Early morning press conferences at Mexico’s National Palace are closer to theater than truth. They are an effective staging in which the scriptwriter, director, and leading actor, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), takes us through the issues of the day. Usually, these are not one of Mexico’s serious problems, but rather the reflection of his own preoccupations and obsessions. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word staging means: “the method of presenting a play or other dramatic performance”. Nothing more appropriate. AMLO is a president who governs by word and drama, diverting the public conversation away from his many failures.
A widely shared video of an elderly man receiving a fake Covid-19 vaccine in Mexico City should have led to a review of government’s inoculation procedures. The images of elderly adults standing in long lines are a scandal in themselves that should have forced a rethinking of the vaccination strategy. The delays in vaccine deliveries versus government’s promises at least deserved an explanation. But AMLO never apologizes. He lashes out at his critics.
Of course, seeing an elderly man receive a fake shot in Mexico was going to lead to all kinds of derision. Can you imagine how much AMLO would have ridiculed president Felipe Calderón back in 2009 when he was on the opposition if the same thing had happened then? AMLO found it suspicious that Mexican users of social networks reacted so vigorously to the video. He concluded that the video was allegedly “staged”.
In AMLO’s stagings, he builds an alternate reality. The list includes the televised arrival of each lot of Covid-19 vaccines to Mexico and the strange spectacle of raffling out Mexico’s presidential jet. Of AMLO’s dramas, the showstopper in terms of building an alternate reality was the alleged ribbon-cutting of the still under construction airport in Santa Lucía. The play consisted of AMLO flying from Mexico City to the unfinished airport, followed by the landing of four commercial aircraft carrying no passengers. How many loyal AMLO followers must be convinced today that Santa Lucía is finished?
AMLO’s stagings are effective. He continues enjoying high approval ratings as president despite his many unfulfilled promises. He can make the most absurd claims and emerge unscathed, while former president Vicente Fox was pummeled for having called Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges “José Luis Borgues”.
It is normal, albeit perverse, that, without checks and balances, Mexico’s government budget increasingly reflects what AMLO personally wants. The two budget items with the greatest increase in 2022 are expected to be: non-contributory state pensions for the elderly (due to AMLO’s bright idea of lowering the mandatory pension age) and the construction of the Mayan Train in the Yucatán peninsula. This to the detriment of more necessary government programs. Neither Mexico’s health budget nor road infrastructure resources will grow. All the money goes to the president’s whims.
The most dysfunctional thing about the AMLO administration is that sometimes the president’s stagings trump decisions in critical areas. Take the vaccine rollout: because of the president’s whims, some 23,000 teachers in the southern state of Campeche were inoculated well before health workers and elderly citizens in other states. The original vaccination program did not include the teachers. AMLO’s idea was idea was to create a mirage: to be able to reopen schools in a small state so that the Mexican public would be convinced that the rest of of the country would follow soon. The idea was to channel Mexicans’ expectations through drama: “It’ll soon be your children’s turn…The country is doing fine.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, staging is also “the activity or practice of styling (a property for sale) in such a way as to enhance its attractiveness.” The AMLO presidency will go down in Mexico’s history as the greatest practitioner of communication staging. The question is: when will reality come back to bite it and when will the Mexican public see that a good deal of what was bragged about was a show –entertaining- but a show nevertheless?
* 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