López Obrador’s Youth in His Home State Shows Why He’s Not a Demagogic Populist

López Obrador’s Youth in His Home State Shows Why He’s Not a Demagogic Populist

López Obrador’s Youth in His Home State Shows Why He’s Not a Demagogic Populist

“We saw right away that he was different. Andrés knows what the bite of an ant feels like.”


Tucta, Mexico

You can come here and listen to the people who worked with Mexico’s next president when he was a community organizer in his 20s to learn just how wrong and insulting it is to call him a “populist” or a “tropical messiah.” Here you can also get a glimpse of the political revolution that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, hopes will continue to spread across Mexico.

Tucta, located in the steamy, swampy southeastern state of Tabasco, is a village in an area populated mainly by indigenous Chontal people, who have historically suffered high levels of poverty and discrimination. The people here are campesinos, small farmers who grow corn, beans, vegetables, and fruits. López Obrador, a native of this state, came here in the 1970s, just out of university, to work with a government agency, the National Indigenous Institute. Reyes Arias Romano, whom everyone calls Don Reyes, is one of the local leaders. He earned the honorific “Don” not because he is a big landowner—he has a small plot just like his neighbors—but because he is a respected community leader, still president of an agricultural board at age 72.

“When Andrés first came we didn’t pay him much attention,” Don Reyes says. “Others had come before him and nothing changed. But when he moved into our community alongside us, we saw right away that he was different. Andrés was not afraid to roll up his pants and step into the mud. Unlike the other politicians, he knows what the bite of an ant feels like.”

Don Reyes has a sharp memory. He enumerates the changes that started once the young organizer got to work. “We pressured the government to bring electricity,” he says. “Before, we had to use candles and kerosene lamps. The first new housing project got started: 105 new homes, and then more later. Running water arrived. We set up a cooperative to make and commercialize handicrafts. We even started a community radio station.”

Don Reyes was particularly thankful for bilingual primary education. He never got a chance in school himself because he was unilingual in the Chontal language, like most people in his village.

“Populism” has a notoriously fuzzy definition. But in Latin America, one of its core features is a charismatic leader who hands out to the adoring masses in return for their continued support. No populist politician welcomes independent grassroots organizations that can hold him accountable.

López Obrador’s July 1 victory was at least partly the triumph of one remarkable 64-year-old man. But it was much more than that. Mexico’s one progressive national newspaper, La Jornada, put it best the day after the vote: The electoral landslide “has roots in many decades of working-class, social, and campesino movements, as well as long struggles to democratize the country, in which the majority of the national left has participated and resisted for over a half century or more.”

The result is the start of a political revolution that astonished even AMLO’s most optimistic supporters. He carried the poor southern states with even more crushing majorities than expected, but his coalition, appropriately named “Together We Will Make History,” also swept across conservative northern Mexico, and it even established beachheads in arch-traditional states like Guanajuato and Jalisco. Spreading the movement this widely required a nationwide organizing effort, not just the speeches of one man—especially as his campaign had much less money to spend than the other two main contenders’. On election night, the mainstream Mexican commentators on the national TV networks (nearly all men) squirmed as they watched the landslide roll on. (Particularly discomfited was the internationally known writer Enrique Krauze, who more than a decade ago coined the misleading phrase “tropical messiah” to describe López Obrador.)

That long history of struggle that led to the July 1 victory was partly carried out here in Tabasco state. In Mexico, Tabasco occupies the same place in the national consciousness that Louisiana does in the United States: hot, humid, covered with swamps and lagoons, and noted for a trademark fish, the pejelagarto, which roughly corresponds to “catfish” in the Mexican imagination and is the origin of AMLO’s nickname, El Peje.

Tabasco, like Louisiana, is also a big oil producer, and after López Obrador left this indigenous community—he worked here for five years, even bringing his young family—he moved on to organize statewide against oil spills. A 1996 video (unfortunately only available in Spanish) chronicled this struggle, which included road blockades and mass demonstrations. AMLO also joined the growing campaign for democracy, and led two 450-mile peaceful marches all the way to Mexico City to dramatize the fight. Those protests won him attention across Mexico, and he became a national leader.

There was certainly some “populism” in this election, but not from the López Obrador campaign. The candidate who finished (a distant) second, Ricardo Anaya, sent out an election-eve mailing to registered voters here in Tabasco (and presumably elsewhere) that promised them if he won they would receive 1,500 pesos ($75) a month for life, “just by virtue of being Mexican.” To reinforce this message, Anaya’s mailing included an imitation bank card that read “1500 Pesos a Month.” There was nothing even remotely similar in López Obrador’s campaign.

Meeting people from López Obrador’s past makes clear that he simply may not have the temperament to be an arrogant demagogue. He was raised in the hamlet of Tepetitán, some 60 miles southeast of here, and his friends from the Marcos Becerra Primary School there see him regularly when he returns for visits, most recently this past Easter. Héberto Prieto is a 66-year-old retired telegrapher, and he got exercised at the idea that “Andrés” had become distant now that he’s famous. “Of course we still use the ‘tu’ form when we speak,” Prieto said. “It’s ‘Andrés’ and ‘Héberto.’ He’s not the kind of person who would change.”

In the end, dismissing López Obrador as a populist is not just wrong, but also disrespects the 30 million Mexicans who voted for him, implying they are sheep who don’t understand their own country. For now, the size of the electoral landslide has quieted the criticism, both here in Mexico and elsewhere, but the era of good feelings won’t last long. This was arguably the most important Mexican election since 1934, when the great reforming president Lázaro Cárdenas came to power. The fight in Mexico is going to be in the news for years to come.

Correction: The text has been updated to show that López Obrador received 30 million votes, not 24 million.

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