I have often despaired at the way in which seemingly progressive leaders in Latin and South America show great initial promise and then drift into an autocracy not unlike their conservative counterparts. I was pondering this the other day when reading about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known commonly as AMLO, who started off as a left-wing reformer and now seems to be straying from democracy. Was this, I wondered, yet another sad but all too common story in the Americas.
We could go back as far as Fidel Castro and his 1959 Cuban revolution. I, like a great many others, cheered as he deposed the dictator Fulgencio Batista and his American gangster confederates.
He did much good, cleaning out a corrupt government and establishing excellent education and health systems. But he also imposed a totalitarian state that deprived his people of both democracy and freedom. Thousands fled the regime, initially mostly collaborators of Batista but eventually a cross-section of Cuban society. Today over a million Cuban exiles make the U.S. home.
Then there was Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) that overthrew the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979. In 1984 Ortega won an election generally judged free and fair, and the country seemed on a course to join the world’s democracies. Ortega and the FSLN were voted out in 1990 but returned to office in 2006. Ortega has been elected to a fourth consecutive term but the last two elections were tainted by by credible reports of large-scale fraud, voter intimidation and arrests of opposition party leaders. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union described the 2021 election as a sham.
Opposition parties and media have been repressed and most government jobs require membership in the FSLN. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which he has courted by retaining Nicaragua’s status as one of five countries in the world where abortion is illegal with no exceptions, has now turned against him.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment has been Venezuela. The country’s immense oil wealth has long been badly distributed, resulting in a vast wealth gap. When Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 he promised a Bolivarian Revolution that would right the injustice, and indeed he instituted a variety of programs that made progress on health, education, and poverty.
Unfortunately the now departed Chávez and his hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro have done a Cuba. Maduro used an unconstitutional economic emergency decree to relegate to himself legislative and executive powers while replacing the Supreme Court with his own hand-picked judges. The OAS refused to recognize Madura’s re-election in 2019. His mishandling of the economy has resulted in chronic scarcity of basic goods and hyperinflation. Over seven million Venezuelans have fled their country, creating one of the world’s greatest refugee problems.
Now I read disturbing news about Mexico’s president. AMLO led his populist left-wing Morena party into a coalition that won the 2019 election. He has been praised for promoting government renewal after years of high inequality and corruption, and for turning attention from neoliberal economics toward improving the conditions of workers, an admirable progressive agenda. That’s the good news. But again, there is also bad news.
In the last 30 years, Mexico has progressed from a one-party state to free and fair elections. This has been achieved in large part because of the National Electoral Institute, the country’s equivalent of Elections Canada, known by its Spanish acronym INE. AMLO is now attempting to gut the agency.
He consistently attacks journalists who don’t toe his line as well as NGOS who seek out corruption or support women’s rights. He questions the value of independent public agencies such as the INE and has used his power in the legislature to cut their budgets. He has used the judiciary for politicized investigations and prosecutions. Most worrying, he has ignored organized crime’s increased political penetration.
AMLO lost in his first run for the presidency as well as losing twice in running for the governorship of his state. In each case he pulled a Trump and claimed fraud against the INE. Now apparently he will take his revenge.
AMLO tends to see himself as a historic figure whose arrival has inaugurated what he calls the “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico. His grandiose vision and his challenging of election results has lead critics to accuse him of wanting to return to the bad old days of all-powerful presidents.
The Economist Intelligence Unit index of democracy recently downgraded the nation from “flawed democracy” to “hybrid regime.” It does not look good. So will Mexico’s president follow the sad Hispanic tradition of leaders evolving from democrat to autocrat?
Say it ain’t so, AMLO.