Agent of change takes reins

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Dud­ley Althaus COR­RE­SPON­DENT

MEX­ICO CITY — An­dres Manuel López Obrador be­came pres­i­dent here Satur­day, promis­ing to bring sweep­ing change to his na­tion’s pol­i­tics and econ­omy in fa­vor of the im­pov­er­ished pop­u­la­tion.

Mex­ico’s first left-lean­ing pres­i­dent in nearly four decades, López Obrador, 65, takes power with a firm con­trol of the na­tional Congress and a solid hold on leg­is­la­tures in many of the 32 states.

That po­ten­tially makes him the most pow­er­ful Mex­i­can pres­i­dent since democ­racy took root here 18 years ago. Pop­u­larly known by his nick­name, AMLO, López Obrador vows his six-year term will bring about a pro­found “fourth trans­for­ma­tion” of Mex­ico in its two cen­turies as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion.

Un­like the pre­vi­ous three wa­ter­sheds, he says, this one will be ac­com­plished peace­fully.

“It might seem pre­ten­tious or ex­ag­ger­ated, but to­day doesn’t be­gin just a new ad­min­is­tra­tion, but rather a new po­lit­i­cal regime,” López Obrador told Congress in an 80-minute speech in which he de­clared the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic poli­cies that have de­fined the past 35 years a “di-

saster, a calamity for the pub­lic life of the coun­try.”

“We will gov­ern for ev­ery­one, but we will give pref­er­ence to the dis­pos­sessed,” he said. “For the good of ev­ery­one, the poor come first.”

The avowedly aus­tere López Obrador has promised fis­cal dis­ci­pline as he moves to dis­man­tle what he calls a “mafia of power” — the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic elites that he and many Mex­i­cans blame for deep cor­rup­tion, en­dur­ing poverty, yawn­ing in­equal­ity and hyper vi­o­lent or­ga­nized crime.

“It’s go­ing to be a very hec­tic sex­e­nio,” said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and democ­racy ad­vo­cate Ser­gio Aguayo, re­fer­ring to López Obrador’s term. “But it’s bet­ter than the paral­y­sis, cor­rup­tion and ex­pan­sion of or­ga­nized crime we have had.”

As he tries to ful­fill the sweep­ing prom­ises of change, López Obrador will need to mol­lify those very elites in or­der to main­tain the pri­vate in­vest­ment — largely an­chored by ex­ports to the U.S. — that in three decades have forged Mex­ico into an in­dus­trial power.

He'll have to do that as he con­tends with an of­ten vo­cally hos­tile Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has kept the pres­sure on Mex­ico over im­mi­gra­tion, trade and pub­lic se­cu­rity is­sues.

With its 1,200-mile bor­der with Mex­ico and hold­ing a lion's share of U.S. trade with the coun­try, Texas has a lot rid­ing on how it all plays out.

López Obrador al­ready has sup­ported the con­tin­u­a­tion of the trade pact with the U.S. and Canada that since 1994 has erased most trade and in­vest­ment bar­ri­ers be­tween them.

A rene­go­ti­ated agree­ment — USMCA — was signed Fri­day by Trump, out­go­ing Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto and Canada's Justin Trudeau at eco­nomic talks in Ar­gentina.

While easy ap­proval of the agree­ment is ex­pected by law­mak­ers in Mex­ico and Canada, some an­a­lysts ex­pect Trump to have a harder time win­ning ap­proval of the pact next year when Democrats take con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

López Obrador also has shown flex­i­bil­ity in deal­ing with Wash­ing­ton over the im­mi­gra­tion cri­sis that’s been driven this fall by the thou­sands of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans ar­riv­ing by car­a­van on the bor­der with Cal­i­for­nia to re­quest asy­lum.

The two gov­ern­ments have been hold­ing talks aimed at keep­ing the mi­grants in Mex­ico while their asy­lum claims work their way through the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion bu­reau­cracy.

Marcelo Ebrard, Mex­ico's new for­eign min­is­ter, is to hold talks to­day in Wash­ing­ton with Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo.

