AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Sizing Up the Start of AMLO's Presidency

Andrés Manuel López Obrador came into office on December 1 with pledges to transform Mexico. Now, as he wraps up his first 100 days in office on March 10—and despite some controversial moves to make good on his promises for change—he continues to have high levels of popularity. One reason is that the across-the-board landslide victory by López Obrador and his party MORENA left the opposition decimated. “Even if you become skeptical or disenchanted with López Obrador, you have nowhere else to go, so that keeps his approval ratings very high,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, an associate professor and director of the journalism program at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, or CIDE, in Mexico City.

In this episode of Latin America in Focus, Bravo Regidor talks with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about why violence and security will be the area where voters will want to see results first, how López Obrador—known as AMLO—handles checks and balances, and the role of history and nostalgia in AMLO’s presidency. “When he tries to position himself historically, his enemy is what he calls the neoliberal period, so what happened in Mexico between the 1980s and 2018,” says Bravo Regidor. “That period was also the period when Mexico became a democracy. And AMLO doesn’t make that distinction. For AMLO, democracy started with him.”

But that also means AMLO’s nostalgia looks back to a less globalized world, says Bravo Regidor, who writes for Reforma and Mexico.com and is a frequent radio and TV commentator. “The idea that López Obrador has of Mexico is from a previous era,” he says. “At the moment of the 2018 election, that complex society that Mexico is today ended up voting for a guy that doesn’t really reflect that complexity in his vision of the country, his vision of the world, or his policies.”

The conclusion of AMLO’s first 100 days in power also happens to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the hegemonic political force in Mexico through most of the twentieth century. MORENA’s rise has drawn comparisons to the PRI, but Bravo Regidor notes that there’s a crucial difference. “MORENA has something that the PRI never had, which is democratic legitimacy. One of the weak spots of the PRI was that its democratic legitimacy was in question, and that made the PRI a lot more susceptible to opening spaces for the opposition,” explains Bravo Regidor. “The PRI knew deep down inside that that was their original sin, so to speak. MORENA doesn’t have that original sin, so that renders MORENA a lot stronger because MORENA doesn’t have to give anything away to the opposition. ‘We won, and we won by a landslide.’”

Listen to the podcast to hear more about AMLO’s position on U.S. ties and approach to Venezuela, how the president’s daily press conferences give him an “omnipresence,” and what—for Bravo Regidor—has been the biggest surprise of the new government.

This episode was produced by Luisa Leme.

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: What to Expect from an AMLO Presidency

Mexico has one of the longest presidential transitions in the world. All told, it will be five months since the time that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, won the election by a landslide in July until his December 1 inauguration. Over the course of that time, observers have been trying to figure out whether he’ll end up leaning more toward being a leftist populist or a moderate pragmatist. Whichever it turns out to be, he takes office with strong approval, a majority in Congress, and little in the way of opposition. 

It’s that position of strength that has helped him, thus far, keep up warm ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, says former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan. “Trump is someone who sniffs out weakness,” says Sarukhan, who notes that Trump has avoided including López Obrador in his Mexico bashing. AMLO has been doing his best to avoid a conflict with the U.S. president. “That explains why, during these very long months of a transition, he has said zilch on issues like the separation of minors from their parents, the DREAMers, DACA, and what has been going on at the border.” But a brewing crisis over how to handle a Central American migrant caravan in Tijuana will likely serve as an early test for both the López Obrador government and what Sarukhan calls an AMLO-Trump “bromance.”

“I would hope that the incoming Mexican government does not seek to appease Donald Trump on this front in exchange for nothing,” says the Americas Society board member, who adds that the new government should negotiate for development aid to handle the economic and security issues that drive Central Americans to leave their countries. “What can’t stand is a deterrence-driven only immigration policy between Mexico and the United States.”

But another reason López Obrador will seek to quell U.S.-Mexico tensions is because he plans to focus on domestic politics over international affairs. One sign of that is the transition team’s controversial decision to invite increasingly isolated Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to the inauguration. “I believe that López Obrador, much like his political and ideological DNA, has a vision of Mexico’s foreign policy anchored in the sixties and seventies,” says Sarukhan. “He has clearly said that he thinks Mexico should not be intervening in the domestic affairs of Venezuela or Cuba, for example, going back to this sacrosanct doctrine of non-intervention.”

