Mexico’s President: from Bartender to Drunkard

Mexico Today –  March  24, 2021

Luis Rubio
*In solidarity with José Ramón Cossio

An old joke goes like this: a candidate offers constituents a choice of heaven or hell. The voter first visits heaven, finding everything calm and in order. Then he goes to hell, where he finds manicured gardens, tables full of mouthwatering dishes, delightful music, and an array of leisure activities which its inhabitants reveled in. Back with the candidate he says: “I can’t believe what I’m saying, but I’ll vote for hell.” As soon as he says that, the landscape changes radically. Hell becomes, well, hell: agony, pain, heaviness, suffering. What was once joy now turns out to be torment. “I don’t understand,” says the voter, “this is not what you showed me before.” “Well,” the politician responds, “that was the campaign; now you’ve already cast your vote.” Thus the evolution of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

 Fifteen years ago, AMLO gave a memorable speech explaining his philosophy of how Mexican presidents should conduct themselves. He said this while criticizing then-president Vicente Fox: “a president cannot be a factional leader. Mexico’s president must act as a statesman, a head of state. He must not behave as head of a party, faction or group. The president must represent all Mexicans. The president must be an element of harmony and national unity. The president cannot use institutions in a factional way or to aid his friends or to destroy his adversaries.”

I wonder what happened to candidate AMLO who promised Nirvana, but delivered hell. In the vein of another old joke, the one that states that being a drunk is not the same as being a bartender, the Mexican president has gone in the opposite direction. When on campaign, AMLO promised respect for Mexican institutions. However once in office, he has thrown himself into dividing, polarizing, attacking, and even questioning Mexico’s relationship with the US, its neighbor to the north and the world’s most powerful country. Instead of evolving towards becoming responsible for owning the establishment -as the bartender in the joke would do- AMLO behaves like the archetype of the drunkard who has no qualms about disturbing the peace and wreaking destruction, as if he had no responsibility whatsoever.

AMLO’s defining phrases speak for themselves. In contrast with the notion he spoused years earlier (that Mexico’s president ¨must act as a statesman, a head of state”) he said at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic that “this crisis fits us like a glove to reinforce the purpose of our transformation.” While promising not to be a factious Mexican leader, AMLO wrote to the Supreme Court saying that “it would be regrettable…if we continue to allow abuse and arrogance, under the excuse of the rule of law.”

“It’s not only his interference with the judiciary,” says Verónica Ortiz. “but (AMLO’s) express intention that the country’s judges decide cases not based on the merits of an injunction but on who is filing them. Is AMLO’s behavior that of a statesman or a factious Mexican leader?

In the heat of political rallies -and his daily morning press conferences- inevitably led to gaffes and discursive excesses. But for AMLO these are not gaffes: his rhetoric is a strategy of confrontation and permanent disqualification. AMLO, who previously criticized his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto as a factious leader now uses the same tactic to divide. Manichaeism as a strategy and ripping into others as a system of government. The question to be asked is whether this method allows AMLO to move forward politicalluy or if he’s merely, at best, running in place.

If the pandemic has us taught anything, it is that the successful performance of a political leader in a health crisis is not at odds with his or her own popularity. Rather, it works in the opposite direction: those leaders who devoted themselves body and soul to fighting the health crisis without conflict of agendas are being highly rated. Those world leaders who ignored or politicized the health crisis are increasingly discredited. The president may boast of his high popularity numbers, but they’re nowhere near those that characterize German Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern or ttaiwanese Prime Minister Tsai Ing-wen.

The German Chancellor enters the last stage of her term in office with both the left and the right recognizing her successfully steering the country through turbulent times since 2005. This period of time has included challenges as complex as the wars in the Middle East, migration from Syria, Trump, and the pandemic. Instead of flinging insults, Merkel got to work and the results speak for themselves. How does AMLO measure up to that paragon?

Mexico is sliding in all indicators. Although it would be handy to blame the Covid-19 pandemic for the economic downturn, the reality is that the Mexican economy was already in a tailspin in 2019. The corruption of past administrations continues as unpunished as ever. Even more: today there are countless examples of corruption in the current AMLO administration that enjoy, and will surely end up in, the same impunity. The relationship with the US, key to the functioning of the Mexican economy, is on tenterhooks and the prospects for the next few years are anything but encouraging.

This is the Supreme Court’s time. Mexicans’ future and freedoms literally depend on the Court’s justices. As well as them demanding that president AMLO behave as befits a head of state.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI).  A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition
Twitter: @lrubio