It is hard to believe that Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) compared supporting the poorest Mexicans to taking care of pets. This is not some fake news fabricated by the president’s adversaries. On Tuesday August 25, AMLO said that his political opponents had rejected giving a monthly government pension to the elderly. In that context, AMLO said: “If you have a pet, like a kitten or a puppy…[…]…What do you do? Do you take care for it? Don’t you feed it?”.
The Mexican left was very critical of Progresa, the world’s first conditional cash transfer program targeting extreme poverty, which was created by president Ernesto Zedillo in 1997. The left argued that Progresa was an “assistentialist” welfare program. Despite AMLO’s assertions -he said that the program’s goal was to “teach the poor to work”-, Progresa was not a traditional welfare program. Progresa sought to improve the health and the education of the poorest Mexican families by encouraging parents to take their children to school and to encourage them to visit local health clinics. Through a differentiated scale of payments, Progresa favored helping Mexican girls.
The Mexican left was opposed to Progresa for ideological reasons. The program’s opponents said that distributing conditional cash should not be a priority and that government should rather focus on creating of public goods for all Mexicans. The left also had a political concern with Progresa: distributing cash generates clientelistic networks that can be exploitable by politicians during election times.
To address this concern, the Mexican opposition was able to insert a rule into the electoral law to prohibit linking the transfer of public resources and political propaganda for any government official. Following the same reasoning, the Mexican Electoral Tribunal argued this year against AMLO’s government decision to link Covid-19 emergency loans to the president’s name. The tribunal said that the Mexican Constitution prohibits “public servants from using government propaganda that highlights their name, image and achievements”.
Governments all around the world love to hand out money because people appreciate it. Despite a disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity is rising due to agreeing to provide monthly payments for the equivalent of US $115 to 66 million of the poorest Brazilians who lost their income.
As Mexico enters its 2021 election cycle, AMLO’s is basing his party’s campaign strategy on two key pillars. The first one is to distract the Mexican people from bad news (the Covid-19 death toll, the rising criminal violence and the economic downturn). That is why AMLO focused last week on the controversial idea of a referendum to inquire the Mexican people whether previous presidents should be criminally prosecuted. The whole idea is a media circus.
The second pillar has to do with AMLO’s connection to the poorest Mexicans through his own welfare programs. During his successful 2018 presidential campaign, AMLO criticized his predecessor for promoting “assistentialist policies based on targeting and allocating conditional [government] subsidies” at the same time that the number of Mexicans in poverty kept growing.
AMLO’s welfare programs are not limited in scope. They bear the “AMLO” seal to make sure that recipients know who is sending them the money. Data compiled by economist John Scott shows that the budget for cash transfer programs rose from MXN $168 billion in 2018 to MXN $360 billion in 2020.
The cash is being distributed through a team of party activists called the “Servants of the Nation”. In 2018, these activists went door to door gathering a list of recipients while wearing vests with the AMLO label. The president likes to say that the money goes directly to the recipients and that there are zero intermediaries involved. However, the official list of recipients is not publicly available, and everything is designed to make clear where the money comes from.
Just like when pets are grateful to their owner, president AMLO hopes that those benefiting from his welfare programs will remain grateful to him during election time. The president seems to believe that the poorest Mexicans will forgive him for the dismal state of the few government services. Many government-run hospitals lack enough medicines. In the case of public childcare centers, the program has disappeared altogether.
The sad thing is that given the size of the economic crisis Mexico will have more people in poverty. Perhaps that is why AMLO said earlier this year that the pandemic crisis fits his government projects “like a glove”. What is true is that AMLO’s clientele for his welfare programs grows larger every day.
* 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