A nation on the brink

Mexico cannot endure another PRI government. But can the left really take the presidency this year?
January 2, 2018

Lopez Obrador for Monitor

Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a rally in San Baltazar, Chichicapam, Oaxaca in March 2016 (Wikimedia Commons)

Since taking office in 2012, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has faced almost constant protests against government corruption, an inability or unwillingness to deal with criminal and official violence in the country, and regressive neoliberal reforms introduced by his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

In 2014, the president’s wife, Angélica Rivera, as well as his PRI finance minister got into trouble after it was reported they had bought mansions from a contractor with lucrative connections to the government. Rivera sold her home a year later, and an investigator appointed by Peña Nieto (and therefore of questionable independence) eventually absolved them both of wrongdoing. But the controversy never settled, as further cases of PRI corruption suggested the problem was endemic.

This past summer, Javier Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz, once praised by the president as "part of a new generation” of PRI leaders and reformers, was deported to Mexico from his Guatemala hideout, accused of stealing US$3 billion from state coffers. Two other PRI ex-governors, Roberto Borge of Quintana Roo state and Tomás Yarrington of Tamaulipas state, were also arrested last year on corruption charges, the former as he was about to board a plane to Paris in June. The latter is accused by the U.S. of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Gulf and the Zeta cartels, two of the most violent drug trafficking cartels terrorizing Mexico.

Peña Nieto’s approval ratings have, not surprisingly, dropped significantly over the past six years, from 61% before he was first elected to only 28% today, according to a Pew Research Centre poll released in September. The same poll found 80% of Mexicans disapprove of how the president has handled the economy, 77% disapprove of how he is fighting corruption, 74% disapprove of the government’s record on crime and drug trafficking, and 72% don’t like how the PRI has handled relations with the U.S., Mexico’s top trading partner. It’s looking more and more likely the electorate will make these views heard in elections this June.

“No Mexican president in recent history has been so hated and so repudiated by his own people as Peña Nieto,” says John Ackerman, law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review. “Mexico is undergoing a bloodbath, with the level of violence under Peña Nieto even exceeding that under his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, while impunity is out of control.”

There were 12,155 homicides recorded between January and June 2017, according to Mexican government statistics released in July. These are the highest numbers on record since 1997. The increase in violence has been attributed to turf wars among cartels that are increasing their heroin and fentanyl production in the wake of marijuana legalization north of the border.

Then there is the state-sanctioned violence against political opponents of one stripe or another. An increasing number of atrocities are carried out by the military, including the disappearance in 2014 of 43 students at the Ayotzinapa rural college, and the killings of civilians by state forces in Tlatlaya, Apatzingán, Villa Purificación, Ostula, Tanhuanto and Nochxitlán. Corrupt state- and company-supported unions also use violence to discourage legitimate independent competition—the likely cause in the fatal shooting of two mining workers involved in a work stoppage at a Canadian-owned mine in November.

At least a hundred journalists have been killed since 2000, making Mexico the third most dangerous country in the world for reporters after Iraq and Syria. Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights pointed out in November that of 176 investigations into attacks on journalists in recent years, only 10% have resulted in convictions—an impunity rate of 90%. According to Jesse Franzblau, writing for The Intercept in June 2017, the journalists being targeted in Mexico share “a commitment to documenting political corruption and state links to drug trafficking.”

Peña Nieto is not just seen by the public as personally benefiting from corruption, but also as giving away the country’s wealth to foreigners while adding to the immense poverty many Mexicans already suffer. In December 2013, the Mexican senate approved PRI legislation to allow domestic and foreign private companies to explore and drill for oil and gas for the first time in the country’s history.

This deeply unpopular move, which ended state subsidies to the industry, increased gasoline prices by an amazing 20% last January, increasing inflation by 400% and provoking violent demonstrations in a country where half the population lives in poverty. "We see [this privatization] as an attack against the population, as a robbery, taking into account the levels of income of the population,” Jose Narro, director of the workers' group Coordinadora Nacional Plan de Ayala, told Reforma in December 2016.

