Mexico: First the Poor

Por el bien de todos, primero los pobres (“For the good of all, first the poor.”)

— AMLO

Mexico is a semi-colony with a population of 129 million. Its political, financial and business elites are bound to the US, which receives 80% of Mexican exports. International corporations feast on Mexico’s cheap labor and resources, from the maquilas in the north, to the central mines and the coffee lands of the south. Walmart is Mexico’s biggest employer.

Mexico’s GDP per capita is nearly one-third that of the US and 20% greater than that of China. (World Bank, 2019.) But while China will eliminate its poverty very soon, in Mexico half the country is poor.

For four decades the brutality and corruption of neoliberalism plundered the Mexican people. Against this rose a popular nation-wide movement, and in 2018, after losing the 2006 and 2012 elections (widely considered stolen with US complicity), the first anti-neoliberal President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”), won a landslide victory.

Considering the political and economic millstones around its neck, the government’s achievements in its first year-and-a-half are striking: substantially raising the minimum wage, from USD $4.39 to $5/day, and to $9/day in the wealthier border region; recovering 100s of millions in back taxes from international mega-corporations including Walmart, Coca-Cola, IBM and more; giving tens of thousands of loans and grants to small farmers; guaranteeing prices for corn, wheat, beans, rice and milk, with the goal of food sovereignty; giving student grants for educational expenses; increasing pensions by 40%; creating a national universal and free health care system; and opening over 100 new hospitals.

AMLO’s government also created a network of 100 new universities, emphasizing the poorer states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan. Next year a public bank of 2700 branches will serve the poor and rural populations private banks ignore. Gender equity in government has improved (under a 2014 law AMLO promoted while mayor of Mexico City). Renationalization of the state oil and electrical companies PEMEX and CFE has begun, and there is no more distribution of private oil contracts (which AMLO called “the politics of pillage”).

The new government keeps good relations with China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. It harbors progressive politicians exiled by US-authored hard and soft coups (Bolivia, Ecuador). It exited the US-aligned Lima Group (an instrument of regime change in Venezuela). It plans to strengthen the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Mexico’s COVID-19 response, though attacked in the media, is praised by the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mexico is taking several of the lessons learnt by other countries, like China, and applying measures consistent with WHO recommendations; it was the first to set in place a coronavirus detection program…” With Cuba’s much-appreciated help, Mexico acted early with targeted testing, contact-tracing and limitations on public gatherings. Yet Mexico suffers a high COVID-19 death toll due in part to the country’s long-underfunded healthcare system. At mid-August, Johns Hopkins reports that the country is 13th in COVID-19 deaths per capita, but still behind Belgium, France, UK, Spain and Italy.

The new government has not had time to carry out its plan to defeat the root causes of crime: poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. Crime continues to increase, though at a slower pace, with over 35,000 murders and 5,000 disappearances in 2019.

Mexican and US elites, including virtually all Mexican media and the traditional parties (PAN, PRI), vehemently oppose the new government. Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez called AMLO’s government “atheist” and “communist.”  FRENA, a rightist alliance with probable US and Wall Street support, is trying to overthrow AMLO in a “color revolution.” With explicit threats to destroy Mexico’s economy, the US forced Mexico to enforce immigration restrictions at both borders. And in a thus far unsuccessful effort to stop AMLO’s renationalizing of Mexico’s energy sector, international finance agencies downgraded Mexico’s state debt and that of PEMEX.

The impoverished indigenous communities of the south of the country have been treated with callous indifference at best and genocidal violence at worst by past governments. The new government plans megaprojects for the region: a “Maya Train” to take tourists to the great archaeological sites of Tabasco, Chiapas, Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo; a million hectares of fruit and other commercial trees; new mining operations.

This national development program seeks to lure foreign capital with public-private partnerships and “special economic zones.” It would bring jobs in agriculture and manufacture for export, and in the tourist industry. The revenue generated would fund social development, poverty would be alleviated and Mexico could honor “the right to stay home” (referring to the migrants of Guatemala and southern Mexico forced to travel north for work). That at least is the plan.

But many indigenous civil organizations have waged protests to resist this plan, and the Indigenous Governing Council (CIG) of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) has sued to stop the projects, charging violations of domestic and international law. They predict with good reason the projects will irrevocably damage the environment and their traditional communities and ways of life.

These civil organizations are allied with the Zapatistas and are explicitly anti-capitalist. Their governing philosophy is horizontalist and autonomous. They uphold anti-capitalist Cuba, but reject progressive reform governments, including Bolivarian Venezuela, Lula-era Brazil, Rafael Correa-era Ecuador, and AMLO and the MORENA party. These civil organizations may not represent all of Mexico’s 25 million indigenous citizens but their significance is great and their political criticisms profound.

Their rejection of progressive governments in Latin America may prove prescient. The US has tormented the people of Venezuela, overthrown Evo Morales of Bolivia, reversed the gains of Correa’s Ecuador, and sanctioned and attempted a violent coup against Nicaragua. Perhaps any government trapped in bourgeois democracy and capitalist globalization, no matter how progressive, cannot achieve lasting social progress.

Roger Stoll is a Latin America/Caribbean solidarity activist with the Task Force on the Americas, a three-decades-old anti-imperialist human rights organization. He has published articles, book reviews and political poetry in Dissident Voice, Resumen Latinoamericano, MintPress News, Black Agenda Report, Popular Resistance, Orinoco Tribune, Marxism-Leninism Today, Counterpunch, San Francisco Examiner, ZNet, Jewschool, and New Verse News. Read other articles by Roger.