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What About the Amulets???

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What I learned about AMLO's reforms and style by obsessing over his amulets

This is the third article in a multi-part series on Mexico and AMLO. The first two articles look back to Mexico at the time of AMLO's election in July 2018 (visit the first and  second articles in this series).  

March 2020, Mexican President Andres Manuel Luis Obrador said that amulets could protect people from COVID-19. I have always been partial to AMLO, who is a man of the common person. Mexico historically has been run by corrupt oligarchs who do little for the majority who live in poverty. AMLO offered an alternative path. I witnessed his election in 2018 while in Mexico City and it felt like an Obama 2008 moment. After the amulet video, however, I immediately turned on him. “How could he say something so stupid? He is promoting ignorance and this ignorance will literally kill people!” I think to myself. I have many well-educated, informed friends in Mexico who enthusiastically voted for AMLO in 2018. I am sure that many of my many AMLO supporting friends in Mexico will turn on him, too, after the amulet incidence.

It’s “The Interests”

“I don’t know, strange things are happening, you know?” my friend Mexican Brenda, and staunch AMLO supporter, tells me in April 2020 as COVID-19 enters Mexico with force.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You can't be sure that it really is COVID-19! It could be but COVID-19 could also be a cover for problems caused by other things,” Brenda replies.

She senses I am incredulous. I am. Brenda is very intelligent and a graduate of a top university in Mexico. She says she will send me proof.

Brenda sends me multiple videos explaining the supposed connection between 5G and COVID-19 symptoms. I reply that there are a lot of uncertainties about COVID-19 and put the issue to rest.

A few months later in July, I ask Brenda again what she thinks of the COVID-19 situation. The COVID-19 situation in Mexico is out of control. My friend is less secure in her assessment of 5G as the cause of COVID-19 symptoms. However, she sees COVID-19 as part of a larger plot to weaken AMLO.

“I am not sure what is happening but it feels like this was planned all along to weaken AMLO,” she says.

I am again incredulous but try and hide it. “Tell me more,” I say.

“So many people want AMLO to fail and did from the beginning. The interests. Those with power, those with money, the wealthy business class. They have always wanted AMLO to fail. I don’t know. This [COVID-19] seems like something they may have been planning all along,” she continues.

The point is not whether COVID-19 was engineered in Mexico to destroy AMLO. It clearly was not and if I presented a wide-range of evidence Brenda would likely admit that yes, COVID-19 was not created in Mexico. The idea that COVID-19 could have been planned to hinder AMLO is emblematic of a deep distrust that many lower-class, working middle-class, and left-leaning Mexicans have toward traditional elites of the nation. It also shows that many of AMLO’s hard-core supporters are not leaving him and are not necessarily turned off by his reliance on amulets.

Mexicans voting for president at a polling station, election day 2018

A History of Distrust on Both Sides

In Mexico’s modern history, there is credible evidence that many presidential elections have been rigged (including when AMLO lost the presidency by a whisker in 2006). As I discussed in Four Dollars a Day, Walmart and Paying to Pee, there was shock and joy when AMLO won amongst his core supporters. It was a “too good to be true” moment. Finally there was someone who might side with the common people over the powerful business interests.

AMLO’s election also spooked many in the business and monied class. I remember talking to a Mexican woman in Colombia a month after AMLO’s election. This woman vacations frequently in Europe, a sign of wealth in a country where the average wage was less than 600 dollars a month in 2019. She ranted about how AMLO was ignorant, impulsive, and going to destroy the business environment for the country.

I asked this woman whether something should be done differently, however, to help the half of Mexico that lives in poverty. She shot back, “What about the other half! But he’s going to destroy the other half [that isn’t in poverty]!”

It was clear the business class was going to fight tooth and nail against AMLO and this woman was never going to be swayed. Her European trips and overall privileged place in Mexican society had to be preserved.

AMLO angered the business community when he helped cancel further construction on the already started, controversial new airport in Mexico City. AMLO’s previous campaigns in 2006 and 2012 drew similar fear from the monied classes and relentless campaigns to dirty his name.

Brenda claims that Mexico’s mainstream media takes every opportunity to dirty AMLO. “At key news breaks after popular soap operas, news anchors often focus on small, negative points while not giving sufficient attention to major corruption investigations that are ongoing against powerful business people and ex-government officials from the previous presidential administration. I swear that the business community is paying the media to dirty AMLO,” laments Brenda.

While AMLO’s core support from the lower-middle and working classes (as represented by people like Brenda) and the traditional business class’s opposition are two extremes, other Mexicans fall somewhere in the middle.

AMLO's 2018 election night victory party in central Mexico City

Corruption and Independence Fighter vs. Megalomaniac

“I see AMLO’s attempts to eliminate waste from the budget and fight against corruption as a very positive thing [...] however, he is megalomaniacal and mesianic. This is not a positive,” says Ruben, a writer who studied philosophy at UNAM, Mexico’s most prestigious university.

Remedios, an attorney from Veracruz, agrees and adds that she does not like how AMLO “demonizes people who do not agree with him. This is no way to build democracy and create constructive dialogue in Mexico.”

Remedios also finds AMLO’s daily press conferences a waste of time and money. “He has better things to do with his time. The press conferences are just a show, a spectacle [....] It also costs a lot of money and takes a lot of effort to get a press conference together,” she says.

While AMLO’s style might not create democratic norms in Mexico, AMLO has cut the government budget which, as a detailed analysis by AnimalPolitico.com of Mexico shows, has its pros and cons. The cuts will eliminate many privileges of high-ranking government workers in order to bring the government in-line with the common people. Austerity, however, has not spared government funding in other more essential areas like science and health.

