New president sets agenda for transformation of Mexico

The sight of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador being driven in a modest Volkswagen Jetta to his inauguration as Mexico’s next president accompanied by a token security detail was proof enough, if any were needed, that a new wind is blowing through the corridors of power in Mexico City.

And with only a few kilometers to go before he reached the federal legislature for the swearing-in ceremony, and with crowds cheering excitedly from the roadside, television viewers were treated to the hard-to-believe spectacle of a cyclist drawing up beside his car to carry on a moving conversation with the soon-to-be chief executive.

Saturday, December 1, Lopez Obrador assumed the presidency of Mexico for the next six years, during which time he vowed to oversee the “fourth transformation” in the country’s history — independence from Spain, the liberal reformation of the 1860s and the 1910-20 revolution being the first three.

Describing the neo-liberalism favored by all presidents over the past three decades as a failed experiment, and with outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto looking on uncomfortably, the veteran leftist politician signaled his intention to revisit many of the policies of the past six years, including the education and energy sector reforms.

Promising “radical change,” Lopez Obrador said his predecessor’s reforms to open up the energy sector to private investment have borne no results. He promised to regenerate the ailing state-owned oil giant Pemex, increase Mexico’s oil output and build refineries to reduce the nation’s growing dependence on imported petroleum. (On Wednesday of this week, he announced the suspension of auctions of new drilling contracts for three years, but promised to honor the contracts issued to foreign and domestic oil companies granted by Peña Nieto.)

Addressing legislators and a slew of dignitaries after taking the oath of office, Lopez Obrador said he will “prioritize the poor,” doubling the minimum wage during his term of office and giving a 3,200-peso monthly stipend to 2.3 million young people so they can be trained to join the national workforce.

Eliminating corruption is the nation’s greatest challenge, and the primary way to reduce poverty and crime, while stimulating the economy, the new president said. He promised to remove the immunity from prosecution that politicians are granted, starting with his own office, the presidency. Although he said he would not persecute former adversaries, he promised to establish a “truth commission” to find out what really happened to the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in September 2014 and bring the culprits to justice.   

True to his word, on his first day in office, Lopez Obrador opened the doors of the presidential residence, Los Pinos, to the general public. Hundreds of people stood in line for several hours for the chance to walk around the upscale property that will now become a cultural center.  And the new era of frugality was soon evidenced a day after the inauguration, when the new president flew coach class on scheduled flight to a function in Veracruz. On Monday, the presidential plane took off for the United States, where it will be offered for sale. As well as taking a 60-percent cut in his salary, Lopez Obrador will live in a modest apartment in the presidential palace and rely on only a small personal team of bodyguards — the costly “presidential guard” having been disbanded.

Despite the initial optics that have gone down well with his followers and the many political neutrals who gave him their votes in July’s election, Mexico’s short-term stability will be dependent on how well Lopez Obrador convinces the business and industrial community that he has their best interests — as well as the nation’s impoverished — at heart. During his inaugural address, he reiterated that he would not raise taxes or plunge the country into debt. He also promised to maintain the independence of the nation’s central bank. After the national bank reduced its growth estimates for next year, and with the Mexican Bolsa (stock exchange) dropping rapidly, Lopez Obrader has been at pains to point out that he supports a free market economy. In a comment directed at the business sector Tuesday, he again stressed that the market “cannot be regulated by decree.”

And telecom billionaire Carlos Slim ­— one of the country’s most influential figures —appears satisfied with the direction Lopez Obrador seems to be heading, saying this week that his inaugural address inspired “certainty and an invitation to work and invest.”