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Between fact and fiction

A critique of Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation”

In this article, Ruben Jaramillo and Héctor A. Rivera critically examine the impact of the "Fourth Transformation" under Mexico's president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Since 2018, Mexico has undergone a huge political shift led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO or Obrador), and his political party, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA). Along with supporters from other political parties, civil society, and the capitalist class, AMLO has been building a new political regime and pursuing a political-development project dubbed the Fourth Transformation (4T). While there is a considerable difference in the way the government communicates, how public finances are handled, and the way public policy is implemented, the 4T has fallen short of the transformation AMLO touts.

The first three transformations were the Mexican War of Independence against Spain after 1810, the Liberal victory over the Conservative and French forces in the 1860s, and the Mexican Revolution which raged from 1910-20. It’s important to note that the previous transformations AMLO invokes to legitimize his project came about through the mass mobilization of the population to destroy the old order and create a more just society. Nevertheless, under AMLO, the old order has been brought into the fold, as is the case of the many politicians who abandoned their parties to join AMLO, or the military that has been rehabilitated and strengthened.

As the end of Obrador’s term nears [the President of Mexico is limited to serving a single six-year term], we take stock of the Fourth Transformation and focus on several policies and development projects that the government has pursued. As we will argue, the new regime pretends to govern for the people (“the poor come first” says AMLO), but in reality, it governs on behalf of the interests of the U.S. and Mexican ruling class.

Propaganda and facts

The image of the Fourth Transformation (4T) as portrayed by its sympathizers on the international Left contrasts greatly with reality. The AMLO government has wanted to create the idea that it is a force that fights for Latin American emancipation as an anti-imperialist force, when in fact it is quite the opposite.

The policies of the current government of Mexico are a mirror image of the nationalist policies pursued before the neoliberal turn that hit Mexico from 1985 to 2018. This administration is pursuing a capitalist development project, but without the benefits of the Bonapartism of the post-Revolution era, and with all the economic and political subordination to U.S. imperialism, although with the discursive freedom to support progressive movements and revolutions in other countries.

The representatives of Obradorismo are in reality nostalgic for that period when the party-state had full control of all institutions and state corporations but lacked any kind of workers’ democracy and were controlled by bureaucrats and charros (corrupt union leaders that herded workers like cattle).

This nostalgia can be seen in the profile of those who are the main representatives of Obradorismo. For example, the former Secretary of the Interior, Adán Augusto López, was a PRI militant until 2001. AMLO’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, was also a PRI member until 1995, and then joined the Democratic Center Party until 2000. Its first Secretary of Public Education, Esteban Moctezuma, was an official during the six-year term of Carlos Salinas and was part of Fundación Azteca, owned by Grupo Salinas, which belongs to the billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego. In fact,  many of the members of MORENA who have become governors also come from the PRI, which is the cradle and political training ground of these politicians.

This desire to return to the so-called “Estado de Bienestar” (welfare state) is not a disruptive movement, nor does it go against the tide of neoliberalism. On the contrary, it is precisely one more expression of a worldwide tendency to return to greater state control of some key aspects of the economy in response to the economic crises that have hit the world economy since 2008. However, in Mexico, there has been little progress in that direction, and there is still a very big struggle between bourgeois factions that do not quite accept this new tendency. This is why the government is still trying to consolidate this transition, relying not only on institutions, but also on agreements with U.S. imperialism and the popular support centered on the figure of AMLO.

Some myths that reinforce this false idea are easier to disprove than others, but we will try to illustrate as best we can these contradictions between propaganda and facts.

A false anti-imperialism

Mexico is a semi-colonial country that has been subjugated by the United States since the latter became an imperialist power. However, thanks to free trade agreements like NAFTA, several Mexican companies became multinational corporations and the Mexican bourgeoisie could then negotiate with other European imperialist countries and even with China to expand its market, using the public spending of the Mexican government, its institutions, and state enterprises as a springboard for global markets.

