How AMLO’s war against independent institutions weakens Mexico

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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes part in a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on July 22. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
August 2 at 11:55 AM

Andrés Manuel López Obrador isn’t fond of dissent.

Mexico’s president routinely goes after the press, his opposition and the country’s few independent watchdogs, questioning with great zeal their loyalty and commitment to “real change” — that is, to him and his political project.

López Obrador has also set his sights on Mexico’s independent institutions, which have been shaped, with great difficulty, to stand up for human rights, sensible economic policy analysis and development following decades of one-party rule during much of the 20th century. In the past few months, López Obrador has denigrated Mexico’s respected human rights commission and used his daily news conference to personally scorn Guillermo García Alcocer, the former head of the country’s energy regulator, and other independent officials.

His intolerance of criticism has recently extended to those in his team unwilling to blindly enact his agenda, no matter how ill-conceived. “I have other data,” the president likes to repeat, in what has become a mantra of personal obstinacy when faced with reality.

At least three high-level government officials, including Carlos Urzúa, the administration’s first finance minister and a personal friend of the president’s, have resigned in protest. López Obrador hasn’t flinched: Any hint of resistance is met with public disparagement and dismissal.

Last week, the president escalated his confrontation with the country’s autonomous agencies when he fired Gonzalo Hernández Licona, an esteemed economist who has been in charge of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), an independent commission tasked with studying poverty in Mexico and evaluating the efficiency of government programs meant to reduce it. Hernández Licona’s longevity as director of CONEVAL (he had served under four presidents) is a rarity in Mexico, but it’s also a testament to both his expertise and the agency’s crucial involvement in Mexican public policy.

“CONEVAL has set an international standard as an institution for the study of poverty,” the Mexican political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor told me. “It is because of its work that we know the extent of destitution in Mexico.”

After receiving an order to slash 20 percent of the agency’s budget and get rid of its area directors, Hernández Licona declined and published a respectful op-ed in which he praised the president’s leadership yet asked him to “exercise austerity that is based on better planning” and using “evidence.” López Obrador would have none of it. Hernández Licona was fired, his disagreement taken as a sign of mutiny.

But López Obrador wasn’t done. During a visit to the southern state of Veracruz, Mexico’s president dismissed CONEVAL’s work. “They created this organism to evaluate poverty in Mexico but it was just a sham,” he said. “All of these organizations just had fancy offices and well-paid public officials.” He then attacked Hernández Licona, saying he enjoyed a monthly salary of 200,000 pesos a month (around $11,000). The attack took Hernández Licona by surprise. “I wish,” he tweeted back, along with a copy of his official earnings report: 90,000 pesos a month.

In a recent interview, Hernández Licona took López Obrador’s personal attacks in stride. “He likes to create these narratives that can be appealing but have no basis in reality,” he told me. “That’s his style.”

The president’s attack on CONEVAL and other independent institutions, though, set a dangerous precedent. Hernández Licona says CONEVAL’s mission has always been to speak truth to power: to explain, in the clearest way possible, whether a government plan is indeed working to ameliorate poverty. “When you’re measuring poverty, when you’re evaluating a certain program, the question is: Who are you working for?” Hernández Licona asked. “It’s very tempting to please the president and his team. Or Congress. But we all decided we would be working squarely for the citizens of Mexico. That’s why CONEVAL was created.”

Hernández Licona assumed the first few months of the López Obrador administration would be challenging for his organization and others like it. “I wanted to be there as counterbalance, to defend what we were doing. I knew it was going to be very complicated,” he said.

He said that “it couldn’t be clearer” that López Obrador wants to “centralize power.” The country’s independent watchdogs, regulators and autonomous agencies like CONEVAL represent “the complete opposite” of that model. The independent analysis and scrutiny these organizations provide might end up being “uncomfortable” for Mexico’s president, Hernández Licona told me.

That’s an understatement. The attack on Hernández Licona and the skilled, independent organization he guided for more than a decade does not bode well for Mexico.

“There is no serious diagnosis or vision behind the offensive against CONEVAL,” Bravo Regidor told me. “What we have is a series of fallacies and unfounded accusations to take advantage of old grievances and destroy anything that could amount to scrutiny or limits” of López Obrador and his administration.

If this continues to be the case, López Obrador’s much-touted transformation will not amount to much more than a restoration of an old and toxic recipe: the concentration of power in the hands of one man.

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