“He's will­ing to give things to Trump,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Fed­erico Estevez said. “These guys un­der­stand each other per­fectly.”

A jolt to mar­kets

Many hu­man rights ac­tivists and se­cu­rity experts crit­i­cize his plan to cre­ate a Na­tional Guard to take on or­ga­nized crime — a sharp re­ver­sal of a cam­paign pledge to re­turn troops to their bar­racks. And still oth­ers have been dis­mayed by his de­ci­sion not to pros­e­cute past cor­rup­tion while promis­ing to go hard af­ter any fu­ture cases.

Still, López Obrador takes of­fice with a 63 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing, ac­cord­ing to a poll pub­lished Fri­day in Re­forma, a lead­ing Mex­ico City news­pa­per.

Nearly three-fourths of those polled ex­pressed op­ti­mism about his ad­min­is­tra­tion's prospects.

López Obrador won elec­tion in July — in his third run for the of­fice in a dozen years — with some 53 per­cent of the vote in a three­way race, crushing the busi­ness-friendly po­lit­i­cal par­ties that long have dom­i­nated Mex­i­can pol­i­tics.

Many ex­pect his vic­tory to mark the end of the In­sti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party, or PRI, of Peña Ni­eto, which had ruled Mex­ico for most of the past cen­tury.

Crit­ics fear López Obrador will at­tempt to re­turn to the PRI's au­to­cratic ways em­bold­ened by the po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance given him in the elec­tion.

A few fret that his left­ist in­ten­tions are sig­naled by the in­vi­ta­tion of Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro to the in­au­gu­ra­tion, and the lauda­tory com­ments about Fidel Cas­tro made by top López Obrador aides.

Such fears — as well as López Obrador's can­cel­la­tion of a $13 bil­lion new Mex­ico City air­port, which is a third com­plete — have been blamed for the nearly 10 per­cent de­val­u­a­tion of the peso in the past month and the 21 per­cent col­lapse of the Mex­i­can stock mar­ket.

In­vestors also worry López Obrador's sus­pen­sion of auc­tions of oil field tracts in­di­cates he plans to roll back or ob­struct the Peña Ni­eto ad­min­is­tra­tion's pri­va­ti­za­tion of Mex­ico's en­ergy in­dus­tries.

“There's cer­tainly a fair num­ber of folks run­ning around here with their hair on fire, but I am a bit more cir­cum­spect,” said An­to­nio Garza, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion's am­bas­sador to Mex­ico who as a pri­vate lawyer splits his week be­tween Mex­ico City and San An­to­nio. “Let's give the new team some time to set­tle in.”

Seek­ing to calm the fi­nan­cial mar­kets, the new pres­i­dent's eco­nomic team spent much of the past week as­sur­ing the pub­lic bud­get dis­ci­pline will be main­tained and the au­ton­omy of Mex­ico's cen­tral bank will be re­spected.

López Obrador has nom­i­nated two well-re­garded al­beit left-lean­ing econ­o­mists as deputy gover­nors of the au­ton­o­mous cen­tral bank.

While promis­ing sharp in­creases in spend­ing on health, schol­ar­ships and other pro­grams, López Obrador in his speech Satur­day once again vowed not to in­crease the deficit, to re­spect the cen­tral bank’s in­de­pen­dence and guar­an­tee pri­vate in­vest­ment.

Rather, he said, the pro­grams will be paid for with funds gained by clean­ing up gov­ern­ment and end­ing the priv­i­leges of Mex­ico’s po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic elite.

“From this mo­ment a peace­ful and or­derly, but also deep and rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion be­gins,” López Obrador said. “Be­cause the cor­rup­tion and im­punity that im­pedes Mex­ico’s re­birth will end.”

In López Obrador’s telling, Mex­ico’s first trans­for­ma­tion as a mod­ern na­tion was in­de­pen­dence from Spain, and the sec­ond was the mid-19th cen­tury re­forms that broke the Catholic Church’s so­cial domi- nance. The third was the 1910-17 Rev­o­lu­tion. All en­tailed bloody and lengthy wars.