Part of the recent achievements of the bourgeoisie was the entry of European capital into the energy industry with which Mexican businesses were able to do big business, but which threatened the national oil industry and, in turn, the gringo hegemony over energy markets in the  American continent. U.S. control of this sector has been maintained despite the fact that several Latin American oil companies are state-owned and, in some cases, have Russian investors. Washington has had to expel foreign capital from these industries, and AMLO’s nationalist discourse has served this purpose well. Of course, it has been in Mexico’s interest to expel European corporations such as Iberdrola, Unión Fenosa, Shell and BP from the national oil industry, as well as to put refineries to work in favor of greater production of oil derivatives, but ultimately this is a policy that suits the U.S interests. Furthermore, the national oil industry still depends on private capital in many ways, since one of the main suppliers of infrastructure for PEMEX is Grupo Carso, owned by the richest person in Mexico, Carlos Slim.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is on the left standing next to President Donald Trump on the right in the White House Oval Office. Both men are standing in front of two yellow chairs, a fireplace, military flags representing the Marine Corps and the Navy, and portraits of Presidents James Madison (left) George Washington (center), and Thomas Jefferson (right).
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visits President Donald Trump at the White House on July 8, 2020. Photo Credit: Trump White House Archived.

This policy has also applied to the extraction of lithium. The main lithium extractor in Mexico was a Chinese company, Gangfem Lithium, through its subsidiary, Bacanora Lithium. It has now closed thanks to the decree of nationalization of lithium that took place in May 2022. Contradictorily this decree still allows the entry of foreign capital, and was lobbied for by U.S. officials and businessmen. In its aftermath, the government proudly announced the construction of a Tesla plant in Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon.

The security and militarization policy of AMLO’s government is also telling. Since the 1970s the armed forces and police in Mexico have been advised and trained by U.S. institutions such as the CIA, the FBI, and the School of the Americas to carry out counterinsurgency tasks. Such ties have been very strong. For example, Mexican armed forces continue to operate under the so-called “Northern Command.” We refute the idea that militarization as part of the “strategy to combat drugs” is a progressive process (we will not discuss whether the militarization of public safety is suddenly a progressive act or not, because it simply is not), and it is specifically a policy imposed by Washington. This resulted in the outbreak of violence in 2007 under Felipe Calderon in the form of a treaty called the “Merida Initiative,” which has been denounced by AMLO on several occasions, but he has done nothing to end it and has only changed its name to the “US-Mexico Bicentennial Framework.”

What the 4T government did was simply use AMLO’s popular support to justify an advance in the policy of gringo intervention on security through the “War on Drugs,” even though the president declared it over. Proof of this is the first use given to the National Guard after its creation, as it was not to combat drug trafficking, but to stop the caravans of Central American migrants trying to enter through the southern border with Guatemala. And that is the true nature of the National Guard, as well as of the army: to be an extended armed wing of Yankee interventions in Mexico.

Both from the members of MORENA and from AMLO himself, there is an attempt to generate the idea that gringo imperialism is besieging the Mexican government. In alignment with right-wing personalities to carry out a “soft coup,” supposedly due to the fact that there is a great discomfort among American and Mexican business leaders who see their interests being affected by this government. We cannot ignore the fact that there are changes in the public administration that have affected some businesses that were managed with scandalous corruption, but to think that these changes are of such magnitude that they have upset the interests of the Mexican and U.S. ruling class is ridiculous, to say the least. We are now a little less than a year away from the end of Lopez Obrador’s six-year term, and since Mexico cannot legally have more than one presidential term, it would make no sense to want to remove him from office at this point.

Of course, there is a business sector that has always detested AMLO, and in several media—El Universal, Reforma, El Financiero, Radiofórmula, and LatinUS—there is constant political bashing. But there is no generalized discontent among the Mexican bourgeoisie with the president. For example, the main TV corporations Televisa and TV Azteca are not as antagonistic. On the contrary, the relationship has been quite fruitful between AMLO and Mexico’s wealthiest capitalists, filled with frequent business dinners where the president repeatedly boasts of new initiatives.

Megaprojects for capitalist development

As part of the pompously dubbed Fourth Transformation, the government is also pursuing large megaprojects in parts of the country that have historically been disinvested. While the government argues that these projects are a form of reparations and social justice for these communities, in truth these projects are old PRI agendas or new projects to expand extractivism throughout the territory.

