Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to the Presidency driven by left-wing ideas but has turned out to be a populist and nationalist, with some conservative tendencies in certain areas. Like former US President Donald Trump, he has a transactional vision of politics: they are two veteran figures who like to carry out projects at any cost.
Donald Trump claims to be a master in “the art of negotiation”, but his old friend Andrés Manuel López Obrador could snatch that title.
Last week, the Mexican president pressured a US company to agree to run a resort and cruise ship dock at a quarry he owns near Playa del Carmen.
The Vulcan Materials firm has no experience in these sectors and would prefer to continue extracting gravel only.
Examples abound in which López Obrador pressured others to achieve his goals.
In 2020, he called a referendum suspending construction of a $1.5 billion US brewery in the border city of Mexicali. The company had obtained all the necessary permits, but some residents complained that it would use too much water.
Constellation Brands, based in Victor, New York, and which produces Corona beer, wanted to have a factory on the border in northern Mexico to export the beer to the United States. López Obrador, however, wants to promote investments in the south of the country, a poor region with abundant water, from which he is a native.
Last week, López Obrador said that the Governor of the state of Veracruz, a co-religionist of his, had cleared the way and granted all the necessary permits for Constellation to build a brewery there.
Some say the president could be scaring away foreign investment with such tactics.
“Detractors and analysts complain that it drives investment away. He doesn’t care what they say,” said Federico Estévez, professor of Political Science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “That’s what they don’t understand. Not looking for growth. He doesn’t look for investments. He is not a normal politician”.
In March, López Obrador gave an ultimatum to the US energy firm Sempra: He set a one-month deadline to sign an agreement committing to build a liquid natural gas export terminal at the port of Salina Cruz, on the Pacific coast. Experts say the project is not attractive to foreign firms because gas pipelines have to be built to the port.
López Obrador renovated the port in the framework of a plan to revive an old dream: the construction of a railway line that connects the Pacific ports with the Gulf of Mexico, in the east, through the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec. To make this project viable, he desperately needs commercial clients for the port.
Sempra has not yet responded to the ultimatum.
Similar attitudes – and practices – mediated the most striking negotiation carried out so far: an agreement in principle with Vulcan Materials to manage a tourist complex and a dock.
The US firm acquired a series of limestone quarries near Playa del Carmen in the 1990s when the area was not as popular a tourist destination as it is now.
Vulcan would like to continue exporting the gravel but has been blocked from doing so since the end of 2018, for which it has requested arbitration under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has not yet been resolved.
The quarries are near Xcaret, a lagoon where private investors have created a theme park with admission costing $100 for one day. The Mexican President prefers state companies and hates private ones that charge a lot.
One of the Vulcan quarries was filled with turquoise water, and López Obrador wants to turn it into an artificial lagoon where you can swim and snorkel.
Another of his pet projects in the area is the Mayan Train, a 1,500-kilometer (950-mile) line through the Yucatan Peninsula that will connect coastal hotels with archaeological sites inland.
In a very controversial way, and without environmental studies, the President decided to open a corridor in the middle of the jungle, between Cancún and Tulum, near the quarries, to build the railway line.
The project requires huge amounts of gravel to stabilize the rails, as well as a port to transport the rails, vehicles and other equipment needed for the work to the jungle.
Vulcan Materials has the gravel and a deepwater port, Punta Venado, which it uses to export the gravel to Florida, where it is used in road projects. López Obrador also wants Vulcan to manage a dock for cruise ships. To that end, he offered her a “deal”: either open a water park and manage the dock for cruise ships, or the government closes the quarries. He also threatened other measures.
“I am waiting for a response to a proposal that we made to them, because otherwise we are going to proceed legally,” warned the President on April 19, in the best Trump style.
On Monday, Vulcan Materials issued a statement in which it said it was “open to supplying the necessary materials for the construction of the Mayan Train and other infrastructure projects, and to improving the port’s capacity so that the train’s construction materials can be transferred.” .
The firm also told the government that it was willing to build “a large ecotourism complex, suggested by the Mexican government, on company land, as long as the company can continue to serve its customers” of gravel.
Vulcan added that it was “also prepared to explore an expansion of the Puerto Venado maritime terminal so that it can receive passengers, cargo and other vessels in the coming years.”
A person familiar with the government’s disputes with private firms, who is not authorized to give his name, said that López Obrador tends to overwhelm companies with his rhetoric, but that he does not appear to be overstepping the mark.
“He appeals to rhetoric, but he does not act like a caudillo,” he said. “He barks more than he bites.”
“A firm was asked to do something it didn’t want to do and (the company) started receiving calls from government agencies saying that they were reviewing the contracts they had with it. But they were not canceled,” she recounted. “Are they applying pressure? Yes, sure. But is it illegal?