Mex­ico’s slow tran­si­tion to democ­racy be­gan in 1988, in the PRI can­di­date’s vic­tory in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion widely seen as stolen, and cul­mi­nated with the elec­tion of con­ser­va­tive politi­cian Vi­cente Fox 18 years ago.

The PRI re­turned to power in 2012 with Pena Ni­eto’s elec­tion. But his dis­mal ad­min­is­tra­tion — polls show him with a 28 per­cent ap­proval — might have con­signed the party to his­tory.

Now López Obrador’s po­lit­i­cal move­ment, Morena, and it al­lies, have emerged to re­place the PRI in po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance.

“No gov­ern­ment since Fox has en­tered of­fice with this kind of pub­lic back­ing and po­lit­i­cal power,” said Estevez, whose ca­reer as a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst has tracked Mex­ico’s path to democ­racy. “It bodes bet­ter for Ló- pez Obrador than any pres­i­dent we’ve seen in the demo­cratic era.”

López Obrador will have to use that po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to keep per­pet­u­ally rest­less left-lean­ing la­bor unions and so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions sat­is­fied. That may not prove easy.

Not ‘to­tally con­vinced’

Cen­tral Mex­ico City's al­ways-fierce traffic be­came hope­lessly snarled last Wed­nes­day as thou­sands of farm­ers marched along main streets to com­mem­o­rate a 1911 procla­ma­tion ac­cus­ing the first pres­i­dent of the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion of be­tray­ing poor farm­ers.

“We hope he brings a bet­ter deal, but we aren’t to­tally con­vinced,” said Os­car Galán, 41, a tomato grower lead­ing a 30 strong con­tin­gent in the march said of López Obrador. “At least things are be­gin­ning dif­fer­ently. We hope this time it con­tin­ues.”

Fol­low­ing his swear­ing- in at the fed­eral Cham­ber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, López Obrador trav­eled thronged streets to the Zócalo, Mex­ico City's sprawl­ing cen­tral plaza that has been the na­tion's po­lit­i­cal heart since the Aztec Em­pire.

López Obrador has held nu­mer­ous protest ral­lies in the plaza, in­clud­ing one in which he de­clared him­self the coun­try's “le­git­i­mate” pres­i­dent fol­low­ing the 2006 elec­tion that he lost by less than half a per­cent­age point.

He re­turned Satur­day in tri­umph.

Af­ter meet­ing with for­eign del­e­ga­tions in­side the Na­tional Palace, which along with the Catholic cathe­dral dom­i­nates the plaza, he presided over a few hours of dances, mu­sic speeches be­fore ad­dress­ing the na­tion once again.

López Obrador has said he in­tends by next sum­mer to be liv­ing in a few rooms of the palace — “with a cot and a ham­mock” — and pre­sum­ably will gov­ern from there.

In the mean­time, he'll con­tinue liv­ing in his fam­ily home in a mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood in the south of the cap­i­tal.

Los Pi­nos, the leafy, walled and heav­ily guarded com­pound across the city that has been the pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence and of­fice com­plex since the 1930s, will be turned into a na­tional mu­seum.

The pres­i­den­tial guard charged with the se­cu­rity of the com­pound and its oc­cu­pants is be­ing disbanded.

“I have been with him since the be­gin­ning,” said Ra­mon Ná­jera, 59, who through half a cen­tury of shin­ing shoes in the plaza has wit­nessed count­less po­lit­i­cal protests against a sys­tem Lopez Obrador now is promis­ing to end. “He is go­ing to help all the poor like us. He is go­ing to live sim­ply, like a com­mon cit­i­zen.

“We have been wait­ing for this for a very long time.”

López Obrador

New Pres­i­dent An­dres Manuel López Obrador is greeted by out­go­ing Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto dur­ing the in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony in Mex­ico City.Ron­aldo Schemidt / Getty Images

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