Mexico's AMLO picks a mixed-bag cabinet

Issue 
Mexico's president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The cabinet picked by Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is the most progressive in generations, despite some dubious choices, writes Ryan Mallett-Outtrim from Puebla.

Mexico’s first left-wing president in decades is one month away from taking office, though his cabinet picks — half of whom are women — remain a mixed bag for progressives. On one hand, AMLO supporters have welcomed selections like Olga Sanchez Cordero, the incoming interior minister who supports legalising abortion and recreational marijuana.

On the other hand, AMLO’s public security secretary Alfonso Durazo has raised eyebrows among human rights defenders for his hard-line stance on border security and migration.

Then there’s Maria Luisa Albores, a grassroots activist who has spent the better part of the last decade working with Indigenous agricultural communities, and will now head the Secretariat for Social Development. In contrast, the Indigenous-led Zapatista movement has been infuriated by AMLO’s pick for education secretary, Esteban Moctezuma, who is loathed by the rebels for his role in peace talks in the mid-1990s.

So despite being the most progressive cabinet in living memory, AMLO’s incoming government already looks like an awkward patchwork of grassroots organisers and old guards of Mexico’s deeply distrusted political establishment.

Here, we take a closer look at 10 of AMLO’s most notable cabinet members.

Secretary of the Interior: Olga Sanchez Cordero

A former Supreme Court justice, Cordero has long been one of Mexico’s most well-known women’s rights advocates, and a prominent figure in the country’s politics since the 1990s.

She has played various roles in both Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and National Action Party (PAN) governments, and is generally well respected among all but the most conservative of elements in Mexican politics. In 2013, Forbes listed her as Mexico’s most powerful woman.

As part of the AMLO government, Sanchez has stated she plans to propose the decriminalisation of both abortion and recreational marijuana. She has expressed scepticism towards proposals for broad reform of judicial salaries. Sanchez will be the first woman to serve as Secretary of the Interior.

Secretary of Health: Dr Jorge Carlos Alcocer

A professor emeritus at the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition, Alcocer has called for widespread reforms to Mexico’s public health sector, particularly social security. He has argued the current health system has failed ordinary Mexicans, particularly the poor.

“Social inequalities, poverty are the main causes that lead to a lack of health,” he has said. “It is still very painful to see how we have an inequality in care, in coverage that is not complete.”

He is a staunch supporter of public healthcare, and says he opposes any attempts to privatise Mexico’s health system.

Secretary for Social Development: Maria Luisa Albores

Mexico’s next welfare secretary is a veteran Indigenous rights campaigner and prominent figure in grassroots organising for AMLO’s party, Morena.

Albores has spent much of the past two decades working with Indigenous communities on issues such as sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism and environmental preservation. In particular, she has participated in projects aimed at diversifying agricultural produce, with a focus on promoting crops that will remain sustainable in the face of climate change.

AMLO has tapped her to oversee one of his flagship programs, Sembrando Vida. The program aims to generate 400,000 new jobs by cultivating 1 million hectares of farmland with short-cycle crops. The program will be focused on southern Mexico, which has long lagged behind the country’s more developed central and northern regions.

Secretary of Education: Esteban Moctezuma

A former PRI member, Esteban Moctezuma served as interior minister in the late 1990s. Moctezuma is deeply despised by the left-wing Zapatista rebels for his role in leading peace talks on behalf of the PRI government in 1995. Shortly after the talks concluded cordially, the identities of top Zapatista figures were leaked and government forces began a surprise offensive against the rebels.

The Zapatistas accused Moctezuma of being part of a government ploy to distract them ahead of the offensive. Since then, Moctezuma has argued he genuinely believed in the peace process, but was overruled by then-president Ernesto Zedillo.

As AMLO’s education secretary, Moctezuma’s biggest challenge will be renegotiating controversial reforms to Mexico’s education system. Introduced under outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto, the reforms aim to standardise classes and introduce compulsory performance tests for teachers.

While reform advocates have argued the changes are needed to improve education standards nationwide, critics argue the measures are aimed at breaking the power of teachers’ unions.

Secretary of Public Security: Alfonso Durazo

Alfonso Durazo has served in various government roles since the 1970s, mostly in the Secretariat of the Interior. Originally a member of the PRI, he left the party in 2000 to join successful PAN presidential candidate Vicente Fox’s campaign team. He later became Fox’s private secretary and presidential spokesperson.

Durazo then jumped ship to AMLO in 2006. He will now head a newly resurrected Secretariat of Public Security, which critics have argued may end up partly usurping the Secretariat of the Interior.

Durazo is widely viewed as a security hard-liner, and something of a compromise pick by AMLO to satisfy the right wing. However, Durazo has already infuriated human rights groups by proposing a new border force to crack down on refugees and migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Secretary of Foreign Relations: Marcelo Ebrard

This former mayor of Mexico City previously worked as an aide to Hillary Clinton, and will now be Mexico’s head of foreign affairs. Ebrard had a hard act to follow in 2006 when he became mayor of Mexico’s capital after AMLO, though he is credited with expanding many of his predecessor’s social programs and improving public transport. In 2010, he was voted world’s best mayor by the City Mayors Foundation.

Secretary of Energy: Rocio Nahle Garcia

Petrochemical engineer Rocio Nahle Garcia will have the difficult job of overseeing AMLO’s plans to overhaul Mexico’s 2013 energy reforms. The 2013 reforms were aimed at privatising vast swathes of Mexico’s energy sector, including selling the rights to oil and gas reserves to foreign firms.

On the campaign trail, AMLO vowed to slow or halt the privatisation of energy resources, and instead focus on modernising state oil company Pemex. Nahle has proposed investing $38 billion Mexican (A$2.6 billion) in rehabilitating six Pemex refineries.

Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development and Fisheries: Victor Manuel Villalobos

AMLO has vowed to prioritise rejuvenating Mexico’s farmlands and rural communities, though his pick for agriculture secretary has few friends among the grassroots. Earlier this year, more than 20 campesino and Indigenous rights groups issued a joint statement demanding AMLO rethink his nomination, accusing Villalobos of being a “defender of the neoliberal agro-industrial model”.

He previously served as the coordinator of the agricultural secretariat’s international affairs division from 2002–09. In 2003, he was involved in striking a controversial deal that critics such as Greenpeace say weakened protections against “accidental” contamination of agricultural imports with GMOs from the US and Canada.

Secretary of Labour and Social Welfare: Luisa Maria Alcalde

The youngest member of AMLO’s cabinet, Luisa María Alcalde is a law professor and fierce advocate for raising the minimum wage. She has called for raising it from $88 a day to $171 by 2024. AMLO himself has stated he wants to lock in at least a 15% annual raise to the minimum wage.

Secretary of Communications and Transport: Javier Jimenez Espriu

Ahead of AMLO’s inauguration, the incoming government has been dogged by controversy over plans to build a new international airport near Mexico City. Construction on the US$14.5 billion project began in 2015, and was about one third completed when AMLO called an impromptu vote on the airport in October.

Despite low participation, those who did cast votes overwhelmingly called for the construction project to be ditched. AMLO has now agreed to instead upgrade an existing military airbase for commercial use in conjunction with the existing international airport.

Even after the vote, however, the airport will likely remain a key issue for incoming transport secretary Javier Jimenez Espriu.

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