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Decoding the Authoritarian Game of Mexico’s López Obrador

Imagen: EFE/ Mario Guzmán

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López Obrador’s authoritarian game is not that of a crude socialism in the Chavista style, but that of a new “perfect dictatorship” that seeks to adapt the old PRI model to the new times, and that if successful, will last for decades, renewing faces as it perseveres in the corporate control of a country of 130 million people and one of the world’s leading economies. 

The two faces of López Obrador’s authoritarian game

López Obrador’s authoritarian game has many faces, because his bet is not that of a monothematic dictator dominated by ideology, but that of a deeply pragmatic person, capable of adapting to the world, as long as this allows him to consolidate full control of Mexico, which has become his personal fiefdom, and in the last week he has clearly demonstrated it.

On November 18, Andrés Manuel López Obrador visited the White House to meet with Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau, within the framework of the IX North American Leaders Summit. In said scenario, the Mexican president offered perhaps the best speech so far in his administration, where he highlighted the need for Mexico, the United States and Canada to strengthen their economic integration as “the best instrument to face the competition derived from the growth of other regions of the world”. 

He made particular reference to “China’s productive and commercial expansion” and pointed out a statistic as clear as it is chilling: “while Canada, the United States and Mexico represent 13% of the world market, China dominates 14.4%, and this difference goes back only 30 years since in 1990 China’s share was 1.7% and North America’s was 16%”.

López Obrador pointed out that if things continue as they are “by 2051, China will have 42% of the world market and we, the United States, Mexico and Canada will be left with 12%”, which would be “an unacceptable disproportion in the economic field”.

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To avoid this, AMLO proposes that the three countries join their strengths, including legal and orderly migration. Simply impeccable, statesmanlike even.

Unlike the typical Latin American leftist bullies, who usually bet on China, Iran and Russia, the president of Mexico is very clear that the future of his country is linked to the United States, that is why his only international tours have been to the north of the country, and that is why he has prioritized good relations, first with Trump and now with Biden. 

So far, so good.

However, he returns to Mexico and transforms himself into an authoritarian gorilla. On November 22 he published a decree declaring “projects and works in charge of the Mexican Government” to be of public interest and national security, which in practical terms means that his government’s works will move forward without being subject to the regulations, times and counterweights contemplated in the law.

The following day AMLO succeeded, without any debate, in getting Congress to approve his proposal to place another member of his political movement on the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, and on Wednesday the 24th he announced that he will propose Victoria Rodriguez Ceja as Governor of the Bank of Mexico (equivalent to the Fed in the United States), an official who does not meet the requirements of the law, because she has no experience in monetary policy.

Yes, the same Mexican President who when travels to Washington, transforms himself into a sensible statesman, transforms himself into a tyrant who governs on a whim when entering Mexican territory.

El juego autoritario de López Obrador apuesta a controlar el futuro. Imagen: Unsplash
López Obrador’s authoritarian bets on controlling the future. Image: Unsplash

What explains these drastic changes? Let’s decode the game

The explanation of this phenomenon is simple; López Obrador’s authoritarian system is a long-term game. His great objective is to rebuild the old system and establish a network of political influences, directed and centralized in the figure of the President of the Republic, which is able to be maintained for decades and force all other nodes of power to negotiate with it.

In other words, AMLO does not want to be a Hugo Chavez launching proclamations of “expropriate that”, because his game is not that of a communist state directly operating the means of production, but that of a scheme more similar to Erdogan’s or even Putin’s own, where private initiative has some margin of internal autonomy, but all political power is in the hands of the president.

Obrador does not want to expropriate, he wants to control. He does not want a one-party system, but one where there are several parties, official and opposition, working according to his will. He does not want a South American dictatorship, but the 2.0 version of the “perfect dictatorship” built by the PRI in which he grew up. And to achieve that, he needs to keep the United States happy (or at least calm).

AMLO and his advisors understand what we pointed out in this column a year ago: Biden will not come in to save Mexican democracy, and he should not have to. What the White House is interested in is that whoever governs Mexico keeps the borders reasonably controlled, the productive chains functioning and the political system under a cloak of legal legitimacy, nothing else.

López Obrador traveled to Washington to tell Biden just that: that his southern neighbors will be at peace, that he can count on Mexico to support U.S. regional security strategies and that the Mexican government is willing to protect American interests within its territory. In exchange, Obrador asks to be allowed to consolidate his authoritarian project.

As long as AMLO does not become a national security problem, Washington will watch from afar what happens south of its border, and the White House will throw little more than a couple of nudges for the Mexican president to play nice. Therefore, defeating López Obrador’s authoritarian game will be the sole job of the Mexicans themselves, as it should be.

Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”