It’s underway: the Andrés Manuel López Obrador presidency and his pledge of a Fourth Transformation for Mexico. He won by a landslide in a July 1 election that marked a repudiation of the status quo. What comes next has stoked both hopes and worries over whether his particular brand of populism means shifts as dramatic as the prior three transformations he’s referring to: Mexican independence, formation of the republic, and the revolution. Any student of Mexican history can tell you those three events took years. López Obrador, also known as AMLO, has six, given that the Constitution allows for one term of that length. He begins with the strongest mandate of any Mexican president in decades, control of Congress, and enough state legislatures to push through constitutional reforms.
As Mexico charts a new path, AS/COA Online's Carin Zissis, based in Mexico City, counts down the first 100 days of the López Obrador presidency. Check back for regular updates.
Note: This article was initially published on December 1, 2018. It has been updated as new news becomes availabile.
During his Wednesday press conference, AMLO reportedly skipped the Q&A session with journalists to take a phone call.
AMLO leaves morning news conference w/o taking questions -- a first since he started speaking w/ media in mornings last week.
Said he needs to take an important phone call.
When shouting reporters asked if it's @realDonaldTrump, says "I'll tell you later."
Mexican reality TV
— Eric Martin (@EMPosts) December 12, 2018
It appears the call may indeed have been with his U.S. counterpart, marking his first with Trump since the inauguration. López Obrador tweeted that night that the conversation was “respectful and friendly” and involved negotiating a joint development program for Central America in the hopes of stemming migration.
Hoy conversamos por teléfono con el presidente Donald Trump. En términos respetuosos y de amistad, tratamos el tema migratorio y la posibilidad de aplicar un programa conjunto para el desarrollo y la creación de empleos en Centroamérica y en nuestro país. pic.twitter.com/6BHVGBIZH2
— Andrés Manuel (@lopezobrador_) December 13, 2018
In his Thursday morning press conference, AMLO said he is considering including $5 billion in Mexico’s 2019 budget to create jobs in Central America and Mexico so that people don’t “need to migrate.” He also mentioned that Trump invited him to visit Washington, although he indicated that the visit would need to have a purpose, with hammering out a migration deal being the likely subject.
López Obrador also said one topic the two leaders didn’t discuss was the matter of who will pay for the wall. On Thursday, Trump tweeted that the recently inked USMCA deal—the renegotiated NAFTA—will save so much money that it can be considered Mexico’s payment for the wall.
I often stated, “One way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the Wall.” This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico (and Canada), the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2018
Writing for Nexos, international affairs experts Genaro Lozano and Juan Ernesto Trejo survey Mexico foreign policy from Peña Nieto to AMLO, cautioning that the outcome of the U.S. midterms and Mueller investigations into the Trump administration mean, “Mexico will keep being the scapegoat for the U.S. president.”
Update on the airport bonds (see Day 12 for more): bondholders rejected the AMLO government’s latest buyback proposal for the capital’s canceled airport project.
In what will come as little surprise to those paying attention to pre- and post-election pledges, López Obrador on Wednesday signed an initiative to shelve his predecessor's education reform. "Promise delivered, teachers of Mexico," he said.
The move, which will please Mexico's powerful teachers unions, will eliminate the Institute for Educational Evaluation and, with it, a key component of the reform requiring teachers to take evaluation exams. Supporters of the reform said the exams would create greater accountability in a system seen as rife with corruption, from phantom teachers to inherited posts. Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Latin America’s largest labor union, was released in August despite facing charges for embezzling more than $150 million from her own 1.5-million strong National Education Workers’ Union.
On the other hand, critics said the evaluations didn't take into account challenges faced by teachers in poorer parts of Mexico and that the government fell short on and even cut funding for teacher training.
AMLO's plan to end the reform requires constitutional changes, which will likely get through the MORENA-controlled Congress and state legislatures.
About those airport bonds: After a significant portion of bondholders in Mexico's canceled airport project indicated they would reject a buyback deal, the government offered a better deal with a higher tender price and greater protections. On Wednesday, both the peso and value of the bonds rose.
Also, today marks both the one-year anniversary since AMLO formally launched his presidential campaign as well as the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. MORENA, the name of the party that AMLO founded, itself alludes to Mexico's highly venerated virgin.
A Friday Supreme Court decision set up a standoff with the presidency. The Court, which still must hand down a definitive ruling, suspended legislation enacted in November that involves cuts to public-sector salaries and dictates that no public servant can earn more than the president. While on the campaign trail, AMLO promised to cap government wages and trimmed his own salary to roughly $5,300 a month, or about 40 percent of what his predecessor earned. During his December 10 press conference, López Obrador described the salaries of some high-level officials—and justices in particular—as “exaggerated and offensive,” and reaching levels as high as $30,000 per month.
