Mexico’s fuel crisis shows why populists can’t resist politicizing the military

Long lines of motorists have been forming outside Mexican gas stations these past couple of weeks as reports of disruptions to fuel supplies spread, sending drivers scrambling for fuel. A vicious cycle took hold: Talk of shortages set off panic buying, and panic buying worsened the shortages. But there was no natural disaster behind the initial supply blip, just a blunder by the new populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that doubles as a troubling sign of the direction that populists in the hemisphere are taking.

During the campaign, López Obrador (or AMLO, as Mexicans refer to their new president) had promised to crack down on fuel theft, a serious problem in Mexico, where criminal groups routinely tap into remote pipelines and sell the stolen fuel. As so often happens with populists, López Obrador was pointing at a real problem that had long been ignored by a complacent elite. The president correctly grasped that the problem has as much to do with corruption in Mexico’s state institutions as it does with criminal groups outside the government. Alas, as so often also happens with populists, the “solution” he dreamed up risks making a serious problem way worse.

In December, just weeks after his inauguration, López Obrador put the Mexican military in charge of ending graft in the country’s notoriously corrupt national oil company, Pemex. Nevermind that corruption is best battled by building strong and independent civilian institutions for investigations and prosecutions. Ordering the military in is faster and symbolic. It is a move that has plunged Mexico’s traditionally apolitical military into irreducibly political terrain.

López Obrador was elected on a promise to take the military out of the drug war. Yet, surprising supporters and opponents alike, López Obrador has turned to the military for solutions to the country’s biggest problems. Stopping fuel theft and corruption, he announced, is the military’s job. So is building the new civilian airport for the capital, on the site of a military base. And López Obrador’s promise to demilitarize the drug war has been replaced by promises to keep the military around until he can recruit and train 60,000 people for his new militarized National Guard plan.

It’s not going well. The plan to stop fuel theft relied on a controversial order to shut certain theft prone pipelines, which set off a cascade of shortages. It’s not clear where the order to shut down the pipelines came from — what’s clear is that the military is now right in the middle of a major national controversy.

There seems to be something about men in uniform that populists just can’t resist. It’s impossible to miss that Mexican generals find themselves in the middle of this mess, just as U.S. generals face a similar fate: their troops deployed to the border and facing the possibility of Trump declaring a fake national emergency to divert funds and Defense Department personnel for a useless wall. Retired military generals who tried to serve Trump’s government are now leaving, their professionalism and dedication having lost out to the political fight the president demands.

Meanwhile, due south, generals serving Brazil’s own new authoritarian populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, stare into the same abyss of politicization. The new president has stacked his Cabinet with seven retired military officers, including the minister of mines and energy as well as the minister of infrastructure — jobs that certainly should have a civilian focus. He has also deployed hundreds of military personnel in his first 10 days in office in order to combat urban gang violence.

Venezuelans know only too well how this movie ends. In 2015, facing growing food shortages, Venezuela’s own authoritarian populist president, Nicolás Maduro, put the military in charge of food distribution, giving rise to an explosion of food-related corruption and blundering that has left millions of Venezuelans so hungry and desperate that they have fled the country. Maduro then gave the military control of the state oil firm, sending morale tumbling and setting off an unprecedented dive in the nation’s all-important oil exports. The moves have aligned the military so closely with the regime that the two have become impossible to pick apart.

Conventional wisdom has long treated the authoritarian populists of the far left, such as Maduro and López Obrador, as diametrically opposed to those of the far right, such as Bolsonaro and Trump. In our view, there’s much more that brings them together than what separates them. Enamored of men in fatigues, hungry for the automatic discipline of military hierarchy, they reliably break down the democratic norms needed to keep the military apolitical and under civilian control.

López Obrador and Bolsonaro have just taken office. While the honeymoon lasts, the public will support their moves to politicize the military. One survey, for instance, has 73 percent of Mexicans supporting AMLO’s move to crack down on fuel theft. In due time, as the norms against military involvement in politics fray, they might find out they have bigger problems to show for it than lines outside gas stations.

Francisco Toro is chief content officer of the Group of 50 and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions. James Bosworth is the author of the Latin America Risk Report newsletter.

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