By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Unless there is a major political upset in the next eight months, Claudia Sheinbaum is on track to be elected in June 2024 as the next president of Mexico. A poll published in September by El Universal, a major Mexico City newspaper, indicated that she was then far ahead of her four opponents; in a four-way race, she garnered 50% of the vote. Her party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), in coalition with other parties, has captured the loyalty of the majority of Mexican voters; MORENA alone received 53% of the vote in the poll. And her champion, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the current president of Mexico and founder of left-leaning MORENA, has such a high approval rating (60%) that it is a relatively safe bet to start planning to watch her inauguration.
According to The Times of Israel, not only would Sheinbaum be the first woman president of Mexico, she would join a very small number of Jews outside Israel who have become heads of state: Janet Jagan (Guyana), Ricardo Maduro (Honduras), Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (Peru) and, of course, Ukraine’s own Volodymyr Zelensky; she would be the first Jewish person ever to head a country with a population over 50 million people. But Sheinbaum is very quiet about her Judaism, probably partly due to the adamant post-Revolution separation in Mexico between religion and state, the fact that most Jews in Mexico are politically very conservative and unlikely to vote for a MORENA candidate, and the misinformation and smear campaign used against her by her political rivals, notably the former president Vicente Fox. Although antisemitism rears its ugly head less frequently in Mexico than in many other countries, a rumor was started that she wasn’t a viable candidate for president since she was born in Bulgaria – ultimately squelched by the publication of Sheinbaum’s Mexico City birth certificate. And in response to Fox’s intimation that her rival, Gálvez, was a true Mexican (but implicitly not Sheinbaum), Claudia retorted that she was “as Mexican as mole.”
One might say that Sheinbaum has been on track to become the first woman president of Mexico since she was born, 61 years ago. Her parents, two super-achieving scientists affiliated with the National University of Mexico (UNAM), were themselves children of immigrants seeking refuge in Mexico from religious persecution. Her father’s family fled from Russian pogroms and forced conscription of Jews in Lithuania in the 1920s. Her mother’s family escaped the Holocaust, the systematic murder of Jews in Bulgaria in the 1940s. And since young Claudia was close to her grandparents and attended a Jewish secular coed elementary school, there is little doubt that she was imbued with a formative knowledge of the perils of rabid discrimination and the value of helping those who are being oppressed by powerful authoritarians.
After completing her secondary education at Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades (CCH), a feeder school for UNAM, she matriculated at UNAM studying physics and simultaneously joining other student activists on campus. Her political activism continued throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies, and as a UNAM faculty member in 1998 she was instrumental in the founding of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). After completing her bachelor’s degree in physics in 1989, she went on to complete her master’s degree and Ph.D. in energy engineering, carrying out research at Lawrence Laboratories, UC Berkeley, on comparative international consumption of energy. She returned to UNAM when she accepted a faculty appointment in 1995.
As an undergraduate, Claudia met and briefly dated student Jesús María Tarriba Unger, currently soon to be her second husband; Tarriba completed his dissertation in physics at UNAM in 1987 and began an award-winning career in financial risk-model applied research. After breaking up with Tarriba, Claudia dated and in 1987 married Carlos Imaz Gispert. She became a stepmother to Imaz’s five-year-old son and in 1988 the couple had a daughter, Mariana, who carried out the Sheinbaum family’s multigenerational academic achievement, earning a BA in history from UNAM, a Master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Barcelona and a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Mariana currently is the Academic Coordinator of Humanities at UNAM-Boston. Claudia and Imaz were divorced in 2016 after 29 years of marriage.
One of the closest political ties Sheinbaum made during her political activism was with AMLO. As Mayor of Mexico City (CDMX), he appointed her as his environmental minister in 2000. In that position, she applied her academic knowledge to reshaping the city’s transportation system, including the installation of the highly efficient and easy-to-use MetroBus that quickly whisks passengers along many routes, including trips from the international airport to the central downtown area.
Claudia was once again back on the faculty of UNAM after 2005 when AMLO stepped down from being Mayor of CDMX to unsuccessfully run for President. She quickly shifted gears, but not fields, and became part of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, working on assessment of mitigation approaches; along with former U.S, Vice President Al Gore, the group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Her absence from the political arena lasted only a few years, and in 2015 she was elected Mayor of Tlalpan, a district of Mexico City. Three years later she was elected Mayor of the City itself, the first woman to hold that office. The processes leading to her election and the reforms she carried out as Mayor were described in The Eye by Carole Reedy (March and November, 2019) – but the bottom line is that she was elected by a large majority based on her platform, and she carried out the measures she promised.
Like all politicians, she has her detractors. She’s been blamed for the outcomes of natural disasters, smeared by some as being too instrumental in the success of her daughter, and accused by others as being simply the puppet of AMLO. Yet, her resume speaks for itself and she remains hugely popular. There is no doubt that she will continue to carry on some of the approaches initiated by AMLO – but given her research in and passion for mitigating climate change and building a sustainable world, one can be quite sure that she will be taking a different direction than AMLO did in supporting Mexico’s petrol industry.
Since we are not citizens of Mexico, we cannot vote for her. But given her past accomplishments, we are looking forward to seeing what successes she will have as President of Mexico.