EXCLUSIVE | Interview with Mexico’s leading presidential contender Dr. Claudia Sheinbaum

Dr. Claudia Sheinbaum, the head of government in Mexico City, is known for her progressive, feminist, and pro-environment policies in the city

April 14, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch

Rania Khalek of Breakthrough News and Zoe Alexandra of Peoples Dispatch sat down with Dr. Claudia Sheinbaum, the head of government in Mexico City and considered by many as the successor to current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. They spoke about what the project of MORENA, the fourth transformation, has meant for the people of Mexico, her initiatives to make the city a safer and more environmentally friendly one, and how she got into progressive politics.

The full transcript of their conversation is available below:

Rania Khalek: Hello, everyone. I’m Rania Khalek with Breakthrough News.

Zoe Alexandra: I’m Zoe Alexandra with Peoples Dispatch. We’re here in Mexico City and we’re joined by Dr. Claudia Sheinbaum, the head of government of Mexico City and one of the founders of the MORENA Party of President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. She’s a rising figure in Mexican politics and one of the frontrunners in the 2024 Mexican presidential elections.

Rania Khalek: Dr. Sheinbaum, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s jump right into it. You studied environmental engineering in university, and today you are the head of government of one of the largest cities in the world, over 20 million people in Mexico City. You’re also one of the founders of the largest progressive political party in the region, MORENA. Can you tell us about your journey into politics? You went from student activism to being an elected official. What were your politics like growing up?

Claudia Sheinbaum: Well, first of all, my background is physics. I studied physics, then energy engineering for my master’s and my PhD.

When I was 15 years old, in high school, was the first time that I got involved in a student mobilization, the student movement, because many people couldn’t get into the high school. I was in [high school], but I was, you know, in solidarity with those that didn’t have the possibility of studying.

And then, you know, I got involved in social politics, and it was very important for us in 1988 when the [Engineer Cuauhtémoc] Cardenas was a candidate for presidency. And it was very important for us because we came from a student movement and we decided, I say us [to refer to] our generation, and we decided to [support] the Engineer Cardenas.

Later on, I went to the US to study for my PhD, and when I returned I was [working at] the university. But I was involved [in politics] from my parents because they were involved in the 1968 student movement. I was involved in politics, but my main occupation was to be a mother and to be in the university. And in 2000, President López Obrador, when he was chief of government of Mexico City, invited me to be the Minister of Environment, so I got involved.

Later on in 2006, with the electoral fraud [committed against the candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador], I was with Lopez Obrador, even though I returned to university, I was with him in all the movements that finally [resulted in the creation] of MORENA.

Zoe Alexandra: We know that PRI and PAN really maintained a stranglehold over Mexican politics since 1946. In 2016, MORENA was founded to be an alternative to this. And in 2018, MORENA achieved a historic electoral victory with the election of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. What does this mean for the course of Mexican politics?

Claudia Sheinbaum: You know, in 2016, when MORENA was created, nobody wanted to be in MORENA because it was a new party. And in Mexico, you have to win a certain percentage of the votes to be an official party. And it was very difficult because just a few people wanted to be in MORENA. The decision to get away from PRD, the party that we were in, [was taken because], you know, we thought at that time that there was no possibility in that party that was getting very close to the official party.

So we decided to create [MORENA]. I say we decided because there were a lot of assemblies all over the country that decided to create this party. And from 2016 to 2022, it’s [been] seven years. And now we have the presidency, 22 governors of 32, the majority in the Congress, the majority in the Senate, and a lot of municipal governments.

The why, is because people want change. It’s a change from an economic model, neoliberalism which is now in the past. And we have now a government that thinks [about] the majority, thinks in Mexican people rather than thinking in the privileged group. Rght now we have the majority. And that’s because people are happy, even though a lot of the media is against the president and against MORENA. You know, the people want this change and want this fourth transformation, as we call it, to continue.

Rania Khalek: One thing that confirms some of what you’re saying is the fact that you’re currently leading all major voter intention polls for the 2024 presidential election. What do you think has led to this support?

Claudia Sheinbaum: Okay. First of all, I think it’s that I have [always] been in the movement. I’ve been [close to] President Lopez Obrador always since 2000, 23 years. And at some point, people remember that I was in the Adelitas movement that we had in 2008 against the privatization of the Mexican oil [company] Pemex. And I was in many movements. So they think that I can continue what President Lopez Obrador is doing.

The second thing is who I am and what I have done in Mexico City. If they didn’t [want] a scientist and a politician to be president, they probably [wouldn’t] prefer me. And also my work in Mexico City, if my job here in Mexico had been bad and people were against me, I probably couldn’t go to the next step.

And finally, believe it or not, it is because I’m a woman. You know, it’s now time for women, it’s incredible it’s not only the social movement of young women. It’s also that in Mexico we already have nine governors and many women participating in politics. So it’s not a strange [thing] and at some point people see that it’s good to have a president, a female president.

Zoe Alexandra: Well, we like to talk about one of those reasons that you spoke about, which is your role as head of government in Mexico City, again, a city of over 20 million people, which is very significant. And you were elected by popular vote in 2018 as head of government. 

You’ve taken on many initiatives to address some of the structural issues facing the city. And one of them we’d like to talk about is femicide, in the issue of women, which is a huge challenge for Mexico and it’s a huge challenge for the region in general. In your role, you’ve taken a lot of different initiatives to address this issue, to make the city a safer place for women. So can you talk a bit about those initiatives?

Claudia Sheinbaum: Yes. In November 2019, I decided to make an alarm for women. We could say that. And so we developed 11 points for women to [feel] safe in the city. And we have now done more than that. I can tell you some examples.

For example, we have 27 centers to attend for women that have violence at home. We have passed many laws. One that I like to say in many places is that when we think of violence in the household or in families, what we think is let’s take the woman and her children to a [shelter]. So I asked myself, why do you have to take out the woman and hide her? So now we have a law here in Mexico City that [says] it’s the aggressor, that goes out of the house. So even if the property is not of the woman, she has the right to stay at home. And the man or the aggressor has preventative measures or even goes to jail if, you know, the judge decides that. So it’s a completely different way of thinking.

And also, we have made 800km of safe corridors with a lot of lights and buttons [to call] for the police to come. We have a special number, it’s 765 to call. If you have problems if you’re a woman and many other things that so in we don’t know if there are more feminist sites now than before because before they were not counted. But we have to take care of that.

Rania Khalek: And I mean, you’ve dealt with so many other issues as well. One of the biggest ones affecting the entire planet, of course, is climate change. And you’re an environmental engineer, as you mentioned. You were also secretary of environment and you were part of the UN Panel on Climate Change in 2007, which won a Nobel Peace Prize. And Mexico City, like all major cities, deals with many issues related to this, such as access to water or pollution, just the general impact of climate change. During your time in office, what have been major initiatives that you’ve taken up to address these issues that affect everybody?

Claudia Sheinbaum: Okay, we have our own environmental and climate change program for the city, and I can tell you some of the things that we have done. We have planted about 35 million trees and plants in the city compared to the last four years before I entered the government. It’s about ten [trees] a second.

We have made a lot of investment in Electromobility, but for public transportation. So we have the two cable cars, the longest cable cars for public transport in the world. One is in Iztapalapa, the Western part of the city, and the other one is the northern part. One is ten kilometers and the other one is almost ten kilometers and they moved around 20 million personas or 20,000. And then we already have 500 trolleys in the city and we made a second floor, but not for cars, only for trolleys. Eight kilometers per second.

Zoe Alexandra: So moving to another one of those reasons that you mentioned before, which is, of course, the transformation. The fourth transformation has been the guiding project of your party MORENA. Can you tell us a bit about what the fourth transformation means? What has it accomplished so far, and for you, what is the vision for continuing this project and what’s left?

Claudia Sheinbaum: Okay, we call it the Fourth Transformation, because since we are a nation, we have had three transformations. The first one is the independence that began in 1810.

The second one was the reform with Benito Juárez. We divided the church from the state and then we had the French invasion and the US invasion. So the 19th century, especially the second half of the 19th century, was very important for Mexico. And then for many, many years we had a dictator that was Porfirio Diaz.

The third transformation was the Mexican revolution, which changed, you know, the government not only for more democracy, but to see the government [as the purveyor of] social rights.

These three transformations were violent. There were wars and the fourth transformation is specific because we believe in peace. And what has changed? In 2018, in December, we can say that the economic model changed from neoliberalism, that at some point in Mexico is equal to corruption. [There was also a shift of not giving] most of the national natural resources to private companies to a new way of governance that now we call it Mexican humanism.

We believe in private investment, we believe in trade, of course, in free trade. We have  trade with the US and Canada, but we believe that the states have to give the rights to the people. What do we think is a right? Education, health, a home, pension for all the elders.

We also believe in strategic areas of the economy such as energy. The state has to be part of this, especially electricity, oil and mainly and now lithium that it’s important and it’s going to be very important in the future.

We believe in trade, we believe in private investment, but we believe in wealth for Mexican people. You cannot have private investment measured only by GDP or international investment. You have to measure investment, public and private, in wealth for the people. And that’s the big difference with neoliberalism that believed that everything was going to be solved by the market.

Zoe Alexandra: So also with regards to the region, we’ve seen many significant electoral victories of the left of progressive forces across Latin America, in Honduras, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. What is the significance of this progressive resurgence for Mexico and how does Mexico see itself as part of this?

Claudia Sheinbaum: It’s something very special what is happening right now in Latin America. And I think people decided that the old model was bringing inequalities and corruption in many parts. And people want to have a government that looks after the people who have less historically. And that’s very important because in many parts, I mean, from my generation, we always think of Latin America as the Patria Grande (the Great Homeland) and, you know, and so for me, you know, it’s something incredible that it’s happening now. We have to give results.

