Andres Oppenheimer

Mexico’s new president’s popularity is at an all-time high. But how long will the honeymoon last?

López Obrador toma posesión como nuevo presidente de México

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) tomó posesión el 1 de diciembre de 2018 como nuevo presidente de México tras ganar las elecciones generales del 1 de julio.
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Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) tomó posesión el 1 de diciembre de 2018 como nuevo presidente de México tras ganar las elecciones generales del 1 de julio.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s left-of-center President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s popularity rate has risen to a whopping 86 percent since he took office Dec. 1, and there are no signs that his honeymoon will end anytime soon.

But that does not necessarily mean that he’s doing great.

Lopez Obrador — or AMLO, as he is referred to by his initials — has captivated the vast majority of Mexicans with his vows to end this country’s endemic corruption and reduce poverty. Those are worthy goals in a country with one of the world’s highest inequality rates, and a nearly 45 percent poverty rate.

AMLO also is widely perceived as an honest and austere man. He drives a Volkswagen Jetta and flies commercial, in stark contrast with the pomp that characterized his predecessors.

He has also won applause for giving daily 7 a.m. press conferences in which he addresses whatever issue he is asked about. That’s a welcome development in a country whose last president spent months at a time without talking to the media or answering questions at public meetings.

And AMLO has drawn huge popular support by raising minimum wages and social security pensions and giving thousands of scholarships to help students go to college. As the bellhop at the hotel where I was staying told me, “He’s the first president in a long time who cares for the poor.”

But there are serious questions about whether AMLO’s honeymoon will last beyond his first two years in office. Many fear that Mexico will pay a huge price for his outdated populist-nationalist policies.

First, AMLO is spending much more than the country is likely to earn. He says that he will pay for his social programs with savings generated from eradicating corruption. Trouble is that, without new investments, that alone is not likely to be enough to balance the books.

Besides, AMLO’s decision to cut the salaries of well-paid public servants is triggering a stampede of talented government technocrats to the private sector. Often they are being replaced by less qualified activists of AMLO’s party.

Lack of business confidence in AMLO’s economic plan and some disastrous presidential decisions — such as scrapping a $13 billion project to modernize the Mexico City airport, which will cost the country more than $5 billion in losses to indemnify contractors — have already lowered Mexico’s economic growth projections.

Last month, the International Monetary Fund cut its 2019 growth projection for the country from 2.5 percent to 2.1 percent, citing an expected drop in investments. Citibanamex bank lowered its forecast even more, to a 1.4 percent growth rate this year.

Second, Mexico’s economy may suffer a big blow if — as many expect — the U.S. economy slows down or enters into a recession in late 2020 or 2021. The United States is by far Mexico’s biggest export market.

If the U.S. economy slows down, AMLO is likely to print more money to maintain his subsidies to the poor, rather than adopting IMF-recommended austerity measures. That would unleash inflation and start hurting people’s pocketbooks.

Third, it’s unclear whether the U.S. Congress will approve President Trump’s new NAFTA trade deal with Mexico. And AMLO’s decision to roll back energy reforms that sought to attract foreign investments may further spook investors.

Fourth, AMLO’s actions to dismantle recent education reforms, such as teacher evaluations conducted by autonomous institutions, and to give more power to radical leftist teachers’ unions, will make Mexico lose competitiveness against China and other emerging countries.

Last, AMLO has shown little interest in innovation. María Elena Alvarez-Buylla, the newly appointed head of the government’s science and technology agency, CONACYT, was quoted by the daily El Universal as saying that her model country for science and technology planning is Cuba.

In fact, Cuba is a technologically backward country that produced only nine international patents last year, compared with 161 by Chile and 91,000 by South Korea, according to the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization.

Summing up, AMLO is right to focus on the poor. But unless he understands that without investments there is no growth, and that without growth there is no poverty reduction, Mexico is bound to go downhill two years from now — if not sooner.

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