Mexico's New President Has Ambiguous Relationship With Jews And Catholics

Mexico's Catholic bishops offered their best wishes to Claudia Sheinbaum, the country's first female of Jewish heritage elected to the presidency.

Claudia Sheinbaum wikimedia

The Mexican Catholic Bishops Conference congratulated newly elected President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum, who made history on June 1 with a landslide victory, which saw the ruling MORENA party reaffirmed in power. 

Bishop Rogelio Cabrera-Lopez, who presides over the bishops conference, released a statement congratulating her for “being the first woman to obtain the highest office in the land,” while he prayed to God that former Mexico City mayor Sheinbaum may direct Mexico towards better horizons “in which the republic may become stronger, the rule of law affirmed, that democracy will permit a non-violent political transition, and that more effective development and justice for the whole nation may be achieved.”

The 2024 general elections saw voters select not only the president, but also members of Mexico’s national Senate and Chamber of Deputies, as well as state governors and local authorities. Sheinbaum will be inaugurated on October 1. 

Mexico has seen an increase in violence at the hands of various narco-terrorist drug cartels, with some large swaths of the country now nearly lawless. Violence marred the campaign season as 37 political candidates were murdered, presumably by the cartels, during the 2023-24 campaign. Sheinbaum won 59% of the popular vote in the presidential balloting, having headed the ticket of the MORENA party of incumbent President Andres Lopez-Obrador. 

Bishop Cabrera-Lopez added to his welcome for Sheinbaum: “We sincerely hope that you will focus on dialogue among everyone.” He wrote, “May the common good be the guiding star for the exercise of government among all those elected by popular vote.” The bishop also congratulated the Mexican people, “who exercised their civil and political rights and voted in droves,” but added, “It was a great public event, despite the obstacles and problems that arose during the campaign, especially violent crime and illegal interference on the part of some authorities.”

 “As the Catholic Church, we reaffirm our commitment to continually cooperate, along with all men and women of goodwill, in the exciting task of building peace and seeking comprehensive development of our society,” he added.

Sheinbaum is the first woman and person of Jewish ancestry to be elected to Mexico’s presidency. In February 2024, she visited Pope Francis at the Vatican where she asked him to bless a rose wrought in silver by a Mexican artisan. She later presented it to the rector of the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. However, Sheinbaum has said that despite her heritage she is “not Catholic, not religious.”  Indeed, according to Jewish News Syndicate, Sheinbaum is not a product of the Jewish community in Mexico and has not had any involvement or affiliation as an adult. Mexico has a miniscule Jewish community of about 67,000 who are centered on the capital. 

The Jewish community of Mexico did not endorse Sheinbaum’s candidacy. The Times of Israel quoted Daniel Fainstein of Hebraica University in Mexico City, who said that Sheinbaum's "Jewishness" was not a main issue during the campaign, but her political views that are aligned with incumbent President Lopez Obrador. The website also quoted Raquel Sacal of Mexico City, who said the Lopez Obrador government was not good for Mexico and that Sheinbaum's election gives little hope that the future will be brighter. Sacal told the Times that Mexico's Jewish community voted according to their political beliefs that it was not Sheinbaum's base of support. Israel and Mexico's relations with the Jewish state were not mentioned by Sheinbaum during the campaign.

President Lopez-Obrador has been ambiguous in his position about Israel and the current war in Gaza and along Israel's border with Lebanon. On June 4, the International Court of Justice announced that Mexico had requested to join South Africa’s case against Israel, which accuses the Jewish state of engaging in genocide in Gaza. But on June 3, Lopez-Obrador said, “We don’t want to put ourselves into a definition of this type that, instead of resolving a conflict, aggravates it,” in a news conference. MORENA's base of support is reportedly from government workers and the poor who are dependent on government handouts and subsidies.

Nonetheless, there anti-Semitism was evident during the campaign. Former President Vicente Fox, who was aligned with business interests, referred to Sheinbaum as a "Bulgarian Jewess" despite her birth in Mexico, and said her opponent Xochitl Galvez was an authentic Mexican.

During her campaign, Sheinbaum was seen wearing a rosary briefly around her neck, and also a skirt bearing the image of the revered Virgin of Guadalupe. Some commentators suggested that this was an act of demagoguery intended to appeal to Catholics. As mayor of the Mexico City borough of Tlalpan, Sheinbaum was also criticized when municipal workers demolished a Catholic chapel in 2016. Parish priest Fr. Juan Guillermo Blandón-Pérez alleged she was responsible. Days later, after acknowledging the demolition as an error, she proposed building a new chapel and a community art center. 

Sheinbaum, 61, is the granddaughter of Jews who fled the Holocaust. She holds a doctorate in physics specializing in energy, and taught at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. Her political militancy began during her student years, joining a group that became the founding youth movement of the socialist Party of Democratic Revolution. She later joined the ruling MORENA party. 

Sheinbaum’s tenure as Mexico City mayor was marked by progressive initiatives. For example, the World Economic Forum, led by globalist Klaus Schwab, noted that as mayor she ended public school policy requiring gender-appropriate uniforms for children. In May 2023, she celebrated International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia with university colleagues. While she did not raise the issue during her campaign, Sheinbaum’s MORENA party is a firm supporter of abortion. The Mexican Supreme Court ruled in 2023 that national laws prohibiting abortion are unconstitutional. Twelve of the 32 states of Mexico have eliminated protections for the unborn. In some states, abortion is allowed when the mother’s life is in danger, while the practice is legal nationwide in cases of rape. 

The newly-elected congress will be seated in September, one month before Sheinbaum takes office, thus allowing incumbent President Lopez-Obrador an opportunity to push through his legislative initiatives. As president ,Sheinbaum will have to address a significant national deficit, the money-losing government PEMEX oil company, and an apparent reluctance by U.S. companies to locate in the country. These challenges are on top of the nation-wide crime spree that has put the country’s very sovereignty into question.

Jason Poblete of the Global Liberty Alliance told EWTN that Sheinbaum is a “hard left official” and militant of the ruling MORENA party. Poblete said that the 2024 election may have led to a MORENA majority in Mexico’s Congress, which has vowed to amend the constitution so that supreme court justices will be elected by popular ballot, thereby confirming partisan control of the heretofore independent judiciary, which would rule on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ. . He fears that Sheinbaum will govern under the shadow of the current president and his leftist party.

Mexican nationals living in the United States played a role in the election. According to the Wilson Center, there are more than 1.3 million registered Mexican voters living abroad, of which more than 500,000 have valid voting credentials. “Approximately 97% of Mexicans living abroad with a valid voting credential live in the United States,” noted the think tank. “Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Houston are the cities with the highest number of potential votes,” it said. The number of valid voters living outside Mexico “have a political weight comparable to the voter power of an entire Mexican state,” it added.

Mexico has long been considered one of the most Catholic countries in the world. However, the panorama is more complicated. The 1910 Revolution brought in one of the most violent anti-Catholic governments in the world that was followed by heroic resistance by Catholic peasants and leaders during the Cristero Rebellion. This led to a modus operandi of more than 70 years that saw expropriations of church properties and restrictions on public worship and priests. Church-state relations were not improved until the 1990s when the Revolutionary Institutional Party lost its first presidential election to Vicente Fox of the National Action Party.

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, the 2020 national census saw a drop in the percentage of self-declared Catholics to 78%, as compared to 85% in 2010. There was also a rise in the number of self-declared evangelical Christians. The rural states of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Michoacan, and Queretaro reported the greatest percentage of Catholics: over 90%. Majorities of Mexican nationals and U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry self-identify as Catholics, according to the Pew Foundation. Pew reported that 81% of Mexican nationals living in the U.S. are Catholic, while 61% of Mexican Americans identify as Catholic.

Mexicans living in the U.S. have been decisive in Mexico’s elections, and their influence has grown since 2006, when the Mexican government first allowed citizens to cast votes from abroad. The 2006 Mexican presidential election saw over 32,000 Mexican nationals vote from abroad, which saw pro-business National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon elected with 58% of the ballots, who defeated the Revolutionary Democratic Party candidate who had 34%. Voter participation among Mexicans abroad surpassed 40,000 in 2012, with PAN against receiving the majority of voters abroad – 42.17%. 

An increasing number of Mexicans living abroad voted for leftist candidates until in 2018, 98,470 expatriate voters cast their ballots: current President President Lopez-Obrador received 64.86% of the votes, defeating Ricardo Anaya of PAN who ran second with 26.75% of the votes. This year, thousands of Mexican nationals went to their consulates, especially in Los Angeles and Houston, to cast their ballots.

Mexico’s bishops have continuously deplored the reigning climate of violence in the country, which originates in turf battles between narco-terrorist cartels engaged in human trafficking. This year, some bishops met with leaders of the cartels and called for a truce. 

In his missive following the June 1 election, Bishop Cabrera-Lopez said, “As shepherds, we are filled with hope when we see citizens embrace the common good. May this spirit continue to encourage and inspire us in building a better future for our beloved country.” While commending Mexico to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to an Aztec man in 1531 and imprinted her image on a simple cloak, now on display at the basilica in the capital, the bishop called on Mexicans to “work together, government and society, in building up a Mexico where we all recognize each other as brothers and sisters, beloved children of the same Father, and together forge a promising future for our great nation.”

Martin Barillas, a former diplomat, is the author of Shaken Earth, available at Amazon.

Topic tags:
Mexico politics Claudia Sheinbaum Catholic Judaism Antisemitism