By Fernando Brancoli 

Abstract: This essay examines the broad political challenges and opportunities facing Mexico under the leadership of Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico's first female president. It delves into various facets of her administration's approach, including public security, social programs, and foreign policy. The discussion highlights her continuity with former President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) policies, her nuanced strategy in balancing domestic and international priorities, and her stance on climate change and economic reforms. By analyzing these key areas, the essay provides a comprehensive overview of the anticipated directions and implications of Sheinbaum's presidency for Mexico's future.

Claudia Sheinbaum has made history by becoming the first woman elected president of Mexico. On October 1st, she begins her term, succeeding Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known as AMLO), whose policies she is expected to largely uphold. People widely recognize Sheinbaum as AMLO's protégé, a relationship that stems from their shared political vision and history. Both have been key figures in the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), Mexico's ruling leftist party. Sheinbaum's political career accelerated under AMLO’s mentorship, leading to her becoming the head of government in Mexico City, a position she used to gain national notoriety.

First, we will critically assess Sheinbaum's approach to public security, evaluating the nuanced effectiveness of her strategies in combating organized crime and violence, and argue that her policies, while ambitious, may encounter substantial implementation challenges due to entrenched systemic issues. Next, we will analyze her social programs, positing that they possess the potential for significant impact on poverty alleviation and economic inequality, but their success hinges on sustainable funding mechanisms and efficient administrative execution. Additionally, we will explore her foreign policy, focusing on her navigation of Mexico's intricate relationship with the United States and its strategic position within the Global South, suggesting that her diplomatic acumen in balancing these complex dynamics will be pivotal for Mexico's international stature. Finally, we will delve into her stance on the Middle East, particularly her plans for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and broader regional relations, contending that her cautious approach will aim to harmonize support for Palestinian rights with the preservation of Mexico’s diplomatic and economic interest with Tel Aviv. Through this comprehensive analysis, we aim to elucidate the multifaceted directions and challenges that will define Sheinbaum's administration.

Public Security meets Social Programs

Many viewed Sunday's election as a referendum on López Obrador's administration, which has overseen transformative economic and social welfare policies. The greatest decline in poverty in 16 years occurred over this six-year period, from 2018 to 2024, when 5.1 million Mexicans were able to climb out of impoverishment. The numbers are significant because poverty rates had not varied much over the previous decade, from 2008 to 2018. The percentage of Mexican families covered by social transfer programs rose from 27% to 39%. At the same time, payments to low-income households more than quadrupled between 2018 and 2022, the most recent year for which statistics are available. By the time he steps down on September 30, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will have overseen the party 's most successful labor program to date. The minimum wage was doubled and outsourcing laws were regulated, fulfilling a demand advocated by labor unions for many decades.  Though inflation has recently become an issue, there is little doubt the current administration’s policies have had a deep and tangible impact.

On the other hand, the issue of crime and general insecurity has been a more complex and contentious topic. AMLO has consistently attributed Mexico's high crime rate to the policies of previous administrations, specifically those of the PRI and PAN—the two parties in power prior to his election in 2018. He has emphasized his administration's efforts to address these issues structurally. In recent Enkoll research, 53% of Mexican voters identified insecurity as the most important problem and urged presidential candidates to address it immediately. Corruption comes next on the list (32% of respondents), followed by the economy (15%). 

Mexico's most serious crime issues are multifaceted and a culture of fear and insecurity has become widespread in many regions of Mexico. Drug cartels and organized crime organizations have driven Mexico’s substantial rise in violence and criminal activity, expanding their activities beyond drug trafficking to encompass extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking. Corruption in law enforcement and the courts impedes effective crime-fighting efforts. Furthermore, despite the significant improvements, social inequality and a lack of economic prospects, especially among young people, contribute to the cycle of poverty.

López Obrador campaigned on the "hugs, not bullets" policy to replace the much-maligned Federal Police with a new elite police corps dubbed the National Guard and completely remove the military from internal security duties. While the National Guard did come into being, its once civilian nature soon gave way to a more militaristic structure. Meanwhile, López Obrador repurposed the military for civilian purposes, such as managing large-scale building projects and the country's transportation hubs. According to the statistics, violence against journalists, women, human rights advocates, and migrants has not only continued but has escalated during López Obrador's administration

Through social initiatives created during the presidency of current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Sheinbaum has promised to tackle the sources of organized crime. The initiative's stated goal is to reduce youth recruitment by providing them with economic alternatives. Despite the government's claims of greater job prospects, a large number of adolescents are still vulnerable to recruitment by criminal organizations, according to estimates from the National Citizen Observatory (ONC) and the Network for Children's Rights in Mexico (Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México - Redim).

