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PARAÍSO, Mexico — Every day before dawn, a knot of unemployed men gather at the gate of a construction site, hoping to land a job building a new oil refinery that Mexico’s president promises will bring riches to this forgotten corner of the country’s southeast.
They linger until noon before drifting off in the haze of the Gulf Coast sun. They will be back again the next day, trusting that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s bet on oil will pay off for them. “He is trying to do his best,” said one of the unemployed men, Geovanni Silvan.
That patience suggests why Lopez Obrador continues to enjoy vast approval, one year into his presidency, despite a flatlined economy and relentless violence.
He ran on promises to make the state work for the people instead of for the elites that were favored by his predecessors. And many Mexicans feel that he has begun to do just that: pouring money into social programs, crisscrossing the country in commercial flights to speak directly to ordinary Mexicans, slashing government salaries and forgoing the pomp of past presidents.
So while Lopez Obrador has little to show for his efforts so far, many Mexicans remain hopeful, willing to give him time to deliver the revolution he promised.
The support he enjoys personally outstrips Mexicans’ opinion of his governance, analysts said.
“The power of his leadership is that there is consistency in what he says and what he does,” said Edna Jaime, director of México Evalúa, a research group that analyzes government policies.
In his first year, helped by a pliant majority in Congress, he has upended Mexican politics, dismantling policies of his predecessors to chart a leftist course intended to correct the country’s yawning inequalities. He has raised the minimum wage, won a new labor law, cracked down on fuel theft and pushed Mexico to do more to produce its own food and energy.
Even when his actions have largely followed those of his predecessors, his rhetoric has departed from theirs. With a new force called the National Guard, he has kept the military at the forefront of the fight against organized crime and deported tens of thousands of Central American migrants — all while declaring migrants welcome and an end to the war on gangs.
“The transformation that we are undertaking is within sight,” he said in a speech Sunday, adding that he needed another year to make those changes irreversible. “We are practicing politics in a new way,” he said. “Now we are guided by honesty, democracy and humanism.”
Critics accuse him of trampling the country’s fragile institutions as he concentrates power. His response is to say that the institutions were created by “snobs” to serve neoliberal interests — and to fill them with loyalists. He has alienated rights groups with his handling of Mexico’s human rights commission. Economic analysts argue he has made erratic decisions, sapping investor confidence, and he has convinced no one that he has a strategy to deal with organized crime.
That failure is made glaringly clear with each new spasm of violence, including the murder of three mothers and six children near the U.S. border last month. On Sunday, as Lopez Obrador was declaring his commitment to protecting lives, authorities said 21 people had died in a two-day battle between security forces and gang gunmen in the northern state of Coahuila.
But the discredited opposition makes an easy foil for his rhetorical attacks on corruption — the origin, he said, of Mexico’s ills.
And his daily 7 a.m. news conferences allow him to frame the national discussion, blotting out his opponents and even his political allies.
“He is a formidable storyteller,” said Blanca Heredia, a political analyst at CIDE, a Mexico City university. “He has won people’s confidence and almost a kind of faith.”
That belief holds strong in Paraíso, an oil port in Lopez Obrador’s home state, Tabasco, that has become a laboratory for the president’s plans to develop Mexico’s poor southeast.
“You can’t touch Andres Manuel here,” said Ana Luisa Castellanos, a former supporter and a local member of the left-wing party the president led for years before he broke away.
Rivers and land merge in a giant delta of marshland and mangrove where Tabasco lies, at the crook of the Gulf of Mexico. Like the rest of the region, Tabasco has sunk far behind Mexico’s central and northern states, where billions in factory investment has transformed the economy.
One of Lopez Obrador’s main promises was to correct that imbalance. The prize for Tabasco was the new Dos Bocas refinery, part of the president’s strategy to rescue the government’s indebted state-owned oil company, Pemex, and stem Mexico’s dependence on imports of gasoline.
Lopez Obrador also started one of his signature social programs in Tabasco, an effort to revive the abandoned countryside and bolster domestic production by paying smallholders to grow fruits and vegetables and plant fruit and timber trees.
Those who skip meetings or do not show up for chores at the program’s nurseries forfeit the monthly $230 subsidy.
Critics argue that the program is little more than a handout, but for many who participate, it has been transformative.
After disease wiped out her coconut trees, Romana Segura Ramón, 64, had abandoned her 2 1/2 acres. Now she and her husband grow beans, corn and other crops and have planted mahogany trees. “We are dedicated to our land again,” she said.
Elizabeth Genesta, 29, said the biggest advantage is what she has learned from longtime farmers. A biochemical engineer who left the oil industry to raise water buffalo, Genesta found that it was a “titanic job” to plant trees to restore her land and sought help.
“It’s fantastic how we all benefit from each other,” she said.
It is a sign of the president’s priorities that when Congress passed an austere budget last month, Pemex accounted for almost half of all infrastructure spending, and the welfare ministry received billions in new money.
Without more government investment, though, Mexico’s private sector has halted its own plans, and that uncertainty has contributed to the economy’s halt, said Jaime, the analyst.
“The president’s plan to reactivate the economies of the south won’t close the gaps” on its own, she added.
Whatever the results of the long-term strategy, there is early optimism in Tabasco. Last week, hotels were full, and oil workers in neon-colored overalls seemed to be everywhere: crowding early morning buses and filing off the boats that returned them from offshore rigs.
José Luis Delgado Burgos, 35, spent much of 2018 unemployed before he found a job as a human resources manager on an oil rig a year ago. He gives all the credit to the president. “They had shut down the rigs, and thanks to him, they opened them,” Delgado said.
Industry analysts argue that building a new refinery is a mistake that will drain billions from Pemex — already the most indebted oil company in the world — and place additional strain on the government’s finances. Environmental groups warn that the site’s location at the edge of the sea makes it vulnerable to accidents.
But in Paraíso, if there are doubts about the refinery, they pale beside the expectations that thousands of promised jobs will materialize when the pace of construction picks up.
“Everything that is development is a good project,” said Ciro Burelo Magaña, a local lawyer who opposes Lopez Obrador. Then he added: “In a while, the sea will swallow it up because of climate change.”
The hope of new jobs does not obscure other problems. Paraíso’s residents fear that local criminal gangs are becoming bolder. Last week, the dismembered body of a local policeman was left outside the house of a former City Council member.
And like everywhere in Mexico, there is no sign that authorities have the ability — or the will — to stem the violence.
In June, Juan Luis Ligonia, 40, was returning with a load of fresh fish from Yucatán when armed men stopped him and stole his truck, ending his business supplying fish to Mexico City. When he went to police with information about where the truck had been spotted, they told him he needed to pay a bribe if he wanted them to investigate.
“I voted for him thinking that there would be a change,” Ligonia said of the president. Instead, he said, “There is no improvement.”