Approaching Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport by air I catch a glimpse of a beetle-like shape etched into the ground on the outskirts of the city, thin lines and dots indicating where construction equipment once dug and shifted.
These tiny markings would prove a big topic of conversation during my short time in Mexico City. One of President Andres Lopez Obrador’s first decisions on entering office in December last year was to cancel Mexico City’s part-built US$13 billion new international airport. A long overdue replacement to the city’s current major airport, it had been launched with much fanfare by his predecessor president Enrique Peña Nieto. While Peña Nieto envisioned it as a new national emblem and his administration’s legacy infrastructure project, his successor considered it a symbol of corruption and excess.
Though on the streets little seems to have changed under the new president – Mexico City is as bustling and high-energy as ever – the decision to cancel the airport, a campaign promise taken after a somewhat limited ‘public consultation’, was a clear sign of intent from the president. He has since tackled a wide range of issues, from capping public sector salaries and creating a National Guard, to pulling the government’s financial backing of the popular Mexican Formula 1 race and selling the presidential Boeing (purchased by his predecessor). The flurry of activity is perhaps unsurprising for someone who has been campaigning for the role for the last 12 years.
Announcements of these and other projects are typically made by the president (or AMLO, as he is called) during his early morning daily press conferences – jet lag meant I was always up to catch them. In a combative style he doesn’t shy away from the press, in contrast to his predecessor, and these briefings now set the tone for the daily news cycle.
Much of this has been possible due to AMLO’s continued high level of support, a prolonged honeymoon period which even those less well disposed to him noted with some admiration. AMLO’s message has clearly resonated with a country tired of insecurity and a string of high-level political corruption scandals.
After an optimistic start, Peña Nieto’s six-year term, his Sexenio, gave way to a sharp rise in drug cartel violence, corruption scandals and a lackluster economy. He left office with record low approval ratings. Somewhat inevitably then, during the presidential race AMLO’s party, MORENA, became a repository for years of pent-up grievances and its leader was carried decisively into office on a wave of resentment of the political class.
Since my last visit to the country, however, the tone of conversations, with acquaintances and strangers alike, often during long taxi journeys across the megacity, seems to have changed. Though most support his anti-corruption and political empowerment drive, the fervor has dissipated, and many appear less sure about his approach and potential unforeseen effects of his policies on the country’s economy, with a palpable unease about his increasingly authoritarian style.
Discussions with businesspeople over breakfast in the city’s fashionable Roma district, recently made famous by the Oscar-winning film of the same name, have a predictable tone. They told me that many of them feel unfairly targeted by the new president, who in speeches regularly voices a view of society that pitches a criminal elite against the rest. And they question his key decisions, in particular his reversal of landmark energy reforms ending state-run monopolies that had attracted $150 billion into the sector since they were launched in 2013.
When pushed, however, even some of AMLO’s most ardent supporters said they thought the cancellation of the airport was premature, though rightly pointed out that AMLO was not the only critic of the project. How long their patience will last, however, remains to be seen. Questions are already being asked about the lack of prosecutions for supposed corrupt dealings linked to the new airport. And concerns have been raised about the president’s attacks on the free press, a noticeable centralization of power, and a weakening of the independence of key institutions.
The disposal of Mexico’s presidential plane, likely to lose much of its value when sold, and the cancellation of an airport project on which billions had already been spent, appear for now to have proved costly but politically astute public image maneuvers, which have ensured AMLO’s continued popularity at home. Yet the country may end up paying an even higher price if his undermining of the private sector and institutions leads to a loss of investor appetite in a country in need of foreign investment and technical know-how.
AMLO reached his 100-day mark in early-March, though it’s too soon to tell whether his anti-corruption drive and economic policies will pay dividends. But heading back to Benito Juarez International Airport I couldn’t help feel that AMLO’s so-called Fourth Transformation, notwithstanding its worthy objectives, was heading in an uncharted and potentially risky direction.
Richard Ankerson is a senior associate at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy.