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Assessing AMLO

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July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) victory in the presidential elections in Mexico. To discuss the aftermath of this watershed moment and the broad parameters of the movement around López Obrador as it has developed after taking power, sociologist Edwin Ackerman spoke to Gibrán Ramírez Reyes, a Mexican scholar, columnist, television host, current head of the Inter-American Conference on Social Security, and active member of AMLO’s party MORENA. Ramírez Reyes has become one of the leading voices accompanying and making sense of the political moment in the country.

The interview has been translated from its original in Spanish and has been edited for clarity.

AMLO’s victory was presented as a regime change, not just an electoral win. How would you define the previous regime now in its terminal stage?

The previous regime was a pluralist-authoritarian tri-party system, technocratic, and neoliberal. Towards the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, many political scientists, but others as well, in Mexico constructed a narrative of a “transition to democracy.” [These thinkers] were part of a generation marked by 1968 that began to explain the previous regime dating back to the PNR [the party founded in 1929, predecessor of the PRI and legacy of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910] as bluntly authoritarian, almost a dictatorship.

This narrative saw “statism” as authoritarian and democratization as wedded to neoliberalism?

Right, although mostly by omission. But there was a moment of consensus that what mattered in the fight for democracy were the rules and clean elections. To combat the old regime, what was needed, they thought, was the technical component of democracy. They said “we come from authoritarianism, the state is everywhere in society, we have a single party, and society does not fit or does not want to fit in a single party. We will transition to democracy via electoral reforms.” And they included some minimal conditions for democracy like periodic elections, counting of votes, the possibility of alternance, and plurality in media.

When the PRI lost an absolute majority in congress in 1997, that’s when we supposedly transitioned to democracy. But I argue that the transition to democracy is the fantasy of [elites] in some large cities, especially Mexico City. A plurality of columns in nationally circulating newspapers was actually similar during the nineties, as during the authoritarian years in the seventies and eighties. We did have a move towards a pluralist party system. There was also an ideological shift toward neoliberalism and a shift in the professional political personnel towards technocracy.

A sort of relaxation in the circulation of elites.

That pluralist, tri-party system [in the nineties and early 2000s] began to divvy up everything, even reaching pretty obscene [levels] like in the Senate where one party held the Political Coordination Board and another one the Executive Board. And since there were no other boards to hand out but “it’s three of us [PRI, PAN, and PRD],” someone gets the Belisario Dominguez Institute [a research center within the Senate], and you can have your reserve of positions there to dole out. In that arrangement, the Electoral Institute [in charge of organizing elections] plays a paradigmatic role, an institute [where key committees were appointed] through party quotas, first with recourse to, say, some of the finest personnel of the “transition to democracy” period … but it was a network of personnel with a cyclical circulation and it eventually closed off.

What were the particularities of neoliberalism in Mexico?

There are several components. First, it was a neoliberalism instituted within a very weak state. Neoliberalism, contrary to what is often said, actually needs a compact but very strong state that can prevent society from defending itself. On the other hand, Mexico’s is a neoliberalism that was marked by the corruption of political personnel — a corruption that was not institutionalized, as opposed to the neoliberal corruption in developed countries.

The third component is that it was a neoliberalism with a weak bourgeoisie and therefore under the orbit of international forces like the financial sector that were not made inside this country. So, a characteristic of neoliberalism in Mexico is that it was less Mexican than other neoliberalisms that perhaps can be more exclusive to their countries.

Neoliberalism also never became a generalized ideology as it did in other countries through a prolonged war of position. Here, that ideology did not become hegemonic, say, through mass channels like universities; rather, it was spread in intellectual vanguard circles. The great ideological battle was substituted by an elitist vanguard push with support from those in power.

Thinking of the past two years, it seems there are differences between Obradorismo, MORENA, and Obrador’s project of a “fourth transformation.” Do you agree with this layout?

Yes. I would say that the “fourth transformation” is the name of an aspiration, and that if there is a social bloc that matches this, that bloc is overwhelmingly obradorista. Obradorismo is the movement for the “fourth transformation,” at least for now. Probably later, the movement will exceed López Obrador’s leadership. I don’t see that happening now, though. Obradorismo has a party apparatus called MORENA, but it does not just have one party — I’d argue that the vast majority of the Partido del Trabajo voters and those of the now extinct Encuentro Social are obradoristas. It is a much broader bloc.

What type of left does obradorismo represent?

It is a left that is populist, inclusive, and post-neoliberal more than anti-neoliberal. I don’t know if López Obrador would accept the label — probably not because it is unpopular. But we are also a “poorist” left.

It is post-neoliberal in the sense that it assumes that neoliberalism has already shaped the country we live in. For example, there is a disposition to integrate with the US. In his first presidential campaign in 2006, López Obrador was much more anti-neoliberal and would say we needed to renegotiate the terms of NAFTA and focus solely on developing an internal market.

[Now,] the movement and López Obrador have had to accept that it cannot be overturned. [Or] when he talks of public property he is referring mostly to strategic sectors, he’s never spoken of nationalizing big industries like, say, communications. Several of the traits [of neoliberalism] have been accepted, and the aim now is simply to hit the brakes.

For example, getting rid of the corruption associated with the Mexican subsidiaries of big transnational corporations. The same goes for fiscal policy: it is not so much about changing the fiscal structure in Mexico but about actually collecting the taxes that should have been paid already. Once those taxes are collected, we’ll see. But the important thing now is for the state to acquire moral authority before the private sector.

So private property is not being combated, free trade is not being combated, and the web of power in several sectors is also left untouched. The financial sector hasn’t been hit; what has been [combated] has been extractive industries, especially mining. But the project is more an emergency brake than a revolution against neoliberalism.

An emergency brake and also an attempt to use certain neoliberal arrangements against themselves. I think, for example, of the renegotiation of NAFTA where signing the treaty was used as leverage within the country to push for a labor reform that would facilitate union democratization.

Yes, that’s clear. A characteristic of neoliberalism was the closing of borders to people and not to commodities. Once that process of integration has happened, the aim is to use that same integrative force [to advance labor rights]. Here, the configuration of relative power of working classes is important — it is the working classes that lose out against that “comparative advantage” of low wages — that’s how US and particularly Canadian workers, in fighting for their rights, fight for Mexican workers as well.

And there are even more advances that can be secured from that [dynamic of relative power]. For example, the fact that Mexican companies have increased profits in recent years through exploitation and not through innovation and productivity [can be argued to] constitute a sort of disloyal competition, not so much against other bourgeoisies but against workers in other countries [and that can be a point for US and Canadian workers to push].

What did you mean by a “poorist” left?

It is simple: the preferential option for the poor. It is not a left that thinks in terms of class struggle. One of the most pedestrian objections that has been launched against Marxism in periphery countries is that there are poor bourgeois and rich proletarians, alluding to the respective positions in the mode of production. Here, it doesn’t matter — the aim is to have a preference for the poor independently of what they do for a living.

This is also a focus that doesn’t try to “prevent transmission of poverty” as the neoliberal vocabulary puts it, as if it was a disease. Rather it implies a framing around rights for everyone, independently of how you behave. The paradigm of targeted and conditional transfers spread through the world trying to fight poverty, but ended up punishing the poor, creating a system of “incentives” that would “reward” good behavior. The focus of president López Obrador is the opposite: it is a politics of social rights, a politics of universalized social rights.

Thinking of how you defined the previous regime and your understanding of the type of left represented by obradorismo, what are the biggest accomplishments of the past year and a half in power?

One is the change in the system of public purchases by the federal government. Purchases were centralized in the Department of the Treasury, drastically cutting down points of possible corruption.

This is important to clarify since a lot of commentators argue that an increase in government purchases without a bidding process contradicts the fight against corruption. But this increase is tied to centralization of purchasing decisions, right?

Exactly. An example of this is the purchase of medicine for cancer patients. There was a very crude web of corruption that was revealed. Given that, the government opted to buy from the foreign market even if it was at the same price, just to eliminate the corrupt relationship between state and company.

On top of this, there is a de facto [progressive] tax reform: We are becoming aware now of a web of corruption that included law firms specialized in helping big companies evade billions of pesos in taxes, that included fake companies that would simulate operations to evade taxes, and that benefited a part of the governing elite.

President López Obrador has said that they defrauded the state the equivalent of 30 percent of tax collection. I think that a large part of the academic left that asks why there is no fiscal reform is not seeing that 30 percent and the restructuring of the political economy of the tax collection agency: where were the links? With what law firms? With what members of the judiciary? Why was Juan Collado [former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s lawyer; now arrested on corruption charges] a meeting point between legal and illegal economies and the financial sector, and also the lawyer to ex-presidents and an operative within the Supreme Court?

The bad thing about the political style of López Obrador is that many of these details will not be known until we read his memoirs, because he is offering huge companies that owe taxes the incentive to pay and not be publicly shamed.

Another accomplishment is the incipient social security system that has as its great success so far the direct cash transfer programs. Another great accomplishment is the return to the territory [exemplified by large state projects like] the Maya Train [a plan for train that will travel around the Yucatan Peninsula], and the main project, the Transistmic Corridor [that will connect the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico through the Tehuantepec isthmus] that would be able to compete with the Panama Canal. It is of course a delicate matter.

By “return to territory,” you mean using physical territory as a developmental instrument?

Yes, to a great degree we do not know what happened to our territory during neoliberalism. We have some data about the amount of hectares that were ceded to mining companies for example, but we do not know how that modified social life in those territories. Administering territory was left in private hands and without a development plan. The state has taken up the responsibility again of administering territory.

Let’s end by talking about the issue of “republican austerity.” There’s a lot of confusion here since “austerity” is a very loaded term usually associated with neoliberalism. It seems paradoxical that “republican austerity” became one of the central parts of AMLO’s campaign and governmental discourse, and that it is a sort of node through which a lot of the accomplishments you talked about go through. How do you make sense of this?

He has always insisted in the “republican” component to distinguish from neoliberal austerity. The origin is his time as mayor in Mexico City and wanting to differentiate himself — as [Benito] Juarez did from the monarchy — from neoliberal elites. It was well received during his time as mayor because it was a message of “saving in luxuries and in the salaries of high ranking functionaries to spend it on the people.” López Obrador has an idea that the government has to be contemporaneous with its citizens, “there cannot be a rich government when the people are poor.” It’s both a symbolic and practical matter that implies cutting from the top to spend on the bottom.

At the federal level there were a series of operatives specialized in extracting from the budget, civil society organizations like Antorcha Campesina [a PRI-linked organization], the bureaucrats in the purchasing offices, and the parties and their lobbyists. So, republican austerity in the extreme way it has developed has punished that part of government. The aim is to skip over all of the intermediaries that siphoned off the budget. Sometimes I get the impression that AMLO thinks that the federal administration has no remedy and he would rather skip it altogether.

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