The World

AMLO Goes off the Rails

How to explain the Mexican president’s dismissive, destructive coronavirus response?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador walks along a fence crowded with supporters, hand outstretched.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador greets supporters during a rally in Ayutla de los Libres, in Guerrero, on March 15. Mexico’s Presidency/Handout via Reuters

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Latin American governments have reacted with different degrees of urgency and efficacy to the coronavirus pandemic. Some did so early on. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele quarantined El Salvador before it even had confirmed cases. In Peru, President Martín Vizcarra locked down his country in mid-March and then worked on a vast economic stimulus package. Others took longer to act on the coronavirus threat but eventually chose to enact strict curfews and social distancing measure to curb the spread of the pandemic. After some initial hesitance, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera set his country on a “progressive quarantine,” while Argentina’s Alberto Fernández called on his country to shelter in place at least “until the end of Easter.” Colombia’s Iván Duque followed a similar path. Others haven’t been as diligent. Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno had to replace his health minister after a severe outbreak in the country exposed grave flaws in basic health care. Brazil has seen its president, Jair Bolsonaro, turn into a denier and conspiracy theorist around the disease.

And then there is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Mexico’s president downplayed the threat of the virus for weeks. He suggested social distancing recommendations should be ignored. He soon showed he was willing to lead by (bad) example. Over the past few weeks, as the number cases began to grow, López Obrador kept to his schedule across the country, traveling on commercial airplanes, and went out of his way to flaunt his contempt for the most essential preventive measures. He kissed children and posed for selfies with adoring crowds. He sat down for lunch at a public restaurant. He even declined to use hand sanitizer. All of this while suggesting, astonishingly, that amulets and religious stamps could work as protection against the virus.

López Obrador’s recklessness would perhaps be less damaging if his administration hadn’t followed his lead. Mexico’s government chose to delay most of the quarantine measures other Latin American countries had already implemented. It finally changed course last week, when the authorities called on Mexican citizens to voluntarily quarantine to flatten the rate of contagion.

“This is our last chance,” deputy health minister Hugo López-Gatell said. López-Gatell, an eloquent epidemiologist who has become the government’s public face during the crisis, outlined the emergency in a television broadcast on Tuesday alongside foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard. Mexico’s president was not there.

But incredibly, López Obrador has set out to contravene every one of the measures his own administration set forth on Tuesday. Just as López-Gatell and Ebrard pleaded with Mexicans to “stay home” and keep “a safe distance” from one another, López Obrador has continued traveling the country. On Wednesday, mere hours after the beginning of Mexico’s quarantine, López Obrador showed up at the airport. Like a spoiled teenager, he joked when a health official took his temperature. “Ninety-six degrees,” López Obrador chuckled. “There you go! Take that!” In Oaxaca, he headlined the opening of a local hospital and spoke to a small crowd, carefully seated a few feet apart. The scene, which can be seen here, defies the imagination.

But the act in Oaxaca is far from the worst in López Obrador’s current descent into the incomprehensible. On Sunday, after López-Gatell had already begun to urge Mexicans to stay indoors as much as possible, López Obrador flew to the northern state of Sinaloa. There, he tweeted a video praising the town of Badiraguato’s landscaped median strip, with its newly planted flowers and palm trees. Badiraguato, of course, is not just any Sinaloan town but the birthplace of infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The setting was no coincidence. That afternoon, a video of López Obrador walking over to warmly greet Guzmán’s 92-year-old mother—directly violating social distancing guidelines in the process—perplexed even his most dogmatic supporters.

Such antics demand an explanation. Why is López Obrador so brazenly defying his own government’s recommendations in a matter as threatening as the coronavirus pandemic? What drives such recklessness? In another Twitter video, López Obrador hinted at his reasoning. If he self-isolated, he argued, his opponents—“the conservatives”—would try to fill the void. “That’s what they want: for a vacuum to happen so that they claim control of the country,” he claimed.

This is utter nonsense. Elected in a landslide, López Obrador is the country’s most powerful president in decades. Through sheer numbers and political dominance, his party mostly controls Congress. His closest ally governs Mexico City. His daily press conferences are dutifully covered. Even more relevant: Mexico’s next significant election won’t happen until mid-2021. López Obrador is guaranteed to stay in power until 2024.

Perhaps the problem lies in López Obrador’s self-doubt. With his approval rating sliding dramatically, Mexico’s president seems compelled to remain in a quasi-permanent campaign. This is a mistake. History will not judge him on the number of hands left unshaken, babies not kissed, or his frequent flyer miles, but rather on his efficacy as the head of government of a country under tremendous stress. So far, he is failing.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.