“Petroleum revenues are crucial for Mexico because they fund a third of the official budget,” says Ackerman. “So this privatization signifies the looting of Mexico, which is going to create a fiscal crisis. Mexico already owes 50% of its GDP in debt and in 2016 and 2017 there have been very serious budget cuts. The PRI has doubled the national debt in the last five years.”

Anna Zalik, an associate professor at York University and expert on Mexico’s oil sector, agrees that opening extraction to foreign investment amounts “to giving away the country’s wealth and will have very negative effects on people’s daily needs” by increasing prices for many necessities. She points out that the Canadian government strongly encouraged this disastrous privatization for the benefit of Canadian corporations poised to enter Mexico’s oil sector.

“In the last five years, through Export Development Canada, the Canadian government has provided billions of dollars in financing toward the recently privatized Mexican energy sector as well as to TransCanada Pipelines’...activities in the United States,” Zalik says. “TransCanada positioned itself as a major operator in Mexico in the lead-up to Mexico's controversial energy reform,” which involved the “dismissal of over 40,000 workers from Mexico's energy utility company in 2009.”

TransCanada is a 100% owner of seven pipelines in operation or construction in Mexico that are worth about US$5 billion and are “all underpinned by 25-year agreements with Mexico's state power company,” according to a 2016 company press release. The company will be delivering gas to Mexico, imported from the U.S., for generating electricity. Mexico's imports of U.S. natural gas have risen sharply over the past 10 years, which means reduced energy sovereignty for the country, fewer jobs in the energy sector and less investment in renewable energy infrastructure.

This situation could be about to get worse for Mexico, depending on the outcome of the ongoing NAFTA renegotiation. Zalik warns that Mexico, with Canada's support, may finally sign on to Article 605 of the agreement’s energy chapter, known as the “proportionality clause” because of its “language preventing Canada, and any other signatory, from reducing the proportion of its produced energy exported to a NAFTA member.” Such language prevents the redirection of exports for domestic use and may prohibit fuel subsidies for consumers, she says.

Mexican workers have fared poorly under NAFTA. The agreement “leaves out both peasants and Indigenous agriculture [who] are seen as dispensable,” says Pedro Torres, president of the National Association of Marketing Companies of Rural Producers. “In turn, this has caused a major increase in hunger in the countryside, migration and the undermining of self-employment and autonomous production. All this has led the youth to join criminal and drug trafficking groups.”

Instead, Torres proposes that Mexico should leave NAFTA to focus on strengthening peasant and Indigenous farming and their associated commerce and marketing. “I believe that all Mexicans must be active in the development of the nation,” he says. “We cannot protect only the wealthy who have the most resources. Employment must be better paid so that Mexican families can afford their main needs.”

The public reaction to official corruption and violence, increasing poverty, and the sale of precious public resources to multinational corporations has been manifested, partly, in the popularity of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement Party (MORENA). The former mayor of Mexico City narrowly lost to Calderón in the 2006 federal election and then again to Peña Nieto in 2012. But he was the frontrunner candidate going into 2018, campaigning on a leftist platform that includes reversing the petroleum privatization, fighting corruption and reviving economic conditions in the countryside. 

“I think López Obrador can win in 2018,” says Ackerman. “The big issue, however, is that the entire system, meaning the mainstream media, the electoral authorities, the government, the U.S. government and the international financial and political elites, have stacked the cards against him and electoral fraud is very much a permanent reality in Mexico. In the past these powerful forces have ensured the continuity of neoliberalism in Mexico, partly through fraud in the 2006 and 2012 elections.”

The question for Ackerman is, can Mexico have a fair election in which the party that wins the most votes actually takes power? He points to Latin America’s move to the left during the last 17 years and how many of its governments have been able to channel public discontent with neoliberalism’s failures into official policy, producing a massive redistribution of income across the continent.

In contrast, Mexico has not had a single, even mildly leftist government. Ackerman warns that the continued failure of the country’s political system to respond to popular demands will have dire consequences.

“Another neoliberal government in Mexico after the 2018 elections will be a total disaster for the well-being of its people. If the combination of neoliberalism and political authoritarianism persists, Mexico will increasingly become a country ruled by militarization and massacres.”

Asad Ismi writes about international affairs for the Monitor.