Mexico has elected a new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (nicknamed AMLO). The leader of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement political party, who was previously a presidential candidate in 2006 and 2012, promises to bring a new surge of momentum to Latin America’s second largest nation.
With the relationship with the United States looking unsteady, and Brazil (Latin America’s largest nation) remaining embattled with domestic issues despite its confident forecast in recent months of economic growth, Mexico has a new president in a time when it is increasingly looking for a new identity. Just like many nations in the Caribbean are.
So, what does the election of AMLO mean for Mexico’s future relations throughout the New World? And will he be a friend or rival to our collection of nations in the Caribbean?
THE DOMESTIC BATTLE
AMLO’s election follows turbulent years in Mexico. There has been the ongoing issue of cartel violence that continues to embattle and dispirit the Mexican people.
There has also been the ongoing issue of poverty; for while Mexico recorded an annual GDP of over US$1 trillion in 2016 and less than 2% of the nation lives in poverty, around 33% live in moderate poverty. Whatever the percentage and whatever the definition, the shared desire for Mexico to achieve real and substantial progress is a nationwide aspiration.
AMLO has promised a “radical transformation” and to “eradicate corruption”. Both are lofty goals, and the ambitions of AMLO are interwoven by the Mexican people’s apparent readiness for change, but the reality of the political structure remains.
Mexican presidents are elected to a single six-year term. While this means that anybody who doesn’t like the president won’t have to endure that person for another term, it also removes the possibility of longstanding change. Plus it can undermine the capacity of the president to govern, given other leaders know they only have to wait the president out if they don’t agree with policies, and not worry about the individual renewing their mandate at the next election.
THE NORTH AMERICAN DISPUTE
Then there is the relationship with the US. Mexico is a big nation: 130 million Mexicans and the 15th biggest economy in the world by GDP. It just so happens to also reside beneath the world’s most powerful country. It’s why its economic and political fortunes are often so closely tied with Washington’s actions, and these go beyond Trump’s promise “to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”.
This is no derision on the Mexican people. For while the Trump team may not readily admit it, a decent (if not strong) relationship with Mexico is essential to the US too. Instead it’s an explanation for why many in the Caribbean and further afield may at first look past Mexico as a trading partner; but also why they should really look again. Especially now, in an era when the ‘old certainties’ surrounding international trade — like Washington’s pro-free trade policy and Beijing’s desire to focus on economic growth over territorial spats — have been replaced by turbulence.
Just as Mexico City recognises that Donald Trump in the White House could change NAFTA, so too do nations throughout Latin America see a country looking at its region in a new era with new interest. Even so, with AMLO there is a clear break from recent political form, leaving many to wonder whether AMLO will be Mexico’s Trump-like figure, for all the unpredictability it brings.
AMLO is a man of his times. It’s clear that the language from Washington, alongside the frustration with the liberal order seen with Trump’s election, shows people are hungry for someone who offers a truly new approach. For its part, irrespective of NAFTA, the Mexican nation recognises the future of its economy will require greater diversification. AMLO seems well positioned to drive this forward. The issue is whether that new approach will be a good one.
MEXICO AND THE CARIBBEAN
Most worrying for regional observers will be AMLO’s apparent tendency to authoritarianism. Different nations have different traditions and perceptions in their democracy, and this can impact governing styles. Yet nobody has ever said there is simply too much democracy and human rights around the world.
Within Latin America, a leader who advocates for these values would be highly desired right now, especially one willing to renew the value of these institutions, even if citizens are frustrated and fatigued by their application. AMLO’s entrance onto the scene also comes at a time of high tensions.
Relations between Venezuela and Colombia are not good. The last week has seen an apparent assassination attempt of the Venezuelan president, and while it’s not clear who is behind the attack, Maduro’s supporters have been quick to lay the blame at the feet of ‘right wing activists’.
As a leftist leader who can speak the language of Venezuela’s political ethos, AMLO’s role here as a peacemaker could be vital, but the worry exists he may inflame tensions. Economically, much of Mexico’s relations around the Caribbean will now be subject to a reset. That said, strong inroads have been made in recent years across a number of fronts. The essence of these is likely to continue from one president to the next.
From hosting a summit of CARICOM’s leaders in Mexico City during 2000, to the establishment of a Mexican embassy at CARICOM’s headquarters in Guyana in 2009, to the general pre-Trump trend of globalisation, AMLO’s predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto crisscrossed Latin America regularly for the Summit of the Americas and the Pacific Alliance Summit, forging stronger ties and new trade agreements.
On a one-to-one level, Mexico has also been busy. In Saint Lucia, shared work in education and artisan training have been welcome complements on top of deepening partnerships in agriculture, sustainability and security, with Prime Minister Chastanet hosting Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Videgaray Caso in March of this year for bilateral talks on Saint Lucian soil. Mexico’s engagement with Saint Lucia has been mirrored in other nations around the region.
CERTAINTY AND VOLATILITY
While presidents may change, strong ties like those built by Mexico should endure, even if AMLO is a break from most recent presidents, but this is far from certain. Anyone who believes a new president would drop his robust campaign rhetoric and ‘normalise’ once in office, need only look at the leader north of the Mexican border to know sometimes it carries over, with all the volatility to follow.