Finally, the president's repeated efforts to consolidate ever-increasing power have sparked widespread opposition. Even his political allies have expressed concern about his efforts to weaken the independence of key government agencies, such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Institute for Access to Information and Protection of Private Data. At the same time, the influx of undocumented migrants and refugees, mostly from Central and South America, attempting to reach the United States via Mexico continues to exceed the Mexican authorities' capacity to handle them. During the previous year alone, Mexico arrested approximately 780,000 people in events related to undocumented migrants. 

Mexico's next president will likely face a more constrained domestic political environment. Despite symbolic austerity measures such as selling the presidential plane and reducing public salaries, AMLO expended considerable funds on construction projects, and initiatives for the elderly, students, and farmers, as well as bailing out Pemex, the state-owned energy company struggling with inflated labor costs. These expenditures, although popular, will make it challenging for the incoming administration to sustain such measures due to a lack of sufficient funding.

Foreign Policy: Navigating Between the United States and the Global South

President López Obrador often emphasized that "the best foreign policy is domestic policy." This stance saw Mexico adopt a non-interventionist approach under his leadership, focusing more on internal affairs than international engagement. While Mexico has traditionally balanced its political responsibilities with both domestic and international actions, this balance shifted significantly under AMLO, leading to a noticeable reduction in Mexico's international interventions. However, Sheinbaum's presidency might signal a shift in this approach. In her victory speech, she committed to continuing Mexico's non-interventionist stance but also hinted at a more engaged and proactive foreign policy.

Mexico's foreign policy has historically navigated a complex balancing act between its close economic and political ties with the United States and its aspirations for greater influence and autonomy within the Global South.

Leveraging his considerable popularity in Mexico and the country's strategic location regarding immigration to the US, López Obrador has shaped bilateral ties in his favor over the last six years, setting a pattern for the US-Mexico relationship. Because of this, he was free to ignore US trade disputes, worries about domestic security, and other issues. Migration has hampered collaboration on other pressing issues during the last two U.S. administrations. Thousands of asylum seekers have found shelter in Mexico as a consequence of Trump's efforts to extend the “Remain in Mexico” policy. AMLO agreed to this policy in exchange to avoiding tariffs on important export products. On the other hand, Trump's derogatory remarks about Mexican immigrants and his frequent threats to build a border wall exacerbated tensions, creating an adversarial climate that further complicated bilateral relations. Following his inauguration in 2021, President Biden aimed to normalize relations with Mexico and alleviate the existing tensions between the two states. Consequently, dialogues on security, logistics, and commercial matters have resumed, fostering renewed cooperation between the two countries.

Mexico's foreign policy in the context of the Global South has been characterized by a relentless pursuit of greater autonomy and influence on the international stage. Mexico has taken a leading role in regional and global affairs, actively engaging in organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). These programs seek to improve regional cooperation and lessen reliance on non-regional forces by pushing an agenda that emphasizes economic integration, political stability, and long-term growth.

Balancing its close economic ties with the United States and its aspirations within the Global South, Mexico has strategically positioned itself as a bridge between these two spheres. This dynamic is particularly evident in its climate change initiatives. Mexico has always been a respected consensus builder in the global system, whether via the United Nations or ad hoc organizations such as the G20. However, AMLO prioritized domestic issues and often avoided attending international summits, which limited Mexico's proactive engagement on the global stage. Despite this, Mexico has consistently supported international efforts to combat climate change and has been an advocate for sustainable development within the Global South.

Midway through November, Brazil will host the G20 meeting, marking the first major foreign event after Sheinbaum takes office. Sheinbaum may use this platform to articulate her domestic agenda and assert her stance on the evolving priorities of the G20, particularly in areas such as climate change. This area presents an opportunity for Sheinbaum to demonstrate more vigorous leadership than her predecessor. A climate scientist by training, she committed to emphasizing energy transition and renewable energy issues during her campaign.

Sheinbaum's leadership in climate change could be significantly more assertive than that of AMLO. With a highly favorable legislature and the executive branch under Morena's control for another six years, she has the potential to advance a robust "green agenda." If Sheinbaum follows through on her commitment to prioritize energy transition in her environmental policy, her administration may give unprecedented attention to climate issues. During her candidacy, Sheinbaum pledged to invest over $13 billion in renewable energy. Notably, she served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for eight years, starting in 2007. The IPCC, established by the UN in 1988, is a key body for monitoring the global climate situation.

Palestine and Israel: A diplomatic tightrope

Claudia Sheinbaum's diplomatic approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict has become a focal point of international interest as she assumes the presidency.

