Destiny’s bad loser


George Grayson’s Mexican Messiah is a provocative biographical study of the leftwing firebrand Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Gavin O’Toole reads his account of a journey to calvary

Mexican Messiah: Andrés Manuel López Obradormessiah1.jpg
By George W. Grayson
2007, Pennsylvania State University Press
Hardback, 337 pages

ENRIQUE KRAUZE may be an establishment figure in Mexico having little in common with the natural constituency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but he certainly had a point when he wrote in the Washington Post that the leftwing presidential candidate had resorted to the “ad terrorem” method of trying to impose his version of events following the 2006 elections. Not only were López Obrador’s proclamation of victory, his insults towards the president-elect Felipe Calderón, and his denunciation of the result of this ferociously close electoral outcome unforgivable, they were disturbingly reminiscent of precisely the type of politics Mexico has been trying to shake off since 2000 by investing so much time and effort in building functional institutions.

That is not to say that Calderón is the right man for a Mexico where the need for fairer and more transparent social policies grows more pressing every day. Nor is it to say that López Obrador is not the most talented politician of his generation; that he is not the past victim of electoral wrongdoing (in the 1994 gubernatorial elections in Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo, his opponent from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI, reportedly somehow spent more in order to win the state than Bill Clinton did in order to win the US presidency); and, indeed, that he may not be the best man to solve Mexico’s problems.

Different vision of democracy

But at the end of the day only the Mexican people can be the judge of this and what the champion of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) revealed at the time of those frustrated outbursts of 2006 was, as Krauze perspicaciously suggests, a different understanding of the role of democracy and its constituency than has been charted by the course of political reforms in Mexico over the last decade. As Krauze wrote, to López Obrador “the people” or “the nation” are those sectors of the population he is able to get out into the streets and plazas in support of… well, him. Democracy to the Left in much of Latin America has always had a much greater social and participative content than formal party politics recognises.

The procedural democracy that Mexico has fashioned was undoubtedly damaged by López Obrador’s efforts to bully electoral officials, the ruling Partido Acción Nacional – indeed, everyone who had not voted for him – in a way that recalled the tactics of the PRI at the height of its ill-gotten gains when victory was assured whatever the weather. That should hardly be surprising, because it was in the PRI that he cut his political teeth. López Obrador was the party’s president in Tabasco long before the establishment of the PRD. Fuelling one of those public arguments in Mexico that make such good copy that they then spiral into the stratosphere of international media attention, López Obrador later rounded on Krauze for his articles in the Post by telling, of all people, the TV anchor Jacobo Zabludovsky, that Krauze was “a bulk surrendered to the right” (“un bulto entregado a la derecha”).

But as George Grayson’s masterful biography of the leftwing firebrand shows us, none of the above can be considered out of character for this self-styled “Mexican Messiah”. López Obrador’s personalistic politics hark straight back to the populists of old, with all the hopes, and risks, that this implies. That he has had such success can tell us, in turn, a great deal about the one area that has not been effectively touched by institutional reform in Mexican politics: its parties. Let us not forget that the phenomenon of populism is intimately related to the weakness of political institutions, and in particular parties. Mexican Messiah examines in copiously researched detail this most important and controversial political figure to emerge in Mexico since Carlos Salinas de Gortari, himself so detested by López Obrador that the PRD leader refuses to name him and will only refer to him as “the Unmentionable One”.

Grayson deftly weaves his scrutiny of López Obrador around the former mayor of Mexico City’s own messianic sense of destiny, and examines how this character has himself employed strategies surprisingly similar to those of Jesus of Nazareth in a country founded upon the bedrock of Catholicism where the political class is so well versed in the manipulation of religious symbols.It is also interesting to note both that the study of the cult of the individual is returning to centre stage in scholarship on Latin America (see Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America) and that a recent analysis of verse about Che Guevara – perhaps the greatest cult figure to come out of the region – drew attention to the many comparisons to Jesus, the Passion and biblical notions of predestination made by poets writing about the Argentine revolutionary (see Che in Verse).

Grayson skilfully uses biblical references to structure this book and, as if to rub in the point, mischeviously entitles his conclusion “A Second Coming?” This is a clever device that allows him to explore three phenomena simultaneously: López Obrador the prophet, his disciples and their motivations, and the troubled context in which his own calvary unfolds. He writes: “López Obrador continually reprised his Tabasco performances on the national stage. In both theatres, he preached the gospel of salvation. El Peje focused his message of redemption on the downtrodden; he surrounded himself with a small band of apostles; he relied on Magdalenes for key tasks; he recruited ‘converts’ to his cause; he identified himself with prophets whose teachings influenced his life; and he spearheaded confrontations with the ‘illegitimate regime’ that had defrauded him of victory.” (p.263)

Mexican Messiah traces López Obrador’s personal and political odyssey from his early years in Tabasco to the schism within the PRI in 1988, the founding of the PRD and his ascent to the national arena as Mexico City mayor from 2000-05. It examines his genuine commitment to social causes and his antagonism to corruption within the political system and to the neoliberal policies that have shaped his country’s recent development. Grayson provides a particularly incisive account of López Obrador’s achievements as mayor of the world’s largest city, and how he put the politics of protest he had learned in Tabasco to use when Mexico’s venal elite tried to frustrate his presidential ambitions.

The conclusion draws attention to the splits within the PRD fostered by López Obrador’s behaviour, and in particular how the charismatic messiah’s protégé, Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico City’s current mayor, has slowly but surely begun to turn his back on his former mentor. It also draws attention to other potential presidential contenders when the next battle of the titans takes place in 2012. Grayson is shrewd enough to avoid making predictions about López Obrador’s likely profile by then, but points out that whether it be he or someone else, Mexico’s poor will still be seeking a saviour to help them escape their condition at that time.

Mexican Messiah is an important contribution to the study of a particular form of populism in Latin America. Grayson’s analysis of factors that give rise to messianic politicians, his concession to the important variable of charisma in the understanding of Latin American politics, and his constructive – if perhaps, at times, somewhat exclusive and overdone – focus on comparisons with the biblical story of Jesus offers a pithy introduction to students of populism and personalism in the region.

Added value might have been given by inserting a comparative focus somewhere in the book that did more to address López Obrador’s case in terms of the recent wave of populist, leftwing leaders who have come to power elsewhere in Latin America. And one must ask to what extent the comparisons with Christ – and the fact that López Obrador is himself a born-again Christian – were obliquely intended as a provocation and hence to what extent this book would have offered academic ammunition to López Obrador’s many critics in the United States were he to have won the 2006 election, but such questions do not detract from the great merit of this exceptional work of scholarship.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books