On Monday morning, Luis Vega Ramírez, a spokesman representing federal magistrates, argued that no justices earn such sums, although official records do indicate that Supreme Court ministers are among the highest-paid public servants in Mexico. Vega also charged that the row over the salary law is only one way that the new government is seeking to weaken the judiciary’s independence, with other measures including a constant rotation of justices and efforts to discredit the judiciary.
AMLO has said he will respect the court’s suspension of the law but that the ultimate decision lies in the hands of Congress, given that his administration will be submitting its economic package to legislators on December 15. Ricardo Monreal, the Senate leader for AMLO’s majority-holding party MORENA, said Monday that the upper house will challenge the Court’s decision to suspend the law.
In Reforma, political scientist Denise Dresser contends that Mexico’s judiciary has flaws—ranging from nepotism to being subject to influence—that need fixing, but that AMLO is incorrect in accusing the court of “never doing anything for the people.” Moreover, she warns, as long as his Fourth Transformation “worries itself more with the message it sends than the laws it creates, many of those laws will end up questioned and in the hands of the Supreme Court.” In Project Syndicate last month, Harvard University’s Ricardo Hausmann wrote that Mexico’s experienced public-sector leaders are leaving for the private sector. This will allow MORENA to fill vacancies with loyalists, “But these benefits will come at the cost of a less capable state that is less able to deliver on AMLO’s most cherished goals.”
For more on the Supreme Court and AMLO’s selections for vacancies, see Day 6.
In other news, AMLO announced plans over the weekend to invest $8 billion in a new refinery in his home state of Tabasco as part of his goal of moving toward self-sufficiency and lower gas prices. Bloomberg reports that Mexico’s oil sector has seen 14 straight years of declining production.
Oil is a touchy subject in Mexico, where March 18 is still celebrated as the anniversary of when President Lázaro Cardenas expropriated the oil industry from foreign companies in 1938. Any moves to open up the sector to private investment have been a source of controversy ever since, and an energy reform pushed through by AMLO’s predecessor was no different in that regard.
For his part, López Obrador promised on the campaign trail not to end the reform, but he hasn’t spared harsh words for it. On December 7 he went so far as to call it a “disaster” and that its defenders owe the Mexican people an apology. But he also said he would not cancel the reform because he has a plan to rescue the energy sector and, on December 8, he said he will lay the first stone of a refinery he pledged to build in his home state of Tabasco. As we noted on Day 6, AMLO has called for a three-year freeze of oil auctions.
The president also said fuel theft, known as huachicoleo, will become a grave crime in Mexico. Oil theft, typically carried out by organized groups, is thought to cost the country $1 billion in annual revenue.
With a week under his belt, how is AMLO’s Fourth Transformation going so far and what will it bring? Writing in Reforma, Carlos Bravo Regidor explains why the term itself makes for a “cocktail of historical nostalgia, political rebellion, and social reorganization” that will be a challenge for those writing political analysis. In El Financiero, Ana María Salazar makes five predictions about the López Obrador presidency. “He’s not scared of disorder or crisis,” she writes. “In fact, it will be normal for there to be disorder and crisis during all of his six-year term.” Finally, James Bosworth of Hxagon writes that commentary on AMLO either sees him making moves that will be enormously good or bad, but in the end it’s quite likely that he will be little more than average.
Former Guadalajara Mayor Enrique Alfaro took the reins as governor of Jalisco, a state plagued by violence stemming from organized crime. (See Day 3 for more.) Alfaro, who abandoned the Citizens’ Movement party after winning the gubernatorial race and is seen as a possible opposition figure to AMLO, told the president to count on Jalisco as an ally in his national transformation before adding that his government would "respect the federation but won't kneel before it."
Also on Thursday, López Obrador submitted a list of three candidates to Mexico’s Senate to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Two of three are women and both are members of his political party, MORENA, raising concerns about their ability to remain impartial. The selected candidate will need two-thirds ratification in the Senate. AMLO will get another chance to make his mark on the court when the term of one of the only two women justices, Margarita Beatriz Luna Ramos, ends in January. The country’s top court has 11 magistrates who serve 15-year terms, meaning that all of the sitting justices were appointed during the sexenios of Presidents Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, and Enrique Peña Nieto. The court’s president, elected by the sitting justices, serves in that role for four years, and a new one will also be chosen in January.
The canceled airport project continues to be a thorny issue, with a group of bondholders rejecting a buyback plan proposed by the AMLO government on Wednesday. Raymundo Riva Palacio does the math in his El Financiero column and shows AMLO’s alternative airport plan will end up being more costly, proving that the new president values making good on his campaign promises over investor confidence.
