Mexico’s independence from Spain was a cause for celebration, but the bloody, confusing and chaotic movement that lasted more than a decade failed to create a nation of laws and democratic institutions. The war of independence ended in 1821 when a mendacious criollo (a person born in Mexico of Spanish descent) crowned himself emperor of Mexico with the acquiescence of all political actors. Turmoil and disruption, however, continued throughout the 19th century. Between 1821 and 1861, Mexico had more than 50 presidents, and one of them, who lost half the country’s territory to the United States, was elected 11 times.
López Obrador’s second great transformation model, La Reforma, was a movement led by Benito Juárez, an orphaned indigenous child who grew up to study law and science and became Mexico’s president in 1858. He successfully resisted a French military intervention, enacted several laws to curb abusive ecclesiastical power and forged a new institutional order with an independent congress and supreme court, a new constitution, full religious and civil liberties, freedom of the press and, most of all, a respect for the rule of law. But once again, his achievements did not last long, and democracy did not take root in the country. Four years after his death, a former liberal comrade, Porfirio Díaz, took power and ruled for 30 years.
The third historical transformation López Obrador aims to emulate is the 1910 revolution that ended Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship. This was another upheaval that caused at least one million deaths during the more than a decade it lasted and led to an undemocratic one-party rule that prevailed for 70 years. The living standards of most Mexicans rose as the economy grew at an impressive rate for decades. But political dissent was not tolerated, and hundreds, if not thousands, of dissidents, independent unions and student leaders and opposition figures were coopted, killed or jailed. It was only in 2000 that an opposition party won the presidency.
The lesson from these historical precedents is that even if López Obrador can transform the country, he likely won’t be able to do it without serious disruption. When challenged to explain how he is going to embark on his transformation of the country, his answers are inscrutably vague. Yet, a lack of specificity does not deter his followers from believing, with an almost religious zeal, that their miraculous messiah has the ability to change the country’s evil ways and make history. Both the slogan of his political campaign and the name of his political coalition are “Together we will make history.”
López Obrador has promised to eradicate, not mitigate, corruption through the moral example of his own incorruptibility. He seems to believe that his example of rectitude — living an exemplary life in modest quarters instead of in the presidential residence, reducing his salary and that of his cabinet, selling the presidential plane and helicopters, and cancelling the pensions of former presidents — will be followed by every single politician in the country.
The core of his support comes from young people who are sick of the daily violence and insecurity, and they deeply resent the widespread corruption of the two traditional parties — the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) — that have held power in Mexico. Yet looking at the people that surround him in his political coalition — an indescribable mixture of old guard politicians from the Communist Party, the small extreme-right Social Encounter Party, some of the most corrupt union leaders in Mexico’s history, and quite a few shady old political apparatchiks of PRI and PAN — it is hard to believe he will clean up the country.
When he talks about foreign policy, it is dismaying to hear him say “the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy,” and it is embarrassing to hear him declare that his relationship with President Donald Trump will be better than current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s because Trump will recognize his moral authority. He has also said he’ll reassert the old Mexican doctrine of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations, and I wonder if adopting this 19th century position is a strategy to avoid alienating the Cuban regime for its dismal human rights record. After all, he has publicly declared his profound admiration for Fidel Castro, whom he describes as the liberator of Cuba.
Given his explosive temperament and inclination to insult and disqualify those who disagree with him, I dread his six years in government. Magical solutions don’t exist. With or without López Obrador, Mexico’s biggest problem will continue to be its intermittent rule of law. To eradicate corruption, a country needs strong institutions, independent courts and a watchful press, and these can’t be fully built in six years alone. My sense is that López Obrador’s fourth transformation will be a return to the original corporatist PRI of the 1930s, and like in Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” he’ll change things so everything remains the same.