Early Thursday morning, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, thrice a candidate for the presidency of Mexico, posted a cheeky video on Twitter. López Obrador had been in good spirits lately, and for good reason: He is now the clear front-runner for the July 1 election, facing a perplexed field of challengers that include the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s José Antonio Meade — an experienced public servant but clumsy campaigner tasked with defending the grim legacy of the highly unpopular current president, Enrique Peña Nieto — and Ricardo Anaya, a young cipher running on a fragile right-left coalition.
In the Twitter video, López Obrador stands near the Gulf of Mexico in the busy port of Veracruz. He quickly reviews the day’s schedule and then goes into full stand-up mode. “I’m standing here waiting for the Russian submarine,” he says, staring at the ocean. “It will be bringing me Moscow’s gold.” López Obrador then mocks Javier Lozano, one of the PRI’s spokesmen, who this week warned against possible Russian intervention in Mexico’s electoral process.” I am now Andres Manuelovich,” he says with a chuckle before adding a rather lame joke about a parrot he owns.
If only it were a laughing matter. López Obrador needs to get serious and sort out a potential conflict of interest within his team before shrugging off any suspicion of Russian influence in his campaign and, crucially, his now likely future government.
A few weeks ago, in a risky but confident political decision, López Obrador announced his potential cabinet. Among those names was Irma Eréndira Sandoval, an academic who would, in a Lopez Obrador presidency, be tasked with leading the fight against corruption and malpractice within Mexico’s vast bureaucracy, a crucial undertaking after the shadowy years of the Peña Nieto administration. Sandoval, unfortunately, carries with her an inconvenient partner: She is married to John Ackerman, a fellow professor and enthusiastic López Obrador sympathizer who, as Frida Ghitis explained in The Washington Post, is also a frequent and trusted contributor to Russia Today, Moscow’s cleverly disguised propaganda machine, now registered as a “foreign agent” with the U.S. Department of Justice. Given the Russian government’s ambitious and well-documented attempt to influence elections and destabilize even fully functioning democracies, the potential conflict of interest within Lopez Obrador’s inner circle is anything but amusing.
Sandoval’s reaction has made matters worse. On Monday, I published an op-ed in Mexico explaining López Obrador’s dilemma. On Twitter, in true Trumpian fashion, Sandoval — again, likely the future head of one of Mexico’s most influential ministries — disqualified not the argument but the journalist making the argument before referring me to an article she had written for “an Arab news outlet.” Sandoval finally added an anti-Semitic gloss also sadly frequent within a segment of Mexico’s left: that the fact she’d written for Al Jazeera (the “Arab news outlet”) “should scare you even more!” Ackerman would later upload a histrionic video on Russia Today in which he thoroughly defends the network, mocks the idea of Russian interference in Mexican affairs (“mythology,” he calls it) and pleads for “media plurality,” likening Russia Today with the BBC and Deutsche Welle, a fake equivalency often used to normalize Russian propaganda.
And yet, the facts remain. Vladimir Putin’s vast propaganda machinery, crucial in his assault on democracy worldwide, counts on outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik, the Russian government’s equally cunning news agency, to spread misinformation and gain nefarious influence. Just last week, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate laid out, in surgical detail, the extent of Russian meddling in over 20 electoral processes across the globe. U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster recently revealed “initial signs” of possible Russian interference in Mexico, a view shared by leading American experts on Mexican electoral politics.
Mexico, whose fragile democracy has already undergone tremendous trauma and faces a variety of internal threats before this year’s election, must take every measure possible to avoid being the next guinea pig in Putin’s experiment in destabilization. Before dismissing it as a punchline, López Obrador should offer absolute certainty, both inside Mexico and abroad, that no suspicious association exists within his team and campaign. Mexican democracy, and even a future López Obrador presidency, has no place for ambiguities or shadows. The world knows very well what happened last time a country laughed off the possibility of Russian interference in a democratic process.