President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s 2021 budget proposal includes the largest propaganda spending in Mexican history. The money is not itemized under the label of government advertising. During the last few years, government advertising properly has been reduced significantly. AMLO’s historic propaganda spending is the money devoted to his pet projects: the fact that AMLO wants to keep funding these projects in the middle of a major global crisis can only be understood as an expensive form of self-promotion.
AMLO has promised that the construction of Santa Lucía Airport will make enough progress so that military aircraft will be able to take off on February 2021. Yet, it will just be a mere public relations exercise: Santa Lucia is an old Mexican Air Force base and military planes have taken off from there even before construction of the new airport began.
The president wants Santa Lucía to be ready so that commercial flights can take off in March 2022. However, air navigation and air traffic studies have not been completed to this day. It is not clear if Mexico City’s airspace will be optimally used with both the new Santa Lucía airport and the current Benito Juárez Airport operating simultaneously. Ground transportation infrastructure needed to move passengers within a reasonable amount of time between Mexico City and Santa Lucia will not be ready by then. There are no relevant items in the 2021 budget for transportation infrastructure. Santa Lucía’s purported opening day is destined to be one more of AMLO’s promotional events.
If AMLO’s government were concerned about the country it would have taken advantage of the brutal drop in air traffic to postpone the construction of Santa Lucía and use the time to plan it well. Among the many urgent country’s priorities, having a new airport in the Mexico City area is not one of them. Benito Juárez Airport works today at low capacity and it will take years before it recovers.
What is important for AMLO is the message he sends with his actions, even if it is an expensive one. That is why in 2018 he decided to stop the construction of the partially built Texcoco Airport. For the same reason, he now wants to spend the equivalent of US $66.4 million next year to build a park in the same site of the now-scrapped Texcoco Airport. Just for the sake of comparison, AMLO is considering spending the equivalent of US $47.4 million in the so-called Benito Juárez universities he launched.
The same propaganda logic is behind AMLO’s obsession with the Mayan Train in the Yucatán peninsula: his government has requested US $1.7 billion, included in the Ministry of Tourism budget request. Other than the train, the regular tourism budget used to market Mexico abroad has been slashed.
The reasonable thing would have been for the Mexican government to spend enough money to guarantee adequate sanitary protocols against Covid-19 in the Yucatán peninsula. Based on that effort, the government could launch a tourist marketing campaign to ensure travelers to come back to the region. Money should not be devoted to continue funding AMLO’s obsession with the train. It was already a bad idea to think that the train running between Tulum in the Caribbean sea and Palenque in the Chiapas rainforest was going to be paid for with income from tourist traffic. Without an emergency recovery plan, the damage to the tourism sector will be so profound that by the time the Mayan Train is finished there may not be enough tourists, although the Mayan Train could have the same fate as the Toluca-Mexico City train which remains unfinished after years of construction.
AMLO’s most expensive pet projects -the Santa Lucía Airport, the Mayan Train and the Dos Bocas oil refinery- will cost next year the equivalent of US $4.8 billion. Meanwhile, the government has proposed a budget of US $6.9 million for the Ministry of Health amid a global pandemic. If you asked Mexican people whether they prefer spending on a better public health care system or on AMLO’s pet projects what do you think they would choose?
A better public health care system would provide Mexicans with a better well-being. But AMLO only cares about distributing cash through clientelist programs and marking the opening of his pet projects, not the well-being of Mexicans.
Usually, political considerations win over economic logic. Former Mexican president Carlos Salinas bankrupted the country after he decided against any modification of the inflexible exchange rate system in 1994 after the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI presidential candidate. Salinas opted to defend the Mexican peso like a dog protects his home, so as not to be perceived as a president who would allow the currency’s devaluation. His bet was that the exchange rate imbalances could be somehow avoided. Salinas completed his term but just days after he left office in December 1994 the peso devaluation that followed erased him from his dream place in Mexican history.
I do not remember a Mexican government budget expressly designed to please a sitting president like the new 2021 budget proposal. This is even more worrying considering that the country is in the middle of a crisis. The right message in terms of the country’s well-being would be for the president to postpone the construction of his pet projects. AMLO however prefers to use them to boast that his wish is being fulfilled by the launching of these flashy projects.
* 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