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What Does Claudia Sheinbaum Stand For?

Margaret Cerullo (photo: Hampshire College)

The excitement in Mexico and abroad about North America’s first woman president has dominated the headlines—almost to the exclusion of who Claudia Sheinbaum is, and what she stands for. How did she win, and how will she confront the enormous challenges facing Mexico, perhaps none more dramatic than pervasive violence, including murder and violence against women?

While I am skeptical, or at least cautious, about how much or in what ways her gender will affect her politics, it is worth taking a moment to feel the enormity—and the ecstasy—of the moment. Not only has a left-wing Jewish woman been elected president of an overwhelmingly Catholic country (a country steeped in machismo where women only gained the vote in the 1950s), she won by a landslide (30 points, as the vote count nears completion). Her political party, Morena, is poised for near super-majorities in both houses of Congress—a Congress that has gender parity, guaranteed by law in 2018 after years of feminist struggle. That Mexico would have a woman president well before its neighbor to the North (“Que es mas macho?”) was assured when the strangely configured opposition to Sheinbaum and Morena (the opposition combined all three parties that have defined Mexican political history for a century, the PRI, PAN, and PRD) also nominated a woman, Xóchitl Gálvez. Maria Hinojosa, speaking on Democracy Now!, suggested that Gálvez who, like Sheinbaum, claims to be a feminist, was the “center-left Sarah Palin of Mexico.”

[Gálvez is] kind of like, Hi, I’m here, and I just kind of ended up as the main candidate here, and I’m bright, and I’m smart, and I’m a survivor, and everything is going to be fine.

 In other words, not a serious contender.

Sheinbaum, who has been mayor of Mexico City for the last six years, rode to victory on the coattails of the enormously popular current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials, AMLO). Her candidacy and her victory were accompanied by what she herself identified as a sexist refrain—that she was his puppet. That he would continue to rule behind the scenes. That her assigned role was to continue the project of his presidency, which he modestly calls the historic “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (equivalent to the prior three: the War of Independence, the Nineteenth-Century Liberal Reform, and the Mexican Revolution). What has the 4T consisted of? It has a complicated and contradictory legacy. A Keynesian social democratic project of significant wealth redistribution and the extension of a genuine welfare state, it has made the lives of millions more livable. It has been accompanied by controversial mega-development projects in the poorest, most Indigenous regions of the country.

The Fourth Transformation has also been defined by an increasing and pervasive domestic militarization of Mexico. This militarization has covered public security (in the face of the “Drug War” and endemic social violence), immigration containment, and the economy. The navy controls customs and the ports. The army is in charge of the construction of airports and the vaunted “Mayan train,” —a tourist project in the Mayan territory of the Yucatan and Chiapas that involves dispossession and displacement of local communities, as well as uncharted environmental consequences. The army also controls the projected “trans-isthmus corridor”—an infrastructure plan to connect the Atlantic and Pacific and compete with the Panama Canal.

Meanwhile, during AMLO’s presidency, the tally of missing or disappeared persons (estimated at more than 100,000) has continued to grow. The most famous case, the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher training college in Guerrerro state in 2014, has not been resolved. In fact, the independent investigation that AMLO promised and established was subsequently blown up, it appears, under pressure from the army.[1] Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women—ten women are killed every day—and for journalists. There is near total impunity for these crimes: 90% of the feminicidios go unpunished.[2]

As she continues the “Fourth Transformation,” it is unclear whether Sheinbaum will alter the intense militarization of Mexican society—or the ongoing counterinsurgency war against the Zapatistas that has characterized AMLO’s reign. The Zapatistas, who issued a flood of communiqués in October, leading up to the thirtieth anniversary of their uprising, have been notably silent about the elections, which they consider an irrelevant distraction from their own war for life against death. On immigration, US pressure has turned Mexico into another arm of US border control, increasing the containment and detention of immigrants. Sheinbaum suggested in recent months that US spending on the militarized control of immigration could be put to better use in supporting development in migrant-sending countries—an unlikely prospect. In a presidential debate, she indicated that she would reform Mexico’s corrupt immigration authority, another long shot.

It appears that Sheinbaum is on board with the agenda of the 4T. However, as a climate scientist, she will be more attentive to the enormous environmental concerns that these projects raise, not to mention the threat of severe water shortages throughout the country, which she has identified as a priority. As mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum worked to accelerate the transition to clean energy, promoting electric vehicles. She supported LGBTQ rights by revising public school uniform policies that required that girls wear skirts and boys trousers, instead allowing children to choose what they wear to school. She proclaimed a commitment to substantive, not merely formal, gender equality, joining with women mayors of other large cities to proclaim women’s “right to the city” and proposing an old-age pension for housewives as part of her presidential agenda. While AMLO mocked the feminist movement, claiming it was organized by the political opposition to undermine the 4T, Sheinbaum made a striking gesture in 2019 when she met with feminist collectives and apologized for having previously called feminist demonstrations against Feminicidio a “provocation.“ That designation had effectively criminalized feminist protest and justified investigations by her attorney general of their participants. In 2019, she publicly brought this to an end.

Another issue on which Sheinbaum’s politics are clearer than AMLO’s is her position on Palestine. While Mexico has joined South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice investigating the charge of genocide against Israel in Gaza, AMLO has refused publicly to name Israel’s war a genocide. Sheinbaum is likely to be unequivocal. She is Jewish: her paternal grandparents were Lithuanian, exiled in the 1920s for reasons that were “economic, racial, and political” (her grandfather was Jewish and a communist), and her maternal grandparents were Bulgarian Jews who fled Nazi persecution. She has said that her identification is with the political traditions of Judaism, not so much the religion. Neither she nor her family were members of a synagogue, and the small Jewish community of Mexico (50,000 in a population of 126 million) tends be conservative politically and did not support her.

In 2009, at the time of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Sheinbaum published a letter in the Mexican left-wing daily, La Jornada, where she stated:

[B]ecause of my Jewish origin, because of my love for Mexico and because I feel myself a citizen of the world, I share with millions the desire for justice, equality, fraternity and peace, and therefore, I can only watch with horror the images of the bombings of the Israeli state in Gaza... No reason justifies the murder of Palestinian civilians... Nothing, nothing, nothing, can justify the murder of a child. That is why I join the cry of millions around the world calling for a cease-fire and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territory. As Alberto Szpunberg, Argentine poet, said in a recent letter: “that is what it is all about: saving a world, this unique and anguished world that we all inhabit, that belongs to all of us and that today is called Gaza.”

It is time for those of us in the United States to pay close attention to what happened this week—and to what will happen in the days to come—in Mexico.

(Statue on one of Mexico City's principal streets, following the International Women's Day March, 2024. Photo by Margaret Cerullo.)

Margaret Cerullo recently retired from Hampshire College. She has been involved with Mexico for thirty years, as a researcher, solidarity activist, and director of field study courses in Mexico City, Morelos, and Chiapas. She is part of Colectivo Relámpago (the Lightning Collective) that produced the book, Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World (PM Press, 2022) and another collective whose translation of Jérôme Baschet, The Zapatista Experience: Rebellion, Resistance, and Autonomy is forthcoming from AK Press. She wrote about the 2018 Mexican election for The Nation.


[1] For a fuller discussion of the security situation, see the recent interview I conducted with John Gibler, for Security in Context.

[2] Femicide/Femicidio is generally understood as the killing of women by men based on misogyny. Feminicidio extends this definition to emphasize the state’s complicity in perpetuating violence against women and guaranteeing impunity.


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