Mexico: Ready For Prime Time?

Mexico's Guerrero state, which abuts the Pacific coast, has long been characterized by the gaudy luxury of Acapulco--a wealthy tourist town that caters to thousands of American vacationers each year. For just as long Guerrero has been a bastion of backroom political dealmaking; indeed, until last week, it had always been governed by a politician from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. In what may portend another signal political shift in Mexico, voters swept the PRI incumbent out of office, electing instead a former mayor of Acapulco, Zeferino Torreblanca, who ran on a left-wing ticket sponsored by the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. Torreblanca won with a comfortable 55 percent of the vote. A buoyant Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador--the mayor of Mexico City and standard-bearer for the PRD--spent days after the election cooing about his party's unexpectedly easy Guerrero victory. "Authoritarian structures last until people say they're over," he told reporters at one of his daily morning press conferences. "What has changed is society, and we saw it in Guerrero."

Unlike its counterparts in the rest of Latin America, the political left in Mexico has never had much formal power. Given the long dominance of the center-right PRI and the recent emergence of President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, the left has been reduced to operating at the margins--vociferously railing against U.S. hegemony but otherwise never quite forging a national identity or broad-based following. That's an inherent problem for a movement en-compassing disparate groups ranging from Zapatistas and Greens to social democrats. In 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the legendary President Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized Mexico's oil company in 1939, united a passel of left-wing groups and made a run at the presidency. He may have won, but in what some believe was a rigged election, PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the victor.

Now the left may finally be poised to make its mark on Mexico's political and economic development. The Guerrero gubernatorial victory--conceived and engineered partly by Lopez Obrador's political operatives in the capital--suggests that the PRD is establishing a national presence and attracting crucial swing voters in the run-up to next year's presidential election. Certainly the Guerrero vote dealt a serious blow to Roberto Madrazo, the powerful leader of the PRI and his party's leading contender for the presidency. And it was not the only left-wing victory last week: the state of Baja California Sur also elected a PRD governor, Narciso Agundez, giving the left control of six of Mexico's 32 states. Lopez Obrador is hard at work promoting Yeidckol Polevnski, formerly a top executive at Mexico's small-business confederation, for the all-important gubernatorial election in the state of Mexico in July. With 8 million voters, that election will be an early indicator of Lopez Obrador's chances for victory in next year's national election.

Lopez Obrador has led the presidential polls for months--but his election is far from a sure thing. That's because the political left, and the PRD in particular, still suffers from an identity crisis. Despite the encouraging gubernatorial wins, the left remains a diffuse and ideologically splintered movement, vulnerable to muddled messages and infighting. The PRD itself has four strands; one, known as the "Amalia current," after Zacatecas Gov. Amalia Garcia, places a strong emphasis on social-democratic economic policy (think Sweden) and regional development. The party's other wings include traditional populists, who champion the poor and trade protectionism, and tend to be sympathetic to global rabble-rousers like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro; a human-rights branch, and, last, a newer group of left-wing "modernizers." This group--led by former foreign minister (and NEWSWEEK contributor) Jorge Castaneda, who's running for president as an independent--are challenging the orthodoxy of the old left. They argue that Mexico should integrate itself more fully with the glob-al economy, reform its important energy sector, encourage more foreign investment and adopt a more mature relationship with the United States.

Most of those groups are rallying around Lopez Obrador for president, but it's a shallow sort of unity, given the PRD's lack of coherence on key issues. There is a raging debate within the left, for example, about whether neoliberal market reforms such as the North American Free Trade Agreement have hurt or harmed the country. Mexico's economic performance over the past decade has been mixed, sharpening a sense of disillusionment among many. For even as NAFTA has bolstered the country's manufacturing base and raised exports, Mexico's per capita income has languished. As the country prepares for elections, the debates are becoming more intense, throwing all manner of personalities and ideas up for public scrutiny. "There are a number of riddles the left has to solve," says Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst in Mexico City. "The [movement] is still paralyzed by its relationship with the United States, its relationship to the global economy and its own diversity."

Overshadowing the left at the moment is the controversial but charismatic Lopez Obrador. A former PRI politician, the 52-year-old mayor switched to the PRD in the late 1980s. He has since adopted a very austere lifestyle that jibes well with his populist rhetoric. He keeps a humble apartment in Mexico City and is driven around in a beat-up old sedan. He maintains a heavy schedule of events, including a daily 6:30 a.m. rendez-vous with the Mexican press corps at which he keeps up a joking banter even in difficult circumstances.

And there have been plenty of those lately. Last March, Lopez Obrador's finance secretary, Gustavo Ponce, was discovered gambling away city funds in a Las Vegas casino. The next day his personal secretary, Rene Bejerano, was confronted on live television with video footage of him pocketing fistfuls of cash. Both men are now in prison. Lopez Obrador's problems only got worse when he was accused of illegally appropriating a chunk of private property to build a hospital road and then ignoring a judge's orders to return it. Congress is expected to vote soon on whether to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity from prosecution; if it does, the mayor could face criminal charges and possibly jail time. Two weeks ago, he vowed to fight "from prison" if necessary. "If Obrador can't be a candidate, and it's because he built a service road to a hospital, the PRI is going to incur the holy wrath of shantytown dwellers, trade unions and single mothers," says George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William Mary in Virginia and author of an upcoming biography of the mayor.

The scandals have not dented Lopez Obrador's support--but they've raised questions about his enigmatic political persona. Though his speeches are laced with comments about social justice, the mayor has been carefully vague about his economic philosophy and attitude toward reform. He hasn't, for example, said whether he supports cracking open Mexico's oil sector to foreign investment--a major issue. "Will the real Lopez Obrador please stand up?" says Antonio Ortiz Mena, a political analyst at the Mexican think tank CIDE. "No one is really sure who he is."

Lopez Obrador has tried to cozy up to the business community, with mixed results. Not long ago he was being feted by some of Mexico's most powerful tycoons. At his request, Latin America's richest man, Carlos Slim Helu, poured billions of dollars into a major downtown Mexico City renovation project. Mexico's new Foreign Relations Office will soon be one of the first new buildings to go up in the refurbished Centro Historico. Mexico City real-estate barons eagerly joined the effort--and then came word that the mayor was cultivating ties with the powerful titans of Monterrey, in Mexico's north. That support all but evaporated in the wake of the corruption scandals, and now there is a palpable unease in the business community about the mayor. His public statements on law-and-order issues--with their emphasis on social, rather than legal, justice--scare many. "The business community is absolutely terrified of where Obrador would take the country if he won," says one prominent businessman.

Lopez Obrador's image evokes a left that a growing number of academics and political thinkers want to leave behind. These reformers want the PRD to formulate a modern economic policy and redefine the party's views on the United States. Mexican politicians and intellectuals of all stripes know that tweaking the United States is an easy way to garner public support, and the left has been more stridently anti-American than any other political bloc. "There seems to be a kind of determinism that you must repudiate the U.S.," says Aguayo. But in his view the left hurts itself by, for example, advocating the rights of Mexican migrants, along with an open immigration policy, while at the same time criticizing America at every turn.

At the end of the day, Mexico may not be ready for a modern left. There is too much economic angst in the country. Brazil's left-ist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, ran for his country's highest office four times before winning with a more moderate, fiscally conservative economic platform. "It's an unreconstructed left, and it's an unreconstructable left," says presidential candidate Castaneda, who believes the PRD has been too compromised by deserters from the PRI. He may have a point, but for now the left is pinning its ambitions on the mighty mayor. And he, in turn, believes that a revitalized left can help Mexico. That's a daring assumption for a movement, and a party, that's still trying to figure out what it stands for.