“It was the president,” the farmer insisted. “He helped us. Before, they wouldn’t give us the aid. There was a lot of corruption.”
A year after taking office, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador looms larger than any Mexican president in decades — setting the nation’s agenda with daily news conferences, reshaping the government with a drastic overhaul of the budget and introducing a raft of programs to help farmers, the elderly and students.
His approval ratings regularly top 60 percent, in a region where many leaders struggle to reach half that.
And yet, as the veteran leftist consolidates power, critics worry he is threatening some of Mexico’s hard-won democratic gains. They say López Obrador is weakening institutions that safeguard human rights and clean elections and is exerting more control over funding to the states.
He is steering cash grants to the poor and vulnerable and saying he is going around bureaucrats to limit corruption. Detractors say he is using public money to build a massive base of loyalists such as Roldán Pérez.
López Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, remains popular despite little progress in resolving Mexico’s major problems, such as the record-high number of homicides or the stalled economy. At a moment of turmoil across Latin America, perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been to revive the hopes of the many citizens who had soured on democracy.
“A very clear majority of Mexicans think his government is their government,” said Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, a political scientist. The downside? “Mexico today is a country much more dependent on one man’s will.”
AMLO’s party dominates Mexico
López Obrador arrived in San Miguel Canoa on a recent afternoon the same way everyone else does: On a crowded, two-lane road stippled with speed bumps. The town of 25,000 is just 12 miles from Puebla, a thriving city southeast of the Mexican capital with sleek auto-part plants and prestigious universities. But in San Miguel, burros still clomp up narrow streets, and 1 in 5 homes lack running water.
It was the 225th city that López Obrador had visited since taking office Dec. 1, 2018, part of an effort to travel to rural hospitals, indigenous centers and farm communities. In part, he has managed that by passing up all foreign trips — even the Group of 20 summit of world leaders in June.
Raymundo Flores, 27, was one of thousands in the largely indigenous community who sat expectantly in folding chairs waiting for López Obrador’s arrival.
“He pays so much more attention to the pueblos,” said Flores, a construction worker. “We’ve always been forgotten.”
López Obrador has enhanced his man-of-the-people reputation by slashing traditional perks — giving up the presidential jet and mansion and cutting officials’ salaries, including his own.
To Mexicans, the 66-year-old is not just accessible; he’s practically unavoidable. He holds a 7 a.m. news conference nearly every weekday, and his running commentary on the state of Mexican affairs, much like President Trump’s tweets, dominates the news. AMLO uses the platform to rebuke independent media that are critical of him. The sessions also allow him to project the image of a plain-spoken grandfather — the opposite of the country’s formal, jargon-spouting politicians.
But if López Obrador appears to be a “super-president,” it’s not just because of his marketing skills, said Jorge Buendía, a prominent pollster. AMLO is also practically the last man standing in a political landscape transformed by Mexicans’ growing disgust with corruption.
“These counterweights no longer exist,” Buendía said.
In some ways López Obrador’s party has assumed the role held by the Institutional Revolutionary Party toward the end of its 71 years of rule, when the country was becoming more democratic but most major political offices were still in the hands of a single party.
“It seems a lot like the 1990s,” Buendía said.
Critics fear for Mexico’s counterweights
That’s not the only echo of the past. Civic activists say the government is undermining autonomous bodies created during the transition to democracy. Congress this week slashed the budgets for the National Electoral Institute, the National Human Rights Commission and other institutions.
“There is a clear intention on the part of the federal government to weaken and control them,” said Markos Cortés, national director of the opposition National Action Party.
López Obrador has defended the cuts, saying that the institutions wasted money and produced few results. But there’s little doubt he sees them as crimping the power he won at the ballot box.
Gibrán Ramírez, a Morena party intellectual, said the institutions reflected a bygone era, in which activists sought to strip powers from an authoritarian president.
“A lot of the substantive functions of the state remained outside political control,” he said. “This is undemocratic.”
Ramírez defended López Obrador’s move to exert greater control over how states spend federal funds. Several governors, he noted, have wound up behind bars for diverting government money. Decentralization “allowed a lot of the corruption of the Mexican political system,” he said.
López Obrador has used his political clout to overhaul the state apparatus — slashing jobs and salaries, squeezing funds out of scientific and academic research, and channeling money into new projects, including an 80,000-strong National Guard and a train across Mexico’s narrowest point.
“What he has done is take control of the government, take control of the bureaucracy, eliminate all sources of autonomous power, any counterweights, with a long-term plan of political control,” said Luis Rubio, head of the Mexican Council of International Affairs.
López Obrador denies having authoritarian tendencies. He says he’s trying to fix a government that long benefited a small elite while ignoring the country’s many poor.
“We are introducing changes the country needs so that everyone — from the bottom up — can create a new country,” he said this month.
Among his changes, López Obrador has ripped up longtime programs aimed at providing school subsidies and medical checkups for the poor, opting for cash sent directly to parents. He has vowed to funnel support directly to farmers, rather than through agricultural organizations long tied to the former ruling party.
“In the past, this aid was distributed through intermediaries and organizations, and it didn’t reach the people — it got stuck en route or didn’t arrive in full because of kickbacks,” López Obrador told the crowd in San Miguel Canoa. “That’s over.”
For Roldán Perez, the corn farmer, and his wife, Dominga Marcial, the change brought by the president is palpable. Two disabled relatives have started receiving cash transfers. Then there is the agricultural subsidy the couple received recently — 1,600 pesos, or about $84. They had not seen such aid for years.
“It comes from him,” Marcial said.
‘We voted for change. We haven’t seen anything.’
For all the president’s popularity, plenty of Mexicans are dissatisfied. López Obrador’s party is new to government, frequently disorganized and working with an austerity budget so tight that at times there is no one to answer the main telephone line at the president’s office.
Adriana Pérez García, 31, a street vendor, turned out for López Obrador’s recent rally. She was disappointed her son had not received a promised school subsidy.
“We voted for change. We haven’t seen anything,” she said.
The civic group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity has studied some of the new social programs. It has found sloppy record-keeping, poor planning and a lack of transparency, said María Amparo Casar, who heads the group.
“The big question is how much of the money is getting to the people, and whether the people really need it,” she said.
A lack of experience is just one of the constraints on López Obrador’s government.
He has pledged not to spook international investors by increasing debt or raising taxes, which limits his ability to expand social programs.
The president’s daily news conferences highlight how much one man represents Mexico’s government.
“He seems to be the one making all the decisions,” Buendía said.
Gabriela Martínez contributed to this report.