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A Rising Tide in Mexico

The next president of Mexico could be a left populist who puts the needs of ordinary Mexicans ahead of international corporate investors -- if the U.S. refrains from meddling.
 
 
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In the southern state of Oaxaca, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or "AMLO," as he is affectionately known across Mexico, is approaching the podium to speak to 13,000 supporters. But first, he must be cleansed. A short medicine woman, wearing the traditional dress of the Mixtec Indians, swats him with green branches and perfumes him with copal incense. Lopez Obrador stands respectfully still with his eyes closed while assembled crowds howl with delight.

The Mexican presidential election is in full swing, and Lopez Obrador is one of three major candidates running for the office. Barring the possibility of massive electoral fraud, external meddling or assassination, AMLO will likely become the next president of Mexico.

But these are not unthinkable "what ifs." In 1988, by all accounts, massive fraud denied candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas the presidency. And in 1994, the popular leading candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in the streets of Tijuana in a murder that has never been solved.

Mexicans are all too aware of the seamy history of direct or covert U.S. involvement in shaping or overturning the outcome of elections throughout Latin America. President Bush, in advance of last week's Cancun summit meeting, met with Mexican journalists and pledged that the United States would not be involved in the Mexican election and would work with the choice of the Mexican people. But U.S. progressives should remain vigilant. It's been many decades since a leftist president was tolerated on our southern border.

Mexicans go to the polls on July 2 to elect their next president to a constitutionally mandated single six-year term, along with 628 members of Congress. Six years ago voters elected Vicente Fox, the first president in 71 years who was not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico's traditional ruling party. The 2000 election was largely free of irregularities, thanks in large part to Mexico's independent and well-resourced Federal Election Institute.

Fox, who ran as the candidate of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, as it is called in Spanish, remains personally popular. While his legislative agenda has been thwarted in the PRI dominated legislature, Mexicans give him credit for serving honorably and not personally looting the treasury, as many of his predecessors have.

Fox has vocally supported Bush administration free trade policies such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas -- earning the accusation of being a "lapdog of empire" from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. At the same time, Fox has distanced himself from U.S. policies in Iraq and been openly critical of U.S. immigration policy and proposals to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Running for president as the nominee on the PAN ticket is 44-year-old Felipe Calderon, who served in Fox's cabinet as energy secretary. Calderon's candidacy has sputtered, and he recently removed his top campaign staff and changed his campaign slogan for the third time.

The PRI candidate is Roberto Madrazo, a long-time fixture of national politics. Madrazo grew up in the governor's mansion in the oil-rich gulf state of Tabasco, where his father also served as governor and later as PRI party president, positions his son would later hold. Madrazo inherits the remarkable PRI political machinery, with its legendary get-out-the-vote and steal-the-vote capacity. While claiming that he represents a reformed and chastened PRI, his campaign has been hampered by lackluster campaigning and tainted by his reputation for bullying and arm-twisting.

Mexicans wonder out loud about how Madrazo could be so rich after two generations of public service. Internet savvy Mexicans have been circulating the Google Earth coordinates (19 14' 22.79" N, 99 10' 16.50" W) to view Madrazo's 14,000-square-foot home on a 3.6-acre estate overlooking Mexico City, one of five houses and multiple sports cars that Madrazo reported on his financial disclosure statements.

Madrazo's wealth is a startling contrast to austere Lopez Obrador, a widower who lives in a modest apartment and who drove his own compact car to work when he served as mayor of Mexico City, the continent's largest metropolis. While Madrazo grew up in a life of privilege, AMLO is the son of a shopkeeper who worked in his youth as an advocate for indigenous groups in Tabasco. In the 1980s, he led efforts to successfully force the oil industry to pay reparations for damaging indigenous lands.

Polls show Lopez Obrador opening up a lead over his rival candidates. A mid-March poll conducted by El Universal showed Obrador as the preference of 36 percent of voters, with Calderon at 27 percent and Madrazo at 14 percent.

Meanwhile Subcommander Marcos, the visible leader of the Zapatista rebellion in the state of Chiapas, has launched the "other campaign." He is traveling to all the states of Mexico to raise issues left out of the main campaigns. He accuses all three major party candidates of being all the same -- and predicts Lopez Obrador will be unable to fulfill his promises.

U.S. analysts want to cast Lopez Obrador as part of the leftist tide sweeping Latin America, with the recent election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. But Lopez Obrador quickly dismisses any comparisons to trends or leaders in other countries. His role model, as he cautiously points out, is Mexico's beloved Benito Juarez, the Zapotec Indian from humble origins who as president unified the country during a time of external aggression and repelled French invaders in 1867.

Lopez Obrador's outsider and independent status was confirmed in April 2005 when national legislators from the PRI and PAN tried to prevent him from running on a minor legal matter. But their tactic backfired as millions of Mexicans took to the streets to support AMLO, forcing opposition party leaders to back off. AMLO has polled as the presidential front-runner ever since.

Unlike the other two candidates, AMLO's campaign doesn't bus in banner-waving supporters, and provide free food and T-shirts to bolster his campaign appearances. His popularity is rooted in his plain-spoken commitment to address the growing inequalities of Mexican society. His campaign slogan, "For the Good of All, First the Poor," powerfully connects with the half of Mexico's population who live in poverty and feel forgotten.

From the outside, Mexico appears to have had a decade of stability. But the reality is that poverty and insecurity are rising. Real wages have plummeted, and many communities in rural Mexico are now ghost towns after being devastated by the loss of 2 million agricultural jobs. Mexican farmers, after NAFTA, are unable to compete with the imports flowing in from subsidized U.S. farmers, particularly in corn.

A Lopez Obrador presidency would likely lead to some significant changes in U.S-Mexican relations. For instance, AMLO would not, like President Fox, carry the banner of U.S. free trade policies at meetings throughout Latin America. In fact, one of AMLO's "50 promises" calls for a renegotiation of the provisions of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that deal with the importation of corn and beans.

AMLO would also reverse the drift, initiated under President Fox, of privatizing the public sector and opening up Mexican oil production to foreign investment. AMLO has made some business leaders nervous by his proposal to make public the beneficiaries of the 1994 bank bailout.

As Lopez Obrador stays in the lead, the attacks from other campaigns are turning more vicious. Both Madrazo and Calderon attack AMLO as an authoritarian and messianic populist. Calderon told a recent rally that Lopez Obrador was an enemy of foreign investment. "I'm the one who can make an economy grow," Calderon claimed. "All he knows how to do is chase jobs away."

Calderon's campaign has recently been running television spots to link Lopez Obrador to the left revolutionary politics of Venezuela's President Chavez. The ads show clips of both Chavez and AMLO criticizing President Fox and imply that they are working together. AMLO denounces these ads, pointing out that he has never met or spoken with Chavez.

We should expect the attacks to increase and should be vigilant for signs of U.S. involvement. After all, the stakes for U.S. corporate elites are high.

If there is a tide sweeping Latin America, it involves citizens electing leaders who will no longer subordinate the health and economic security of their people to a Washington-driven corporate free trade agenda. Mexico is about to join their ranks.

Chuck Collins is the co-author of " Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity " (New Press). He currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, and is covering the Mexican election.