July 2, 2018 / 7:22 PM / 4 months ago

In Tabasco, hometown friends of Mexico’s new president say - Remember your roots

TEPETITAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Childhood friends, neighbours and early collaborators of Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, are celebrating their hometown hero’s victory, but urged him to remember his roots and bring badly needed jobs to the country’s impoverished south.

A child rides a bike adorned with balloons and a sign reading "Peje bici" (Peje bicycle in reference to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's nickname Peje) during the presidential election in Tepetitan, Mexico July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Anthony Esposito

Mexicans voted overwhelmingly for anti-establishment outsider Lopez Obrador in Sunday’s presidential contest, veering Latin America’s second-largest economy leftward in a bid to stamp out the corruption and violence that has blighted the country.

Virtually the entire river-front hamlet of Tepetitan, birthplace to Lopez Obrador 64 years ago, took to the streets in jubilation.

“Happiness is in the air,” 32-year-old Isaac Cabrera Leon said.

Residents of Lopez Obrador’s home state of Tabasco, a verdant, sweltering expanse at the southern hook of the Gulf of Mexico, anticipate a long-awaited change after suffering from rising crime and job losses in the state’s key oil sector.

“There is no wellbeing for our children, for our people,” 52-year old Gloria Gonzalez said.

Home to Mexico’s first oil discovery, Tabasco is beset by grinding poverty and violence. Over half of the state’s 2.4 million people live on less than $92 a month. Criminal gangs that drove murders in Mexico to a record high last year have terrorized this once relatively quiet corner of the country.

A woman was murdered early Sunday morning in the nearby town of Cardenas inside a polling station just before voting was set to kick off. Authorities said they were investigating the crime.

Still, Tepetitan resident Gonzalez, a mother of four, was hopeful Lopez Obrador could tackle the issues.

“He has always fought for the little guy. He’s someone that knows about poverty.”

Pledging to eradicate corruption and subdue drug cartels with a less confrontational approach, Lopez Obrador said in his victory speech Sunday night that he would focus his efforts on helping Mexico’s least fortunate citizens. He has long contended that poverty and violence are inexorably linked.

“Instead of using force, we will tackle the causes of insecurity and violence. I am convinced that the most effective and most humane way of dealing with these evils necessarily requires combating inequality and poverty,” Lopez Obrador said.

SOS FROM THE OIL SECTOR

According to local lore, Mexico’s first known oil discovery took place in Tabasco in 1863. Manuel Gil y Saenz, a priest, was rushing from Tepetitan to see his ill mother in Macuspana when his horse’s hoof got stuck in black sludge.

After the discovery, prospectors rushed to develop the state. Tabasco reaped the benefits.

But as international oil prices crashed around 2014, state-owned oil firm Pemex cut thousands of jobs.

That coincided with an overhaul of the energy sector by outgoing president Enrique Pena Nieto. The initiative was meant to attract private investment, but it sputtered initially.

Tabasco’s economy reeled, shrinking by 6.3 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, while unemployment climbed to the highest level of any Mexican state.

Lopez Obrador has often railed against the energy reform. He has vowed to review contracts issued to private energy firms by Pena Nieto’s administration for signs of corruption.

That tough talk has made some investors wary. But many in Tabasco see the energy reforms as a threat and are counting on Lopez Obrador to protect their livelihood.

While international trade agreements have brought jobs to Mexico’s manufacturing belt in the country’s central and northern states, over half of Tabasco’s economy and nearly half its jobs still depend on the oil sector.

Lopez Obrador has thrilled locals with the promise to build a new refinery in his home state.

The oil industry “is a big source of jobs” in Tabasco, said retiree David Garcia, who said he worked for Pemex 32 years. “Right now people are turning to crime because there are no jobs.”

HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN YOUR ROOTS?

Candelaria Lazaro, the elected head of Tabasco’s indigenous communities, has known Mexico’s next president since she was nine. It was the late 1970s and Lopez Obrador, then a young community organizer, came to Nacajuca, home to a large Chontal Maya population. He spent five years heading the Tabasco office of the National Indigenous Institute.

“He had values, he introduced me to reading, he paid for my schooling,” Lazaro said.

During his time there, Lopez Obrador helped introduce a farming technique that turned swampland unfit for farming into fertile islands. Those islands are still used by the local communities to grow corn, beans and cocoa and to farm fish in the pools formed between them.

“Andres Manuel helped us live more dignified lives,” Lazaro said, adding that in return he learned a valuable lesson.

“We transferred knowledge, the community did,” Lazaro said. “He learned that you can’t make decisions on your own, you have to convene with the community.”

Slideshow (6 Images)

Still, Lazaro said the community felt abandoned after Lopez Obrador began his rise in politics, eventually becoming mayor of Mexico City, where he gained a national following.

During Sunday night’s victory speech Lopez Obrador said his government would represent all people, rich and poor, but would give preference to “the most humble and forgotten, especially the indigenous peoples of Mexico.”

Lazaro quipped: “It looks like he’s gotten his memory back.”

Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Marla Dickerson

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