Beyond foreign policy, the private sector got a hint of and the jitters over how the new administration will govern when the transition team held an October referendum that resulted in ending a $14 billion airport project in Mexico City. “In some ways the honeymoon is over before the wedding because a lot of things have been happening even before he takes office and the airport is a perfect example,” says Amy Glover, CEO of emerging markets corporate relations firm Speyside Mexico.

But Glover, who has 20 years of experience in public affairs and business experience with a focus on Mexico, cautions that it’s still too early to forecast how foreign investors will approach an AMLO presidency. “Mexico is just too big of an economy to really ignore,” she says.

“Let’s face it: Mexico is a country with too high of a percentage of people living in poverty,” adds Glover. “I think It’s important to remain engaged as civil society and not discount the possibility for positive change before we even get started.”

She also notes that Mexico’s Congress coming close to having gender parity in the latest election is a positive sign of strides made by Mexican women in recent years. Says Glover: “Mexico should be proud of the fact that it has so many amazing women participating in politics.”
 

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Amid Caravan Crisis, a Look at Mexico's Migration Policy

Thousands of people—many of them women and children—are making their way in migrant caravans on foot, through tear gas, and over rivers to get from Central America to the United States. "They know what they're facing when they hit Mexico, they know what they're facing with the Trump administration. And yet they keep marching and they keep moving forward," says Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and a lecturer on Mexican migratory policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Some 300,000 migrants try to make it through Mexico each year, explains Leutert, who met with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis in Mexico City before heading to the Mexican border with Guatemala for research. Migrants who go it alone face steep smuggling fees, extortion, and kidnapping, leading some to sacrifice migrating under the radar in exchange for the safety of caravans. Says Leutert: “There is something political about what they’re doing and standing up and saying, ‘Look at our country: We don’t have a future there, we have the right to seek asylum in Mexico or the United States.’”

Mexico’s policy centers on apprehension and deportation, but it’s becoming more than just a transit point: from 2014 to 2017, the number of migrants seeking asylum there grew sevenfold, with the total expected to hit 23,000 this year. The country finds its refugee system short-staffed and overburdened while confronting a crisis that shows no signs of ebbing. On top of that, as discussed in this episode, factors like climate change only threaten to dial up the pressure.

All of this happens as Mexico prepares to inaugurate a new leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The future president has suggested offering work visas to Central Americans and calling all countries involved to increase development aid to the Northern Triangle—even as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to cut it. But, when it comes to the complexity of handling migration, Leutert cautions: “Just like the Peña Nieto administration and the Calderón administration and the Vicente Fox administration, you’re going to see the López Obrador team hit the same challenges.”

Despite how formidable it may seem to solve the problems that spark migration, Leutert, who covers the issue for Lawfare, offers recommendations. For example, the United States could offer temporary work visas, Mexico could take a risk-management approach, and there should be a more dignified treatment of asylum-seekers overall. Because, ultimately, migrants leave Central America out of need rather than desire. “People don’t want to march in caravans,” says Leutert. “There are a lot of things that every involved country could do if they were really serious about stopping this.”

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Millennials' Big Role in the Mexican Elections

At 64, Mexican presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the oldest candidate on the ballot, but that’s not stopping 51 percent of millennials from backing him. And their support matters, because that age group has the potential to account for nearly half of the electorate on Mexico’s July 1 election day, says Pancho Parra, editor of polls for millennial-focused news site Nación321.

The fact that younger voters back López Obrador, or AMLO, to a greater degree than do other age groups may seem contradictory. Besides the age factor, millennials consider solving crime and violence to be a top issue but disagree with his proposal to give amnesty to criminals.

So why does the largest portion go for AMLO? One reason is rejection of the sitting government. In Nación321’s millennial poll, respondents were asked to qualify current President Enrique Peña Nieto with a happy or angry emoji, and 89 percent went with latter. But Parra tells AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis that AMLO’s “direct and easy” manner of speaking that compares to ex-President of Uruguay José “Pepe” Mujica—famous for his austere way of living—or former U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

On the other hand, Mexican millennials don’t wear their politics on their sleeve. They say they wouldn’t want to post a selfie with a candidate or chat with one of them on WhatsApp. And they don’t see themselves allied with parties: 59 percent don’t identify as belonging to any party.

Parra says that 2018 marks Mexico’s first social media race, and that’s resulted in a race defined by memes and viral humor. But, in covering and polling millennials, he found they are looking toward the future rather than for quick fixes to problems like the economy and better public safety.

So what comes after the July vote? “Everything’s been promised to the young people: That they’re going to have jobs, that they’re going to be better paid,” says Parra. “But if [the next government] doesn’t accomplish those kinds of things, I think there will be a big democracy fail.”

This episode was produced by Luisa Leme.

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Why Mexico's Election Will Redraw the Country's Political Map

The closer we get to Mexico’s election, the more Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s poll lead grows. The three-time presidential candidate better known as AMLO gets called everything from a nationalist to a firebrand to a populist. Still, he’s ahead of Ricardo Anaya, his closest challenger, by more than 20 points, per Oraculus’ poll aggregator. Many question the numbers or posit that undecided voters could make the difference on Election Day.

Do they have a point? We’ll have to see on July 1, but Jorge Buendía, director of polling firm Buendía & Laredo and founding partner of Oraculus, thinks not. “The people that are saying ‘Don’t trust the polls’ are the ones who are supporting candidates who are in second or third place,” he told AS/COA Online Editor-in-Chief Carin Zissis in Mexico City.

On top of that, Buendía explains that these elections could well redefine Mexico’s political scenario, upending past alliances and traditional political rivalries in both Mexico’s North and South. Why? Across the country, more than 3,400 seats are up for grabs—about 60 percent more than in the last general elections. And that helps MORENA, the political party that AMLO started since he lost the 2012 election, and which the frontrunner is encouraging voters to select all down their ballots. “MORENA will have a lot of jobs to offer,” says Buendía. “And the question here is, then what are going to be the checks and balances on López Obrador?”

This episode was produced by Luisa Leme. 

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Put a Little Trust in Mexico

It’s an election year in Mexico, and that means mudslinging and memes. It also means an unhappy electorate. In fact, Mexicans are more distrustful of government institutions than people in any of the other 27 countries surveyed in Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer.

“Sadly, it’s not new,” says Edelman México’s General Manager Mariana Sanz. She told AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis that the annual study, first released in 2001, has been uncovering Mexicans’ lack-of-confidence issue for years—and for all levels of government. But it’s not just politics facing this lack of faith: Mexicans are particularly worried about fake news, and Sanz says the media isn’t “playing the role that we as citizens need.”

Despite these low points, there are sources of trust in Mexico, and one is the private sector. “It’s very good news for companies if they own this responsibility…if they understand that people are waiting for them to take positions, to be more active, to speak up,” says Sanz.

Mexicans also have confidence in civil society. The outpouring of citizen support in the wake of last year’s devastating earthquakes showed why, and the latest survey was conducted a few weeks after the one that struck the capital. “Civil society was at its peak in terms of what we’re doing for each other,” says Sanz. In a world facing what she calls “an implosion of trust,” the bright spots in results for Mexico mean the country doesn’t fall as low as others in the overall study.

Another example of citizens taking up leadership is Méxicos Posibles, an initiative that started in 2015 and brought together 180 leaders across the country and sectors to envision potential futures for the country by 2030. The group held its launch in the capital’s historic center on March 21 to share its findings and goal of tackling the three biggest risks facing Mexico: inequality, insecurity, and illegality. “What really is very clear for all of us is we want the best for our country,” explains Gabriela Hernández Cardoso, an independent board member whose career spans the public and private sector, on the sidelines of the launch. 

Elizabeth Gonzalez produced this podcast episode.

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Back to the Future in Chile and El Salvador?

In Chile, center-right Sebastián Piñera retakes the helm to replace center-left Michelle Bachelet as president on March 11. Meanwhile, El Salvador’s March 4 legislative and municipal elections saw conservatives picking up seats at the governing party’s expense. But, in both cases, to what degree did voters turn right and to what degree did they turn against the party in control?

In this episode of Latin America in Focus, AS/COA Online's Carin Zissis speaks to Héctor Silva Ávalos, founder of Revista Factum, about why El Salvador’s governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front—the one-time guerilla group best known as the FMLN—lost a key number of legislative seats.

He says voters were disappointed with the FMLN’s handling of everything from violence to corruption to Washington’s cancellation of Temporary Protective Status for Salvadoran migrants. “What happened in general is that the FMLN hardcore voter didn’t go to vote,” says Silva Ávalos, who is also a researcher for American University and InSight Crime. He and Zissis discuss how the election made President Salvador Sánchez Cerén a lame duck and what the FMLN loss of the mayoralty of San Salvador indicates for next year’s presidential race.

As for Chile, Sebastián Piñera’s first 100 days in office will focus on pension, tax, and education reforms, political scientist Patricio Navia tells Elizabeth Gonzalez. But while the center-right leader’s coalition, Let’s Go Chile, gained the most seats in the congress, it fell short of a majority and will have to contend with an emerging leftist Broad Front. As such, Piñera is unlikely to backtrack on some of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet’s social reforms, including abortion and gender identity legislation. Navia, a professor at New York University also commented on Chileans’ consensus on reforming immigration law to better regulate an influx of Haitian migrants, as well as the chances of expanding regional trade ties depending on upcoming elections in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

Co-hosted with Elizabeth Gonzalez.

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Giving Women the "Right Space to Thrive"

In Mexico, men have an average of 10 or more hours of time for sleep and leisure per day. For women, it’s six hours or less.

“So, a working woman who also has unpaid duties and caregiving in the home doesn’t even have enough time to make it to six hours of sleep every night,” explains Dr. Felicia Knaul, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Americas and a professor of public health at the University of Miami. She talked with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about a report she co-authored for The Lancet about women’s outsized role in healthcare and the fact that, despite the scope of service they provide, they face obstacles to making it into leadership positions in the global health sector.

The international health expert also spoke about her experience getting breast cancer treatment in Mexico and why she founded breast cancer awareness organization Tómatelo a Pecho. Giving a human face to the disease, she charts a before and after in how Mexico’s public health insurance program Seguro Popular makes a difference in the lives of women. As a woman from Jalisco state named Guillermina, who experienced a recurrence of breast cancer, told her, “Round one: my kids went bankrupt and they had to sell their business. Round two: I have health insurance and I can take care of myself.”

But first, AS/COA President and CEO Susan Segal talks with Luisa Leme about why 2018 is the year of the woman, what inspired her to start our Women’s Hemispheric Network (WHN) six years ago, and why we need to bring men into the conversation on building women’s leadership. “If we limit women’s mentors and networks to only women, we’re not going very far,” says Segal, who talks about mentors and obstacles during her finance career, during which she was actively involved in restructuring of the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Chile’s Michelle Bachelet helped launch WHN. Next month she steps down from office, leaving Latin America without a sitting woman president. But Segal explains that women’s empowerment is about more than having a female head of state. “When you can fill in the ranks so you have a lot of women engaged and participating—that’s when you’ve really created change,” she says.

Both interviewees talk about the #MeToo movement and how it’s created a space for dialogue about women in the workforce, from being what Knaul calls “passionate professionals” to giving women, particularly in Latin America, “the right space to thrive,” says Segal.

Luisa Leme produced this podcast episode.

AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Alejandro Hope on Drug Policy and Mexico's Marijuana Laws

“This region has been at the forefront of the reform process.” That’s what Alejandro Hope had to say about shifts toward more progressive drug policies in the Americas in recent years. Hope, a drug policy analyst and security editor at the Mexico City-based news site El Daily Post, spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about what the region’s policy changes mean on a global scale as the UN prepares to host a special summit, known as UNGASS 2016, on the worldwide drug problem from April 19 to 21.

The General Assembly last held a special session in 2009 and another one wasn’t slated until 2019. But, in 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, tired of drug war violence, called to hold the summit sooner. But just because some countries are looking for a new path doesn’t mean UNGASS 2016 will produce major results: even if Latin American countries want more open policies, other parts of the world—such as Asia and Russia—take a more conservative stance.

Still, changes taking place on a national level have an impact on global policy. Hope notes that marijuana legalization by particular U.S. states weakens the ability to enforce drug control treaties, leaving “a gaping hole in the system.”

Shifting U.S. marijuana policy also has a direct effect on Mexico, where the illicit marijuana export market is showing signs it’s contracting as eradication and seizures decline. There’s a political effect as well: it’s harder for Mexico to maintain marijuana prohibition when the United States doesn’t, explains Hope. A Mexican Supreme Court decision in November, while limited in scope, opened the door to more progressive policies. “Marijuana legalization used to be a fringe concern,” he says. “It’s now part of the mainstream conversation.”

And Hope predicts court decisions will keep chipping away at prohibition as cases arise, saying: “I would argue that a large portion of the legislation that underpins marijuana prohibition in Mexico will be declared unconstitutional.”

What does this mean for Mexico’s next presidential election and security policy overall? Listen to find out.

