The Infrastructure of a Presidency

The electoral victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has unleashed high hopes among progressives. But a look at his infrastructure policies raises deep concerns about his willingness to end neoliberal politics in Mexico.


September 18, 2018

Wind turbines in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca. (Emilio Labrador/Flickr)

Ever since this landslide victory, López Obrador—commonly referred to as AMLO—and his team are preparing what they call the “fourth transformation” of Mexico. When the new administration takes office on December 1, it will open a new era in Mexico’s history, marking the first time a left-wing party will hold presidential power.

As part of his ambitious campaign promise to build a prosperous and safe Mexico, AMLO has proposed a far-ranging development plan for the coming years, featuring projects intended to generate employment, economic growth, and to integrate marginalized regions and communities into the national economy. To do this, AMLO and his political party  Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) have formed controversial allianceswith right-wing forces such as the evangelical Partido Encuentro Social (Social Encounter Party, PES), former officials of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, PAN) and the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). AMLO has also allied himself with members of Mexico’s powerful economic elite who forcefully resisted his first two attempts at the presidency in 2006 and 2012.

With this more moderate establishment backing and MORENA’s overwhelming congressional majority, AMLO plans to implement several large-scale infrastructure projects. These include the Tren Maya in Southern Mexico, a train line that would facilitate tourism in Indigenous regions. His administration also plans to plant trees on up to one million hectares of land in the same region to boost employment and foment Mexico’s food sovereignty. Additionally, it will further the logistical development of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, one of the narrowest connections between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans which could provide another commercial passage for goods unable to pass through the saturated Panama Canal. Furthermore, AMLO wants to move forward with the controversial installment of Zonas Económicas Especiales (Special Economic Zones, ZEE) in several states in  Northern and Southern Mexico, where a number of incentives such as tax exemption rules will supposedly boost foreign investment. Additionally, AMLO has promised to increase the productive capacities of Mexico’s extractive industries by modernizing its refineries and even constructing several new ones.

Each of these neoliberal projects will affect Indigenous territories. AMLO claimed in a speech at the Estadio Azteca shortly before the election that these projects will help Indigenous communities, saying, “our development program will start by supporting the productive activities of Indigenous and agricultural communities.” But as his infrastructure agenda becomes clearer, an increasing number of critical voices are disputing AMLO’s discourse of progress and prosperity.

For Luis Hernández Navarro, a journalist with La Jornada and author of the 2011 book Siembra de Concreto, Cosecha de Ira (Planting Concrete, Harvesting Anger), AMLO’s development program marks a continuation of the same market-based, ecologically harmful projects implemented by former governments. “Independently from López Obrador’s anti-neoliberal rhetoric, his projects are still neoliberal… There’s no rupture with the Washington Consensus,” he said. “There’s a threat of dispossession and environmental destruction in the name of progress.”

John Ackerman, a law professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM) and a close policy adviser of AMLO, does not think these projects will necessarily have a negative impact on Indigenous communities. “Obviously, the implementation of these projects will be a severe test for AMLO, because at some point his commitment to Mexico’s business class might collide with his commitment to the Indigenous peoples,” he said. However, “if these communities see that they can benefit from the projects, I think they will be pragmatic and support the president.” Yet resistance among Indigenous communities is already brewing, as supporters take issue with AMLO’s changing positions since his election.

Broken Promises

A major issue surrounding AMLO’s infrastructure plans concerns the controversial construction of a new airport outside of Mexico City in the State of Mexico. The airport has a long history: 17 years ago, then-president Vicente Fox announced the construction of a new airport on Indigenous territory, issuing a decree expropriating 5,000 hectares of land near a small town in the State of Mexico, San Salvador de Atenco. The locals, organized in the Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra (Community Front in Defense of Land, FPDT), resisted, resulting in the project’s cancellation a year later. However, the repression against the land defenders persisted, culminating in May 2006 in what is now known as Mayo Rojo (Red May). After the FPDT blocked a highway in solidarity with nearby street vendors, the state responded brutally. Several thousand police forces and soldiers invaded Atenco on the orders of then-governor of the Estado de México, current president Enrique Peña Nieto. They killed two young men, wounded hundreds more, and sexually tortured most of the 47 women they detained. To this day, no one has been held accountable for these attacks. However, 11 women who suffered sexual abuse have taken their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and a decision is expected later this year. Once elected president, Peña Nieto announced the resumption of the airport project in 2014.

During his candidacy, AMLO promised to stop the controversial construction of the new airport. Yet he has since introduced the possibility of finishing the project exclusively with private investment, not through state funds. After winning the presidency, he spent six weeks of internal discussion with cabinet members and aeronautical experts before announcing he will put the airport issue to a referendum in late October, which will allow citizens not to vote on the construction of the airpot itself, but to decide whether it will be built at the current site or will be relocated to a former military base in Santa Lucía.

The FPDT sees this wavering as unacceptable. From their point of view, a nationwide referendum is not democratic, while the directly affected are still not taken into account. “AMLO has met all the investors who would benefit from this project, but he still hasn’t met with us. So for us, his preference seems rather clear,” said Ignacio del Valle. “What is more important? The money or the people?”

