Illustration by Hannah Liquido
AMLO’s Progressive Presidency
The current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), was elected to office in 2018 and has been facing an uphill battle ever since despite having a majority of seats in the legislature from his electoral coalition. As a self-proclaimed champion of populist progressive policies, one of AMLO’s major commitments during his campaign was to prioritize investment in both private and public infrastructure to benefit Mexican citizens over private foreign investors.
To follow through on this commitment, AMLO has put forward some major reforms that many free-market supporters in the West have decried. For example, the expansive oil fields in Mexico were opened up to foreign investment by President Peña Nieto, AMLO’s predecessor, but AMLO renationalized the industry soon after entering office. Only conglomerates like Pemex, the state-owned oil company, could receive support from outside investors in order to increase the company’s capabilities to drill for more oil, therefore increasing the state’s oil wealth through foreign investment.
As a result of this increasing liberalization of investment in Mexico, many of AMLO’s policies have been directed toward the transportation and agricultural sectors, as well as renewable energy, all of which were and continue to be important to the Mexican working class that elected him. AMLO’s presidency has ushered in a significant change in the political and economic climate in Mexico, as most previous presidents since the 1980s favored foreign investment to increase development and economic prosperity even before the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
This political shift away from neoliberalism has been referred to as the “fourth transformation” of Mexico, signifying an important point in time for Mexican national history. The motivation behind this fourth transformation is to restore wealth that had been accumulated into the hands of the few, which includes many foreign nationals and companies that invest in the country. However, the results of AMLO’s endeavors have been mixed, largely since Mexico’s one-term presidential limit means that he and his government have a lot to accomplish in a 6-year window, and such dramatic plans to rapidly transform the country leave little room to maneuver or adjust his plans when criticized.
With that being said, what has AMLO accomplished?
Trains in the Peninsula
Major infrastructure projects started under AMLO that are nearly finished include new transport initiatives, such as a rail line and an airport. The rail line, called el Tren Maya, would operate in the Yucatan peninsula region of Mexico and would provide a much-needed connection between the peninsular area and the rest of the country. It is meant to connect tourists and other travelers to the various sights and stops within the Yucatan peninsula, all the way out to the city of Cancun.
However, the peninsular area is home to many Indigenous peoples such as the Maya, Choles, Chontales, Tzoles, Tzetzales, and Tojolabales, to name a few. Many civil society organizations such as the Indigenous and Popular Regional Council of Xpujil formed from these communities have voiced their concerns about the rail line and the negative impacts it would have on the environment, agriculture, and specific ecosystems and species. While these concerns lead to a lawsuit that temporarily halted construction, it is now again underway albeit with some changes in an attempt to alleviate environmental impacts, all while AMLO is under pressure to complete the project during his presidential term.
The possibility of seeing economic benefits for towns on the train line could be used as a tool to gain support for the project and could overshadow environmental considerations. However, the line does not benefit all towns equally and could really impact the ability to travel for people not living on the routes. This has been a major concern of Indigenous communities that persists as the train’s construction is nearly finished. The plan for the train received support from a regional referendum of the states in the Yucatan peninsula in 2019, however, there was a significantly limited number of voters.
A New Stair to the Skies
The first airport in Mexico City was completed in 1952, and there has been relatively little new investment in the city’s airports compared to its rapid growth over the last several decades. The termination of the Texcoco airport project for Mexico city (due to the high cost of construction and the impacts on an important body of water for the city) meant that the government had to find a new plan to improve air travel through Mexico City.
AMLO’s plan was the construction of the General Felipe Ángeles Airport, with the goal of alleviating the amount of travel and cargo that comes through Mexico City within its limited airspace. Finished in March of 2022, the airport has not seen the largest amount of use since opening, so the government “decreed” that the new airport would take on some of the flights from the older airport. The country’s military was the main architect and engineer behind the construction, a relatively new responsibility for the armed forces; it was offered the job because the airport was built on the grounds of an already existing air force base near the city. AMLO’s reasoning for building the airport on an air force base was so that the project could be financed by the national budget, as opposed to receiving funding from outside investors and going into debt.
An additional plan AMLO has is to reintroduce self-reliance when it comes to the production of corn in Mexico. While locally-sourced corn used to be a staple agricultural product grown in Mexico, over the decades it lost ground to the more “stable” industrial corn grown in the U.S., especially once the North American Free Trade Agreement introduced cheaper corn that smaller farms in Mexico could not compete with. As a result, AMLO has pledged to phase out the amount of genetically modified corn produced by American companies that get exported to Mexico.
As Mexico was ranked the 7th largest importer of food in 2018, this policy decision could help ensure that Mexican farmers have greater access to the market and could subsequently revitalize the agricultural industry in Mexico.
Nationalizing Energy Resources in the Name of a Historical Transformation
One of the most significant changes that AMLO is spearheading is the renationalization of energy resources required for industrial or transportation needs. For example, lithium, due to its importance in electric batteries and for storage of power for electric vehicles and solar panels, has been recently classified as a public utility (a good or service intended to be used by everyone in a community) by the Mexican government to ensure that contracts to explore and develop lithium do not overwhelmingly favor private profit over public use. By identifying lithium as a non-foreign invested resource, the Mexican government has referenced back to a historical moment of national pride, when in 1938 the country nationalized all petroleum reserves to take back control from outside investors and owners of Mexican oil in the name of public interest and sovereignty.
A Successful Transformation?
AMLO’s policies have produced rapid shifts throughout the country. However, the speed with which AMLO’s administration has introduced these reforms, while positive at the moment, could prove negative in the near future. If long-term support isn’t generated from the public, AMLO could see all his work undone as soon as he leaves office. One of AMLO’s preferred tactics to drum up support for these infrastructure projects has been holding referendums. Yet the referendums seem to only get a lot of input from his supporters while those opposed to the projects abstain from voting. Thus AMLO and his grand infrastructure ambitions might not have the approval he thinks.
Nevertheless, these infrastructure projects have drawn attention to how often Mexican resources are taken out of the country for international profit but without any significant returns to the Mexican working class. Previous presidents had thought to open the Mexican economy in order to attract investors, but as seen by AMLO’s election, foreign investment in Mexico has failed to benefit workers enough to improve their livelihoods. As such, it remains to be seen if the projects and policies put into place by AMLO will have a lasting effect on the country’s workers’ well-being.
Edited by Chelsea Bean