Mexico City’s colonial-era National Palace is a great building that functioned as a museum for a long time. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) decision not to live in the presidential residence of Los Pinos and move to the National Palace was a propaganda success. It allowed him to show Mexicans the lavish lifestyle of excess of his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto. The decision to leave Los Pinos was also a personal success for AMLO: contrary to what he had promised during the 2018 Presidential campaign, he does not live in a house, but in a palace.
AMLO fulfilled his whim to leave Los Pinos behind, but a museum like the National Palace does not have enough facilities to carry out the work of a President. There are no adequate boardrooms and office spaces for his governing team. The National Palace is in a logistically difficult location with lots of traffic and no parking. The centuries-old building is also a risk in case of an earthquake. It is also in the middle of a violent area of Mexico City with significant presence of criminal gangs.
It was depressing to watch AMLO’s first reactions to last week’s Mexico earthquake. In a first video uploaded to social media, AMLO looked nervous, circling like a caged lion with a mobile phone in hand, supposedly coordinating the response from one of the National Palace’s courtyards.
In a second video, his team made AMLO sit behind a desk trying to make him look Presidential. It looked like a scene taped in a 19th-century museum. While talking on his mobile and after long silences, AMLO began talking to the camera about the things that the other person on the phone was telling him. Didn’t he know that mobile phones have speakers? Or didn’t he want to share the actual conversation he was having? The video turned even more dramatic when he was trying to take notes of Mexico’s emergency line: 9-1-1
Faced with the inability to act in the face of an earthquake, the President’s propagandists at the National Palace wanted to show an AMLO in command. Didn’t they realize the damage they do to his image by displaying such an improvised response?
The former Presidential residence of Los Pinos had a sophisticated command center. From there, AMLO could have been able to access information in real time. He could also have met with relevant stakeholders via video conferences. Los Pinos was a safe place in case of an earthquake and was far from streets at risk for stray bullets. In contrast to what happens at the busy National Palace, visitors to Los Pinos did not have to walk in front of the press. During last week’s earthquake, Mexico’s Security Minister was seen entering the National Palace checking his mobile and responding to reporters: “Give me a second, my cell phone signal is a little weak”, he said.
How can a Security Minister portray an image of respect before organized crime exhibiting a weak cell phone signal? How does AMLO early morning daily security briefing look like? Who attends? Is it the kind of meeting where AMLO plays the role of teacher as we saw in a recent video? How could a President like AMLO who flies commercial make difficult decisions that sometimes require immediate action?
When he took office, AMLO gave up basic tools that help Presidents to govern a country like Mexico and decided to give preference to the symbolic. He did not even think about the working conditions for himself and his staff because what he cares about is giving speeches, touring around the country, and pretending to be facing the problems.
Governing by using the bully pulpit and theatrics leaves many problems unattended. The fact that AMLO believes that criminals will respect him because he is promising a security strategy based in “hugs, no bullets”, that mothers will be able convince their children to be good people away from crime, and that giving away money to young people before they enter the job market is not only naive, it is counterproductive.
After last week’s unprecedented challenge by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) with the attack in a residential area against the police chief of Mexico City, I hope AMLO realizes the size of the problem and understands that it requires all the tools of power to confront them. As President, he needs to have professional protection. The nonsense that AMLO likes to repeat about not owing anything and not fearing anything is just a good campaign slogan. In fact, just after last week’s attack he said otherwise. He said the attack was a sign that he is combatting crime.
In order to face organized crime, one must act like a true head of state. This includes AMLO giving up living in a museum-like setting as much as he enjoys the experience. He needs to have the courage to return to the former Presidential residence of Los Pinos and operate with the highest security protocols. He should also dust-off the Presidential jet he put for sale and that is now parked in an airport in California. The good news is that since his so-called Presidential jet “raffle” was a mere a simulation, AMLO can always make use of it whenever he has the honesty to say: “I was wrong”.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom