MEXICO CITY — Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is not the only leader undertaking needed social reforms in Latin America. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-leaning governor of this city’s metro-area federal district and a prominent member of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), has been pursuing a progressive agenda since he was elected in 2000.

Mexico City, with 20 million inhabitants, faces grave social and environmental problems — problems that have only been aggravated by U.S.-inspired “free trade” economic policies. With the exception of the upper- and upper-middle-class districts, decaying slums cover much of the rubbish-strewn cityscape. Because wages are low and unemployment high, much of the population lives in poverty. Robberies and violent crime are common. Poisonous gray smog hangs over the city most days, killing around 1,500 people a year.

Despite the government’s limited resources, Lopez Obrador has pushed for new investments in social services and infrastructure improvement. Elderly residents over 70 without pensions, the handicapped and children of single mothers receive a monthly check from the government to help them make ends meet. The poor receive free medical care. Mobile dental clinics roam impoverished neighborhoods, providing low-cost services. The government is building orphanages for the city’s homeless children and is constructing affordable housing for the poor.

Lopez Obrador’s administration has also passed stricter emission standards and has expanded public transportation to reduce air pollution. It has constructed schools for the first time since 1973; restored “heritage neighborhoods” that were crumbling due to neglect; given low-interest loans to people who want to start their own businesses to reduce unemployment; and is embarking on a major recycling program.

Economist Olga Rivera Barragan told the World that Lopez Obrador’s government is carrying out its program on a shoestring budget. “With few resources, the government has been able to do much,” she said. “By undertaking measures such as keeping administrative salaries down, Lopez Obrador’s administration has been able to channel money into social and infrastructure programs.”

Lopez Obrador’s achievements are even more impressive in view of maneuvers by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the National Assembly to cut the federal government’s contribution to Mexico City’s budget. This was a brazen attempt, said Barragan, to undermine Lopez Obrador.

Another facet of the PRD government has been the tackling of a pervasive culture of political corruption that exists in Mexico, where everyone, from police officers to judges, is demanding bribes, and public servants and politicians are notorious for stealing public money. To combat corruption, the government has implemented a program of public vigilance. The boards of directors of each government agency, from police to public transportation, have two unpaid volunteers who are allowed to scrutinize operations and inform the government of any shady diversion of funds. “The savings from reducing corruption have been noticeable, freeing up resources for programs,” said Barragan. The government has also dismissed over 2,000 corrupt policemen.

Lopez Obrador has not just concerned himself with improving conditions in Mexico City, but has called for changes at the national level, too. Half of Mexico’s 100 million people do not earn enough to meet basic needs. Lopez Obrado has stated that Mexico’s neoliberal, free-market economy “has not produced economic growth in the last 20 years, has not generated jobs, and if there has been no social explosion it is because thousands of Mexicans have emigrated, emptying the country of young people.”

Despite recent scandals that have tarnished the PRD nationally, and recent efforts by the opposition to discredit Lopez Obrador through what some observers charge are politically motivated court actions, he remains a popular figure within Mexico City and beyond. In a December referendum asking city residents if they were happy with Lopez Obrador as governor, 95 percent voted yes.

There is speculation that Lopez Obrador might contest the 2006 presidential elections as the PRD’s candidate. Polls suggest that he would be a leading contender. In the meantime, his popular, left-oriented government continues to lead the way in Mexico.

tpelzer@shaw.ca

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