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Why Americans Should Care About Mexico’s Presidential Election


If the polls are right, Mexico will elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador president on Sunday, July 1. He’s the founder of the left-wing Morena Party and a career politician. López Obrador ran for president unsuccessfully twice before, but this time polls show him as the front runner. The 64-year-old was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000. Should he ascend to the presidency as predicted, his radical ideas will spell trouble for both Mexico and the U.S. for several reasons.

Mexico’s Hugo Chavez

López Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement party (Morena) openly wants to bring Bolivarian revolution in Mexico, despite the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Key players of the party are enamored with Latin American dictators including Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.

Although López Obrador tries to cast himself as a moderate, many of his critics see similarities between him and Hugo Chavez. Like Chavez, López Obrador is charismatic and promises to bring a “radical revolution” to Mexico. True to his left wing beliefs, his economic plan is all about taxing and spending. He calls for universal access to public colleges, raising the minimum wage and increasing spending for welfare.

Yes, he wants to raise taxes and possibly clamp down on corruption to pay for these government handouts. Rather than encouraging competition, he wants to reverse the energy reforms that ended state owned Pemex’s monopoly in the oil industry. He calls for an end to crude oil exports and instead, he wants to build more oil refineries to help Mexico achieve energy independence while guaranteeing employment of Pemex union workers. Rather than moving Mexico’s economy forward by encouraging free trade, he wants to take Mexico backward by incentivizing agriculture, so Mexico will be self-sufficient in food production. His nationalistic economic policy suggests he’s unwilling to compromise on the NAFTA negotiation with the U.S.

No wonder Mexican business people regard López Obrador as the most dangerous man in Mexico. They are deeply concerned his economic policy will weaken the Peso, reduce foreign investment, crash the middle class, ruin the economy and force many Mexicans into poverty as happened in Venezuela. Investors are already running away from Mexico stocks as he widens his lead in the polls. CNBC reports that Mexico’s benchmark stock index fell close to 8 percent in May, the biggest one-month decline since February 2009.

A Potential Immigration Crisis

According to Pew Research, Mexico is the U.S’s largest source of immigrants, making up 28 percent of all immigrants, both legal and illegal. There were about 11 million immigrants from Mexico as of 2014 and about half of them are illegal immigrants. The number of illegal immigrants from Mexico has declined by about 1 million since 2007 due to the economic crisis in the U.S. and a bettering economic outlook in Mexico. But if López Obrador wins the election and brings down Mexico’s economy through his “radical revolution,” the U.S. should expect to see a large influx of illegal immigrants through our southern border.

Even if López Obrador is somehow able to keep Mexico’s economy stumbling along, he has already made it clear that Mexicans and all other migrants are entitled to come to the U.S.

“Very soon, with the triumph of our movement, we will defend migrants from Mexico, Central America and the whole continent and all migrants from around the world who need to leave their towns to go and make their life in the U.S.,” he said at a recent campaign rally. “It’s a human right we are going to defend.”

What López Obrador omits from his rhetoric is a cold calculation that remittances from Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are about $30 billion a year, and are one of Mexico’s top sources of foreign income, exceeding income from oil exports. So, encouraging migration and exporting the poor up north has been a winning strategy for every Mexican administration, whether left or right. López Obrador is no exception. He didn’t give any details on how he will “defend” all migrants’ supposed human right to be in the U.S., but one reasonable guess is that he probably won’t stop any migrants, whether they are Mexicans or not, from reaching the U.S. So we may see a surge of illegal crossings at our southern borders if he wins the presidency.

More illegal immigrants in the U.S. may also mean higher welfare expenditures at both the state and the federal level. As Victor D. Hanson wrote, “many of the millions of Mexican expatriates in the United States who send remittances home to Mexico are themselves beneficiaries of some sort of U.S. federal, state, or local support that allows them to free up cash to send back to Mexico.”

 A Savior, Or A False Prophet?

Mexico is facing some serious challenges in recent years. Crime and Corruption are the two biggest problems that cause disgruntlement among Mexican voters. Drug-related violence has been soaring in Mexico and the number of homicides in 2017 was 23 percent higher than in 2016. The violence has two significant impacts on immigration to the U.S. One is that violence has driven more migrants to the U.S. seeking safety. Second is that many migrants come to depend on drug cartels to facilitate their illegal border crossing. As my colleague John D. Davison reports, “Migrant smuggling has become a lucrative business for the cartels, which charge migrants anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 a head for passage over the Rio Grande.” Therefore, in Davison’s words, “until we get real about the almost unimaginable levels of violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, our immigration crisis will fester, and eventually the chaos south of the border will spill over onto our side—no matter how high Trump builds his wall.”

Unfortunately for many Mexicans, Mexico is not only one of the most violent countries in the world, it is also one of the most corrupt. Current government officials, the ruling (PRI) party, and family members of President Enrique Peña Nieto all have been involved in many scandals. In 2016, President Peña’s wife reportedly purchased a $7 million home from a company associated with Mexico’s first high-speed railroad contract. Late last year, a high level PRI party official was arrested on charges of embezzlement and illegal use of public funds for his party. Corruption is an inseparable part of Mexico’s political and economic systems. Big businesses and big government perpetuate each other at the expense of ordinary Mexicans’ wellbeing.

Tapping into the population’s anxiety over crime and resentment over corruption, López Obrador casts himself as an anti-establishment, incorruptible nationalist and populist. He refers to the ruling elites as the “mafia of power” and he promises that he alone can fix both crime and corruption problems in Mexico. Many Mexicans are attracted to López Obrador’s populist rhetoric because they are fed up with the ruling elites and are looking for a savior. But it’s questionable whether he has what it takes to solve either problem.

The Economist reports López Obrador has been known to show contempt for the law. For example, he has urged people not to pay their electricity bills. He also declared that courts “should be an instrument of popular sentiment” rather than remaining independent. Not surprisingly, his idea of addressing the rising drug related violence is to offer amnesty for some drug war criminals. So far he has yet to offer any detail on how the amnesty will work and what benefits Mexican people will get in return for pardoning criminals. Mexican voters should ask themselves whether he is really the right person to bring law and order to Mexico.

As for corruption, López Obrador is unlikely to be the anticorruption savior Mexicans have been waiting for. When he was the mayor of Mexico City, he handed out an $8 million contract for building an elevated highway to a single contractor. There was a lack of transparency in the contractor selection process and all project related records are still marked “confidential” by his staff.

The Economist warns Mexicans that “the charismatic leaders who ride these resentments to power are almost always false prophets.” When a false prophet leads a country, both citizens in that country as well as their neighbors across the borders will suffer. Exhibit A is Venezuela. This is why the U.S. should care about the Mexican election — there’s an excellent chance that Exhibit B ends up on our southern border.