From its beginning, Obrador has sought to reintroduce large state-funded megaprojects as centerpieces of the 4T. His main transportation and tourism project has been the so-called “Mayan Train” which will crisscross the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo with 15 stations and 950 miles of rail. This project is led by the Secretariat of Tourism headed by Miguel Angel Torruco, in-law of Carlos Slim, and along with new airports and hotels it aims to detonate the tourism industry in the Mexican southeast expanding it beyond the beaches of Cancún and Playa del Carmen. These projects will accommodate tourists and distribute them to the interior of the Yucatan peninsula where they can visit Mayan ruins and colonial towns along the route.

Although the president argues that this project will have a minimal impact on the environment, its massive operations will reshape the entire economy of the southeast. This will bring with it mass tourism, hotel chains, and real estate speculation along the route. Additionally, the train cuts through natural reserves, collective lands, and Indigenous communities that have not seen the penetration of tourism on this scale. To meet the demand of the throngs of tourists, public lands will also be privatized and turned over to agribusiness and real estate developments. The impacts of mass tourism are already felt in Cancún and nearby cities where the destruction of mangroves, wildlife habitat, and the pollution of water tables from sewers are already an issue. Furthermore, the government failed to inform communities about the environmental impact of this project and has used extensive propaganda to portray the project as a fait accompli to marginalize environmentalists and stymie opposition.

In addition to the expansion of mass tourism, the Mayan Train will also extend the reach of the military by creating the state-owned corporation Olmeca-Maya-Mexica, which will be administered by the military. Which is building large sections of this project and when finished, will operate five airports, six hotels, a railroad, and a new airline. AMLO argues that the profits from this company will curb corruption since they will be re-invested in these projects and military pensions. However, the extensive involvement of the military in these projects aims to buy their loyalty, especially the top brass, and to enroll them in the new regime’s plans of nationalization of infrastructures that will be more difficult to privatize.

Overall, AMLO’s Fourth Transformation is not an alternative to the dictates of fossil capitalism. According to Víctor Manuel Toledo, the former head of the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), the 4T does not have a clear set of objectives with visions towards long-term development. On the contrary, the former secretary argued that the 4T is full of contradictions and power struggles that get played out in the President’s cabinet. As a development project, the Mayan Train is a classic case of capital’s spatial fix, which is a strategy to solve the crisis of capitalism by projecting them toward new spaces of investment and kicking off new rounds of profitability through geographic expansion of capital in previously underdeveloped regions. The result will be the further ecocide of the southeast and the commodification of Mayan history and culture for the service of mass tourism. When all is said and done, the Mayan Train will reproduce the tourism model that Mexico has been pioneering since the 1970s. It will amount to poorly paid workers catering to the whims of gringos on vacation.

Another major infrastructure project has been the Olmeca refinery in Dos Bocas, Tabasco, which is part of AMLO’s policy of expanding the energy industry as a pillar of the national economy. As a centerpiece of his national development project, Dos Bocas is not just a refinery but the anchor of a growing petrochemical complex in the region that will supply energy to the states crisscrossed by the Mayan Train and the Interoceanic Corridor.

An investment of $8 billion dollars was announced for the construction of this megaproject, but it is currently mentioned that its cost has already risen to $17 billion dollars. Part of the money invested in the infrastructure of this huge industrial complex has been destined for contracts with Grupo Carso, who maintains great power as a vendor for PEMEX. For the construction of this refinery, an entire tropical forest of approximately 350 hectares, which contained a diversity of mangroves, had to be destroyed.

The third major infrastructure project AMLO has prioritized is the Interoceanic Corridor. The project includes the expansion of the ports of Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos, an upgraded railroad, highway routes, and ten industrial parks–Maquila free trade zones–along the Isthmus. AMLO has argued that these megaprojects are also designed to keep migrant populations in place and to stop Central American migrants from moving north since, ostensibly, they will be willing to work for the starvation wages offered in these factories.