Rania Khalek: This progressive wave is distinct in the presence of more female leaders, people like Xiomara Castro, Cristina Fernandez, Francia Marquez. And then Mexico, of course, just hosted the Feminist International, which was a gathering of all these female leaders from across the region. How do you see all of this in relation to the rising tide of feminism across the region?

Claudia Sheinbaum: I mean, it’s obvious that women are, you know, getting more in public life because of the feminist movement, because of the young women that have said, you know, stop violence and stop especially sexual violence. This is very important. What I think and I said this in this international congress [the Feminist International],  I said: Let’s speak about the social feminism. What do I think about it?

We women, we have probably the same problems, but there are some women that suffer more. In Mexico City, we made a survey of who is more discriminated against in Mexico City? And it’s because of the color of your skin, so if you’re Indigenous and if you’re a woman. So if you’re a woman and you’re indigenous, you’re going to be more discriminated against. And it’s not the same for a white woman. So we have to think about it. It’s not just the same for everybody.

Zoe Alexandra: So Mexico has historic ties with the people of Cuba. And in the last several years, under the leadership of Andres Manuel, there have been many important advances with regards to economic and medical cooperation. Of course, the US blockade presents many challenges to this. But for you, what do you see as the major barriers to furthering integration amongst the people of the region, and specifically, of course, with the people of Cuba?

Claudia Sheinbaum: We are against any kind of blockade, because people suffer from that. It’s not just that you’re against a certain government, but people suffer. And even though this blockade [exists], the people of Cuba [have built] their own path. You know, medicine in Cuba is incredible compared to many other countries in the world. So Cubans have to decide what is going to happen with Cuba. People in other countries are going to decide [for themselves]. That’s a principle of foreign policy in Mexico. It’s in the Constitution, the sovereignty of any country.

We have ties with Cuba. And right now we have been benefiting from Cuban doctors that are coming to Mexico because in the last decade, you know, medical schools have closed so much that we don’t have enough doctors. So we are looking for any country that wants to help us to have a good public health system. And the Cubans say we will help you. So we are receiving that help and we are paying for that service. And we are paying doctors as we would with any other country. And that benefits Cuba. So, you know, they have to decide what’s the future, not any other anybody else.

Rania Khalek: And you mentioned the issue of sovereignty as I’m sure you’ve seen, we have these conservative politicians in the US that have been making these very provocative statements about military intervention in Mexico under the guise of fighting drug cartels. And this comes after AMLO has nationalized the country’s lithium industry, which they’re not so happy about. And he’s also emphasized the importance of Mexican sovereignty. So what’s your position on US interference in Mexico?

Claudia Sheinbaum: I’m against it as I’m against intervention in any other country.

Why in Mexico? You know, with the drug trade between Mexico and the US. It’s because in the US there have historically been more consumers than in Mexico. So if we want to stop that, it is not just violence, it is to tell young people that drugs, especially fentanyl destroys human lives.

But it’s about cooperation, not invasion. You know, we have to work together to stop the consumption and to stop the market of firearms that come mainly from the US. So it’s, you know, it’s mutual. So we have to work together now, you know. This thing that it’s just, I think, propagandistic. But we have to defend Mexico at all points.

Zoe Alexandra: So over the past several months, there have been very large and important mobilizations in support of President Andres Manuel of the Project of MORENA, the fourth transformation in support of the nationalization of lithium. There’s now one more year left of AMLO’s term as president. Can you maybe just to finalize this interview, if we can kind of talk a bit about these last few years MORENA being in power, and really what has this meant for the people of Mexico?

Claudia Sheinbaum: It has meant pensions for older people. It has meant a lot of scholarships for poor people, universal scholarships for high school students that go to public schools. We ‘re going to have a new train in the south of the country. Another train that goes from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. We’re going to have several ports. We are going to have a lot of investment in new roads. We already have a new airport.

So if you take, you know, the last government and this government, we have a lot of public investment, the highest foreign investment in Mexico. And you have at the same time, new rights for the people. And that’s why President Lopez Obrador’s [approval rating] is 70%, it is because they see that this new government [has implemented] change and that is beneficial for everybody.

He fought for Mexico and he fought for a new way of seeing history, even for our ancient cultures. So Mexico has changed a lot in more than four years. I mean, a lot. And the way I see it is that I mean, people love this change.

The majority of people love their president because he has won the heart of the people, because he is a president that has fought for them for 25 years. I mean, you cannot write Mexican history, the first 25 years of the 21st century without Lopez Obrador. He has changed a lot in Mexico and with the social movements that went with him and he has been at the head of that.

Things are changing for good in Mexico. And I think that we have to continue this transformation. We cannot go [back] to corruption and to the old governments that only did something for privileged people. So we are in peace. We have  political peace. We have social peace. We have violence in certain points of the country because of drug cartels. But we have to continue giving rights for the people and at the same time combating, you know, the drug cartels and every violence that we have in Mexico. We are in a good place right now.

Rania Khalek: Well, Dr. Sheinbaum, we want to thank you so much for joining us and giving us your time.

Claudia Sheinbaum: No, thank you very much for you. Thank you.