Sheinbaum, born into an upper-middle-class leftist family in Mexico City, is of Jewish descent, with her grandparents having fled persecution in Lithuania and Bulgaria in the early 20th century. The Israeli press has made statements suggesting that she could become a representative figure in an effort to bring Latin America closer to Israel. However, Sheinbaum has already declared that she considers the influence of Judaism in her life to be essentially cultural. Nonetheless, her connection to the Middle East has been a prominent topic of discussion in recent months. As the future of Mexico's diplomatic actions under Claudia Sheinbaum comes under scrutiny, her approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict is particularly significant. She has not made extensive statements regarding the bloodshed in Palestine in recent months. In one of the few statements she issued in a video message broadcast by the Mexican daily "Milenio," Sheinbaum criticized the continued violence and emphasized the need for a peaceful conclusion. However, her remarks were somewhat generic, emphasizing broad principles rather than specific policy measures. She restated Mexico's support for a two-state solution, which aligns with the United Nations' position. "I concur that we must put an end to violence, recognize both states, and make efforts to pacify this region." This stance follows the country's diplomatic tradition: in 2018, Mexico's foreign ministry restated its opinion that the only solution to the Israel-Palestine problem is the establishment of two sovereign nations.

Sheibaum also made comments in 2009, during the Israeli war on Gaza. In a piece for the newspaper La Jornada, titled “Saving a world that today is called Gaza,” she stated, "Because of my Jewish origin, because of my love for Mexico, and because I feel like a citizen of the world, I share with millions the desire for justice, equality, fraternity, and peace, and therefore, I can only see with horror the images of the state bombings. Nothing, nothing, nothing can justify the killing of a child." After her landslide victory, pro-Palestinian activists circulated a photo of Sheinbaum wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh and standing next to an unidentified man in a Palestine t-shirt. This image emerged as calls grew for Mexico to take a more active role in addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Some groups, however, accuse Sheinbaum of lacking a supportive stance towards Palestine, citing her extensive connections with Israel-affiliated organizations. In May 2019, Sheinbaum assured Israel that Mexico City, where she was mayor, would not “succumb to the agenda of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups.” 

This statement was made in response to criticism surrounding an Israeli photo exhibition in the city, which featured photographs of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank as parts of Israel. Sheinbaum frequently engages with the Comunidad Judía de México (CCCJM), a group that promotes solidarity with Israel through public statements, educational programs, and cultural events. Tribuna Israelita, the CCCJM's executive arm, is involved in advocacy and anti-defamation efforts, and the group also lobbies Mexican officials to support favorable policies toward Israel.

 Response Rooted in Contradiction

Given Claudia Sheinbaum's strong relationship with AMLO, examining his previous stances might help estimate her foreign policy. In terms of Mexico's international actions, AMLO has frequently been hesitant. Critics chastised the AMLO administration for its evasive responses to external crises, as it attempted to maintain a generally neutral stance. Israeli authorities and supporters of Palestinian rights have both denounced López Obrador's efforts to establish common ground. For example, Mexico's president announced his support for Israel on October 9, but he did not support its assault on Palestinians in Gaza. Einat Kranz Neiger, Israel's ambassador to Mexico, responded vehemently to this reticence, declaring in a television interview that "not taking sides is supporting terror."

Sheinbaum's presidency will probably signal that circumspect engagement is going to persist. Her view on Israel and Palestine will probably stay pragmatic, balancing diplomatic relations and human rights issues. This strategy mirrors larger Mexican foreign policy values such as non-intervention, self-determination, and peaceful conflict resolution. In this regard, Sheinbaum may differ from other progressive leaders in the region, such as Gabriel Boric in Chile, Luis Arce in Bolivia, and Gustavo Petro in Colombia, who have taken more concrete steps against Israel, including suspending military agreements and even severing diplomatic ties.

Adding complexity to her diplomatic portfolio, Mexico has recently requested to join South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza. This move underscores Mexico’s commitment to international justice but also highlights the delicate balancing act Sheinbaum will have to perform.

Sheinbaum’s presidency will likely have to navigate Mexico's significant economic and military ties with Israel. Observers expect her to maintain a cautious approach, avoiding drastic shifts that could disrupt Mexico’s strategic interests. Mexico’s reticence to join other left-leaning governments (like Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile) in condemning Israel hints at the weight of the military and commercial contracts between the two countries. While Mexico's public position has traditionally favored Palestine, economic and military interests paint a more complex picture. Mexico imports arms and spyware from Israel, and Israeli organizations train Mexican police and private security. Additionally, a Mexican company, Cemex, has provided raw materials for Israeli walls in Palestine. Israel is the second-largest supplier of technology and training for the Mexican military, and although the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is well-known, similar interests exist in Mexico, albeit less visibly.

Claudia Sheinbaum's presidency promises a continuation of Mexico's nuanced and balanced foreign policy towards the Middle East. While her personal and political background suggests a commitment to progressive values and human rights, the practicalities of international diplomacy and national interests will undoubtedly shape her administration’s approach. As Mexico’s first female president, Sheinbaum's leadership will be pivotal in navigating the complex dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Article or Event Link
Jun 13, 2024
Public Policy


Public Policy

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