Using FDR as Model, Presidential Hopeful Out to Build New Deal for Mexico

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 23, 2006

QUERETARO, Mexico -- Presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is often compared with South American leftists, has found a model in an icon from the north: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

López Obrador's economics team has developed a blueprint for what they call the "Mexican New Deal." Their modern version of Depression-era populism is an ambitious program to create millions of jobs and stem migration by undertaking huge public works projects, including a railroad network, vast housing developments, ports and timber replanting.

"Roosevelt didn't solve all of America's problems, but he gave American society a sense that they were on the right track," Manuel Camacho Sol?s, one of López Obrador's top advisers, said in an interview. "Andrés Manuel López Obrador can represent something like that for Mexico."

López Obrador's proposals to stimulate Mexico's economy are part of a far-reaching agenda that would alter some of the touchstones of the government. He has advanced symbolic proposals -- such as moving out of the luxurious presidential compound known as Los Pinos and into the National Palace on Mexico City's downtown square. And he has suggested significant structural changes, such as chopping Mexico's six-year presidential term in half by holding a referendum after three years on whether the president should remain in office.

López Obrador, a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, has been the focal point of Mexico's upcoming presidential contest for two years. For most of that time, the 52-year-old former Mexico City mayor has been the runaway favorite. But after various shifts in the polls, he is now in a tight race with Felipe Calderón, of Mexican President Vicente Fox's National Action Party.

The massive scope of López Obrador's economic proposals has come to define his candidacy. And while he has drawn legions of admirers captivated by his signature line -- "For the good of all, first the poor," -- he has also inspired a roster of detractors. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico's most respected historians, dismissed López Obrador's proposals as "wonderful dreams."

"Many of his plans are simply unfeasible," Krauze said.

A López Obrador presidency would begin with a government-subsidized push to build between 600,000 and 1 million homes that would be sold or rented at low prices to the poor, his advisers say. José Maria Peréz Gay, a former Mexican diplomat who advises the campaign, predicted in an interview that the home-building effort would lessen migration to the United States -- now as many 1 million Mexicans per year -- by 10 to 15 percent.

The home-building projects would be followed by construction of major railroad lines to connect Mexico City with the U.S. border and speed transport of goods to shipping lines in the Pacific and the Yucatan Peninsula. The third step would be a gigantic timber planting operation to stimulate the lumber industry and encourage Mexicans not to leave. "He who plants a tree on his land stays on his land," Peréz Gay said. The workers for these projects would come from government labor stations strategically positioned to intercept migrants before they leave for the United States. The home construction project, in particular, would "kill two birds with one stone" by providing homes and jobs, Peréz Gay said.

"We can only do this if we launch a Roosevelt-style New Deal," he said.

López Obrador's campaign team draws parallels between the Roosevelt-era United States, with its high unemployment and foundering economy, and present-day Mexico, which Perez Gay says is "swimming in a sea of inequality."

"If it wasn't for Roosevelt there would have been great social unrest in the U.S. We have the same situation here," Camacho said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company