will.

His approval ratings have taken somewhat of a dent because of his inability to deliver on his second campaign promise: controlling crime and ending the country’s bloody drug wars. Initiated in late 2006 by President Felipe Calderón, the war on drugs has claimed thousands of lives, left countless disappeared, drained resources and tarnished Mexico’s image abroad.

While on the campaign trail, Mr. López Obrador wisely concluded that they could not be won and promised to send the Mexican military back to the barracks and even considered legalizing marijuana and poppy cultivation. But once elected, he reconfigured the army and the police into a new National Guard, which was swiftly redeployed to patrol the border. He continued to reject the Washington-inspired “kingpin strategy,” pursuing a course that resembled the previous “don’t ask, don’t tell” or “nod and wink” approach of his predecessors. He hoped that violence and crime would drop quickly and that the Americans wouldn’t notice.

But Mexico’s murder rate soared in the first half of the year and is likely to exceed 2018’s record of over 33,000 homicides. The tragedy has spread to nearly every corner of the country, punctuated by episodes that have brought the country to the brink of crisis. In October, after what seems to have been a tip-off by the United States security agencies, Mexican military forces attempted to capture Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo Guzmán’s son, in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa. They failed to protect the city’s inhabitants from the ensuing cartel uprising. Mr. Guzmán was briefly detained before the Mexican president gave the order to release him.

Weeks later, nine Mexican-Americans, including six children, were murdered by hit men not far from the United States border. President Trump threatened to designate Mexican cartels “narco-terrorists,” a meaningless step meant only to frighten Mr. López Obrador’s team. It did. Mr. Trump has since reconsidered, and Mexico is poised to re-engage full-throttle in the anti-kingpin, across-the-board war on drugs that will only exacerbate violence and human rights violations.

This is what worries Mexican citizens. Their concerns surface clearly in polls that show disagreement or disappointment with Mr. López Obrador’s specific policies on the economy and violence. But the country’s punditocracy and elites — even a business community that has largely cozied up to him while simultaneously putting a hold on investments — are more concerned with his authoritarian drift, or an outright power grab. While there are many expressions of this dangerous trend, the main ones involve threats against the independent agencies constructed during Mexico’s past quarter-century of democratization.

For decades the Mexican one-party system subsumed everything to the state. Labor unions, the courts, the media, regulatory instances and the electoral process were all subservient to the president. The democratic remedy was to bestow autonomy upon the Central Bank, the Supreme Court, the Federal Electoral Commission and the National Human Rights Commission.

But Mr. López Obrador has sought to reverse that, with the exception for now of the Central Bank. In October, a Supreme Court judge, whom he has long held a grudge against, resigned abruptly amid allegations of money-laundering and was replaced with the president’s Internal Revenue Service chief. He also appointed one of his party’s former candidates for office to the Human Rights Commission and seeks to change the status of the National Electoral Council. In the media, a large number of anchors and commentators have either lost their jobs or seen their exposure sharply reduced, partly because government advertising has been curtailed and partly because the private sector is unwilling to be associated with his critics.

Is there anything praiseworthy about Mr. López Obrador’s first anniversary in office? Yes: He raised the national minimum wage by a long overdue 17 percent and doubled it along the border with the United States. He has also so far managed to avoid confrontation with Mr. Trump, though at high cost, including the acceptance of practically all of the United States Democrats’ demands on the new North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.M.C.A., and there may be some other steps on the symbolic side of the ledger. But if Mr. López Obrador’s remaining five years are anything like the first one, Mexico is in for a long and bumpy ride. So is its neighbor to the north.

Jorge G. Castañeda (@JorgeGCastaneda), Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University and a contributing opinion writer.

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