In other news, the Financial Times’s Jude Webber covers López Obrador’s Wednesday announcement that his government won’t hold oil auctions for the next three years, noting that, “Mexico had been due to hold a new round of oil auctions in February but they now appear to have been formally shelved.”
Claudia Sheinbaum was sworn in as the new mayor of Mexico City on Wednesday, becoming the first woman elected to the post in one of the biggest cities in the Western Hemisphere. A scientist by training, Sheinbaum rode AMLO’s wave of popularity all the way to electoral victory in July. As a member of MORENA, the party López Obrador founded, her inauguration marks the first time in 21 years that somebody from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution won’t be in the post. It’s also been that long since the president and the capital’s head of government are from the same party. "We hope she knows how to say no to the president when the city needs her to," remarked an opposition legislator at her inauguration.
One of her first actions was to announce the end of Mexico City’s riot police. The move is highly symbolic as the force was used in the repression of the 1968 student movement. These police will be incorporated into civil protection units. AMLO made a similar move as he took over the presidency in that he disbanded the president’s secret service.
The fact that Sheinbaum now holds one of the top political positions in the country means she is already among the names being floated as a future presidential contender to succeed AMLO in 2024. But will López Obrador’s current popularity sustain her own? She takes office with an approval rating of 51 percent.
Speaking of which, Jorge Buendía examines AMLO’s teflon factor in El Universal, noting that his approval rose in recent years while that of his predecessor Peña Nieto fell. But what will happen as we get deeper into an AMLO presidency?
A new party coming into power means a whole host of new names to track. Nación321 has a handy guide to the incoming cabinet members. For example, Chief of Staff Alfonso Romo represented Mexico in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in the sport of equestrian jumping. Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero was, in 1984, the first female notary in Mexico City to pass the exam for her post—and at a point when the notary school didn’t even have a women’s bathroom. And Finance Secretary Carlos Urzúa has written two books of poetry.
The shadow of doubts about Mexico City’s canceled airport megaproject hangs over the new government, with the peso’s Monday gains wiped out come Tuesday morning. Fitch said the AMLO government’s pitch to buy back as much as $1.8 billion of $6 billion in debt for the airport’s construction would alleviate short-term risks. Meanwhile, Moody’s signaled an uphill road with investors. “The damage is done,” said the credit agency’s Jaime Reusche, per CNN Expansión, adding that the markets will need an injection of confidence.
But that’s far from the only persistent problem for the incoming government. Dallas Morning News’ Alfredo Corchado reports on a grenade attack against the U.S. consulate that took place hours before López Obrador’s inauguration. The offices were closed and damage was minimal, but the attack—thought to have been carried out by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel—is a reminder of the organized crime battle and record high murder rate that López Obrador now has to contend with. As former U.S. diplomat John Feeley told Corchado, “The FBI and ATF will be all over this and it will be an early test of law enforcement collaboration in the AMLO era." On Monday, gunmen in Jalisco (of which Guadalajara is the capital) ambushed state police who were transporting a prisoner and killed six policemen.
Another lingering issue is corruption. Animal Político’s Nayeli Roldán, who in 2017 reported on a federal government scandal dubbed the Master Swindle, covers AMLO’s appointment of “superdelegates” in each of Mexico’s states to oversee federal programs at the state level. Concern exists about the degree to which the new posts could lead to corruption, particularly given the questionable experience of some of those selected. Anger over corruption was a motivating factor for voters to reject the sitting party in the July election. AMLO, seeking to assure supporters that he will be held to new standards, announced on Tuesday that he would submit a proposal for a constitutional reform that would end immunity from persecution—known as “el fuero”—for presidents.
Still, despite the storm clouds, AMLO is riding high on a wave of public support. An El Financiero poll shows that, in the wake of his inauguration, a whopping 83 percent of Mexicans feel positive about the future of the country.
López Obrador promised to work 16-hour days as president, including daily early-morning press conferences. He held his first at 7 a.m. on December 3, saying, “How do we begin?” before promising a transformation in the public life of the country. One change was the fact that AMLO, a sitting president, traveled on a commercial flight for a trip to Veracruz the day before. Meanwhile on Monday, the presidential jet departed Mexico for California to be put up for sale. Back in 2016, AMLO launched a thousand memes when he described the aircraft as so opulent that “not even Obama has one” like it. But Bloomberg reports that the Boeing Dreamliner will likely sell for at least $76.3 million less than what Mexico paid for it. The finance secretariat has released photos of the jet’s interior.
— SHCP México (@SHCP_mx) December 2, 2018
Airports and air travel are dominating AMLO’s first days, particularly given news that the construction of the canceled Texcoco airport would continue amid negotiations with bondholders, contributing to a Monday market rally. That doesn’t mean the AMLO administration is in the clear on the matter, with the president dodging questions about his government’s bond buyback plan during his morning press conference.