As part of AMLO’s mission to eliminate waste in Mexico’s budget, his government is also pursuing corruption investigations and charges against members of Mexico’s former governments which appear to have cost the country billions of dollars over many years. Ruben views this “frontal assault on corruption [by AMLO] as a very positive step forward.” Attacking corruption will allow the government to use formerly siphoned funds for productive use (like offsetting the cuts to health and science, perhaps).

Despite cutting some more essential areas, by keeping a more balanced budget AMLO has been able to reject loans from the IMF. Ruben is supportive of AMLO’s rejection of the IMF loan. “By avoiding a loan from the IMF, Mexico can avoid obligations to foreign creditors,” he says. “Countries that take loans from the IMF always end up obligated to respond to the desires of the IMF in detriment to these countries' own welfare.” A leaner budget may lead to a more independent Mexico.

AMLO’s credentials as an independence fighter run counter to the criticism that he is obsequious to Trump. AMLO has assisted Trump in stopping Central American migrant flows, worked to remake NAFTA, and refrained from fighting Trump’s demagoguery toward Mexico. AMLO, however, may be showing his pragmatic side in his relations with the United States.

“Mexico is completely linked to the United States economically. If Canada stopped trading with the United States they would survive. However, if Mexico stopped trading with the United States we would not,” says Remedios. It is possible that those who criticize AMLO’s soft stance toward the United States would be equally enraged with massive job losses from a rupture with the United States.

Finally, Someone on the Side of the People

“What I really like about AMLO is that for once, you have someone who is on the side of the majority of the people in Mexico. He is looking out for those who have little. Mexico is a country of extreme inequality where you have some people making very little [five dollars a day] and others who pay astronomical prices for living spaces that are more than most people can dream of. AMLO is actually trying to improve the lives of those who make very little,” Remedios says.

In addition to the aforementioned fight against corruption, Remedios discusses AMLO’s program of paying companies to train young workers as apprentices as an example of helping the historically left-behind (called Jovenes Construyendo el Futuro). The idea is that it not only will generate employment but also give young people knowledge that they can use to further their own careers and possibly create their own businesses. Mexico is dominated by foreign companies and internal monopolies, as I discuss in Four Dollars a Day, Walmart, and Paying to Pee and other studies show. There is significant criticism of the internship program’s organization but there is hope it will bear fruit over years and fortify Mexico economically.

But What About the Quackery of the Amulets?

After my discussions with Brenda, Ruben and Remedios and reading countless articles on AMLO, I have almost forgotten AMLO’s seemingly crazy call to use amulets as protection against COVID-19. But it still gnaws at me. It seems irresponsible, ignorant, and harmful. When Trump promoted bleach as a protector against COVID-19, some people actually drank it. Surely many Mexicans wear amulets instead of masks and ultimately infect themselves, I think to myself.

While expressing displeasure at AMLO’s political style, neither Ruben nor Remedios bring up the amulets. When I ask Brenda about the amulets, she asks me what I am talking about. I send her the video. Brenda laughs. “Oh, that’s just our culture. He was probably referring to the historical belief that carrying amulets is a way of saying to your enemy that ‘God is with me, stay away.’ Of course it’s absurd to say that the amulets will protect you from the virus [...] but I think most people here understand the cultural context.” People are not taking it literally, in other words, as a North American like me who does not understand the context would. Bleach has no cultural or spiritual significance in the United States but amulets do in Mexico. Comparing Trump’s bleach moment to AMLO’s amulet moment is apples to oranges.

When I ask Remedios about the amulets, she says that AMLO does not like to be associated with bad news. “The virus is bad news, so he does not want to talk about it,” Remedios replies matter of factly. The amulets just fit into his disagreeable style.

The amulets do not change many people’s already strong opinions regarding AMLO’s style. Those on the right who called AMLO an idiot before, like the Mexican woman who vacations in Europe I referenced above, just have more fodder now. The amulets have not really changed anything.

Did I Wrongly Focus on Style?

Despite his style, as Ruben and Remedios both discuss, AMLO is making positive changes for Mexico. Does style then not matter if the results are negative? In the United States, where Trump’s style is abhorrent and anti-democratic it is also accompanied by far-right policies that run counter to his promises to help the working class. AMLO, while he may be a megalomaniac, is in fact fighting for the working classes and marginalized who elected him. If the ends justify the means, then you love AMLO. My love for AMLO came back as I researched this piece and reoriented my focus on what he has down for Mexico’s majority. My focus on the amulets had veered me away from the positives of AMLO.

That said, if you harshly demonize your opponents and glorify your cause as righteous, it is likely they will use the same tactics to counterattack. A rabidly anti-AMLO group named FRENAAA (Frente National Anti-AMLO, or the National Front Against AMLO) has a strong Twitter following and in July 2020 is engaged in frequent demonstrations against AMLO. FRENAAA uses very hateful language toward AMLO and asks that AMLO “return” Mexico to Mexicans.

Did AMLO by himself provoke this vitriol in politics? It is likely it would have happened regardless, as Mexico is a divided society politically and socio-economically. Anyone taking away privileges from an oligarchy will face uncivil resistance. Regardless, AMLO is not creating a counter-example of a measured leader who respects democratic norms as Remedios and Ruben point out.

The establishment of democratic and civil norms in politics and their impact on society is difficult to measure. However, as the United States shows, the slow erosion of civil norms in politics can be lethal to a society. If in 20 years Mexico is a society with more equal opportunity for all classes, less corrupt and without debt to the IMF, thank AMLO. If Mexicans of different political persuasions civilly disagree, thank other politicians who set a better example.

At the request of the people featured in this piece their names have been changed.

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