Five months after his historic election victory, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was inaugurated as the new president of Mexico on Saturday. While his promise for a radical transformation of the country will now be tested in practice, among high expectations and quite a few unknowns, he is sending a clear signal of change with his choice to involve ordinary citizens in his decisions.
He had already put this approach into practice in October, promoting a popular referendum on the controversial project of the new international airport of Mexico City, which was to be constructed within the fragile ecosystem of Lake Texcoco—a project which was rejected by the voters, mobilized under the slogan “Yo prefiero el lago” (“I prefer the lake”)—a rejection which pushed Mexican elites into a state of frenzy and prompted the ratings agency Fitch to downgrade the country’s outlook from stable to negative, although not changing its BBB+ rating.
AMLO has made it clear that he intends to legitimize his actions, in an anti-oligarchic vein, by keeping his social base permanently mobilized—as shown by the second popular consultation he organized on Nov. 24-25 on the 10 priorities of his government, which includes provisions such as universal health coverage, the doubling of pensions for those over 68, scholarships to all students in the public secondary schools, and the Tren Maya rail project. These were all approved by the over 940,000 participants, with percentages varying between 95.1 percent and 89.9 percent.
“Participatory democracy is what allows the people to exercise their sovereign power,” AMLO has said, promising a constitutional reform aimed at securing a legal framework for referenda and popular consultations, and committing to also present his own mandate before the judgment of the people in three years’ time (“the people give, the people take away”).
However, when it comes to the Tren Maya project, one can have serious doubts that what is happening is true democracy. Billed by AMLO’s government as the flagship model of “sustainable development,” this railway project which aims to link the main tourist areas of the Yucatan Peninsula is actually intended to guarantee enormous profits for financial capital in alliance with the real estate and tourism industries, in perfect continuity with the neoliberal strategy of territorial control followed by previous governments.
There is little that is “sustainable” about this project, which will lead to the construction of shopping centers, hotels and resorts around each train station, at the expense of both indigenous culture and the fragile ecosystems and their extraordinary biodiversity.
Although AMLO has given assurances that the Tren Maya project will be examined together with the indigenous peoples, it is significant that they were not consulted before submitting the project to a popular referendum. All this despite the strong reservations expressed by the local communities, which put out a joint statement claiming that “there is nothing Mayan” about the project, nor does it provide any benefits to the indigenous peoples of the region: “We do not want to be a Cancun or Rivera Maya, where hotel chains, restaurants [and] transportation are the only beneficiaries.”
Furthermore, this is not the only controversial point of the new government’s program. Much criticism has been made of the proposal to create a militarized National Guard which will be involved in public security tasks, which goes against AMLO’s statements during the election campaign about the need to remove the army from the streets, as they are “unprepared for such a role.”
“López Obrador is inheriting a human rights catastrophe that has been caused in large part by the militarization of public security in Mexico. By doubling down on that failed approach, [Obrador] is making a colossal mistake that could undercut any serious hope of ending the atrocities that have caused so much suffering in Mexico in recent years,” said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.
Thankfully, the new president has announced that this proposal, which is a part of the so-called National Peace and Security Plan—with which AMLO aims to address the main causes of violence, fighting poverty and rebuilding trust in the institutions through a profound “national regeneration”—will be the object of another popular consultation, to be organized in March.
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