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Despite her climate scientist past, Mexico sees its new president as AMLO's protege

A lot of the conversation about the results of Mexico’s presidential election this past weekend has centered on the fact that the winner, Claudia Sheinbaum, is a climate scientist. Caroline Tracey, a journalist covering the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, says the expectations of what that might mean for her policies as president have differed, depending on which side of the border you’re on.

The Show caught up with Tracey in Mexico City and asked her to explain the dichotomy between how media audiences in the U.S. and Mexico have heard about the new Mexican president.

Full interview

CAROLINE TRACEY: Mexico on Sunday elected its first female president, whose name is Claudia Sheinbaum. And her educational background is as a climate scientist. She has a doctorate in energy engineering. And so the U.S. news coverage has largely been very, very celebrated about the fact that both she’s the country’s first female president and the fact that she’s a climate scientist.

And I think that that is a little bit different than the way that she’s perceived on the ground in Mexico, which is much more as sort of the protege of the current president — Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the moniker AMLO — and as someone who’s been in political office now for quite a long time.

So, I think people perceive her less as this very exciting climate president and much more as someone who needs to be watched kind of carefully for how much she’s going to be able to execute those more progressive ideas that she might have versus how much she’s sort of tasked with continuing the goals of the current president.

MARK BRODIE: Are there policies or steps that she has taken or things that she has done in office in the past that might lead Mexican residents to think maybe she’s not the climate hero that many in America think she might be?

TRACEY: I think that her track record in Mexico City where she’s been the mayor — until last June, she was the mayor — has demonstrated an interest in especially electric mobility and renewable energy. So she did some rather significant things, such as electrifying part of the city’s bus fleet; constructing a gondola system for public transportation in the outskirts of the city, where it’s very mountainous; and putting a very large solar display on the city's sort of central warehouse. So I think it’s the largest urban tourist play in the world. All of that is, I think, to her credit, and credit should be given where credit is due.

I think the challenge comes when looking at her role within the party and the federal projects that are underway and that she’s likely expected to continue, which have been very fossil fuel based and very kind of large, infrastructure based at the cost of the environment.

So those include a large train system through the Maya Region, the indigenous Maya Region that has been quite controversial because of its emphasis on destruction. And that’s one where I think people sometimes say, “Well, a train is better than a highway,” but this is something where it was just jungle before there. It wasn’t like high speed rail in California or something, where there was a clear need.

So that’s one project that’s been quite controversial. Another is a large, large logistics center that’s kind of gearing up to be the second Panama Canal — and just not a canal, but rather train lines and data centers and logistics centers. And that’s in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is in Oaxaca. And it’s another project that’s been very controversial among the local communities, many of whom are indigenous and also, quite sadly, there’s been a lot of retaliation toward the community members that have sought to oppose it.

BRODIE: So you kind of alluded to this, but I want to ask you more specifically: Is there a difference, maybe, between what she would like to do and what she believes and what her party is looking to do and maybe what the party’s program calls for?

TRACEY: Yeah, I think that’s precisely the thing to watch in the coming six years, which is her term, but especially in the next couple of years when sort of the plans start to take place or take formation: That in her platform, she included both her goals about renewable energy and her predecessors goals about increasing oil production by the national oil company and expanding and continuing these infrastructure projects.

And so it’s, I think, a time to watch whether she’s going to be able to make the inroads on renewable energy and other environmental goals that she might have, versus sort of being under pressure to continue the dirtier projects that are currently underway.

BRODIE: How much autonomy within the Mexican system does somebody in this position have? Can she really do what she wants? Can she, for example, pursue the kinds of things nationwide that she did as mayor of Mexico City? Or is it more a matter of sort of that the party is dictating what the program is going to be?

TRACEY: This is an interesting question. I think there is divided opinion among Mexicans about the degree to which she is going to be kind of subordinated to the current president. There are some commentators who call her a puppet and some who are more confident that he’s ready to retire. He is quite old. He also, however, has a list of constitutional reforms that he’s interested in pursuing that are now possible because the party has a supermajority, or it appears that it will be announced and the party has a supermajority in the legislature.

So the party is now very powerful. And I think that one of the things that makes many Mexicans concerned, those who are sort of paying attention to the type of changes that might take place. So I think there is a strong sense that the party has a lot of control, and that’s of concern. And there’s a divided tense about whether the president is really kind of calling the shots of the president.

BRODIE: What is public sentiment in Mexico related to climate change and steps that the government may or may not take to try to mitigate it?

TRACEY: I think there’s a lot of concern because, for one thing, there is widespread water insecurity. You may have seen in the news that Mexico City is facing “day zero” at the end of June. They’re looking at really, really serious water insecurity in Mexico City, which is a city that has, you know, over 20 million people in its metropolitan area.

And then, in the central part of the country, multiple lakes have dried up this year. And that’s been quite concerning for communities that depend on them, obviously. So water is a really big issue, and it did play a role in the election.

And then also heat is a big issue. This past month has been a multiple record breaking heat wave in Mexico. There’s for a lot of people a day to day reality that makes it so that, you know, first thing in their mind, as there is elsewhere in the world.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.