If Andrés Manuel López Obrador—who by all predictions will be the next president of Mexico after the July 1 elections—lived in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, the US mainstream press would have already canonized him as a hero of democracy. AMLO, as he is universally known, would be praised for leading a nationwide, nonviolent, decades-long movement on its way to defeating a corrupt ruling elite at the ballot box.
Instead, the US media continually slander López Obrador as a dangerous “populist demagogue” with a “messiah complex” who could turn Mexico into another Venezuela. Among others, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Atlantic have misrepresented him; so far The New York Times has published four op-ed pieces, and three were hostile, even the article by a purported supporter. The nastiest attack so far, a June 17 Washington Post editorial, said that López Obrador “bears more than a passing political resemblance to President Trump.” The Economist repeated the slur, putting AMLO’s picture on its latest cover next to the headline “Mexico’s answer to Donald Trump.”
The US media are implying that AMLO’s lifelong, nonviolent campaign for democracy is somehow more dangerous than the two candidates who oppose him, both of whom belong to the violent and corrupt political elite that has plunged Mexico into its worst crisis in a century. Mainstream commentators are afraid to say so, but they must privately hope that one of the two privileged-class candidates wins (which, given López Obrador’s overwhelming lead in all the polls, could only happen due to stupendous fraud).
More than just personal pique explains why the mainstream is smearing López Obrador. Mexico has for more than two decades faithfully followed the neoliberal orthodoxy about economic growth, vigorously advocated by the International Monetary Fund, the US Treasury Department, and Wall Street. Starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Mexico has been one of neoliberalism’s most dutiful pupils in the Global South. And the result has been crushing failure: since 1996, a pathetic per capita economic growth rate below 1.5 percent, one of the worst in all of Latin America, and an exodus, starting in the mid-1990s, of nearly 4 million economic refugees northward to the United States that didn’t stop until the 2008 Great Recession. The chronic stagnation has further discredited the traditional elite and boosted López Obrador’s calls for another economic path. But instead of recognizing neoliberalism’s failure, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist attack the Mexican leader who has successfully indicted it.
The media’s animosity has distorted their news coverage so badly that most Americans could be surprised by what will likely be López Obrador’s smashing victory and stunned by the outpouring of optimism that will sweep across Mexico afterward. Mainstream reports have not conveyed the overwhelming sense of crisis there, and therefore leave the false impression that this is just another election. In just one example, the Post’s June 17 editorial conceded that corruption has “afflicted” the current government. This is an astonishing understatement. In Veracruz state, for instance, the former governor, a man named Javier Duarte, who was once a rising star in Peña Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is accused of presiding over a reign of state-sanctioned terror in which between 4,000 and 20,000 people have “disappeared,” and mass graves of up to 750 bodies are regularly uncovered. Duarte is also facing trial for stealing as much as 35 percent of the state’s budget during his six-year term, and investigators have already found that he owns 40 properties in Texas. Several other governors are under official scrutiny, and one was even extradited from Italy.
Mexico is also now one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist; at least 104 reporters have been murdered since 2000. You would think that US editorial writers and journalists would have more concern for their colleagues south of the border.
The US media have also failed to tell the whole truth about López Obrador’s lifelong commitment to economic and political justice. After leaving university, AMLO spent five years living with his family in a one-room shack in Nacajuca, a poor indigenous community in his southeastern home state of Tabasco, promoting health, education, and agriculture. He then entered state politics, and to protest chronic election fraud in 1991 he captivated Mexican opinion by leading a 450-mile march to the capital, called the Exodus for Democracy.
In 2000, López Obrador won election as mayor of Mexico City; governing the megalopolis is considered the second-most-important political job in the country. During his five years in office, AMLO started every working day with a 6 am press conference, allied with business leaders to restore the city’s historic center, and launched an old-age-pension scheme. He lived in a modest middle-class home and traveled around in an old car—and he left office with a popularity rating of 84 percent.
Also missing in most US mainstream coverage are conversations with the Mexican people who are going to vote for him in massive numbers. A Washington Post article on June 20 included five interviews with hostile, well-off critics like a “former undersecretary in the Economy Ministry” and someone who works at “a regional energy consultancy.” The Post gave a couple of high-level López Obrador supporters a brief chance to respond to their attacks, but not one single ordinary Mexican was allowed to speak up—no small farmers displaced by NAFTA, no urban poor people with stagnating incomes, and no women workers in the maquiladora assembly plants along the US border who earn $36 a week. The Post also failed to talk to the parents of the 43 college students from Ayotzinapa who were kidnapped in 2014; the parents are still trying to find out which branch of the Mexican government murdered their children.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not above criticism. His program has been rightly criticized for vagueness, as have his new ties to certain conservative figures (to whom he surely reached out partly to allay exaggerated fears about his radicalism). What’s more, Mexico’s pro-democracy, anti-corruption struggle is a broad-based, nationwide movement, and regarding it as a one-man show is unfair and wrong.
More than 36 million Americans are of full or partial Mexican ancestry, which is 11 percent of our population. The rest of us are also profoundly affected by what happens in our giant neighbor to the south. Surely all of us are entitled to truthful, unbiased reporting in our press, not the caricatures we have been seeing so far.