Although the new logistics hub cannot compete with the Panama Canal, it will aim to divert cargo that can be unloaded in the Pacific port of Salina Cruz and loaded onto intermodal container barges or container ships in Coatzacoalcos, and onto the East coast of the U.S. aiming to take 10-20 percent of traffic away from the Panama Canal.

Furthermore, AMLO’s strategy is to anticipate the infrastructural needs of a decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. He openly discusses this rift as an opportunity for Mexico, the U.S., and Canada to integrate through near-shoring to oppose China’s economic domination. This is the type of development AMLO envisions, maquiladoras, logistics hubs, seamless movement of goods, and flows of fossil fuels, which will also have natural gas and oil pipelines along the routes and storage facilities at port terminals.

These megaprojects will also be administered by the military. A centerpiece of the government’s plan has been to grant these infrastructure projects national security status, which will include military patrols and surveillance all along the route to assuage the security concerns of potential investors in southern Mexico.

Given the large number of projects with military involvement or supervision, these initiatives have helped legitimize the military during AMLO’s administration. In addition to the security and surveillance of the Isthmus, the military is also building or managing airports, railroads, banks, energy infrastructures, and airlines. We cannot forget that this is the same military responsible for the disappearance of 43 students from the teacher’s college of Ayotzinapa and countless atrocities. As an institution, the military has been thoroughly delegitimized in recent decades but AMLO has spent considerable political and financial capital to rehabilitate the institution and whitewash its image.

Like other megaprojects, any pretense of progressive or sustainable development falls apart with the slightest scrutiny. For example, AMLO’s energy policy has focused mostly on improving fossil fuel extraction and processing, repairing and building hydroelectric dams, increasing natural gas sales to Europe, and nationalizing lithium to serve the North American market. His promises that trees wouldn’t be cut down to build the Mayan Train were only demagogic statements mocking environmentalists and the Indigenous communities opposing the mass tourism and real estate speculation this would bring. Thus, while AMLO may tout his administration as a genuine transformation, in reality, his administration is carrying out the work of previous presidents, and expanding developmentalist fossil fuel agendas, only better.

Social movements and the Fourth Transformation

In terms of the labor movement, the 4T has not really done anything relevant, but it has been able to make its few actions in favor of the Mexican working class take relevance before the media thanks to its propaganda apparatus. Possibly its greatest achievement has been the recovery of the minimum wage by 39 percent, while previous administrations boasted of increasing the minimum wage by eight percent per year if not less. However, in strictly labor matters, AMLO’s government has not done much more.

For example, from 2019 to 2021, a lot of propaganda work was done on the elimination of outsourcing. However, this culminated only in the prohibition of a very specific outsourcing scheme, so this is still a general practice in many companies, including the government itself, which still hires many personnel in this way. The government has boasted of a historic increase in the number of workers enrolled in the IMSS (Mexican Social Security paid by the employer), which is an indicator of the increase in formal employment. But it’s an open secret that many companies enroll their employees at a much lower salary than they pay in payroll, which is a fraud to the IMSS, but the Secretary of Labor does not investigate these issues.

The most important development in Mexican labor has been the emergence of independent unions in the last four years, but this is due in part to the terms renegotiated in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada agreement, the USMCA. The new labor clause required free choice in union representation which overturned decades of business unionism, especially in the auto industry. These reforms, the emergence of independent unions, and the labor revolts of Matamoros in 2019 are due to the mobilization of workers and labor organizations, not government intervention. In fact, besides increasing the minimum wage and rhetorical support for labor, AMLO’s government has been at the margins of all labor struggles. A pitiful stance for a “left-wing” government.

For mass movements in general, the so-called 4T has been a complete disaster. Many leaders of social movements were co-opted by Morena, either to satisfy their personal ambitions, or because they were convinced that their struggle would be easier under the protection of a Morena government. This happened with activists such as Nestora Salgado, a member of the community police of the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities-Community Police (CRAC-PC). A political prisoner in 2013, she is currently a senator for Morena. Although the CRAC-PC itself has distanced itself from her, it has suffered internal divisions because some of its members decided to join the party. Manuel Vázquez Arellano, better known as “Omar García,” a survivor of the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, is a similar case; he currently serves as a senator for Morena, and since he has been in that position, he has not voiced a single criticism of the government’s militarization policy, nor its constant attack on rural schools or its failure to clarify what happened to the students of Ayotzinapa, which his parents and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, a team of forensic experts accompanying them) have consistently done.

