By RICARDO CASTILLO
In mid-July, former Mexican Treasury Secretary Carlos Urzúa, upon presenting his resignation to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), launched a frontal attack against AMLO’s Chief of Staff Alfonso Romo Garza in an interview.
“It’s most difficult to understand the type of relationship, ideologically speaking, Romo has with the president,” Urzúa said. “He’s an extreme right-winger.”
Urzúa went on: “How is it that a man that even admired Augusto Pinochet and Marcial Maciel ended up not only being a close friend of López Obrador, but even his chief of staff?” (Pinochet being the brutal dictator that ousted elected president Salvador Allende in Chile, 1973, and Maciel, founder of the Opus Dei Christian political front, proven post-mortem to have been a sexually perverted Catholic priest.)
At that moment, nobody tried to answer Urzúa’s accusatory questionings. In fact, the only one with an answer is AMLO himself, and he’s not addressing the issue at all. At least not in public. But Romo’s clash with Urzúa and the subsequent resignation cleared AMLO’s position on both. He accepted Urzúa’s resignation claiming “you’re a neoliberal,” while retaining Romo as chief of staff. Urzúa was out, Romo was in.
Romo, a retired tobacco entrepreneur, struck up a friendship with AMLO during a luncheon in 2011 at the now-president’s modest apartment in southern Mexico City. One thing that struck Romo – a Forbes billionaire by then – was the library full of books on President Francisco I. Madero, his great uncle. He suspected the books “had been planted” in the shelves to impress him, but then found out that AMLO’s wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez, was a historian and that she was writing a book on Madero, one of four stars in AMLO’s short list of great Mexican presidents. (In fact, it’s in AMLO’s promo logo now.) AMLO, Romo thought, was genuine and, contrary to what he had thought, he agreed with AMLO’s many positions, considered back then the concepts of a wacko left-wing radical.
The rest may be history, but what is a fact nowadays is that Romo is leading AMLO through the businessmen’s jungle, a delicate and perilous venture, which only a man who knows the way can carry out.
For starters, it was obvious when AMLO launched his candidacy in December 2017 that the business sector had no great sympathy for him. But from the start of his administration in December 2018 it was clear to AMLO that his path to successfully carrying out all of his campaign promises under the slogan “the poor come first” was by striking a good relationship with the rich first.
At the beginning, this didn’t look easy and Romo, besides being the National Palace manager, met with throngs of businessmen to convince them that AMLO wanted to negotiate with them, and would evade confrontation with the money barons at all cost.
Romo managed to bring together several financiers and invite them to form part of a new group called Entrepreneurial Advisory Council. He had Ricardo Salinas Pliego of TVAzteca, Bernardo Gómez of Televisa, Olegario Vázquez Aldir of Excelsior and Imagen TV, Carlos Hank González of Banorte, Daniel Chávez of Vidanta Group, Miguel Alemán Magnani, grandson of former President Miguel Alemán and Interjet airline owner, among several other traditional tycoons.
Then Romo went for the tough cookie, which was bringing together around AMLO the Monterrey group of industrialists. This was tough for Romo because he’s a former entrepreneur from Monterrey, and not everyone likes him up north, but they all committed to support with creative business to bring more and better paying jobs.
On July 31, Romo invited Mexico’s wealthiest man – and a good AMLO friend, even if AMLO controversially cancelled his Texcoco dream of an airport – Carlos Slim. Both met in tandem with 30 Michoacán entrepreneurs.
Slim did not bicker with AMLO over the airport. He let him know in a two-hour press conference that he was not happy over it. By now Slim has received two government contracts, one to finish the 8 billion peso construction of a road to link Oaxaca City to Salina Cruz and 2 billion pesos for a internet contract to service 1,257 public buildings, including schools, universities and airports. In the internet contract also television companies TVAzteca and Televisa benefitted.
Romo recently also made another arrangement and got AMLO invited to dine with mining tycoon Alberto Bailleres of Grupo Bal, rated by Forbes to be worth $7.4 billion. According to the president. he guaranteed Bailleres over dinner that his contracts to extract oil for the state-run oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) would be respected, and, all in all, AMLO said, “it is evident that our relationship is a very good one.”
Romo also mediated a meeting between AMLO and Mexico’s second-wealthiest man, Germán Larrea ($13.3 billion according to Forbes) in which both agreed to set up negotiations to solve, in the best possible manner, three mining strikes Larrea has not been able to solve since 2006. Larrea promised to support the president and also fix the array of suits his company Grupo México is facing for environmental violations. (See my July 24 column on the subject).
AMLO also struck up a friendship with Antonio del Valle, president of the Mexican Business Council, as well as with Daniel Servitje of Bimbo bakeries, both of whom committed to invest more in the president’s Fourth Transformation National Development Plan.
Apparently, Romo has managed to copnvince the vociferous president of the National Employers’ Confederation (Coparmex) Gustavo de Hoyos Walther to tone down a little his opposition to AMLO, particularly now that López Obrador has convinced all other businessmen that he’s not out to privatize anything nor lead Mexico into a socialist path.
Gustavo de Hoyos, by the way, launched an education program called Alternative for Mexico along with the Monterrey Institute of Technology to create business leaders involved in politics, but denied this was an administration opposition program.
There is no question that Alfonso Romo is helping AMLO create confidence among the business sector, which added to the still over 60 percent popular support the president enjoys, gives him a leeway to govern both for the rich and the poor alike.