Andres Oppenheimer

Mexico’s leader is very popular, but his country is going downhill | Opinion

It has been one year since Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected, and the good news is that he has not become — as some feared — a radical leftist ruler like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. But there’s also bad news, and lots of it.

From what we have seen since his July 1, 2018 election, and especially since his Dec. 1 inauguration, López Obrador is ruling like a narcissist populist who disdains key democratic institutions and who is setting the clock back to Mexico’s inward-looking nationalism of the 1970s.

Those were the some of the thoughts that came to mind this week while I interviewed the most recent U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson. She is a career diplomat who served as President Trump’s ambassador to Mexico before retiring in May 2018.

When I asked her if there is a danger that López Obrador will make a sharp turn to the left once he runs out of money to continue funding his populist subsidies, Jacobson responded that the biggest danger will not be whether the Mexican leader moves left or right.

“The danger since the very beginning has been that he’s not an institutional-minded man. He really doesn’t believe in independent government institutions, such as the judiciary or regulators, etc., which Mexico badly needs,” Jacobson told me.

“And if he really wants to erase or reduce corruption in Mexico, what he needs is to strengthen institutions,” she added. “I don’t see that happening. I see a man who sometimes believes that ‘only I can do this or that,’ and that government institutions are only an obstacle to achieve his goals.”

Jacobson concluded that Mexico runs the risk of moving “toward a kind of authoritarianism that could really further damage Mexico’s institutions, which are still weak and need to be strengthened.”

Indeed, despite controlling Congress and enjoying a high popularity rate averaging 62 percent in several polls, López Obrador has made many decisions by questionable “public referendums” run by his loyalists. He has stacked the courts and government agencies with ruling party apparatchiks, and is attacking nongovernment organizations.

It is López Obrador’s public disdain for institutions - more than his leftist rhetoric against what he calls “neoliberal” governments of the past - that is spooking domestic and foreign investors. Many business people fear that there will be fewer checks and balances, and investors will have no legal protections.

Many foresee a return to Mexico’s old days, when the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - in which López Obrador started his political career - ran a democratically elected authoritarian system. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once mockingly described that system as “the perfect dictatorship.”

In April, the International Monetary Fund revised down its 2019 economic-growth projections for Mexico from 2.1 percent to 1.6 percent, citing an expected fall in investments. Last week, the Bank of Mexico released a survey of economists that predicted a further drop of the country’s growth to 1.1 percent this year. Some independent economists say that the economy may only grow by 0.5 percent this year.

What’s just as worrying is López Obrador’s dismantling of the country’s recent efforts to improve its education, science and technology systems.

To win the support of radical teachers’ unions, López Obrador has abolished an education reform that had instituted teachers’ evaluations, and is reinstating teachers who had flunked their evaluation tests.

In a global knowledge economy in which robots are taking growing numbers of low-skill jobs and countries will need highly skilled work forces, López Obrador’s educational U-turn may condemn Mexico to decades of backwardness.

In the Mexican president’s recently unveiled 18,222-word summary of his 2019-2024 National Development Plan, there are only five lines about science and technology. The word “innovation” appears only once, and the words “robotics” and “artificial intelligence” don’t appear at all.

In addition, López Obrador’s goverment has failed so far to reduce the country’s record homicide rates, which have gone up by 4.2 percent during the first five months this year.

It’s too early to proclaim López Obrador’s government a failure. But unless he does something soon to restore investors’ trust and to focus on quality education, only a miracle will prevent Mexico from a gradual decline into greater mediocrity, and long-term poverty.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 8 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Espanol. Twitter: @oppenheimera