Another case of co-optation is that of Susana Prieto Terrazas, who until recently was an advisor to the 20/32 labor movement in Tamaulipas. Terrazas got a post as a Morena deputy a year after she was a political prisoner for leading the labor movement in 2020. Since then, her colleagues in the National Independent Union of Industrial and Service Workers (SNITIS) have had conflicts with her. They have denounced her despotic treatment and the use of her movement’s letterhead to give political support to AMLO, which recently culminated in her dismissal from the union. She has responded by using the means at her disposal to conduct a retaliation campaign against the executive committee of SNITIS. The CNTE, which historically has been the vanguard of the mass movement in Mexico, is completely demobilized, due to numerous agreements that the union leadership maintains with the government. The fact that the government grants numerous concessions to the teachers to assuage grievances, except for sporadic conflicts with the teachers of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

A protest for Women's rights in March 2020. The protestor holds a sign that translated to English reads "We are the voice of the women who no longer exist." Photo Credit: Samanta Pantoja.
A protest for Women’s rights in March 2020. The protestor holds a sign that translated to English reads “We are the voice of the women who no longer exist.” Photo Credit: Samanta Pantoja.

Since the beginning of his administration, AMLO has ridiculed demonstrations by popular organizations. Whether it is the case of Indigenous communities opposing megaprojects, normalistas demanding a larger budget for their schools, the women’s movement fighting against femicides and machismo, or relatives of disappeared persons. AMLO has always declared that such demonstrations are induced by the conservative opposition. There are numerous cases in which the government has used riot squads to disperse protests and then it blames the supposed provocateurs paid by the opposition. This criminalization of protest which in turn justifies the use of repressive force has been used by previous governments. However, when questioned about this, the president repeats the mantra that his government “does not repress, does not persecute anyone and does not torture,” without giving any explanation other than denying the facts.

However, not all social movements are in ebb. The women’s movement is currently at the forefront of the struggle of the oppressed in Mexico and in September 2023 the Supreme Court finally decriminalized abortion. This comes after decades of organizing across Latin America, where women have taken a leadership role in different struggles throughout the continent.

AMLO has a conservative position on women’s issues and he believes the family is the moral center of Mexican people. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, he spoke of how favorable it was for women to stay at home to take care of their families: “People want to change the role of women and this is one of the just causes of feminism, but the tradition in Mexico is that daughters are the ones who take care of their fathers. We men are more detached.” His knowledge of the women’s movement is so detached, that he has claimed that there was no such movement before his government. Insinuating that it is a political attack incited by the opposition, and obviating that his statements resonate with the machismo of many of his followers.

For these and many other reasons, we refuse to recognize AMLO’s Fourth Transformation as a progressive, and much less, a leftist project worthy of support from radicals and revolutionaries. Overall, it’s a strategy to develop Mexico as an advanced capitalist economy with a better negotiating position in the North American and global markets. As the new regime heads towards a general election in 2024, its credibility will be tested since MORENA’s leading candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum does not have the mass support garnered by AMLO’s historic role in the opposition. The Left must remain independent from Morena and throw its support behind the women’s movement and Indigenous movements. It must also pursue its own agendas and intervene in mass movements to deepen its transformative role in Mexican society and to win better reforms from the new regime. Otherwise, the Left risks continued isolation and irrelevance.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Ruben Jaramillo and Héctor A. Rivera View All

Ruben Jaramillo is a worker in water management based in Mexico City. He is a Marxist activist dedicated to the labor movement and the conservation of the environment in Mexico.
Héctor A. Rivera
is a queer, Chicano, geographer whose writing has appeared in Spectre Journal and Tempest magazine. He is based in Los Ángeles, Califaztlán.