MEXICO CITY — With less than two weeks to go in Mexico’s highly polarized, too-close-to-call presidential contest, a top Jewish adviser to leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador insists that the contender would focus his attention on domestic policy while steering clear of contentious foreign policy matters.
When López Obrador “gets to the presidency, he’s not going to have any international policy,” said Claudia Sheinbaum, who served as the candidate’s environmental minister during his recent term as mayor of Mexico City. “He doesn’t want to have a starting role in international policy… so he’s not going to have a proactive policy in terms of Israel and Palestine.” In general, she added, on international issues “his policy is respect to other countries, respect to other people [and] what they decide for their future.”
In recent months, the orientation and tenor of a possible López Obrador presidency has been the subject of much debate among political observers. If he prevails, Mexico will join half a dozen Latin American countries — including Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia — that have rejected the so-called “Washington consensus,” the economic model that emphasizes fiscal discipline and pro-market policies.
His detractors worry that the 53-year-old candidate for the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, would in particular follow in the footsteps of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has become known for his anti-Americanism since his election in 2000. In the eyes of his supporters, however, López Obrador is a pragmatic social democrat in the mold of presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile.
On July 2, Mexican voters will choose representatives to both houses of Congress as well as a new president in the country’s second truly democratic elections in history. In 2000, the election of President Vicente Fox, of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, ended 71 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI.
The country’s 50,000-strong Jewish community — like many in Mexico’s wealthier economic echelons and business circles — is both bracing for the uncertainties that would accompany a dramatic shift to the left, and quietly embracing a new era of budding democracy.
“I think whoever is going to become president, the Jewish community will have good relations with him, as the Jewish community,” said David Fiiller, 66, the co-owner of a family food business in Mexico City. “As business [owners], I don’t know, you know, I think that’s what’s scary… it could be like Lula in Brazil — [and] it wouldn’t be bad — or it could be like Chavez in Venezuela — we don’t know.”
The writer and scholar Ilan Stavans, a native of Mexico, put it more bluntly. “People are really scared about Obrador winning the election,” he said, adding that for the first time in modern history, Mexican Jews are wrestling with the political uncertainty of true democracy.
In August, Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, will release “The Disappearance,” a fiction collection that includes a novella about a Mexican-Jewish family grieving the loss of its patriarch on the eve of Mexico’s 2000 election. (The story, titled “Morirse está en Hebreo,” served as the basis for a screenplay by acclaimed Argentine writer Jorge Goldenberg, and will be released as a film later this year.)
Stavans likened the effects of the 2000 defeat of the PRI to the dissolution of power that results from the death of the head of a family.
“In Mexico, with a central government being in power for such a long time, the structure of the Jewish community was also very one-sided, and rotating around central figures that would give it a sense of gravity and coherence,” Stavans told the Forward. “I would say that the Jewish community has become more diverse, has explored new ways of culture and politics, but I would say the changes are really just beginning now.”
For many years, the modern Mexican Jewish community — almost all of which is centered in Mexico City and dates back to several immigration waves in the early 20th century — has consciously maintained a low profile, preferring to keep synagogues, schools and businesses unmarked and hidden behind walls. For decades, its interests have been represented by a central committee, which focused its efforts on maintaining positive relations with the ruling party and combating antisemitism.
In recent years, greater numbers of Jews have achieved positions of prominence in Mexican cultural and political life. At least two of López Obrador’s closest advisors —Sheinbaum and Enrique Semo, who served as his secretary of culture — are Jewish, and at least four people with Jewish parentage served in Fox’s cabinet, including Jorge Castañeda, an academic who served as foreign minister in the early years of the administration.
In an interview with the Forward, Castañeda said that Mexico’s burgeoning democracy has spurred a greater Jewish involvement in politics, including activity on the part of a number of Jewish real estate moguls in Mexico City. The moguls are quietly backing López Obrador for president, in contrast to the rest of the community, which tends to support Fox’s PAN successor, Felipe Calderón.
“It’s a different country, it’s a different world,” Castañeda said. “The decision was made a long time ago [by the Jewish community] to go unnoticed and to support the status quo, period, and not mess with it, and that has begun to change…. Leaders of the Jewish community are participating much more actively in the entire political debate… they are supporting candidates, [and] they are much more open about it.”
Several polls show López Obrador in a tight race against Calderón, with the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo a distant third. Although Calderón had been trailing López Obrador in the polls earlier this year, he surged in March, when he began to vocally question the economic fall-out of López Obrador’s pledge to expand social programs and benefits dramatically.
A survey released on Monday by Zogby International and the University of Miami shows Calderón to have a slight lead, with 34.5% of voters, and López Obrador a close second, with 31.3%. The survey, which has a 3% margin of error, estimated that 13% of voters are still undecided.
In May, a similar survey by Zogby and the university put Calderón ahead of López Obrador by five percentage points.
However, two other recent surveys, including one published by Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper on Tuesday and one conducted last week by the firm Consulta Mitofsky, showed López Obrador in the lead, with more than 35% of the vote, and Calderón winning around 32%. Both of those polls also had a margin of error around 3%.
While the election of Calderón would be perceived as the continuation of Fox’s free market economic program, López Obrador has campaigned on a package of massive new social spending, including support for poor families, the extension of free pensions he established in Mexico City to the rest of the country and subsidization of gasoline prices — promises that his detractors say could push Mexico into a financial crisis. López Obrador has said he will finance his programs by eliminating government waste and corruption, and scaling back bureaucrats’ salaries.
Last weekend, while speaking to supporters in Chiapas, an extremely poor farming state, he said for the first time that, if elected, he would not honor Mexico’s commitment under the North American Free Trade Agreement to eliminate tariffs on American corn and beans in 2008.
Political observers are fiercely debating how radical a populist he is likely to be.
“I have a very dismal view of the prospect” of a López Obrador presidency, said Castañeda, who has publicly backed Calderón. I am worried that “he will start spending money he does not have, that he will start ruling by decree and with no regard for an already very weakened rule of law in Mexico, that he will be initially, rhetorically very anti-American, and then substantively so.”
A more measured view was offered by Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization.
“If he were to win, I expect him to be a lot more moderate than what we’ve seen on the campaign trail,” Peschard-Sverdrup told the Forward. “He’s not Chavez… [though] I think people have tried to portray him that way, in part as part of a particular electoral strategy by the opposition.”
Peschard-Sverdrup said he believed that López Obrador had privately sent more moderate messages to both Wall Street and Washington, and would ultimately prove himself to be a pragmatist.
“At the end of the day, I think [the United States and Mexico] are so integrated economically, that there are certain parameters to what a Mexican president can actually do,” Peschard-Sverdrup said. But “there’s no question that within the spectrum, he is left of center.”