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How will Canada deal with new Mexican president Claudia Sheinbaum?

Ottawa has previously criticized Mexico’s moves towards resource nationalism

Canadian PoliticsFood and AgricultureLatin America and the Caribbean

Claudia Sheinbaum will be Mexico’s first female president and the first president from Mexico’s Jewish community. Photo by EneasMx/Wikimedia Commons.

On June 2, Mexico held elections for president and parliament. The results were a historic victory for the left-wing “Fourth Transformation,” launched by sitting President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in 2018. Claudia Sheinbaum, AMLO’s successor as candidate of the MORENA party, won 60 percent of the vote—a total of 36 million votes, the highest number of votes ever received by a Mexican presidential candidate. She will be Mexico’s first female president and the first president from Mexico’s Jewish community.

The left triumphant, the right in tatters

Sheinbaum beat her closest challenger, right-winger Xóchitl Gálvez, by over 30 percentage points. When Gálvez’s vote count is combined with centrist Jorge Máynez, the other major candidate for the presidency, Sheinbaum still beat her two opponents by over 20 percent.

Across gender, age group, and the working and middle classes, Sheinbaum won far more votes than Gálvez. This despite efforts to discredit MORENA in the US press prior to the election, including baselessly accusing AMLO of being in league with narcotraffickers.

In fact, AMLO is leaving office with an 80 percent approval rating, a level of national support of which most Western leaders, including Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau, can only dream. The Mexican people’s confidence in their government reached 60 percent in 2023, double that of the US—a percentage that increased over the course of AMLO’s six years in power.

While people across class lines voted for the Sheinbaum-led Sigamos Hacienda Historia (Let’s Keep Making History) coalition, the Mexican left’s major support base came from the working class, who have benefitted hugely from six years of progressive reforms under AMLO, including a range of social programs and increases to the minimum wage, which has more than doubled since AMLO took office.

In short, Mexico’s left trounced the forces of entrenched conservative power in the country. Only among business owners and the wealthy does the Mexican right retain any legitimacy. As such, the left’s landslide victory has caused panic amongst the Mexican elite. After the June 2 election, a pro-Gálvez Facebook group with 35,000 members vowed to “stop tipping waiters, donating to victims of natural disasters or giving money to people who help park your car because ‘they voted for Morena, so Morena should support them now.’”

As president, Sheinbaum will continue the Fourth Transformation, increasing the role of the state in the Mexican economy while exercising Mexican sovereignty on key global issues. Her 100-point program includes:

extending social programs and scholarships, continuing annual minimum-wage increases, consolidating Mexico’s push toward national health care, building a million affordable homes on a rent-to-buy plan, constructing seven long-distance train lines, mandating that companies investing in the “nearshoring” phenomenon provide higher wages and benefits, and—in what is certain to continue raising the hackles of multinational energy interests—a public sector–led energy transition building on Mexico’s state-owned oil, electricity, and lithium companies.

Sheinbaum will also inherit a number of trade disputes with Canada and the US, which over the past several years have seen Ottawa and Washington interfere in Mexico’s domestic affairs to retain a favoured position for foreign investors in the Mexican economy.

Canada and Big Ag vs. the Mexican people

During AMLO’s six years in power, Ottawa challenged his government on reforms to Mexico’s agriculture, mining, and energy sectors—reforms which weaken the ability of Canadian companies to profit from Mexico. These will be areas of Canada-Mexico relations to watch after Sheinbaum takes power.

On February 13, 2023, AMLO issued a presidential decree aimed at controlling the use of genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico. The decree called for: “an immediate ban on the use of GM corn for human consumption (white corn intended for use in dough and tortillas); the revocation of existing GM corn authorizations and a halt to future approvals; a phase-out of the use of GM corn for animal feed and processed food ingredients.” The main purpose of these measures, the decree states, is to “protect the rights to health and a healthy environment, native corn, the milpa, biocultural wealth, peasant communities and gastronomic heritage, as well as to ensure a nutritious, sufficient and quality diet.”

AMLO also announced the phasing-out of glyphosate weedkiller, but in late March 2024, the Mexican government suspended the ban, arguing that “there is no immediate way to replace the herbicide and that safeguarding Mexico’s food security must override all other concerns.”

Mexicans’ concerns about the health effects of GM corn are widespread. Writing in The Nation, Alexander Zaitchik outlines Mexican worries that the toxins in GM corn, programmed to attack the stomach linings of crop-eating pests so they die of dehydration, may impact humans as well.

Corn is a staple of the Mexican diet. Mexicans eat roughly 10 times more corn than Americans, and as Zaitchik writes, “this puts Mexicans at 10 times the risk” for possible health impacts.

Mexico’s ban on GM corn for human consumption, and the proposed banning of glyphosate, have resulted in challenges from the US and Canada under the terms of the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). US corn growers export a substantial amount of their product to the Mexican market—about $5 billion of corn annually—so the ban would cut into the agricultural profits of these American producers.

Canada does not export corn to Mexico. Even so, Ottawa is pressuring the Mexican government to reverse its decree on GM corn.

Zaitchik describes how “Mexico’s assertion of food sovereignty was not welcomed in Washington, where the Biden administration joined industry in crying foul.” The Biden administration is applying “enormous pressure” on the Mexican government to reverse the presidential decree, dismissing their concerns as “unscientific.”

Ottawa has eagerly joined the pressure campaign. An April 2023 article in Western Producer notes that Canada is “deeply concerned” about AMLO’s agriculture policies. Vice-President of CropLife Canada, Ian Affleck, stated that these policies are an example of “politics and ideology overriding science.”

As Zaitchik writes, “a lengthening list of health organizations and governments around the world” share Mexico’s worries about GM corn.

Ottawa appears to care little about Mexicans’ health concerns or their food sovereignty. In the Western Producer article, Shanti Cosentino, press secretary for Canada’s Minister of Export Promotion, International Trade and Economic Development, Mary Ng, stated that the Canadian government is “working with Mexico towards an outcome that preserves trade predictability for biotechnology approvals and market access for genetically modified products.”

As Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) writes:

Canada is participating in the dispute in an attempt to force Mexico to open its market to all genetically modified organisms (GMOs)… unwanted contamination by genetic material from genetically engineered corn is an existential threat to the future of corn, and to the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples in Mexico. Canada is pursuing this dispute without regard to the unique relationship that Mexico has with corn.

Both Canada and the US “now see their interests as aligned with those of the biotechnology industry” that produces these GM products. “The US accounts for 37.5% of global GM acres,” writes Sharratt, “and Canada accounts for 6.6%.” Nearly 90 percent of the corn grown in Canada is genetically engineered, plus 81 percent of soy and 100 percent of canola and sugar beet. The proliferation of GM seeds is not due to their superiority over non-GM seeds, but the fact that “in reality, there is little choice but to buy those GM seeds in a market controlled by just a few companies.”

The Canadian agricultural sector is entwined with monopolistic biotechnology companies that want to export their products around the globe to generate profits for themselves. This is why Ottawa has joined Washington’s pressure campaign against the Mexican government even though Canada exports no corn to Mexico.

President-elect Sheinbaum is likely to continue AMLO’s agriculture policies. While campaigning in April, in fact, she signed an accord with Mexico’s peasant organizations promising to uphold the ban on GM corn in food while seeking safer alternatives to glyphosate weedkiller.

As Sheinbaum takes office, we can expect Ottawa to continue strong-arming the extremely popular Fourth Transformation to reverse the agricultural policies it was elected to pursue.

Canada wants Mexico’s natural resources

As part of the Fourth Transformation, the Mexican government has sought to increase state control over the country’s natural resources, including oil and gas, lithium, and electricity. Like Washington, Ottawa has consistently pushed back on these reforms, arguing that the Mexican state should prioritize predictability for international investors and multinational corporations above their own resource sovereignty.

For one, the Canadian government is trying to reverse Mexico’s mining reforms, which shorten mining concessions, provide greater environmental protections, and mandate that firms must consult with local Indigenous communities before securing approval to begin prospecting.

AMLO proposed these mining sector reforms last May. In February 2024, he called for a prohibition on mining concessions in water-scarce areas and a ban on new open-pit mines. These reforms led Canadian mining company Fortuna Silver Mines Inc., owner of a silver and gold mine in Oaxaca, to speak out against the Mexican government. “It’s no secret that this administration has been averse to mining,” said the company’s President Jorge Ganoza. “If it were to continue, we would certainly see Mexico lose ground compared to other mining nations.”

Just as Canada has sought to hamper Mexico’s efforts to reduce the hold of transnational agribusiness on their food production, Ottawa is actively opposing the Fourth Transformation’s progressive natural resource policies. This makes sense when one remembers that Canadian mining companies represent 70 percent of all foreign mining companies operating in Mexico.

Last year, Minister Ng criticized AMLO’s mining reforms, calling on Mexico to abandon its pursuit of resource sovereignty and instead “create opportunities for [Canadian] businesses.” Minister Ng had previously “expressed concerns regarding the treatment of Canadian mining companies in Mexico” and claimed, without evidence, that Canadian mining companies are “leaders in establishing inclusive and sustainable workplace practices.”

Ottawa is also pressuring Mexico to walk back progressive reforms to its energy sector, which have seen the Mexican government nationalize key energy-producing resources.

In July 2022, the Biden administration accused AMLO’s nationalist policies of violating the CUSMA, decrying “delays, denials, and revocations of US companies’ abilities to operate in Mexico’s energy sector.” The Trudeau government followed suit. Minister Ng travelled to Mexico City and, in a meeting with the Mexican secretary of energy, “emphasized Canada’s concerns regarding changes to Mexico’s energy sector regulations.” Ng released a statement asserting that AMLO’s energy policies are “inconsistent” with the CUSMA.

In early 2023, Washington criticized AMLO’s government for purchasing 13 power plants from Spanish company Iberdrola for $6 billion. This deal put the majority of Mexico’s electricity production into state hands. And in another move to sideline the dominance of transnational, mostly Canadian, mining companies, AMLO has taken steps to nationalize Mexico’s lithium.

Canada’s embassy in Mexico celebrates Canadian investment in the country’s mineral and energy sectors. “Our [mining] companies operate responsibly,” it asserts, “respecting human rights and with a commitment towards responsible business practices abroad.” Meanwhile Canadian energy investments in Mexico—which total $10.3 billion—supposedly offer “quality jobs with a broad package of benefits, including pension funds, health services and savings funds, thus improving their quality of life, and giving certainty to their future.”

When it comes to mining and energy, the Canadian embassy apparently believes it knows what Mexicans need better than Mexicans themselves.

The Mexican people have voted overwhelmingly for multiple governments—first AMLO, now Sheinbaum—who promised to nationalize energy resources and impose restrictions on transnational mining and energy companies. Moreover, the Fourth Transformation constrains international capital in Mexico while genuinely improving the lives of Mexican citizens through social programs and wage increases.

This is why Sheinbaum is wildly popular in Mexico, and Canadian companies, despite what the embassy claims, are not.

The upcoming sexenio

Under Mexico’s Constitution, presidents are limited to a single six-year term in office, called their sexenio.

President-elect Sheinbaum will begin her sexenio one month from now. She will inherit a variety of pressing issues, most urgent being Mexico’s high crime rate and historically low water supplies in Mexico City.

Additionally, Sheinbaum will inherit bilateral relationships with Canada and the US that are strained in some key areas, most notably agriculture, mining, and energy.

Canadian-US pressure campaigns continue against Mexico’s ban on GM corn, efforts to phase out glyphosate, and reforms that limit the power of transnational mining and energy companies—in short, campaigns against the Mexican government’s goal of building food and resource sovereignty.

How will Canada deal with Mexico’s new president? As long as she continues the Fourth Transformation, readers can surely guess what Canada will do: apply diplomatic and legal pressure against the Mexican government on behalf of Canadian capital. These are measures Ottawa usually takes against progressive governments in Latin America, and as of now, there is no reason to believe Sheinbaum’s presidency will differ greatly from AMLO’s.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023 and the co-author of Canada’s Long Fight Against Democracy with Yves Engler.


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