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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mexicans are on the verge of electing their first female president

Mayor of Mexico City Claudia Sheinbaum, center, during a rally to support electoral changes favored by President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in Mexico City, on Nov. 27, 2022. Sheinbaum is the front-runner in Mexico’s presidential race, but she is wrestling with the image that she is a pawn of the current president. (Luis Antonio Rojas/The New York Times)

By Natalie Kitroeff

Claudia Sheinbaum’s list of accolades is long: She has a doctorate and a shared Nobel Peace Prize and was the first woman elected to lead Mexico City, her nation’s capital and one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere.

Now she has another chance to make history. Sheinbaum, 61, is the clear front-runner in the Mexican election on Sunday, putting her in position to become the country’s first female president.

But many Mexicans are wondering: Can she be her own leader? Or is she a pawn of the current president?

“There’s this idea, because a lot of columnists say it, that I don’t have a personality,” Sheinbaum complained to reporters earlier this year. “That President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tells me what to do, that when I get to the presidency, he’s going to be calling me on the phone every day.”

With the Mexican election just days away, Sheinbaum is facing a fundamental dilemma.

She insists she will govern independently from her mentor, López Obrador, and has some different priorities. But veering too far from his agenda could be very risky.

She and López Obrador are “different people,” she said in an interview. Yet Sheinbaum has risen to the top in part by aligning herself completely with him, and by backing moves like his big bet on the national oil company and constitutional changes that critics call antidemocratic.

Will she dare to stray from those policies if she wins office, inviting the reproach of López Obrador and the movement that got her there? Or will she dedicate herself to cementing his legacy, even if it means stifling her own vision?

“Claudia can’t say what she’s going to do, because right now she has to show absolute loyalty to Andrés Manuel,” said Ana Laura Magaloni, a legal expert who advised Sheinbaum during her first year as mayor.

“What’s going to happen when Claudia is free from that yoke, when Andrés Manuel is no longer there?” Magaloni said. “No one knows.”

Sheinbaum says it is sexist to suggest that the possible first female leader of Mexico is really only the puppet of a man.

“There’s a trace of misogyny, of machismo there,” she told one interviewer.

López Obrador will be remembered for lifting millions out of poverty, but also for empowering the military, prioritizing fossil fuels and pushing measures that critics say could weaken Mexico’s democratic institutions.

His successor stands to inherit a long list of troubles. The state-owned oil company is buckling under debt, migration through the country has reached historic highs, violence is raging and former President Donald Trump is threatening tariffs if he wins the U.S. election.

López Obrador is a generational political talent who built his party into a juggernaut by relying on the force of his personality. Now comes Sheinbaum, trying to take control of a political world defined by López Obrador’s brand of power.

“She needs him,” said Carlos Heredia, a Mexican political analyst. “She doesn’t have the charisma, she doesn’t have the popularity, she doesn’t have the political stamina of her own, so she needs to borrow that from López Obrador.”

What is clear is that Sheinbaum has long seemed more comfortable quietly getting things done than selling herself or her achievements.

The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe, she rarely discusses anything about her personal life, colleagues say. She is known as a tough boss with a quick temper who can inspire in her staff fear and adoration at the same time. Publicly, though, her affect is so controlled it verges on aloof.

“Andrés is more charismatic,” Marcelo Ebrard, a former foreign minister who is now on Sheinbaum’s campaign team, said. Sheinbaum offers “a different kind of leadership” he said, which may be “more efficient” than personality-driven.

‘The mayor said to’

Sheinbaum’s political career began when López Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000 and invited her to a meeting at a diner. “What I want is to reduce pollution,” she recalled López Obrador telling her. “Do you know how to do that?”

Sheinbaum, who by then had written more than a dozen reports on energy use and carbon emissions, said yes. She became his environment minister. In meetings, she seemed willing to do almost anything to make her boss happy, according to several people who worked with her.

“The phrase she used over and over again was ‘The mayor said to,’” said Heredia, who worked with her in city government under López Obrador.

What that meant, according to Heredia: “We are not a Cabinet for giving ideas,” he said. “We are a group of people here to execute what he decides.”

In 2006, López Obrador ran for president and lost by less than 1 percentage point. He disputed the results and led his supporters in a monthslong occupation of the capital’s downtown.

There, he held his own inauguration ceremony, where he proclaimed himself “the legitimate president” of Mexico. Sheinbaum helped adorn him with a presidential sash. When he then set up a “legitimate Cabinet,” he named Sheinbaum as a minister.

‘What Do You Want, Someone Soft?’

When López Obrador founded his Morena party in 2014, he asked Sheinbaum to run on the ticket as local mayor and, with his backing, she won.

In 2018, he was swept into the presidency in a landslide and she became Mexico City’s mayor. She quickly gained a reputation as an exacting boss.

Soledad Aragón, a former member of Sheinbaum’s Cabinet, said the mayor could remember specific numbers mentioned in a meeting weeks after it occurred, calling her “brilliant” and “demanding,” especially with herself, adding: “It has gotten results.”

Arturo Cano, a journalist who wrote a biography of the candidate, said that when he asked Sheinbaum about the “many, many stories” he had heard of her toughness as a boss, she told him: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s lazy people.”

Her defenders say some people merely reacted badly to a woman in charge. “People say it in a critical way: ‘She’s tough,’” Aragón said. “What do you want, someone soft in charge of the city?”

By the time COVID-19 hit Mexico, Sheinbaum had eked out some space to govern her own way, empowering technocrats over party loyalists. Now, she points to the pandemic as evidence that she and López Obrador are not always aligned.

López Obrador rarely wore masks in public, suggested two amulets would protect him from COVID and did not emphasize nationwide testing. Sheinbaum tested aggressively and pushed mask-wearing.

But as Christmas approached in 2020, the federal government misled citizens about the severity of the virus in the capital, saying it hadn’t reached the critical level of contagion that would have required a full lockdown.

Sheinbaum could have shut the city down earlier, but didn’t. The result was an enormous outbreak.

An independent commission this year called the episode “one of the most serious government failures” of the pandemic in Mexico. Sheinbaum has said she disagrees with the commission’s findings.

No Confrontation, No Submission

Sheinbaum has also gotten behind some of the president’s most contentious ideas.

In February, López Obrador put forth a set of profound changes to the constitution, including eliminating independent regulators and requiring Supreme Court justices to be elected by popular vote. The move provoked alarm among critics, who said the president was trying to obliterate checks and balances.

Still, a day later, Sheinbaum announced she would adopt all his proposals as her own. To the naysayers, this was an illustration of their worst fears: Sheinbaum following instructions from López Obrador to take steps that would harm democracy.

But Juan Ramón de la Fuente, a member of her campaign team who is seen as her likeliest pick for foreign minister, seemed to downplay the importance of the proposed changes to the judiciary.

“I wouldn’t say it is necessarily the top priority,” he said, adding that Morena would need to win a supermajority in Congress to push the measures through, something party officials see as unlikely.

Between Sheinbaum and López Obrador, he added, “There will be no confrontation, but there will be no submission.”

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