MEXICO CITY — The year 2022 will mark 200 years of official relations between Mexico and the United States. But before we’re able to celebrate this milestone, we must first work to safeguard freedom, democracy and the rule of law in Mexico under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s illiberal rule.
On March 1, signaling a change in tone from former President Donald Trump’s disrespectful and transactional attitude toward Mexico, President Biden and Mr. López Obrador held a virtual meeting at which Mr. Biden pledged to honor their commitment to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and to discuss how they can work together on migration, coronavirus response and recovery and climate change.
Mr. Biden would also do well to promote stricter gun laws to help stop the flow of guns from the United States. Mr. López Obrador, known as AMLO, in turn should dispel the uncertainty over Mexico’s energy sector, where new laws that strengthen the state-owned energy companies Pemex and C.F.E. and the use of fossil fuels, and that conflict with the U.S.M.C.A., have recently been passed.
Mr. Biden and Mr. López Obrador are both men of faith, and it was a good sign that symbols of the Mexican people, both religious and secular, were invoked in their meeting. In the same spirit, Mr. Biden can convey to Mr. López Obrador that common values make good neighbors, especially if they are partners and friends. By tearing down fences and welcoming immigrants, Mr. Biden is proving just that.
A fruitful partnership will depend on upholding shared values of freedom, democracy and rule of law. Both countries are gripped by national emergencies caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by political polarization.
While the United States led by Mr. Biden is working toward strengthening the institutional basis of its liberal democracy, the younger Mexican democracy, led by Mr. López Obrador, a populist president who fuels polarization, continues to reel under his autocratic drift, which could deepen if his party wins the midterm legislative elections in June.
Mr. López Obrador came to power in July 2018 with 53 percent of the vote. His six-year term will end in 2024. The electorate gave his party, the National Regeneration Movement, known as Morena, and its satellite parties a relative majority in the Senate and an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
The June elections will renew the chamber, in the bicameral Congress, and 15 of the 32 governorships in the country. Whether Mexico consolidates its democracy or returns to a new version of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the P.R.I., which dominated politics in Mexico from 1929 until 2000, will depend on the outcome of those elections.
Our experience with the P.R.I. taught us that a one-party system does not especially value democracy, freedom and the rule of law. If the congressional elections confirm Mr. López Obrador’s total control of Congress, he would value them even less. Mexico’s government would have become a one-man rule.
But if the government loses its absolute majority in the chamber in the elections, Mexico could recover a certain balance of powers. If not, it will be difficult for vital democratic institutions like the Transparency Institute, which promotes accountability by granting people easier access to public information, and the National Electoral Institute, which organizes and oversees elections around the country, to maintain their autonomy.
Mr. López Obrador has often publicly put pressure on both institutions. He has announced his intention to dissolve the former and, with an absolute majority in the chamber, he could easily control the latter for the presidential elections of 2024 and 2030, a move that would diminish the credibility of the electoral process.
Mr. López Obrador simply does not believe in the rule of law to solve Mexico’s problems. On the contrary, he sometimes behaves as if he embodies the state and the law.
The Mexican president is a left-wing populist who views capitalists’ consumerism disdainfully and claims to care for the poor. And yet, his economic policies, which have increased inequality and poverty during the pandemic, bear significant similarities with those of Mr. Trump.
Mr. López Obrador has also polarized his country, degraded political discourse, lied, defended his alternative reality against “fake news,” attacked the press, insulted critics, subordinated the Senate, evaded transparency, increased his control over the courts, reigned over his party and discredited the electoral system.
Even before the pandemic, the government’s poor management resulted in negative balances on the most sensitive issues. But in this difficult year, the figures are all the more dire: Gross domestic product fell more than 8.5 percent, 3.25 million jobs were lost, and, despite the pandemic lockdowns, there were 35,484 homicides.
Mr. López Obrador resisted calls for a mask mandate. Despite having contracted the virus himself, upon recovery he resumed his daily two-hour press briefings without wearing a mask. According to some estimates, over 193,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Mexico, but several reliable sources suggest the actual death toll could be 70 percent higher than those reports.
Over the decades, the country has built an immunization network. In 2018, Mexico inoculated 105 million people against 13 infectious illnesses including tuberculosis, measles and influenza. Yet Mexico faces a humanitarian crisis because of Mr. López Obrador’s failure to procure enough Covid vaccines.
After his election, Mr. López Obrador dismantled the immunization network, and in many parts of Mexico vaccination is now handled by a group of young people loyal to the Morena party. The results paint a telling picture: To date, 2.2 percent of Mexico’s nearly 130,000,000 people has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. I fear many more Mexicans will die because of our president’s mismanagement.
If Mr. López Obrador’s party wins a majority in the Chamber of Deputies — giving him absolute power again — the country will be run by a new autocratic version of the P.R.I.
Throughout the 20th century, the United States remained indifferent to Mexico’s authoritarian system. Mr. Biden must rethink that old attitude.
While the future of the country is for we Mexicans to decide, dialogue between the two leaders can make a difference no matter the outcome of the elections.
Mr. Biden can check Mr. López Obrador’s autocratic tendencies and promote a moderate approach that might be of great benefit to the U.S.-Mexico relationship and to Mexicans. He has rightly stressed that unity is the path forward among neighbors. He said as much in his inaugural speech: “Let’s begin to listen to one another. To hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.”
For Mr. López Obrador, who swallowed Mr. Trump’s insults to Mexicans, calling us “rapists and murderers,” it should be easier to listen to words of unity and moderation. If he applies these values within Mexico and to his relationship with the United States, in 2022 Mexicans and Americans will be able to celebrate their anniversary and set an example throughout the region. It would be a disgrace to waste that opportunity.
Enrique Krauze (@EnriqueKrauze) is a historian, the editor of the literary magazine Letras Libres, and the author of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.” This article was translated by Erin Goodman from the Spanish.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].