For them, the social and ecological costs of the new airport are just too high. “They want to bring us what they call progress. But we won’t stop resisting and we won’t stop fighting for our ancestral lands and the rights of Mother Nature,” said 63-year-old Ignacio del Valle, a FPDT member who has spent several years in prison for his resistance to the airport. During the presidential campaign it seemed like AMLO might side with the local community. Instead, the events of Atenco could stand as a cautionary tale for AMLO.


The development of the Istmo de Tehuantepec, another infrastructure policy proposal AMLO has floated, raises other concerns. “López Obrador’s idea to fully develop the Istmo de Tehuantepec is nothing new. The idea to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean through the Istmo goes back to the heyday of neoliberal governments in Mexico,” explains Juan Antonio López Cruz, coordinator of Transnational Justice at the Mexico City-based human rights organization Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (Project of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ProDesc). “Now MORENA is saying the same thing all over again: that these projects will generate investment that will benefit the local economy.”

As a lawyer, López Cruz has been working for years with Zapotec communities in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec affected by wind energy parks. “To this day, all of the big renewable energy projects by big transnational companies in the Istmo de Tehuantepec have been implemented with grave violations of the human rights of the local Indigenous communities of the Zapotec and with the use of lies and false promises,” he said.          

In particular, he doubts the incoming administration will carry out consultations with Indigenous populations that will meet the standards of international human rights law. He cited that of 24 wind farms in the region, only one was carried out after consulting the local community, though even that process was not completed well. Like his predecessors, “AMLO is just talking very superficially about consulting them, but he is not considering the real possibility that his plans might be rejected,” López Cruz said.       

The impacts of former development projects in the region contradict AMLO’s AMLO’s insistence that the development of the Isthmus will benefit local communities. “In the end, all the promises by all levels of government and the transnational corporations turned out to be wrong. Instead of development and well-being the implementation of those wind parks has brought land theft, higher crime rates, social deterioration and the exodus of countless young people, who have to look for work elsewhere because despite the promises the project didn’t bring employment to their communities,” said López Cruz.

Opposition to other infrastructure projects negatively impacting Indigenous communities will extend to AMLO’s proposal for the Tren Maya. Romell González Díaz, member of the Indigenous organization Consejo Regional Indígena Popular de Xpujil (Popular Indigenous Regional Council of Xpujil, CRIPX) from the southeastern state of Campeche said in an interview with La Jornada in early September, said that building the train without consulting Indigenous peoples would be a sin. “Even more serious, it would create discontent and which would create unrest and opposition in the peninsula.”

Another Kind of Transformation

In fact, it seems like the most powerful opposition to AMLO’s proposed “fourth transformation” will indeed be coming from organized Indigenous communities and their allies. Even before AMLO won more than half of the vote on July 1, it was clear that a great number of Indigenous organizations were not supportive of his proposals. The Zapatistas and the and the Congreso Nacional Indígena (National Indigenous Council, CNI) ran their own candidate for the presidency in 54-year-old María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, better known as Marichuy, a traditional healer and longtime activist of the Nahua people, under the banner of the Concejo Indígena de Gobierno (Indigenous Council of Government, CIG) coalition. In the end, despite heavy campaigning by countless grassroots movements, Marichuy did only receive a third of the 867.000 signatures that would have been necessary to appear on the ballot, but for Juan Villoro, a writer and close follower of the campaign, the initiative was still a success. “Marichuy wasn’t in it for the signatures. She quite simply tried to make the voices for another Mexico heard, the voices of the forgotten, of the Indigenous people, of women and the marginalized.” In fact, Marichuy herself doubted the role of electoral, top-down politics to effect true change in Mexico. Just days before the election, she said in a meeting in Coahuila: “It doesn’t matter whether you vote or not, what is important is organizing ourselves for later on and to do this from the bottom up, if we want real change for everyone.”        

It is likely that the decades-old struggle of Mexico’s Indigenous people for autonomy and dignity will intensify under AMLO, despite his progressive image and popular support. In fact, this support and his unprecedented majority in congress could even help him succeed in implementing projects that unpopular previous governments couldn’t pass. The Zapatistas’ position is clear. “These projects will destroy the territories of the Indigenous peoples,” said Subcomandante Galeano in early August. “We will not change our history, our pain, our anger, our struggle, for progressive conformism and walk behind a leader.”

Meanwhile, the CIG organizers who led the Marichuy campaign will continue their organizing work with a meeting in Chiapas in Mid-October, when delegates from more than 50 Indigenous Peoples will set the organization’s future agenda. The Zapatistas are already thinking about how to broaden resistance to AMLO’s “transformation” by expanding the support structures of the CIG and transforming it into a transnational resistance network that also includes non-indigenous organizations. As they wrote in a recent comunicado: “Our call goes out not only to Indigenous people, but to everyone who is resisting anywhere on this planet.”

As of now, AMLO’s popular support is remains strong, but his neoliberal infrastructure policies might bring about more resistance than he expects—and even create a powerful opposition from the Left and from below, that can cast the progressive nature of his administration into doubt.

Alexander Gorski is a human rights law student and freelance journalist based in Mexico City.

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