Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's plan for a referendum was passed by the country's Supreme Court on a narrow margin. Photo: Rodrigo Arangua / AFP

The march of folly has continued in the administration of Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is a month and a half shy of his second anniversary in office. On this occasion, we focus on the three of the more egregious assaults to the nation’s institutions, rule of law, democracy, and its future development that he has done lately, but there are many others that we will continue to chronicle.

The separation of powers in Mexico suffered a powerful blow when the Supreme Court ruled in favor last week on the President’s plan to call a referendum to put his five predecessors on trial. The move was a clear violation of the constitution by ignoring that such decisions should be made only by public prosecutors of an independent judiciary based on solid evidence.

The debate about the constitutionality of such a referendum to judge previous presidents was a test to prove the autonomy, clear-headedness, and dignity of the country’s Supreme Court. It failed dismally.

In a six to five vote, the Court showed its submissiveness, unworthiness, and confusion when it gave the green light to a popular plebiscite, with an estimated cost of $400 million, and it only changed the wording of the question that will be put before voters with an incoherent revision.

The ruling marked a fatal breach of the rule of law as the highest court in the land prostrated at the feet of AMLO and allowed him to press ahead with his plan to gather all the reins of power in his hands.

The Chief Justice of the Court, who is considered somewhat of a political ally of AMLO, but so far had maintained discretion in preserving the autonomous nature of the Court, yielded in this ruling to the whim of the country’s popular leader, who frequently repeats that “justice should always take precedence over the accurate enforcement of the laws.”  

AMLO’s keen interest in going after his predecessors, for alleged crimes such as corruption and “pursuing a neoliberal economic model,” is just an attempt to distract the voter’s attention from his dismal performance at the helm of the country in the two years he has been in office. AMLO is committed to winning next year’s midterm elections, which would allow him to keep the overwhelming control of Congress he currently holds.

The other troubling aspect of the Court’s decision is that it formally opens the door to a “plebiscitary” democracy instead of the representative one consigned by the constitution and the laws of the land.

This is the sort of exercise AMLO has been practicing all his life. In frequent meetings with his followers, he asks which course of action he should follow on various policy issues, always framing the questions in a way to get the answers he wants.

He followed the same routine to cancel the construction of Mexico City’s new airport, a reckless resolve which had a direct cost of $14.4 billion and killed the most important infrastructure project in Latin America. He set up polling booths, managed only by his supporters, without any supervision or controls, and exclusively in the parts of the city where people can’t afford air travel.

Trust-fund chaos

Also, last week AMLO’s Congress did his bidding in canceling more than 100 trust funds devoted to providing certainty in the funding on priority projects in areas such as scientific research, high-level education, cultural endeavors, and crucial public governance in areas like the backing of popular savings and loans cooperatives, fisheries, modernizing customs operations and many other chores that require long-term planning.

These trust funds, most of which operated outside government control, were run by independent boards that frequently obtained private and foreign support for their projects, and were managing crucial ventures for the welfare and future of the nation. What was the reason? AMLO needed more resources, in this case, $3.5 billion, to give away to his allies, in his lingo “the poor,” and for his money-losing pet projects (the bankrupt government oil monopoly Pemex, a new oil refinery in AMLO’s home state, converting an air force base 50 kilometers away from Mexico City into its new alternative airport and others).

Agriculture roadblocks

One perfect example of the complete irrationality and extreme ideologization of AMLO’s government is its recent celebration of “National Corn Day” in which the authorities made a call to arms in order to “defend our corn” and to undertake a campaign “to keep our sovereignty of our natural resources, particularly corn.” “We must strengthen the ideological fight that represents the defense of the traditional agricultural methods because the migration of the people out of the fields to the cities, has impoverished all of us as a society.” As one analyst pointed out, this was the same approach used by Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Mexico still has more than 12% of its workforce employed in agriculture and it produces only 3.6% of the GDP, a measure of the dismal productivity that still prevails in the rural areas, despite the great improvements that had occurred before AMLO’s administration, which has as one of its priorities to reverse the trends towards modernizing agricultural production and its emphasis on high yield and high value-added activities.

They want to ban all improved seeds, not only in corn but with all crops, as well as fertilizers, pesticides and biotech improvements that have allowed astonishing increases in productivity over the last three decades. The move could prove devastating to the production of edible crops in Mexico and lead to massive famine. The levels of destruction that have already been achieved by AMLO’s brand of populism and his war against progress, pale only when compared to what has yet to come under his unquestioned leadership.


Manuel Suárez-Mier is an economist and former central bank official, economic diplomat and professor at Georgetown and American universities. He now is a consultant residing in Washington, DC.

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