López Obrador doesn’t seem to understand this.
Instead, he has vowed to stay the course on severe austerity, one of his signature crusades. He has cut salaries in the public sector while declining to grant significant relief to businesses. (A $10 billion loan program won’t even make a dent.) Even as the economy contracts, he has refused to cancel any of his pet infrastructure projects, including an ill-advised oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco and a controversial new airport, being built by the military mostly for commercial use, north of Mexico City. López Obrador has vowed Mexico will emerge from the crisis through the creation of up to 2 million jobs. How will the country manage such a feat amid the worst global economic downturn in a century? Other than publicly displaying his peculiar brand of magical voluntarism, López Obrador has been characteristically short on details.
Mexicans haven’t taken well to the president’s antics. López Obrador’s approval rating has steadily declined. Only 47 percent of Mexicans currently support him, a 17-percentage-point drop over the past year.
Overwhelmed by the severity of the crisis, the increasingly unpopular López Obrador has slowly retreated into himself. He has once again gotten into the habit of blaming his critics for the consequences of his mistakes. For years, the president has routinely gone after the press, identifying certain voices and news outlets, such as the newspaper Reforma, as part of a plot to erode trust in his agenda. Lately, though, Mexico’s president has delivered his proclivity for conspiracy theories and bullying of critical, independent voices in a more ominous tone.
On Wednesday, López Obrador complained about Mexican journalism’s supposed corruption and lack of competence. From the bully pulpit he has afforded himself through daily news conferences, López Obrador whined about several news outlets, criticized the work of specific journalists, whom he denounced as “conservatives,” and complained about the lack of positive coverage for his government. “Most of the journalists are rotten,” he said. “We don’t have professional journalism in Mexico.”
López Obrador’s hostility toward critics would be less concerning if it weren’t happening in the middle of a crisis or if his paranoia hadn’t recently ventured into the absurd. In true Trumpian fashion, he has now begun to see celebrities as eager conspirators as well.
A few weeks ago, in an interview with the journalist Jorge Ramos, Mexican soccer player Javier “Chicharito” Hernández ventured a modest opinion on López Obrador. “He could be doing much more,” Hernández said. “Instead of going forward, we are going slightly backward." Days later, just as López Obrador seemed to be willfully ignoring basic social distancing recommendations — by, among other things, traveling across the country while declining to wear a protective mask or use hand sanitizer — Mexican singer Thalía turned to Instagram to ask her millions of followers to stay at home. Finally, with the pandemic severely stressing the limited resources of hospitals in Tijuana, Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez took to social media to read a letter from a local doctor asking for support for the city’s medical staff.
López Obrador took direct offense. Mexico’s president took advantage of a softball question — almost, one could think, a carefully planted one — to lambaste all three celebrities. He accused them of being tools of obscure, unidentified interests, recruited, through interviews and the like, to question and damage the presidential project. “I used to like him,” López Obrador said of Hernández. “He didn’t use to have an opinion. While others with less sporting abilities had political opinions, he had remained prudent.”
That Mexico’s president equates prudence with silence is alarming. Before the arrival of the novel coronavirus, López Obrador had governed mostly unimpeded by political opposition or unforeseen challenges. Now that the capricious course of history has forced him into a corner, turning him more into a manager of a brutal crisis rather than a transformational figure, López Obrador must show patience and mettle. That he has instead turned to stubbornness and conspiratorial delusions bodes poorly for the future of Mexico.
Leer en español: