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AMLO Can’t Fight Poverty Through Austerity

AMLO’s center-left presidency in Mexico has promised to stamp out corruption and tackle inequality. But instead of paying for his badly needed direct cash transfer program through taxing the rich, he's making cuts to the country's cultural programs.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico, at Palacio Nacional on October 21, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) announced that he would run in Mexico’s presidential election in 2018, many in Mexico’s scientific and arts communities enthusiastically supported his campaign. After twelve years of incompetent and neoliberal rule — first by Felipe Calderón (2006–2012) of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (“National Action Party,” PAN), who set off one of the most violent periods in contemporary Mexican history with his ill-advised drug war, and then by Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–18) of the once-authoritarian Partido Revolucionario Institucional (“Institutional Revolutionary Party,” PRI), who reigned sloppily over six years of corruption and increasing inequality — hopes were high. In a country where the richest 10 percent own 65 percent of the wealth and over 50 percent live under the poverty line, AMLO’s third bid for president, and his newly formed MORENA party promised to deliver economic justice, end corruption, and rein in political and economic elites. Those working in the arts and sciences hoped that AMLO’s so-called cuarta transformación (“fourth transformation”) project would entail strengthening Mexico’s cultural and scientific spheres as an inherent part of creating a more equitable, educated, and progressive society.

This support soon turned to disappointment, however. After taking power on December 1, 2018, rather than supporting these sectors, AMLO began to scapegoat them instead, referring to them as part of the corrupt establishment he had criticized during his campaign. In his year and a half in office so far, budget cuts have disproportionately targeted the arts and sciences, and AMLO has also repeatedly slandered members of these communities, many of whom work for the government or government-funded programs.

“Republican Austerity”

Claiming to put the well-being of the country’s poorest citizens at the heart of his policies, AMLO has developed a program of direct cash transfers to those most in need, including the elderly, the unemployed youth, and small landowners. However, rather than raising taxes on the rich to pay for these efforts, or strengthening existing state institutions, he has defunded and eliminated existing welfare programs and slashed the already meager budget of several programs and institutions, including the National Institute of Migration (INM) and the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), among many others. Now, ostensibly to pay for the government’s response to COVID-19, AMLO is stepping up these attacks and since the pandemic’s outbreak has announced that he will close or defund approximately a hundred public trusts and public programs, including the country’s National Fund for Culture and the Arts (FONCA).

AMLO’s budgetary policies — the backbone of the political program he terms austeridad republicana (“republican austerity”), which is driven by different ideological principles than the austerity measures of his predecessors, but is austerity nonetheless — are ostensibly aimed at ending the corruption and inequality brought about by decades of cronyism and rampant neoliberalism. These policies have polarized the country and have led to unsurprising (and unoriginal) critiques from the country’s conservative and upper classes (these have included comparisons with Trump on the one hand, and communism on the other).

These criticisms often devolve into a parody of themselves, as rich Mexicans hold car rallies in some of Mexico’s most affluent neighborhoods, hanging anti-AMLO banners from the windows of their six-figure luxury cars. To say the least, these protests are wrongheaded and reactionary; AMLO has repeatedly stated that he will protect private property and privilege economic growth. But even progressive public figures who had endorsed his candidacy have now retracted their support and raised concerns about his austerity measures. The policies, as well as the reactions to them, raise crucial questions about who is left out of AMLO’s pro-poor politics and what sort of Mexican state he seeks to create.

Attacks on Scientific and Cultural Communities

AMLO is correct that corruption among the country’s political and economic establishment is a major cause of the country’s inequality. But substituting state programs with direct cash transfers can perversely replicate neoliberal logics: they critically erode existing welfare state institutions and dump responsibility onto individuals for their own well-being in a competitive market economy. While these programs are direct and get money to those in need quickly, in the end it is not clear that this ultimately improves the poor’s material situation: studies have suggested that defunding various welfare programs often costs the poor more than the cash transfers give them, resulting in a net loss of welfare benefits.

Furthermore, the scientific and cultural communities whose budget AMLO is cutting may have cultural cachet or scientific skills bordering on technocratic knowledge, but they are (for the most part) far from rich; many of these workers are barely scraping by. Aside from a handful of big-name, commercially successful artists, most members of the broadly defined art world are freelancers or work on contract, often live paycheck to paycheck, and lack basic social safety provisions like health care and retirement funds.

