AMLO vs Zapata

Mexico’s new left-leaning President sees an opportunity in championing the legacy of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. But does his record so far live up to Zapata’s ideals? Tamara Pearson reports.

 Lopez Obrador speaking in Puebla in June, 2018. Credit: Tamara Pearson

Almost 12,000 streets and roads are named after Emiliano Zapata in Mexico. Zapata, a key figure in the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), plays a central role in the country’s national mythology.

For Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), Mexico’s new left-leaning President, Zapata’s legacy presents an opportunity. His government has declared 2019 – which marks 100 years since Zapata’s death – the year of Zapata, and together with local governments, has planned various cultural activities to mark the anniversary.

In January, AMLO met with descendants of Zapata and announced that all government documents would have Zapata’s alias Caudillo del Sur (Commander of the South) on the letterhead. He created a special commission to organize this year's events, headed by Edgar Castro Zapata, a great grandson of the revolutionary.

‘Zapata began the revolutionary movement. He helped rural workers to get back the lands that the estate owners had taken. It was a great lesson: no to abuse of power, yes to justice,’ he said.

AMLO has argued that the best way to honour Zapata is with a democratically elected government that responds to the demands of Mexicans and puts the poor first.

‘Zapata was a fighter for our rights, here in Mexico. He was a revolutionary, and an important part of our history,’ says Jose Reyes, a civil engineer.

‘All Mexicans can use his image. I think AMLO and Zapata have similar ideals. After lots of bad government, the process in Mexico has been very different this year.’

But some have noticed a widening gap between AMLO’s rhetoric of Zapata-indebted social justice and governing record so far.

The real Zapatistas

Take the EZLN, which is a political movement which autonomously runs parts of the southern Chiapas state. They also view their project as a continuation of Zapata’s legacy.

In a statement released last month calling for a mobilisation for 10 April to mark Zapata’s death, the EZLN blamed the ‘neoliberal regime’ for killing activist Samir Flores in February.

Flores, a Nahuatl campesino (farmer), was murdered after he denounced the environmental impact of an energy plant in Morelos, which AMLO had originally opposed, but then later submitted to a consultation vote. AMLO has held a number of consultation votes, where citizens around the country can vote in favour or against issues spanning the building of airports, trains and abortion.

While AMLO claims the votes are aimed at bringing more people in politics, it is also apparent that most of the topics voted on so far, or scheduled to be voted on, are controversial: a way for AMLO to relinquish responsibility.

For the EZLN, there is little difference between AMLO and his party, Morena, and previous governments. ‘For the original peoples, the only real change is the increase in lies, tricks, persecutions, threats, imprisonment, plundering, murders… human exploitation and destruction of the environment... that is, the annihilation of the life that we collectively are,’ they stated.

‘The least AMLO can do, as president of Mexico, is redeem Zapata. But the massive infrastructure projects that he is supporting go against the ideology behind Zapata’s struggle.’ said Gabriela Hernandez, a leading activist in the movement for Central American migrants in Mexico.

Positive steps

AMLO, meanwhile, declared the end of the ‘neoliberal model and its policy of anti-people looting and appeasement’. Just three months in to his term, it is only starting to become clear just how much of an alternative his model of development is.

One of AMLO’s biggest achievements has been combatting the organized criminal siphoning off of petrol, one of the state’s main sources of income. By closing four of the main pipes and deploying 4,000 marines and federal police to guard the pipes, as well as launching an investigation, he managed to reduce robbery from 56,000 barrels to 8,000 per day.

He doubled the old-age pension (though it is still intolerably low at US $70 per month), but also raised the access age from 65 to 68. And he has implemented a scholarship programme worth US $200 per month for young apprentices, which involves collaboration between private companies and the government.

In terms of foreign policy, he has also resisted international pressure to take sides on the crisis in Venezuela. And cancelled the construction of an airport in Mexico City which was opposed by environmentalists, following a public consultation in October last year.

Border woes

However, his policy aimed at addressing violence and discrimination against women, for example, is not very different to measures already in place or attempted by previous governments. He gave the order that civil associations shouldn’t receive public resources, which saw women and children’s refuges de-funded.

He is also pushing for the construction of the Mayan Train project, an almost 1,600 km railroad in the Yucatan Peninsula, with the aim of connecting various tourist destinations.

When it comes to Central American migrants passing through Mexico, there is a gap between policy and practice. AMLO wants migrants to be able to move through Mexico without facing extortion, violence and insecurity. He announced that humanitarian and working visas would be easier to obtain on the southern border.

But on 3 April 2019, Reuters reported that although the ‘the Mexican government has vehemently denied changing policy in response to threats [from Trump], it has ‘appeared to slam the brakes on its practice of awarding so-called humanitarian visas that allow migrants from other countries to pass freely within its borders’.

Still, few Mexicans expect the government to be able to fix the extreme levels of corruption, violence, and poverty overnight. AMLO’s approval rating remains very high, at 64-80 per cent.

‘I'm glad he's in power. I'd rather he didn't use Zapata's image so much as Zapata's ideals. Zapata was a good Mexican,’ says Constanza Sanchez, a storekeeper.