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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (R) raises the hand of Claudia Sheinbaum (L), after her swearing-in ceremony as Mexico City mayor in December 2018. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Claudia Sheinbaum set to be Mexico’s first female president

June 3, 2024

By Kathleen Magramo, Karol Suarez and Tara John, CNN

(CNN) — Known as “la Doctora” for her glittering academic credentials, Claudia Sheinbaum is a physicist with a doctorate in energy engineering, the former mayor of one of the world’s most populous cities, and was part of the United Nations panel of climate scientists that received a Nobel Peace Prize.

And on Sunday, she became the first woman, and the first of Jewish heritage, to be elected president of Mexico.

Sheinbaum won around 60% of the vote in the largest election in Mexico’s history, marking a historic achievement in a mostly Catholic country known for its deeply patriarchal culture.

The 61-year-old is set to replace the outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, her longtime ally whose social welfare programs lifted many Mexicans out of poverty, making their leftist Morena party favorite in the polls.

“Our duty is and will always be to look after every single Mexican without distinction,” Sheinbaum said in a speech early Monday morning. “Even though many Mexicans do not fully agree with our project, we will have to walk in peace and harmony to continue building a fair and more prosperous Mexico.”

After her maternal grandparents emigrated from Europe to escape the Holocaust, Sheinbaum was born in Mexico City in 1962 – a city she would go on to serve in various roles across decades.

While studying for her undergraduate degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), she became immersed in student politics, protesting against the privatization of public education. After graduating, she studied energy engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where she became fluent in English and earned a Master’s degree, before returning to UNAM for doctoral studies.

Sheinbaum entered politics in 2000, when she was appointed environment secretary of Mexico City by Obrador, then the head of the city’s government.

After leaving the role in 2006, Sheinbaum committed herself to the study of energy, joining the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and becoming part of the team that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

In 2015, she became the first woman elected head of the Tlalpan district of Mexico City, serving until 2017. The next year, she was elected head of the government of the whole city – again, the first woman to do so – only stepping down in June 2023 to embark on her run for president.

Sheinbaum has two children and one grandchild. Her partner, Jesús María Tarriba, whom she met at university while both were studying physics, is a financial risk specialist at the Bank of Mexico.

What challenges lie ahead?

Had the constitution allowed it, Mexico would likely have re-elected Obrador, one of those rare politicians who – like JDR and JFK – is known simply by his initials, AMLO. After riding the wave of AMLO’s popularity, some have questioned whether Sheinbaum will be able to distance herself sufficiently from her longtime ally.

One of Sheinbaum’s biographers, journalist Jorge Zepeda, has argued that, once in office, Sheinbaum will likely unfurl her own platform gradually: she will first act as “the faithful disciple of the leader,” before offering “glimpses” of her own program, taking care not to stoke instability in the movement’s base.

But Zepeda has also noted clear differences between the two leaders. In an article for the Spanish daily El Pais, Zepeda recalled asking Sheinbaum what sets her apart from other politicians. “I’m someone who makes decisions based on the data,” she told him.

By contrast, Zepeda claimed Obrador could sacrifice data for party loyalty. “If (a piece of) data gets in the way, another piece is chosen,” he said, whereas Sheinbaum allows herself to be guided by the science.

Obrador will leave office with broad support and an impressive record of alleviating poverty, but his premiership was marred by his “hugs, not bullets” policy of not confronting cartels, allowing violence to spiral.

Violence has loomed large in this election, the bloodiest in Mexico’s history. Dozens of political candidates and applicants have been killed by criminal organizations trying to influence those coming into power.

Mexico’s homicide rate is among the highest in the world, and more than 100,000 people remain missing in the country. It also remains a dangerous place to be a woman, with sky-high femicide rates for the region – with figures showing around 10 women are murdered every day.

Sheinbaum will have to act quickly on Mexico’s organized crime and security issues, said Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It’s stunning that the governing party could win re-election by a landslide as it seems… given the sweeping violence, the thing is the opposition didn’t seem to put together a much more credible set of proposals about what they would do,” Freeman said.

Sheinbaum comes with a team from her time as Mexico City mayor that has a proven record on improving security but it remains to be seen if she can replicate that on a national scale, Freeman said.

US-Mexico relations

Both Mexico and the US are holding elections in 2024, something that happens only once every 12 years – and comes at a time of transition in the relationship between the two countries.

Sheinbaum will assume office just a month before Americans head to the polls in November, where immigration is a top issue on the ballot for Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Mexico is a key US ally on a range of issues, from trade to cracking down on drug trafficking to managing migration. Current and former US officials have frequently described the relationship between President Joe Biden and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as friendly and professional — and anticipate a productive relationship with Mexico’s next president.

But Mexico’s election also comes at a critical time for the Biden administration.

In recent months, the US has relied heavily on Mexico to step up immigration enforcement and help stem the flow of migration to the US southern border. The election in Mexico has raised uncertainty in the minds of some Biden officials about what, if anything, will change with a key partner when it comes to border cooperation.

One of the considerations in rolling out a new border executive action was doing so after Mexico’s election. The administration will likely need buy-in and assistance from Mexico to execute the order.

Officials expect that a new administration in Mexico would likely continue cooperating with the US on migration given years of partnership, but it’s unclear how migrants — and especially, smugglers — might plot their next moves in a moment of government transition.

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