Friday 14 December 2018

Leftist leader assumes Mexico presidency with a promise 'to help the poor'

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Aerial view of the Zocalo square during AMLO Fest to celebrate Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Dronebase
Aerial view of the Zocalo square during AMLO Fest to celebrate Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Dronebase
Aerial view of the Zocalo square during AMLO Fest to celebrate Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Dronebase
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds up the staff of command received from indigenous people at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. Press Office Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador/Daniel Aguilar/Handout via REUTERS
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (C) and his wife Beatriz Gutierrez Muller take part in an indigenous ceremony at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. Press Office Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador/Daniel Aguilar/Handout via REUTERS

Amy Guthrie and Mark Stevenson

Leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has assumed Mexico's presidency with a promise to profoundly transform Latin America's second-biggest economy and to lead a government free of corruption.

Seemingly tireless at the age of 65, Mr Lopez Obrador breezed through a day of public appearances that included taking the oath of office and speaking to congress and attending an inaugural celebration at Mexico City's vast main square.

He received a spiritual cleansing by indigenous leaders as part of the festivities, then closed out the gathering with a folksy 90-minute speech to the thousands of jubilant fans jamming the Zocalo, vowing to help the poor in a nation where almost half the population lives in poverty.

"We are going to govern for everyone, but we are going to give preference to the most impoverished and vulnerable," Mr Lopez Obrador said.

Aerial view of the Zocalo square during AMLO Fest to celebrate Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Dronebase
Aerial view of the Zocalo square during AMLO Fest to celebrate Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Dronebase

"For the good of all, the poor come first."

Speaking in a personal style he honed over decades of small-town rallies, he told the crowd: "Be patient and have confidence in me."

Hopes for change are running high among the more than 30 million Mexicans who voted for Mr Lopez Obrador in a sweeping July 1 election victory that also gave his party a majority in congress.

At the same time, worries are mounting among critics who see an expanding authoritarian streak.

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds up the staff of command received from indigenous people at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds up the staff of command received from indigenous people at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

"The country is completely divided," said Valeria Moy, director of the Mexico, Como Vamos? think tank.

Ms Moy said she had expected a more conciliatory tone from the president, who instead blamed many of Mexico's ills on decades of neoliberal policies that opened the country to greater trade and foreign investment.

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

While many are jubilant that Mexico has its first leftist president in decades, Ms Moy noted that others are concerned about the economic decisions that Mr Lopez Obrador will make, and of his use of referendums to validate his proposals.

Already, Mr Lopez Obrador has halted construction of a new 13 billion dollar airport for Mexico City after having that move backed in an unofficial referendum that saw just over 1% of voters participate.

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. Press Office Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador/Daniel Aguilar/Handout via REUTERS
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part in an indigenous ceremony at the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. Press Office Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador/Daniel Aguilar/Handout via REUTERS

The peso and Mexican stocks plunged in response.

After decades with a closed, state-dominated economy, Mexico's governments since 1986 had signed more free trade agreements than almost any other nation and privatised every corner of the economy except oil and electricity.

But Mr Lopez Obrador has brought back a more insular tone not heard much since the 1960s, saying he wants to build more state-owned oil refineries and encouraging Mexicans to buy Mexican.

One of the most pressing issues he faces at the start of his presidency is the caravan of thousands of Central American migrants camped out at the US border, hoping to obtain asylum in the US.

In his first official act in office, he signed an agreement with counterparts in three Central American countries to create a development plan for the region.

The plan would include a fund to generate jobs as a way to lessen the poverty that drives people to leave El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Most on the minds for many in Mexico, though, is the rising tide of violence.

"I don't expect him to change everything in two months, or even in six years, but if the violence comes down then good things will happen," said Amira Rozenbaum, who is optimistic for change.

The president pledged to personally oversee daily 6am security briefings and to work 16-hour days to confront the brutal violence in Mexico.

He also promised to restore the energy sector to prominence and bring up Mexico's oil production from its current 25-year lows.

Mr Lopez Obrador began his political career leading demonstrations against oil pollution in his native state of Tabasco, and he is the country's first president since the Mexican Revolution to rise to prominence as a protest leader.

Combined with a deep sense of nationalism and his own place in history, he envisions his administration creating a historic "fourth transformation" of Mexico, following independence from Spain, the liberal reforms that broke the church's dominance in the 1850s and the 1910-1917 revolution.

Mr Lopez Obrador's many devotees express an unflinching faith in him.

They call themselves AMLOvers and break into chants of: "It's an honour to be with Lopez Obrador."

Maria Antonia Flores was one of those on the Zocalo to celebrate and said she had supported Mr Lopez Obrador for more than 20 years.

All around her, party loyalists donned burgundy vests and hats stamped with the logo of his Morena party.

"We love him because he's honest. He's hard-working. He has never let us down," she said. "He's not corruptible."

Mr Lopez Obrador has pledged to end centuries of poverty and marginalisation for Mexico's more than 70 indigenous communities, and he became the first president to take part in a ceremonial inauguration by indigenous groups.

Traditional healers brushed him with bunches of herbs and blew incense smoke over him to purify him, and they invoked the spirits of their ancestors and the land to liberate him from any bad influences.

"What we want, what we desire is to purify public life in Mexico," Mr Lopez Obrador said during the ceremony.

"I repeat my commitment: I will not lie, I will not steal or betray the people of Mexico."

His vow to root out government graft resonates with many, including some who have disagreements with him on other matters.

Mexico's richest man, telecom magnate Carlos Slim, whose companies were major investors in the cancelled airport project, said there is common ground with Mr Lopez Obrador's promises to rein in wasteful spending and corruption.

"Everybody wants spending to be efficiently managed," Mr Slim said.

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