MEXICO CITY — Recently I asked Andrés Manuel López Obrador if he wanted to become president of Mexico, although we all know the answer. “Yes,” López Obrador replied confidently, “and the third time’s the charm.”
The election to succeed President Enrique Peña Nieto is slated for July 2018. (He is constitutionally ineligible for another term)
López Obrador, 63, a leftist from the National Regeneration Movement party, or MORENA, is currently leading in the polls. He points out that he also led in the polls in the run-up to the 2006 election (though he trailed Peña Nieto in the 2012 election). He insists that both elections were stolen from him. “We can’t accept fraud,” he told me.
But in 2018, things will be different, he said, because there are “more people supporting the movement, better organization and more interest for real change.” Besides, he believes that social media may help to counter the attacks he’s bound to receive.
For instance, videos have just emerged that allegedly show Eva Cadena, a former mayoral candidate from MORENA, receiving the equivalent of about $25,000 in payments, allegedly to give to López Obrador.
He thinks what Cadena did is “very wrong.” But López Obrador blames Peña Nieto — whom he calls “a mobster” — for waging a smear campaign against him: “At Los Pinos [the president’s official residence], Peña Nieto handed the videos to the secretary of the interior, who turned them over to the newspaper El Universal, which posted the videos,” he told me.
Many Mexicans are legitimately curious about how López Obrador makes his living. “How much money do you have?” I asked him. “Nothing,” he said. “I’m not fighting for money.” MORENA gives him “some 60,000 pesos a month” (about $3,000). “As unbelievable as it may seem to those corrupt people, I don’t have checking accounts or credit cards. And not just now; for 40 years.”
I tell him that his opponents are accusing him of being authoritarian, intolerant, stubborn and messianic. But those claims from his opponents“aren’t working,” he insists. “They are quite desperate.”
“I am not corrupt,” he told me, in what may become his campaign slogan. To him, corruption isn’t a cultural issue, as Peña Nieto has suggested, but “a problem that goes from the top all the way down.” He added, “I fight for ideals. If I were fighting for money, I’d be rich by now. I’d have mansions here in Mexico and abroad.”
Speaking of mansions: When first lady Angelica Rivera bought a $7 million house from a government contractor, was that an example of corruption? “Yes,” López Obrador said. If he were to become president, would he prosecute Peña Nieto and his wife for corruption? “No, no, no,” he answered. “That’s the job of the judges.”
Would he name an independent prosecutor to investigate Peña Nieto and his wife? “Yes, yes, that must be investigated,” he said.
Though left of center, López Obrador refuses to provide his views on abortion, same-sex marriage or drug legalization. “It’s simple. Let people decide. Let’s have a conversation,” he told me.
He also refuses to denounce Cuba’s Raul Castro and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro (even as the latter has plunged his country into chaos). Why? “Because I wouldn’t want them meddling in decisions that are exclusively the responsibility of Mexicans,” he answered.
But he is willing to voice his opinion on Donald Trump. I asked if he thought that Trump was a racist. “Yes, he stokes racism,” López Obrador said. “But it’s not that he feels that way. It’s just a political strategy, let me tell you.” He went on: “Trump shouldn’t forget Mexico is an independent country. … No border walls and no chasing our fellow countrymen who migrated to the United States.”
Toward the end of the interview, he spoke a little about his wife, Beatriz Gutierrez Müller. “She’s devoted mostly to literature; she has a Ph.D.”
He also mentioned their son, named Jesús Ernesto. “Jesús for Jesus Christ, and Ernesto for Ernesto Che Guevara,” he explained. “I believe in Jesus’ ideas and deeds. He fights for the poor. And Che was a model revolutionary.”
I reminded him that Che had also ordered several executions. “Yes, there are always questions,” he admitted, “but he was a man who offered his life for his ideals.”
López Obrador believes that his own ideals and his battle against corruption will eventually take him to the National Palace — where he intends to live, not in Los Pinos, which he considers too ostentatious. “We will arrive with all the moral authority to undertake Mexico’s transformation,” he said.
We’ll see. Perhaps the third time really is the charm.
Email Jorge at email@example.com