Friday, June 21, 2024

Give the guy a chance: praise for AMLO despite mistakes, bad ideas

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of Mexico’s new president. I was excited about him the first time he ran in 2006 and bitterly disappointed and indignant that he didn’t take the presidency then.

Not to beat a dead horse, but why not do a recount if they were so sure of the outcome of that razor-thin result?

My students at the time, high schoolers in an elite American school, thought he was crazy and irresponsible for declaring himself the “legitimate president” in Mexico City’s zócalo, but as I told them, what would anyone do if they were certain they weren’t getting a fair deal – especially with stakes so high?

When he lost a second time it was more expected, and a picture of me from that election day shows a sour, tired face. This third time turned out to be the charm, and as an American, I am proud to say that I have at least one president I’m happy about.

I still can’t help but wonder what would have happened, though, if he’d become president in 2006. We certainly would have avoided the bloodbath of the Calderón years that the “war on narcos” wrought. Mexico is still suffering the consequences, with no real end in sight. After beating the proverbial beehives, we’re still being swarmed.

Like many places in the world, and greatly as a result of social media and the blurred lines between real, factual information and plausible-ish lies, often in meme form, Mexico has become more politically polarized. People who don’t like AMLO really don’t like AMLO, and the number of those willing to believe that he’s the next Hugo Chávez is alarmingly high.

Despite their fears, he has yet to move to destroy capitalism in Mexico, and long lines in front of empty stores for basics like bread and toilet paper are something that only exist in the imagination of his most panicked opponents. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that that’s where they’ll stay for the remainder of his term.

President López Obrador has been in office for about six months now, though to to hear some you’d think he’d been king of Mexico for the past 40 years. Every new trouble, every new statistic that doesn’t make Mexico shine, is considered a direct result of his faulty guidance. Needless to say, this is unfair. Give the guy a chance!

Before continuing to sing his praises, let me make it clear what I’m not saying: I know that he’s not perfect or untouchable; he’s made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. I know he’s had some bad ideas. He’s a flawed human being, after all, like all of us.

But I think he’s sincerely trying to do right by his country without also trying to unfairly enrich himself and his supporters, and that kind of focused effort is much more than I can say for many of his predecessors.

From the start, AMLO has established an openness that few others have matched: he began his time in office by converting Los Pinos, traditionally the presidential residence, into a public space, choosing instead to commute from his own home in the south of the city.

He instituted the mañanera (the morning report) in which he gives a report on the goings-on in the government and country, and responds to questions from journalists for a full hour. I have watched a few of these, and found it especially notable how patiently he responded to a 20-minute interrogation by Jorge Ramos.

In my own opinion Ramos was blatantly rude and disrespectful, continuously pushing and insisting on his points, unsatisfied with any answer. I watched as the president maintained patience, composure and earnest openness way past the point at which I myself would have, quite frankly, lost it.

One could argue that his morning report is self-serving, and that would be at least somewhat right: it allows him to set the agenda for the day and to defend himself against criticism and attacks first thing in the morning. But it’s also an incredible exercise in democracy, and it’s one that no president in recent history has even attempted to do.

AMLO has also made a show of not using the presidency to enrich himself. He claims that money is unimportant to him personally, and frankly, I believe him. Though trying to reduce the salaries of government functionaries turned out to be a fiasco, he famously reduced his own salary, continues to drive his Jetta to work and sold the presidential plane, insisting on traveling coach on commercial airlines.

He does not have a private security detail (which, in my opinion, is just a terrible idea and a complaint that I do have against him).

The president came into his term swinging: one of his first orders of business was to tackle the problem of petroleum theft, which turned out to be much bigger than anyone had suspected. It had grown exponentially during the years after Pemex was privatized, and suddenly it became clear why gasoline costs were rising so much in Mexico when the cost of petroleum was decreasing for rest of the world.

Pressure to let things get “back to normal” mounted quickly, especially in areas that were affected by gas shortages. AMLO, however, stood his ground, refusing to let the well-established oil theft infrastructure win, all the time pleading for those involved to give up dishonest work for upcoming training, investment and jobs.

To be fair, a vague promise of future income is hardly helpful when one has to get food on the table now, but I was touched by his refusal to demonize the participants.

Currently, the battle is with the public health system. Like other institutions, it has not been immune to gross corruption and mismanagement (this is a criticism of the oversight and administration, not of the personnel that care for patients). An especially heinous example was the revelation in Veracruz, my home state, that children with cancer were being given saline solution instead of real medicine during their chemotherapy because the money, like money for most public endeavors in Veracruz, had mysteriously disappeared.

There is much criticism now because of a lack of funds, but trying to fix the problem, much like the issue of gas theft, requires bringing it out into the open for all to see. When AMLO says that budgets for pretty much every institution in the country were constantly being ransacked, he’s not wrong.

Not everyone agrees with his methods. Some think he’s doing more to “beat the beehive” than Calderón ever did: he’s not only trying to defeat gangs of criminals, but an entire well-established system of corruption that’s been in place for decades in every major institution and level of government in the country.

At least for the people benefiting, counting on being able to sweep things under the rug and a defeatist attitude among the powerless was certainly the preferred way of handling things, and in the absence of a network of political protection, they’re rightfully worried.

In addition, I think many people have deluded themselves into believing that their particular kind of corruption is harmless, and in the end, somehow contributes to the greater good.

All this is to say: I like him. I like that he’s willing to swim upstream. I like that he’s open about his intentions. I like that he spends every morning answering questions.

And for the first time in my nearly 18 years living in Mexico, I really and truly have hope that this country can reach its full potential.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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