Sometimes one has to try to learn from the mistakes of others. The whole world witnessed the ominous result of a presidency built on lies in the United States. Yale University historian Tim Snyder says that modern authoritarians have a recipe: They lie all the time, they then label opponents and journalists as liars, people no longer know what is true, and then resistance becomes impossible. Game over.
Donald Trump degraded democracy by lying about the outcome of a transparent election that he lost by a lot. He groomed his followers for four years, training them to listen to him and disregard the facts. He coined the term “fake media”. Trump’s base rejected the mainstream media in favor of obtaining their information from the echo chambers of social media. Trump had “alternative facts”. He made truth sound like some conspiracy orchestrated by the “Deep State” plotting against him. The short hop between Trump’s bogus narrative and his attempted coup d’etat was surprising. The U.S. was saved by the strength of its institutions and the bravery of patriots inside the government, and some in the Republican Party, who put their careers -and even their lives- at risk. In the end, they refused being an accessory to a grotesque attempt to ignore the will of the people.
When facts cease to matter and the truth is buried under a tangle of lies, when the bully pulpit is used to spread confusion in order to push a personal agenda, the only alternative for many is to blindly worship the redeemer. The cult of the mythical leader is born. Democracy then becomes impossible. Elections are decided not by actual facts but by a docile flock’s search for identity and by their bout against real or invented enemies.
At his inauguration in January, Joe Biden called for defending the truth with a sense of urgency. If we in Mexico do not pay heed to the appalling damage caused by the divisive use of lies –the basis for president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approval- we will never wrest our country from the clutches of deception and demagoguery.
To distract and confuse by way of lies in the midst of a pandemic is criminal. In Mexico, estimates show that the actual death toll already stands at 400,000, including my mother’s. Politicizing the Mexican response to the pandemic guarantees failure. If the crisis keeps growing, the López Obrador administration will find it impossible to “bury it”. Do we need a million deaths for the government to change its strategy to contain the pandemic? A president like López Obrador obsessed about mustering all the power should also own all the blame. The cunning manipulation of official government figures to undercount cases undermines Mexico’s efforts to get more Covid-19 vaccines. Today, the main threat to the colossal U.S. effort to inoculate its population in the first half of 2021 comes from sharing more than 1,900 miles of border with an overwhelmed country. The U.S.’ southern neighbor has become a perfect breeding ground for dangerous variants of the virus. Given this, Mexico should humbly ask for help. Let’s be clear about one thing: the global pandemic and its terrible economic cost does not end once rich countries are vaccinated. It is clear is that López Obrador shot himself in the foot when he stated in mid-2020 that Mexico had “tamed the pandemic”
Mexicans should tackle the crisis together. To start, the Mexican government needs to provide true information backed by science. The current official in charge of pandemic response, Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, deserves to go to jail for his political handling of the crisis. For now, he should at least go home. Mexico needs someone in charge how is a paragon of integrity as Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the U.S.: a responsible expert rooted in common sense. In López-Gatell, Mexico has a stooge, a petulant echoer of lies. He has become a sort of dark magic curtain behind which president López Obrador performs his sleight of hand to hide Mexico’s reality and conjure an illusion.
This is the reason why government officials must be non-partisan and should resist parroting partisan mantras. At a time when the López Obrador administration slashes salaries across the Mexican government, the pandemic shows why Mexico rather needs experienced, well-paid public servants; people who are eager to build decent careers. Shills like López-Gatell and others destroy the Mexican government’s institutional abilities and make it impossible to assemble capable teams. No career official wants an incompetent sectarian as his boss. The López Obrador administration proves how having a cheap, blindly loyal and extraordinarily inept team makes it impossible to mount a sensible response to any crisis, including a pandemic. That is why the Mexican government’s priority is to just “look busy”.
Reality is López Obrador’s worst enemy. That is why he wants to disband checks and balances, why he discredits Mexican media, and why he wants to change the law to prevent public access to government information to which Mexicans currently are legally entitled. López Obrador prefers to focus on Mexico’s past because his destruction of our present and future is an unconscionable tragedy.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv