Bernie Sanders, here’s some advice from someone who lives under a populist left-wing government

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The 2020 Democratic race has come down to two main contenders: Senator Bernie Sanders and former VP Joe Biden. The two are due to debate this weekend, with no live audience present because of coronavirus, but their words will be televised across the nation. Foreign policy, no doubt, will be high on the agenda for questioners. Whoever ends up ultimately winning the Democratic nomination will have a lot to take on with Trump and his supporters and there are lessons to be learned from nearby countries — especially Mexico.

In December of 2018, a far-left candidate with little experience in government but decades of experience running for president — Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as people call him here — took over the presidency from former president Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto’s government and his center-right leaning party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), had been heavily criticized for corruption and gross human rights violations. AMLO’s election was a referendum by the Mexican people on the PRI’s putrid political machine that had operated with near impunity since the Mexican revolution in 1910.

AMLO came into power promising lots of things — above all, an end to corruption. He also promised to build free universities across the country, bring in lower pay for political posts, and improve the free healthcare system, alongside many other policies.

Similar promises to improve healthcare and access to free education, among other plans, have been put forward by the Sanders campaign. After a little over a year of observing Mexico’s first far-left president in office since General Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, who governed during post-revolutionary Mexico, I decided write Sen. Sanders (or anyone else who might take his place as the frontrunner in the Democratic primaries) this open letter with some advice from the US’s neighbour to the south.

Stop campaigning once you’re in office

Both Trump and AMLO have been criticized for spending more time campaigning than governing. Trump filed paperwork to run for re-election the day he was sworn into the Oval Office. AMLO’s press conferences at seven every morning, his trips around the country that haven’t left him time for any international meetings and his continued obsession with publicly blaming the opposition for any obstacles he’s faced while in office have given critics of his administration ample room to call him out for campaigning instead of governing.

You govern for everyone, not just the left

It’s fair to argue that all politicians are going to govern with their electoral base in mind and favor members of their own party. But for the president of a major democracy and as a member of the G20, it’s an ethical imperative that the commander-in-chief also govern in the interests of the rest of the population, regardless of whether they voted for them.

Mexico’s president has been heavily criticized for not even listening to people who don’t support him. Remember that just because someone doesn’t support you doesn’t mean they’re wrong and surrounding yourself with sycophants rarely turns out to be advantageous for president or country.

Don’t deride the media — it’s bad for democracy and for the appearance of democracy

The left and the right have rightly condemned Donald Trump and AMLO for attacks on established members of the press. In addition to Trump’s constant barrage of internet bullying of journalists and opponents on Twitter, the US president and other members of his administration have repeatedly called the media “fake news” and attacked the integrity of some of the most established journalists in the country. Mexico’s president has called the press “fifi” or “bougie” — to the chagrin of his own staff members.

The Mexican Secretary of Communication and Transport evenwrote on a government blog: “We have… criticized López Obrador for what he calls the “fifi press”…To us it seems very unfair and unpresidential. A head of state needs to have thicker skin and get out of the ring of those critiquing him.” More recently, AMLO made the lamentable decision to warn of the conservative right’s “manipulation” of the popular outcry over the national gender-based violence and femicide emergency the country is facing.

Don’t be so committed to your issues and your movement that you completely miss the boat on a national crisis

After a reporter asked Mexico’s president about what to do about the increasing number of femicides in the country, AMLO had the audacity to say that he “didn’t want femicides to distract from the raffle of the presidential plane”. The femicide emergency in Mexico is not AMLO’s doing, but his non-handling of the issue has been unacceptable and even harmful for Mexican women by emboldening opponents of women’s rights who’ve latched onto his wild accusations of a right-wing conspiracy against him. Raffling off his plane during the same two days Mexican women protested against femicides was not a PR-friendly move, to say the least.

Bernie showed troubling signs of his tendency to do this when, during the December 19 Democratic debate, he was asked about racism and unsuccessfully tried to bring the question back to his issue: climate change. It’s important to remember that sometimes the nation decides what needs to be at the top of the president’s agenda — especially if it’s perceived as a public emergency.

Surround yourself with technocrats

It’s great to have people around you that campaigned for you, but make sure they have the training, as well as the vision, to head major cabinet positions and other important government posts. Hold close the words of former president Ronald Reagan: “Surround yourself with great people; delegate authority and get out of the way”.

And finally, remember that a leader is ultimately judged on actions, not words. It is action, or the lack of, that history will remember you for.

Originally published at on March 13, 2020.

IHRL attorney & writer. Bylines in: PBS, USA Today, Independent UK, Al Jazeera, Romper, Ravishly, & National Catholic Reporter.

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