Mexico at a crossroad: Are big changes in store this Sunday?
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador | AP

WASHINGTON—In news U.S. workers won’t like to hear, particularly those in Midwestern industrial states that saw their jobs and plants decamp south of the border, some two-thirds of Mexicans support a new North American Free Trade Agreement. Some of that support seems to be coming from people in that country who are so angry at President Trump that they are inclined to back whatever it is that he opposes, according to a leading Mexican polling outfit.

Also in support of a new NAFTA is Mexico’s leading presidential contender, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known by his initials, AMLO. Both of these assertions are made by Jorge Buendia, a top Mexican political scientist and public opinion analyst.

Buendia analyzed the popularity of NAFTA in a panel discussion June 25 on Mexico’s coming presidential election and expanded on it in an interview afterward. Thanks to Donald Trump’s opposition to NAFTA, the agreement’s popularity has risen in the last 18 months in Mexico, Buendia said.

“Sixty-seven percent support NAFTA and say it’s good for the Mexican economy,” he explained. “It hasn’t become an issue in the presidential campaign.” NAFTA enjoyed approval ratings of 58 percent-59 percent before the campaign began last November, he said later.

“But if Trump doesn’t like NAFTA, and the Mexican people don’t like Trump, then they like NAFTA.”

Buendia runs a polling operation out of Mexico’s Autonomous National University, a public university with the prestige inside of Mexico comparable to the prestige in the U.S. of Harvard or other Ivy League schools.

Mexican hatred of Trump spans the political spectrum there, ever since he started his U.S.  presidential bid in 2015 by fanning the flames of hatred of immigrants from that country. Trump denounced Mexican migrants to the U.S. as rapists and murderers and promised to build “a big beautiful wall” at the U.S.-Mexico border – and get Mexico to pay for it. Mexican politicians of all stripes resolutely refused and denounced him.

AMLO is no fan of Trump’s wall, either. Nor are organized labor or U.S. congressional Democrats.

Mexican opinion polls give the progressive Lopez Obrador, the candidate of his self-founded Morena Party, a 20-percentage point lead over each of the next two contenders, from two traditional parties, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the currently ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). AMLO currently gets 47 percent of those polled.

And political coattails still matter more in Mexico. The analysts at the discussion, sponsored by the Wilson Center in D.C., agreed AMLO could sweep Morena majorities into office with him in both houses of Mexico’s Congress and in governorships of its most-populous states.

The current PRI government of Enrique Pena Nieto is renegotiating NAFTA, facing off against the Trump administration and the Canadian government of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trump repeatedly threatens to pull out of the talks and dump NAFTA, unless the two other countries agree to his demands.

The labor movement in the U.S. wants to see changes in NAFTA but focuses on the push for higher wages for Mexican workers. Better conditions for Mexico’s workers would reduce the incentive U.S. industries now have to pick up and move to Mexico where they exploit much cheaper labor.

Pena Nieto has resisted demands for higher wages and increased labor rights in Mexico.

Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau initially supported requiring stronger U.S. labor laws, including repeal of all so-called right-to-work laws, but has since soft-pedaled that stand. Trudeau also wants to keep the business-slanted secret trade court, the Investor State Dispute System, in NAFTA. Organized labor in both the U.S. and Canada has opposed the secret trade court.

The U.S. labor movement, in a long analysis of what the U.S. should seek in the “new NAFTA” talks, says Trump’s trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, should push for higher wages in Mexico, and a lot more.

U.S. unions also urge Lighthizer to stand strongly for – among other goals — enforceable worker rights and independent trade unions in Mexico and curbs on how far unsafe Mexican trucks, driven by tired truckers, can roam over U.S. roads. The current NAFTA now lets them roll everywhere in the U.S., after a long, and sometimes-successful campaign by the Teamsters to limit the trucks to within 20 miles north of the border.

The Economic Policy Institute calculated that since it took effect a quarter of a century ago, NAFTA cost the U.S. between 770,000 and 1 million industrial jobs as corporations ranging from GM to Mondelez – Oreo cookies – headed south of the border to pay lower wages, escape unions and avoid environmental rules. The Communications Workers add NAFTA also prompted U.S. firms to shift call-center jobs away from union workers in the U.S., exporting them to Mexico, the Philippines and India.

And independent analysts point out NAFTA is responsible for a share of the undocumented people crossing the U.S. border since it passed. That’s because NAFTA opened the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced U.S. farm goods, principally corn, decimating the Mexican agricultural economy.

Despite all that, especially the loss of farm jobs, many Mexicans view NAFTA as good for them because they have switched views over the last quarter of a century from being producers to being consumers, Buendia said.

“Mexico has become a globalized economy” and people of all social classes, “no matter how rich or poor you are,” realize that, he elaborated.  As evidence, he notes “Wal-Mart is a major player in our retail market.” The monster retailer, known for its vicious anti-labor anti-union views in the U.S., had 5,358 U.S. stores as of the end of 2017, the most-recent data available – and 2,358 in Mexico.

Mexicans, Buendia said, “do not see foreign goods as a threat. They are thinking as consumers, not as producers losing their jobs.”

Poor and working people in Mexico, like their counterparts in the U.S., have small incomes with which to meet a large number of needs. The lower prices available in outlets like Walmart, regardless of the role they play in the world economy, are something people need.

Younger and more educated people, including those who are a bit better off economically, are also shifting to Lopez Obrador, the panel said. And, unlike in past years, when AMLO ran from the left, even the upper, educated classes don’t see him as a threat. One point which changed their views, according to panelists: Lopez Obrador’s successful pragmatic mayoralty of Mexico City.

During his time in the mayor’s chair, AMLO continued his nationwide reputation for grassroots organizing while using the slogan “For the good of all, the poor first” to promote old-age pensions, financial support for single mothers and the jobless, investments in urban redevelopment, infrastructure and education.

But the panel said that Mexican voters of all classes are more fed up with the performance – or lack of it – in this century. They fault Pena Nieto and PRI the last six years in combating crime, corruption and rampant drug trafficking, and prior failures in those fields by PAN’s two presidents in the 12 years before that. Left unsaid: Until 2000, PRI ruled Mexico, for decades as a virtual one-party state, since the end of the second Mexican Revolution in 1929.

“AMLO is an outsider” compared to his PRI and PAN presidential foes “and Morena is a new party. They (Mexicans) like that,” Buendia said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).