Future Tense

The Mexican President’s COVID Diagnosis Has Paused His Exhausting Daily Press Conferences

Andrés Manuel López Obrador stands in front of a Mexican flag and a projected image of the novel coronavirus.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador before his daily press conference at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City on Dec. 8. Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images

On Sunday evening, the president of Mexico tweeted that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and that while he was experiencing only minor symptoms, he would carry on working in isolation.

Nevertheless, his diagnosis brought about a major disruption to media, traditional and social, in Mexico. Every weekday, Andrés Manuel López Obrador hosts a notorious 7 a.m. press briefing, which is broadcast live on public television and streamed on a dedicated YouTube channel as well as directly on the president’s official website. The event, which takes place at Mexico City’s National Palace and is attended by a few dozen reporters, is known as la mañanera, which is also Mexican lingo for “a morning sexual encounter.” But unlike real-life mañaneras, these can go on for up to three hours—and are usually far from gratifying.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

On Monday, Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero gamely hosted the mañanera, an unprecedented development. It was the first time AMLO let someone else hold his staple daily briefing—and that someone else is a woman. It was also different in that it lasted barely 50 minutes, unlike the usually two hours and change usually spent by the president.

Coincidentally, just a week before, I had undertaken a terrible mission against my better judgment: I decided to watch AMLO’s morning briefings in their full glory every day for the week of Jan. 18. For more than nine hours over the week, I saw the president of Mexico and members of his cabinet talk about a wide range of important topics—the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, national security updates, infrastructure projects, the migrant crisis, the border wall, what is expected from a Biden administration—as well as tangents on such matters as where to find the cheapest gas in Mexico. The previous week, for example, he showed a short clip of the classic Hanna-Barbera Top Cat cartoon to pay homage to the actor who provided the dubbed Spanish voiceover for Mexican viewers.*

Advertisement

Nobody knows for sure how many people watch la mañanera on a daily basis, but the president’s office estimates it’s somewhere around 10 million people. More important than how many people watch it live, though, is that much like Donald Trump’s tweets (remember those?), AMLO’s morning show sets the nation’s agenda for the day. His announcements and claims reverberate on social media, dominating each news cycle until it’s time for the next show to air. As of Friday Jan. 22, the last day of my torturous week, the 67-year-old president who only took office on Dec. 1, 2018, had held a whopping 543 mañaneras. AMLO’s mastery of media is an underappreciated part of his political success, playing to a similar, populist anti-elitist beat as Trump did, though at a lower, less narcissistic volume.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The five that I watched were enlightening and horrifying. For example, On Jan. 20, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were being inaugurated in Washington D.C., the president of Mexico took the stage at one of his morning press briefings to lambast Twitter and question its objectivity. To make his point, he used a large screen to project the LinkedIn profile of Hugo Rodriguez Nicolat, who works on public policy for Twitter Mexico. In front of the screen, AMLO highlighted the executive’s past work for the opposition National Action Party (PAN). He misidentified Rodríguez’s role, calling him “the director of Twitter Mexico,” and scrutinized his professional experience: “He even worked as an adviser to a very famous PAN senator, whose name I won’t even mention.” The president warned, “You must always look at the people behind companies such as Twitter and Facebook.”

Advertisement

The Jan. 20 attack on Twitter was part of a wider attack on social media and Big Tech’s increasing importance as information gatekeepers and arbiters of truth. Two weeks earlier, AMLO had chastised Mark Zuckerberg for shutting down Donald Trump’s Facebook account after the assault on the Capitol. The Mexican president called the Facebook chief “arrogant and self-important” and said private companies shouldn’t be in the business of censoring opinions.” He went as far as to compare censorship on social media to the Spanish Inquisition. For AMLO, that’s an especially pointed comparison, given his recurring demands that the Spanish king and the Catholic Church apologize for the conquest of Mexico.

Advertisement

Controlling the day’s narrative is the point of AMLO’s show. Claiming the mainstream media often ignores or misrepresents the truth, he has effectively used what is ostensibly a press event to instead bypass the traditional media’s gatekeeping. Just like Trump used to do on Twitter, AMLO uses the mañaneras to personally confront or denounce his enemies, namely the “power mafia” and “the posh media” (or prensa fifí as he likes to call it). The marathon sessions are packed with sympathetic journalists, essentially pro-AMLO YouTubers who cheer him on when taking on the more establishment members of the media sprinkled throughout the audience. And the president is masterful at dodging tough questions when they do make an appearance, launching long-winding monologues that often trail off without a point. And he never fails to blame his corrupt predecessors as the source of most of the country’s problems.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Whether he’s talking about censorship, vaccinations, or national security, AMLO never seems to lose his cool. He speaks v-e-r-y slowly, as your Spanish 1 high school teacher might have, using a warm, low, tentative voice. Foreign correspondents have told me they found his Spanish very easy to understand, and I can see why. It feels like a word a minute. He can take forever to finish a sentence, which is especially infuriating when the sentences can be long, airy monologues about morality, honesty, or fighting corruption. He uses colloquial language and plenty of refranes to better reach ordinary people.

Advertisement

On Monday, Jan. 18, we found out that the most expensive gas in the country is available in Chilapa de Álvarez, Guerrero. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, I learned about an alleged hidden treasure “of billions of Mexican pesos” deposited in a foreign bank and belonging to the people of Mexico. On Wednesday, Jan. 20, in addition to trashing Facebook and Twitter, AMLO read a fragment of a letter he sent in 2012 to then-Vice President Biden discussing the regularization of millions of Mexican migrants working in the U.S. Thursday, Jan. 21, brought a gaffe involving the border wall and “President George Clinton,” which unleashed a series of hilarious funk-themed memes.

Advertisement

A theme throughout the week’s mañaneras was the cooling of relations with the United States as Joe Biden takes office. The president defended his government’s decision not to bring charges against Salvador Cienfuegos, the former defense minister who had been arrested in the United States, accused by U.S. prosecutors of collaborating with one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels. On Monday, Jan. 18, after reporter asked him to address the U.S. disappointment with Mexico’s decision, AMLO went on a long diatribe about sovereignty and moral authority.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“The U.S. cannot question Mexico’s decision,” AMLO said in his soft voice. “Imagine that the government of Mexico remained silent. What would happen? Well, we’ll lose authority and what we consider most important, moral authority.”

Advertisement

On Friday, the Cienfuegos question came up again, this time by a more aggressive reporter who kept pressing for answers. But as he had done before AMLO dismissed the topic by suggesting the DEA should do an internal investigation instead to “clarify what happened” and why charges were “fabricated.”

“There is no corruption,” he said as he took out a white handkerchief from his pocket and started waving it. “Look … a small white handkerchief!”

It was a classic performance. But this moment may be a turning point for the mañaneras. Perhaps his (hopefully short) COVID-enforced absence from the stage will alter the government’s approach to managing information.

But the virus is not the only threat to the president’s daily show. The independent National Electoral Institute (INE) said this month that it will consider establishing “strict limits” on what the president can—and cannot—say in the lead-up to federal and state elections in June. The electoral body even hinted at halting the briefings altogether for two months starting in April, to avoid an improper appropriation of airwaves for partisan electioneering during a campaign season.

And so, just like he’s done with Twitter, Facebook and several members of the “posh media,” AMLO added the INE to the list of enemies of his so called Fourth Transformation. On Jan. 11, during that day’s mañanera, the president vowed to launch legal action, calling the effort an act “open and shameless censorship.”

Correction, Jan. 28, 2021: Due to an editing error, this piece incorrectly referred to the cartoon Top Cat as Top Hat.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement