An unprecedented democratic process took place in Mexico at the end of October, when the incoming government of president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) executed a nationwide consulta (consultation) to decide on whether or not the controversial construction of the New International Airport of Mexico (NAICM) should continue. Throughout his presidential campaign, López Obrador claimed that the project’s contracts were plagued with corruption and criticized rising costs for taxpayers. His campaign platform had pledged to hold nationwide consultas to decide on issues of public relevance—a second consulta took place on November 24 and 25, which, among other results, approved the construction of a new train through the Tren Maya and development in the Isthmus of Tehauntepec. Another vote is planned after he takes office.
At the end of the four-day process, over one million Mexicans voted, with nearly 70% of voters choosing to cancel the construction of the new airport, which began in 2016, and instead make improvements to the current Mexico City airport and nearby Toluca airport, and add two commercial runways to the Santa Lucía military base, about 50 kilometers northeast of Mexico City. Even though less than two percent of eligible voters participated out of nearly 90 million eligible voters, the results were decisive, prompting criticism about the validity of the voting process. In fact, according to AMLO’s transition team, México Decide (Mexico Decides), voting stations were placed in municipalities only comprising 82% of the national population, with 1,073 voting stations in total across 32 states and 538 municipalities.
The plan for the new airport has a long history, dating back to 2001, when then-president Vicente Fox’s administration announced the construction of a new airport on ejido lands across the San Salvador Atenco, Texcoco, and Chimualhuacán municipalities, in the State of Mexico. A group of community members who reside on the lands where the airport was planned formed the Community Front in Defense of Land (FPDT) the day after the announcement. The FPDT demanded their lands be left alone, and after almost a year of persistent and steadfast militant resistance, the Fox administration canceled the project in August 2002.
But violence associated with the project did not end there. The FPDT remained active, and in 2006 became involved in a protest when police prevented over 60 flower-sellers from vending in local markets in San Salvador Atenco. With the failed airport still a fresh wound in the government’s mind, then-governor of the State of Mexico, and current president Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered a crackdown on protests. This crackdown resulted in the deaths of two protestors and the detention of hundreds, many of them women who were sexually assaulted by police forces.
In September 2014, while the Peña Nieto administration was working to implement its prized structural reforms, the airport project was reintroduced; this time in federally-owned lands in the Texcoco Valley. The now $13 billion megaproject—which was to be at least partially funded publicly—was expected to be one of the biggest airports in the world and one of the most important contemporary infrastructural projects in the nation. Its design included imagery of a snake and serpent, based on the founding myth of Mexico, and “world class” facilities. The project met no significant local resistance like that of the FPDT in 2001-2002, which allowed it to move forward and become a signature symbol of Peña Nieto’s “modernizing” agenda.
It is in this context that the consultation was carried out. Despite the validity of some criticisms about the vote itself, it appears that critics were more bothered by the idea of allowing a popular decision on an economic project than they were about the rejection of the airport itself. Although there was no significant local protest to the Texcoco project, the results showed national opposition, a reflection of the deep gap between the priorities of the majority and the interests of the economic elite. The consulta represents a challenge to the established ways of doing politics in the country—and to the state’s practice of unilateral decision-making driven by economic elites.
Neoliberal Development for the Few
Soon after the results of the consulta came out, former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) posted a tweet detailing the ways that European tourism would suffer from the cancellation of the NAICM. Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, who also has various contracts in the construction of the NAICM, said that suspending the airport would be equivalent to suspending the country’s growth. Many more critics noted that, by destabilizing investor confidence, the rejection of the airport was a threat to Mexico’s modernization. A three percent drop of the Mexican peso—which was quickly regained—served as the perfect point to decry the incoming administration’s meddling with business interests. In sum, the cancellation of the project poses threats to elite Mexicans’ neoliberal understandings of development and modernization, who for decades have dominated the Mexican political and economic spheres.
Clearly, the question of Mexico’s modernization goes far beyond the construction of an airport. During his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto has pushed a set of structural reforms, spearheaded by mass privatizations, to propel Mexico’s economic growth by appealing to industrialists and foreign investors. This past week, his administration bragged that it was set to break the record on the highest amount of foreign investment during a presidency. Yet a majority of the population believes the reforms have not benefited them. And while foreign investment has grown, violence has worsened, while poverty has remained stagnant.
According to national statistics, 31,174 died as a result of violence in 2017—the highest rate since recordkeeping began—adding to the more than 250,000 victims of a disastrous drug war started by the Calderón administration. This year is on track to be even more violent. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in 2016 was 43.6 percent, and it shows no significant trend of decreasing. Violence against women has increased, evidenced by rising feminicide rates, with no tangible government strategy to address it. Additionally, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Mexico’s deep social crisis is marked by the disappearances of tens of thousands, mistreatment of migrants, and unmarked mass graves. Compounded with unyielding impunity and corruption, it is no wonder that so-called “modernization” has benefitted very few Mexicans.
Yet President Peña Nieto has doubled down on his neoliberal talking points. In a speech to industrialists in September of this year, he claimed that “generating more wealth and greater economic growth” will “close the gaps of inequality that persist in our society.” Yet after years of similar economic policy, it is hard to see any positive impacts in ameliorating inequality. The NAICM is the latest iteration of this project, one for few Mexicans to enjoy—only three in ten Mexicans have ever traveled by plane.
To no surprise, the highest percentages of anti-NAICM votes came from states in southern Mexico; the poorest states with significant numbers of Indigenous peoples. For Mexican elites who have historically considered these marginal states subordinate to central power and decision-making—fueled by racist ideas of Indigenous peoples as backward and uneducated—giving these groups a democratic voice is not only a threat to elite class privilege, but also to their racial privilege.
The NAICM is the epitome of Mexico’s drive to become modern by attempting to access a whitened, Anglo form of development. The airport is a testament of modernity symbolically, but physically it is also intended to convey a very precise image of Mexico’s global position to would-be foreign travelers visiting the country—a modernity that caters foreigners, not for Mexicans living in states of precariousness. As Calderón’s tweet stated, European tourists would be at a disadvantage—not because of ongoing violence exacerbated by his administration, but because of longer waits at the old airports. After starting a drug war that has killed hundreds of thousands, Calderón’s words show a disdain for disenfranchised Mexicans.
While critics have decried AMLO for being “anti-development,” López Obrador acknowledges the importance of, and has pledged to work with, industrial sectors to generate growth. But the kind of modernization his administration supports may diverge from the way it’s typically been seen in Mexico, where modernization has been racialized and tailored to benefit a small sector of Mexican society at the cost of collective decision-making and democracy.
Growth at Any Cost
On November 11, about 5,000 people marched in favor of NAICM and against the results on the consulta. Organizers decried the imposition of a “fake” referendum and encouraged protestors to wear black, in tribute to the canceled (“killed”) airport and the “end” of the rule of law. They characterized the referendum as an anti-democratic action, highlighting that the group in charge of running it was an extension of López Obrador’s transition team. In an interview with Animal Político, protester Laura Herrejón said, “the consulta carried out by López Obrador and Morena [his party] is a mockery at Mexicans and their democracy. They made the questions, the ballots, and their personnel counted the votes.”
Many people at the march protesting the “anti-democratic” measures called for unity among Mexicans, speaking out against polarization in Mexico. But others blazoned xenophobic and racist messages and warnings equating AMLO to Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, chanting “Venezuela started like this, Mexico don’t fall asleep.” The protesters demanded accountability for losses—not of human lives, but of investments and investors’ confidence.
The march garnered significant press, but does not represent Mexican reality. A Mitosfky Group poll showed that prior to the consultation, a strong majority of Mexicans were in favor of putting the fate of the airport to a vote, and while some polls showed that more people supported the continuation of the project, there was a large (and significant) portion of people who were undecided or indifferent about the project.
