Populism comes to Mexico as old symbols are laid to waste

Saturday was a historic day for Mexico. Activities started at 10 a.m. with the beginning of public access to Los Pinos, the official presidential residence that had been home to the past 14 presidents.

Mexicans now have full and free access to a facility that, before President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, was impossible to visit. Social media exploded with videos and photos from people visiting the rooms and gardens that had been occupied by the president and his family.


With this, President López Obrador fulfilled his campaign proposal: Los Pinos would become a cultural center. López Obrador frequently stated that Los Pinos was a symbol of the excesses of his predecessors. Now that symbol was laid to waste. 

At 10:15 a.m., a large group of people waited for López Obrador outside his home, located in a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City. López Obrador and his wife parted for the swearing-in ceremony in a traditional white Volkswagen — the people’s car.

The relaxed security defied the high levels of violence and crime in the country. In addition, López Obrador had stated that his personal security would not be an obstacle to his direct contact with the people. Another symbol was laid to waste. 

At 11 a.m., President Enrique Peña Nieto arrived in Congress. His armored Suburban with Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP) protection contrasted with the simplicity of Mr. López Obrador’s voyage.

The EMP, Mexico's Secret Service, is an elite military group responsible for the security of the president and his family for the last 70 years.

López Obrador dispensed with its services. The EMP will be dissolved. Now a group of 20 unarmed assistants protects him. That symbol of privileged safety in a country where citizens demand security for Mexico’s political elite is now also gone. 

A tall order ahead

The ceremony went smoothly. President López Obrador’s speech lasted one hour and 20 minutes. His message hardly changed from that of his campaign.

He thanked President Peña Nieto for not meddling in the elections and respecting popular will. Immediately after, President López Obrador launched an attack on neoliberalism. Neoliberal policies of the last 30 years, he said, were responsible for economic crises, poverty and inequality.

He criticized its last incarnation, the energy reform of 2014. He promised to produce more oil and gas, halt imports of energy, and lower the prices of gasoline and electricity. He also promised to refine more oil at home and strengthen PEMEX, the national oil company.

No word on how this can be accomplished without truly substantial investment. Clearly, on energy, the new administration will not see eye to eye with Washington’s expectations.

López Obrador ratified some of his campaign promises:

  • pay cuts to top public officials, including his own;
  • separate economic from political power, reining in the profits of banks and companies, especially if they meddle in politics;
  • maintain current taxes levels;
  • increase wages to all workers; and
  • increase government cash transfers to young people and the elderly.

He reiterated his ban on fracking and transgenic foods. All worthy goals, but not easily accomplished.

The most controversial part of his program is his relationship with the military and his willingness to give them a greater role in public safety and security. He praised the armed forces.

Maybe he realized that he needs them to guarantee the country’s public safety in the absence of an effective police force. But his vision is one of citizen security and ending the war on drugs. On this again, he is likely to run afoul of U.S. law enforcement. 

Interestingly, he gave a warm reception to the United States contingent, which included Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Pence to deliver address on 'educational freedom' in Virginia Obama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe MORE and Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpTrump attacks Meghan McCain and her family McCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral Grisham: Time in Trump administration 'will follow me forever' MORE. This is recognition of the indispensable nature of the relationship between the two countries — especially while ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is still pending — and that North American trade is fundamental if he wants to achieve the 4-percent annual economic growth he promised. 

President Peña Nieto sat behind him, witnessing how López Obrador dismantled his legacy. At the end, Peña Nieto left the congressional hall through a side door, as if in shame, buckling under scandalous levels of corruption, impunity, violence and crime.  

Foreign relations

At 1:30 p.m. President López Obrador offered a reception at Palacio Nacional for foreign dignitaries and special guests. This reception was closed to the media. It was later disclosed that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro did attend. Bolivia’s Evo Morales was also an honored guest.

This could signal a new reorientation toward Latin America — the question is toward whom in the continent. The question is also whether U.S. and Mexico’s interests will again differ in the region.

At the same time the reception was taking place, people started arriving to the Zocalo, Mexico City's main plaza, to celebrate with López Obrador. At 4:30 p.m., a huge celebration began at the Zocalo. The original plan had López Obrador receiving the “bastón de mando,” a symbolic staff appointing him leader of the native peoples.


Then, he gave a second speech. The message was like that of his swearing in ceremony — giving more emphasis to the need for attention to the indigenous peoples of Mexico. This was reminiscent of many of the swearing-in ceremonies of the mid-20th century. 

A future to watch

On Saturday, a new chapter in Mexico’s history began. With an approval rate of more than 60 percent and the majority in both chambers of Congress, but with an inexperienced cabinet and a divided country, President López Obrador will face huge challenges. Only time will tell how he handles them.

As an omen, during his way to the Congress ceremony, a man riding his bicycle approached the incoming president’s car and shouted, “You do not have the right to fail.” Indeed, López Obrador has all the conditions in his favor to succeed. Much will depend on his own limitations.

Rodrigo Montes de Oca is a research scholar at Rice University's Baker Institute Mexico Center. His research primarily focuses on the rule of law and corruption in Mexico.