The same is true for the country’s scientists, most of whom depend on economic stimulus and scholarships provided by the CONACYT — the major institution that funds science and technology — and public research centers. Currently, only 0.3 percent of the federal budget is allotted to the arts and only 0.48 percent to the sciences — a reduction from the already meager allotment under previous regimes’ budgets and hardly a drain on the state budget.

All of this might be understandable as part of a cohesive ideological project of class politics aimed at reducing economic inequality if not for AMLO’s insistence on carrying out big-ticket legacy projects and his ever-more visible cozying up to the very economic elites he promised to censure. Even as he rails against “elites,” AMLO has developed strategic alliances with many of them, including the hyper-conservative media magnate Ricardo Salinas Pliego, the chairman of media empire TV Azteca. On his recent state visit to the United States, AMLO’s guests of honor at his dinner with Donald Trump were a dozen of the wealthiest members of Mexico’s business community, including multibillionaire telecommunications monopolist Carlos Slim. In this context, the motivation for AMLO’s attacks on cultural and scientific workers is purely symbolic (even as the effects have had material consequences): he can channel public resentment against the effete members of the modern art world and the brainy scientists and defund them to score a few political points, all while avoiding a confrontation with Mexico’s true power brokers.

Meanwhile, even as he calls for austerity, AMLO has called for a tenfold increase in the public funds necessary to build the Tren Maya, a railway line designed to cross several of Mexico’s southern states and promote tourism and economic development (and which has been opposed by the very communities he says it is meant to help, as well as by numerous environmentalists). At the same time, he has committed significant funding for an ambitious makeover of Mexico City’s iconic Chapultepec Park, nestled between mostly affluent neighborhoods, that will be headed by Gabriel Orozco, one of Mexico’s richest artists; the project is set to cost more than 12 percent of the total cultural budget. This latter project is instructive. While it is an investment in an important public space and will generate some short-term jobs, which on the face of it is laudable, it is being carried out at the cost of existing jobs and institutions which provide education and services to underserved parts of the country.

Democratizing over Destroying

AMLO’s austerity has not been met with docility. Many of the very people who supported his campaign have now begun to organize to defend themselves. Artists and scientists across a wide range of disciplines have come together in unprecedented coalitions — including El Frente Amplio de Trabajadorxs del Arte y la Cultura en México, Red ProCienciaMx, Científicos Mexicanos en el Extranjero, and Movimiento Colectivo por la Cultura y el Arte de México — to fight for their jobs and their labor rights, and to prove that their work is valuable to Mexican society. They have also, tellingly, called for the delay of the Chapultepec project.

The organization that has ensued, however, risks achieving uneven results. So far, institutions like Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) — a research center in Mexico City that enjoyed a privileged position during the PAN and PRI administrations — have been able to successfully lobby and organize to mitigate their budget cuts. Other, less connected institutions have already had to downsize due to their dependence on federal resources. AMLO’s policies have thereby paradoxically reified existing inequalities and created competition for ever-scarcer resources among state and para-state institutions.

When seen from this angle, AMLO’s political project appears difficult to characterize. As a firebrand champion of the working class, AMLO won the hearts of many hoping for a change in Mexican politics, both domestically and abroad. But even as he stands in stark contrast to his predecessors, it is important to hold him to account. In Mexico’s polarized political climate, to talk about AMLO is to take sides: you’re either for him and therefore a proper leftist, or you’re against him and therefore a neoliberal fifí. This is a line that has been taken up by foreign Mexico-watchers, including many in the academy and the press. But a nuanced approach to AMLO’s presidency requires that his policies be criticized in their own right, especially if we want a sustainable left politics to take root in Mexico.

A truly democratic left politics should certainly place the interests of the poor first, but with a longer-term view of developing a just and flourishing society. Cash transfers aren’t enough. First, this requires strong institutions that will address not only poverty itself, but also childcare, health care, environmental justice, as well as Mexico’s endemic misogyny and racism. Second, it means investing in the arts, culture, and science so as to build on Mexico’s rich cultural and intellectual heritage. Third, it would entail tackling economic inequality at its source, which means increasing taxes on the wealthy rather than pushing through austerity politics in the middle of a pandemic. Democratizing rather than destroying the country’s institutions and actually holding the rich to account should form the basis of a long-term left political project.