These protests made a telling statement: that for some, securing neoliberal economic growth is more important than securing a more inclusive growth that could improve conditions for victims and potential victims of violence in Mexico. While protestors in 2001 rose up to preserve their lands, resulting in their violent repression five years later in Atenco orchestrated by Peña Nieto, these protestors demanded the preservation of the status quo—an all-powerful state engaged in unilateral decision-making.
As protestors called for unity, their silences on issues that afflict Mexican society was a resounding statement on their positionality within their country and their lack of regard for real unity among all Mexicans. That these Mexicans marched in protest of a “dead” airport, but not for dead compatriots, reveals much about racial and class privileges in Mexico.
Yet rather than create polarization in Mexican society, as some have criticized, it is clear that López Obrador’s election has instead brought to the surface long-standing tensions and prejudices in Mexican society rooted and resulting in an unequal distribution of resources.
The process of the consulta has challenged politics as usual. Whether the consultation was responsibly conducted or not is of less relevance in this context—there were clear deficiencies with the way it was organized, and the same can certainly be said for the second consulta this past weekend, which had even lower participation than the first. However, even when conditions are ideal for referendums to be held, detractors still find a reason to prevent the practice of collective decision-making. This is a precondition of neoliberal reform—let experts, technocrats, and businesspeople make models and base their decisions off of these models, and let the masses be the passive receptors of these policies.
President Peña Nieto’s latest approval rating of 18.2, the second-lowest rating during his presidency, shows the severity of this government’s failure to please the public. This rating confirms what is widely known: despite a cabinet with U.S.-educated politicians and economists, the formulaic, neoliberal approach has not yielded results for the electorate. Approval ratings of the previous four presidencies have also decreased since 2012. These numbers show that, in hindsight, the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the subsequent arrival of “democracy” in Mexico did not lead to regimes that were beneficial to the public. More importantly, it shows that perceptions of regimes that base their economic policies on neoliberal development have grown increasingly negative because they have not reaped the benefits they promised. The electorate spoke decisively when they elected AMLO by a huge margin.
In this context, we can see the vote on the NAICM as a vote on whether or not the developmental project should be continued the way it has been for the past decades. The fact that López Obrador put this issue to a vote is also a symbolic step to display the public’s discontent with previous policies. It is a choice to break from previous policies and begin an era of policies voted on by the people. Yet it is important to remain critical too of AMLO as he assumes power on December 1. In fact, in contrast to his platform, he recently released a plan to create a National Guard to combat violence—an endorsement and continuation of militarization as a response to violence, which has proved disastrous in the past two administrations—, has pivoted on NAFTA, and supports the construction of a petroleum refinery expected to have severe impacts on the environment. However, importantly, the construction of the refinery, the creation of a National Guard, and other infrastructure and social projects will also be put to a vote in other consultas. The one held on Nov. 24 and 25 voted to approve several large-scale development projects as well as the construction of the new oil refinery, raising concerns that the consultations may be more of a way to legitimize a previously-set agenda than truly challenge the status quo.
Even with these weaknesses, the consulta hints at a return to popular power as defined by the Mexican Constitution, that: “National sovereignty resides essentially and originally in the people. All public power originates in the people and is instituted for their benefit. The people at all times have the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government.” Thus, the consulta represents a transition from “authoritative legality” to “popular legality,” according to John Ackerman, a process which effectively redefines power structures and could begin a process of national transformation.
In any case, the NAICM vote results are a signal that there are fundamental changes afoot in the way politics are done in Mexico and it sends reverberations across Mexican society of what could come in López Obrador’s presidency. López Obrador is not Mexico’s savior, but he has begun a process of reckoning that is crucial for Mexicans to challenge the status quo and achieve long-lasting change.
Javier Porras Madero is pursuing his Masters’ degree in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His current research focuses on boundary-creation in, and migration between, Central America and Mexico. He can be reached at email@example.com.