Mexico: Ending the Neoliberal Nightmare?

The “pink tide” passed by Mexico. However, the emergence of new social and political movements may represent a beacon of hope to revive the region’s Left.

December 23, 2016

This article was originally published in the Winter issue of the NACLA Report.

A MORENA rally in 2011 (Photo by Marcelo Flores)

At first glance, Mexico would seem to be a lost cause for the Left. After the failure of the “Washington Consensus” to bring peace and prosperity to Latin America in the 1990s, almost every country joined the “pink tide” at some point over the last two decades, including Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Honduras, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Peru. None of these experiments were perfect, and many were cut far too short, but each one of these countries demonstrated enough political flexibility to at least begin to respond to citizen discontent through institutional channels.

Mexico’s congealed political system, on the other hand, has not even started to develop practical alternatives to neoliberalism. Since 1982, the country has glided without interruption towards a neoliberal dystopia of increased wealth concentration, radical labor “flexibilization,” and the privatization of almost everything and anything in sight. Simultaneously, Mexico has maintained the same old authoritarian politics grounded in government repression and censorship, fraudulent elections, and a reverse “cultural revolution” bent on expunging the country’s long tradition of social activism and community resistance.

The progressive governments of Latin America are now under fire. The 2015 victory of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, the politically motivated impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in August 2016, and the ongoing economic war against Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela—combined with the previous ousting of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012—imply a clear resurgence of right-wing politics in the region.

In this context, the possibility of a left-wing revival in Mexico would seem to be even more of a pipe dream. If Mexico wasn’t able to accompany the shift to the left when conditions were relatively favorable, with high oil and commodities prices and an opening up in the geopolitical context, it would seem to be simply impossible for it to do so now, in the middle of a global economic downturn combined with concerted efforts by the United States to lock down “rebellious” Latin American states.

Surprisingly, the situation appears to be precisely the opposite. The lack of political and economic change over the last three decades in Mexico has turned it into a prime site for the renovation and strengthening of the Left. Today’s global climate of economic instability and ideological transformation has put the status quo, whatever that may be, at a distinct disadvantage. In Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina, for instance, the Right has used profound feelings of discontent to oust or challenge sitting progressive governments. Meanwhile, countries with progressive governments, such as in Bolivia, are faced with the challenging task of simultaneously combatting the ideological apparatus of their local oligarchies and defending the status quo.

In contrast, in Mexico, anti-establishment politics has nowhere to go but left. Mexico’s democratic “transition” was already one towards the right. Presidents Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderón (20062012) were from the right-wing, Christian democratic National Action Party (PAN). Sitting President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) is from the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which already ruled the country for decades during the past century. All three of these leaders have completely discredited right-wing politics, not only through their failed neoliberal economic policies but also by squandering the historic opportunity to use the alternation between political parties at the top as a lever to change the political system at the bottom.

The undisputed leader of the Mexican Left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, today therefore represents the only true opposition to the status quo. The former Mayor of Mexico City technically “lost” in the presidential elections of 2006 and 2012—both were characterized by grave irregularities and fraud. But recent electoral results and public opinion polling show that his chances of winning the 2018 presidential election are better than they have ever been before.

During 2016, López Obrador’s freshly minted party, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA), achieved what neither Bernie Sanders in the U.S. nor Spain’s Podemos was capable of: the much coveted sorpasso, in which the old Left is “overtaken” by the new in terms of electoral presence. In the end, Sanders’ “political revolution” was defeated by Hillary Clinton and the establishment U.S. Left in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries. Almost simultaneously, in June of 2016, on the other side of the Atlantic, the emergent Podemos party of Spain was defeated for the second time in a row by the old “third way” Spanish Socialist and Workers’ Party (PSOE) in the second round of voting for the Spanish parliament. In contrast, that same June of 2016, MORENA quickly and quietly blazed past its establishment rival, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), in elections that took place simultaneously in 13 states, thus proving it will be a major force in Mexican politics in the years to come.

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John Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (IIJ-UNAM) and Editor-in-Chief of The Mexican Law Review. He is also a columnist for La Jornada and Proceso. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnMAckerman and read his blog at

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