Claudia Sheinbaum: Trailblazer or Mexico’s Next Puppet Leader?

By | May 31, 2024
Woman stands center stage with her hands in the air while those around her applaud.

Last night, Claudia Sheinbaum of the Morena party became Mexico’s first female and Jewish president, securing between 58.3% and 60.7% of the vote, beating her main opponent, Xóchitl Gálvez, by approximately 32 percent. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, is reaching the end of his six-year term, passing the torch to Sheinbaum as Mexico’s 66th head of state. 

A former climate scientist with a doctorate in energy engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, Sheinbaum led Mexico City as mayor from 2018 to 2023. She has worked closely with AMLO since he served as Mexico City’s mayor from 2000 to 2005, acting as his secretary of the environment. AMLO founded the left-wing Morena party in 2014, which is commonly critiqued as a populist movement and has united many leftist factions under the common goal of dismantling private industry while upholding Mexican nationalism. 

During her presidential campaign, Sheinbaum emphasized her commitment to decreasing Mexico’s poverty rates, prioritizing education, promoting renewable energy sources and tackling Mexico’s crime epidemic, which has resulted in 30,000 murders a year for the past five years. She also pledged to combat gender violence. While serving as mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum reduced the city’s rate of violence against women by 32 percent. 

Although victory for Sheinbaum, as an ethnically Jewish woman, marks a groundbreaking moment in the country’s deeply rooted Catholic and “machismo” (male-dominated) history, her candidacy faced significant criticism. Many Mexicans see Sheinbaum merely as AMLO’s puppet.

Older man in the middle of a crowd who grasp his hand.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Throughout the last two years, AMLO’s open promotion gave her an illegal head start on the 90-day campaign window.

“She isn’t popular on her own,” Mexican political journalist Pablo Majluf explains. “In all reality, she has grown under the shadow of López Obrador. Her whole political biography, her whole name, was invented and promoted by him, since a very long time ago, since he was the mayor. While AMLO is known for his outgoing personality and charisma, Sheinbaum has been characterized by Mexicans as cold, robotic and, in the words of her opponent, Gálvez, “heartless.” 

As early as 2022, senior aides to AMLO alleged that Sheinbaum’s unwavering loyalty to Lopéz-Obrador ensured his support in the 2024 election. Throughout the last two years, AMLO’s open promotion gave her an illegal head start on the 90-day campaign window. He also ignored Article 41 of the Mexican Constitution, which requires the government’s media publicity to be suspended during the election period. “[López-Obrador] intervened in the campaign every day. He campaigned directly from his morning press conference, breaking the electoral partiality law, and promoted her,” says journalist Maljuf. For many Mexicans, AMLO’s intervention in the 2024 campaign is starkly reminiscent of previous authoritarian leadership.

In the late 1980s, the National Electoral Institute (INE) was established to prevent the 71 years of the International Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) dominance, which controlled the transfer of power and deterred dissent in the federal government. AMLO has consistently criticized and defied the INE, and critics worry the election of Sheinbaum will reinstate the former one-party system that dictated the country.

Sheinbaum clearly intends to continue AMLO’s initiatives, referring to herself as the “second floor of the transformation,” alluding to the biggest project of AMLO’s presidency, the “Fourth Transformation,” a set of reforms intended to uproot neoliberalism from the Mexican economy. Sheinbaum’s commitment to AMLO’s policies secured support from the leading Morena party, despite her lack of personality appeal. 

In Spanish, the acronym MORENA stands for “National Regeneration Movement,” and the word itself signifies the Virgin of Guadalupe, the primary religious figure of the nation. Maljuf notes that despite Morena’s fiscally liberal beliefs, it commits itself to upholding nationalist, Catholic values and actively attempts to conceal Sheinbaum’s Jewish identity.

Sheinbaum’s parents are Ashkenazi Jews from Lithuania and Bulgaria, but her family only celebrated the High Holidays when she was growing up. Although Sheinbaum claims to be an atheist, she has been criticized by opposition parties for wearing a crucifix and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on many occasions.

“She is not perceived by the people as Jewish,” says another Mexican journalist, who is openly Jewish but wishes to remain anonymous. He says that Sheinbaum is largely unsupported by the Jewish community in Mexico. “Her contact with it is practically nonexistent. Her opposition, Gálvez, had lots of contact with the Jewish community.” Gálvez is a senator and tech entrepreneur of indigenous descent representing the Strength and Heart for Mexico coalition (an alliance of conservative and left-leaning parties). In the final presidential debate, Gálvez called Sheinbaum hypocritical for wearing images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

Another issue that distanced Sheinbaum from Jewish voters is her stance on Israel, or rather her lack thereof. The unnamed journalist notes that the tight-knit community of under 100,000 Jews in Mexico remain highly loyal to Israel. Meanwhile, many extremist factions in the Morena party are anti-Israel and openly antisemitic, explains Maljuf. “The whole party aligns itself with Palestine; they don’t like Israel. They didn’t negotiate the liberation of a Mexican citizen that was kidnapped by Hamas. Sheinbaum has not publicly sided with Israel.” Last Tuesday, anti-Israel protesters lit fires around the Israeli embassy in Mexico City and clashed with police.

Many fear that with Sheinbaum as president, the puppet leadership system once used by the PRI to create an authoritarian government will be re-introduced.

Woman wearing a grey scarf and pearl necklace smiles infront of a microphone.

Xóchitl Gálvez

Despite Sheinbaum’s near silence regarding her Jewish identity, extremist groups within her own party created a birther conspiracy that she was born in Bulgaria, which gained so much traction that she dispelled the rumors with an image of her birth certificate on the social media platform X. Maljuf fears that if the country becomes unhappy under her leadership, antisemitic and anti-feminist rhetoric could be further weaponized against Sheinbaum. He notes that her identity as a woman didn’t cause as much discourse as her Jewish identity because her opponent was also a woman. 

Many fear that with Sheinbaum as president, the puppet leadership system once used by the PRI to create an authoritarian government will be re-introduced. “It is the continuation of the presidency of Lopez-Obrador,” says the journalist who asked to remain anonymous. “There is a lot of fear that the democratic government will convert to an authoritarian regime. The Jewish community has fear at the possibility…with a figure like Sheinbaum,” he says, echoing these concerns. 

However, some remain hopeful that Sheinbaum will eventually cut ties with AMLO. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheinbaum shut down López Obrador’s complaints about her firm lockdown restrictions in Mexico City. Similar instances demonstrate Sheinbaum’s ability to resist AMLO’s influence. 

“If she wins by a lot, I think she’ll be able to break with him. If it’s a close election and she wins by a small margin, I think she’ll be really weak,” said Maljuf before the election. With Sheinbaum winning by a large margin, the question remains whether she will stand on her own, or if Mexico’s leadership will remain the same.

Top Image: Toma de protesta de Claudia Sheinbaum (via Wikimedia Commons)

One thought on “Claudia Sheinbaum: Trailblazer or Mexico’s Next Puppet Leader?

  1. Joao Andrade says:

    Great article

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