López Obrador also took steps on the Ayotzinapa case, which involved the 2014 disappearance of 43 students and became a dark symbol of Mexican impunity. The new president met with victims’ families and inked a document creating a truth commission to investigate a case that was widely seen as being mishandled by the prior administration. The families’ lawyer described the move as “just the beginning.”
Beyond Mexico, incoming Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard visited Washington to meet with his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Migration was a likely point of discussion, although a BuzzFeed article reported that the holdup in a bilateral deal on the migrant caravan has more to do with disagreements between the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security than between the two countries.
On Monday afternoon, President Trump tweeted congratulations to López Obrador on his inauguration, adding, “We will work together for many years to come!”
Congratulations to newly inaugurated Mexican President @lopezobrador_. He had a tremendous political victory with the great support of the Mexican People. We will work well together for many years to come!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
The second day of the new administration brought news that the construction of the partially completed, $13 billion Texcoco airport will continue—at least while the Mexico City airport council undertakes an evaluation in the face of financial and legal concerns. The landmark infrastructure project of the prior administration was voted down in a popular referendum, despite polls showing most Mexicans approved of the new airport, which would have been the world's third biggest. The outcome of the controversial October referendum, in which only a little more than 1 percent of the electorate participated, was followed by the peso's worst daily loss since the November 2016 victory of Donald Trump.
The December 2 news does not mean a reversal on the airport decision in the long-term, with council meeting minutes indicating the shutdown of construction may be delayed while evaluating how to compensate bondholders, but will still happen before the end of the year. Just a day earlier, in his inaugural remarks, AMLO spoke of going ahead with his alternative plan: construction of runways at the Santa Lucia military base.
The new president takes office riding a wave of optimism, but a new Consulta Mitofsky poll shows that mirrors what happened with his predecessors. Vicente Fox, the president whose victory saw the end of seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, started his term with an approval rating more than 11 points higher than that of López Obrador. On the other hand, more than half of Mexicans believe AMLO will accomplish what he’s promised—a higher rate than any of his three predecessors. He won’t have a long honeymoon, though: the largest portion of respondents expects to see changes within the first six months.
Just after his swearing in at Mexico’s Congress, López Obrador launched his presidency with criticism of the neoliberal economic model of the past 36 years before going on to condemn the four-year old energy reform. “Neoliberal economic policy has been a disaster,” he said, adding, “It sounds strong, but privatization in Mexico has been synonymous with corruption.” AMLO looks to the past for inspiration, and the new leader praised earlier economic policies, particularly those of 1958 to 1970. In a series of wide-ranging promises, López Obrador pledged social programs, an economic zone near the northern border, cancellation of the education reform, doubling of the minimum wage, austerity measures for government officials, and creation of a national guard. Although he repeatedly condemned the corruption of prior governments, he also said he will not seek prosecution for their crimes.
Toward the end, the new president related a story of a cyclist who rode alongside AMLO's white Jetta as he made his way to Congress, telling him, "You don't have the right to fail us." In what has become one of the most quoted lines of the day, López Obrador said, "That is the commitment I make with the people: I don't have the right to fail."
López Obrador’s speech at the toma de protesta wasn’t his only set of long remarks of the day. Later in the afternoon, he took the stage in Mexico City’s Zócalo to address the giant, crowded plaza full of 160,000 people. Before he delivered remarks that took listeners through 100 promises, indigenous groups presented him with the presidential scepter in a symbolic ceremony that he said reflected the desire for “the purification of public life in Mexico.”
The new government also marked inauguration day by opening the gates of Los Pinos, previously the presidential residences and with highly restricted access for some 80 years. A reported 30,000 people visited the grounds in its first day open to the public.
For weeks leading up to AMLO’s inauguration, rumors swirled about who would attend, along with controversy over which leaders received an invite. In the end—and despite some notable absences due to the G20 taking place in Argentina—a large number of leaders from across the Americas and beyond were there, from Colombian President Iván Duque to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, as well as a large U.S. delegation that included cabinet members, legislators, and governers. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump attended the swearing-in ceremony, but it’s thought that they left before encountering Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who skipped that portion, at subsequent celebrations.
Foreign policy didn’t stand out among AMLO’s priorities, either during his campaign or on inauguration day, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t signs of turbulence ahead. U.S. President Donald Trump, who signed the renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada called USMCA on the sidelines of the G20, threatened on his way back from Argentina to give formal notice to Congress that he will terminate the original NAFTA, in a move designed to pressure the incoming Democrats in the House of Representatives to sign the new deal—or face the possibility of no North American trade deal at all.