AS/COA Online | Chart: Latin America's Ninis

AS/COA Online | Chart: Latin America's Ninis

When it comes to Latin America’s unemployed youth, there’s good news and bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

A new World Bank study takes a look at Latin American youth ages 15 to 24 who neither work nor study, known asninis from the Spanish phrase ni estudia ni trabaja (neither studying nor working). The number of ninis in the region rose by 1.8 million from 1992 to reach over 18 million in 2010. The “nini problem” of generally unoccupied youth contributes to woes like inequality, violence, and a missed economic opportunity as the region’s aging population swells. Women join the nini population due to teen pregnancy and early marriage. Male ninis often drop out of high school to work, and the low-skill work they can get is vulnerable to economic shocks.

But not all the news is grim. While over a quarter of both Honduran and Salvadoran youth fall into the nini group, the figure stands at 10.9 percent in Peru. Moreover, the portion of Latin American youth categorized as ninis is on the decline—and lower than the global share.

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AS/COA Online | Infographic: What's at Stake in Mexico's Midterm Vote?

Click image to view full infographic.More than 21,000 offices are up for grabs in Mexico’s midterm elections on June 7, including all 500 seats in the lower house of Congress. That means the election could determine President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ability to usher through legislation in the second half of his term. The governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has seen support fall in recent months in the wake of a housing scandal and outcry over the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero. But polls show the other two main parties—the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN) and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD)—failing to gain ground against the PRI, with other new or minor parties playing a role.

This voting round also marks the election of nine governors, and Nuevo León is emerging as a battleground state with an important feature: an independent candidate stands as a leading contender. In fact, this is the first midterm election that allows for independent candidates to run following a 2012 constitutional amendment.

AS/COA Online shares polls, numbers, and data for the election, as well as how Mexicans view government and democracy.

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AS/COA Online | Interview: Mexican Undersecretary for Foreign Relations Lourdes Aranda

Mexican Undersecretary for Foreign Relations Lourdes Aranda discusses her country’s role as this year’s G20 host. Aranda, who serves as a G20 representative, explained why Mexico's role in guiding the G20 agenda toward achieving goals in the areas of green growth, food security, and economic stability.

Video edited by David Gacs.

CFR.org | Park: Private Sector Solution Could Resolve North Korean ‘Radioactive Funds’ Issue

John S. Park, head of the Korea working group at the United States Institute of Peace, discusses the controversy over $25 million in North Korean funds holding up a February 2007 denuclearization deal. Although the U.S. State Department pledged to release the money from Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao, banks around the world consider the funds tainted by a U.S. Treasury Department ruling that connects the $25 million with illicit activities.

“The $25 million is the financial equivalent of radioactive funds,” explains Park, who says the time has come “to start thinking out of the box of having governments approach third party banks.” He suggests a private sector solution to the current stalemate and that Asia’s experience with troubled banks during the 1997 financial crisis provides a model for resolving the issue. Monetary authorities in Macao could declare BDA a distressed bank and put it up for sale, explains Park. He says the BDA banking license in a recapitalized format could result in a “lucrative sale” in which the proceeds “can be used for the clean transfer of $25 million to a bank designated by North Korea.”

Access the podcast at CFR.org.

CFR.org | Timeline: Venezuela's Chavez Era

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999 on a populist platform. But as he moves to enact his “socialist revolution,” critics say the country increasingly resembles an authoritarian state. This interactive timeline offers a visual account of modern Venezuelan politics and Chavez’s rise to power.

Served as photo editor.

Access the interactive.

CFR.org | Abbas: Musharraf’s Sinking Credibility

Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University and author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, served as an official in the administrations of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He discusses escalating violence over Musharraf’s decision to suspend Pakistan’s Supreme Court chief justice and says it signifies “the beginning of the end” for the president, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Abbas says deadly clashes over the judicial crisis could not have occurred “without instruction from the top,” and that the government wished to show it would not tolerate dissent. The possibility of an agreement between Musharraf and the exiled Bhutto appears increasingly remote given the Supreme Court controversy, says Abbas.

Access the podcast at CFR.org.

CFR.org | Southerland: Chinese Bloggers Bypass Censors to Break Stories

Dan Southerland, executive editor at Radio Free Asia, discusses whether Chinese bloggers can push for more open media in China by getting around censors to break news. He cites a recent story, which made international headlines and was initially covered by bloggers, about a woman in southern China who resisted government siezure of her property. Southerland concedes that most of China's roughly 60 million bloggers write about personal matters and, when covering news, often fail to include essential details about where or when an event took place. However, he says, “If everybody suddenly decided that they would stop censoring themselves I think they could easily overwhelm the government” and could “get a little beyond the superficiality” of state-run media. Southerland also discusses “online muckrakers” who uncover stories about local government corruption and push news past monitors by praising the central government.

Access the podcast at CFR.org.