Sarah DeVries
A man walks by a sign encouraging participation in the August referendum on ex-presidents. A man walks by a sign encouraging participation in the August referendum on investigating ex-presidents.

AMLO’s referendum on ex-presidents is all show, no substance

Another silly distraction from Mexico's very real problems

The messaging is everywhere in my city: En la consulta, vota sí (Vote yes on the consultation).

Sometimes it’s Juicio a expresidentes (trial for ex-presidents), with the faces of Mexico’s previous five presidents underneath, their eyes blocked out — newspaper crime section style. The hashtag for it all reads, “Trial yes, impunity no.”

Sigh.

It makes for great political theater — I’ll give them that.

And here’s how I might go for it — instead of my current response: the narrow side-eye — if the current administration weren’t, in a very literal sense, mostly talk.

The government’s upcoming referendum on August 1, in which it asks the people to vote on whether they would like to see past “political actors” (although all the accompanying advertising associated with the referendum makes it clear that we’re talking about the country’s last five presidents before the current one) investigated for corruption is good, convincing talk. But I’d like to think that most of us know better by now.

Anyone who’s lived long enough has met people like our current president: talkers both forceful and smooth, so good at promising you the moon that you sit outside every night staring at the night sky, sure that any minute now it will appear right on your lawn.

President López Obrador is the boyfriend who’s always telling you how beautiful you are, how much he loves you, that you’ll soon get married and live happily ever after in a castle … but the move-in day never arrives, and he’s very good at convincing you that the reason it doesn’t is because of someone else’s evil sabotage.

It’s a characteristic of both the current president of Mexico and the former president of my own country. The clear message to their citizens is: your suffering is not my fault — and plus, I’m a victim too!

Can’t we get someone with a the buck stops here sign on their desk who really means it for a change?

People like to complain about Gen Z (or about millennials, depending on how old the complainers are) whining and throwing tantrums when they don’t get their way, but there’s nowhere I see that attitude more than among a large handful of quite powerful and quite mature men these days.

It’s not that I’m against anyone facing justice for past wrongs; I’m all for it, in fact. But does being unenthusiastic about this particular call to action mean that I’m indifferent?

I don’t doubt that past presidents are responsible for all manner of crime — mostly “rich people” crimes of corruption like fraud and money laundering, as I explained to my sister. But why are we only talking about presidents here?

What about the lower-level leaders at the state and municipal levels too? Why are they not in the eye of the hurricane as well?

It also seems silly to potentially use our resources to “go after” people who are not actively causing damage at the same time that we’re finding it impossible to do so with people who are damaging our society every day in the present — in a very real sense.

So why do I think that this is more a silly distraction rather than a big, important revolutionary reckoning?

Oh, let me count the ways!

  • This administration has not shown that it cares about justice for women. Even if we set aside the president’s disparaging and dismissive remarks regarding the women’s movement, this year’s federal spending on baseball, the president’s favorite sport, has received nearly twice the allocation as programs for women.
  • The current government has shown little real concern about all the candidates that got killed in this year’s elections, the second most violent on record, or the fact that narcos have had such an outsized role in determining who will hold power at the local and state levels.
  • Speaking of narcos, do we have any kind of plan for taking back any of the one-third of the territory that they completely control?
  • Where is the concern for the record number of people who have fallen into poverty, and others into extreme poverty as a direct result of the pandemic in which no one received any kind of pandemic-related economic support? Talk about being on our own.
  • Early on, the president downplayed the coronavirus to such an extent that there are still people who think it’s fake; in retrospect, I keep wondering: did he tell everyone to keep going out in the early days because he knew that those businesses wouldn’t get another chance to earn money for a long while?
  • He insisted on bringing General Cienfuegos, a high-ranking military officer who’d been arrested in the United States for drug trafficking, back to stand trial in Mexico, where he was promptly released.
  • The president famously quips “I have different data” every time he doesn’t like the numbers with which he’s challenged — which is a lot. It’s not strange for him to contradict people in his own government, and his daily morning press conferences seem more about keeping people on his side than informing citizens about the goings-on in the country.
  • He regularly goes after the press, “joking” that they should serve jail time for telling “lies” about him. Thinking about this as I write this article makes me wonder: might the president think it a good idea to “let the people decide” to go after anyone at all?

The Economist and Le Monde have both recently published pieces essentially making fun of what they see as the political gimmick of proposing trials for ex-presidents. I’m sure he won’t like it; I’m sure, too, that it won’t improve his views of the press.

But the president’s most ardent supporters will likely continue to support him. It’s nice — and apparently irresistible to some — to feel that someone powerful is on your side. It’s nice for them to be able to say, “Yes, you are so right.”

But I’m not 17 anymore. I want to see results.

And from what I can tell so far, it’s mostly closed-up shops, tumbleweeds and blood around here.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page

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