But something went awry in the calculations. Over the past 30 years, Mexico’s G.D.P. has grown at an average annual rate of only 2.2 percent, and there are enormous internal inequalities. The 10 richest people have the same wealth as the poorest half of the country, according to a 2018 Oxfam report.
Mr. Salinas was unable or unwilling to rein in the elites who benefited from a system of protected monopolies, kickbacks and extraordinary profit margins derived from corruption and inefficiency.
Mexico has also modernized its electoral system and built democratic institutions to promote competition, transparency and the balance of power. To the many Mexicans who saw that these supposedly democratic and transparent norms were applied selectively, the changes did not amount to much. Again, modernization seemed to pan out for some Mexicans, but had little effect for those who couldn’t take advantage of it — a majority of the population in need. For many, “democracy” is nothing but a word wielded in elections and in the discourse of leaders who have made themselves rich at the expense of the treasury. According to Latinobarómetro, a regional polling organization, just 15.7 percent of Mexicans said they were satisfied with their country’s form of democracy, making Mexico one of the countries in Latin America with the lowest levels of confidence in government.
In 2018, when Mr. López Obrador ran for the presidency for a third time, the indignation and rage of those left behind had reached a boiling point. The signs of discontent were visible: historically low approval of government performance and communities that were willing to take justice into their own hands. Mr. López Obrador offered a political pathway to dissipate this tension and won the election with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Since then he has radically increased the minimum wage; established about $33 billion in annual direct transfers and handouts to disadvantaged groups; and begun ambitious projects, like the Mayan train and the Dos Bocas refinery, in regions traditionally overlooked by central governments. Mr. López Obrador’s administration’s financial policy is practically neoliberal, with its aversion to indebtedness; inflation control; austerity and balance in public spending; and rejection of private sector expropriations. During the pandemic, he has been harshly criticized across the political spectrum for his refusal to expand fiscal spending to counteract its disproportionate impact on people, especially those who did not benefit from direct Covid relief.
Many describe Mr. López Obrador’s style of governance and his social and economic projects as populist in nature. In attempts to fend off criticism, he’s gone as far as attacking the independent press and anti-corruption groups. The small portion of the population that prospered these past decades has good reason to be irritated and concerned.
But in short, Mr. López Obrador is a less radical politician than he’s accused of being and is more prudent with his management of government than he’s given credit for.