The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mexico’s president has turned the presidential mansion into a museum

And the world’s strangest open house took place.

People line up to enter to Los Pinos Presidential residence, turned into a museum by order of Mexico's new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in Mexico City, Dec. 1, 2018. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — Until Friday, the sprawling, forested complex of Los Pinos was the site of Mexico’s presidential palace, the country’s most prestigious address — a symbol of power and, to many Mexicans, a monument to excess.

And then, on Saturday morning, with the inauguration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, its doors were suddenly thrown open to the public, perhaps the first promise fulfilled by Mexico’s leftist leader, intent on proving his humility by living in a small home in the capital.

Hundreds of people poured through the gates, gawking at the chandeliers, the private libraries, the vast kitchens of Mexico’s previous presidents, dating back to 1934. It was a surreal scene. López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, had only moved out three days earlier, and the rooms were mostly empty. In vacant rooms, signs were posted reading: “Presidential Bedroom” and “Presidential office.”

A tour guide pointed to a large room and told several visiting journalists assertively: “This was the closet of Enrique Peña Nieto.”

The former president’s bathroom was also on display, captured in untold hundreds of selfies. If López Obrador was trying to prove his point that his predecessors had been living in luxury, he succeeded.

“It’s nice to see this because of its historical importance, but it’s also sad,” said Pilar Sierra Colin, 50, who visited from a nearby neighborhood in Mexico City. “The men who used to live here are the ones who ruined the country.”

A flutist and a pianist played in the lobby. Officials suggested that it could be a frequent venue for concerts or plays. For now, though, the guides and guards seemed slightly overwhelmed, like unwitting real estate agents setting up the world’s strangest open house.

“Little by little we’ll figure out how to integrate it into the city,” said Antonio Martinez, one of the coordinators of the complex.

There were a few books left in the library, a biography of artist Frida Kahlo, the poems of Octavio Paz, the photos of Juan Rulfo. A new statue of Peña Nieto had been placed in the garden, next to a row of other previous leaders.

Los Pinos, or The Pines, has been home to Mexico’s presidents since Lazaro Cardenas moved here in 1934. Ironically, he had been trying to prove the same point as López Obrador, arguing that the previous presidential residence in the nearby Castle of Chapultepec was too ostentatious. But Los Pinos was hardly a humble abode: it is 14 times larger than the White House, according to Architectural Digest.

“Looks at this wood. This is imported. Everything here is the most expensive, the most luxurious. Why couldn’t they spend this money on the people of Mexico?” said Braulio Melquiades, 69, who owns an auto parts shop.

López Obrador repeatedly referred to the grounds as a symbol of excess. On the campaign trail, he said, “That residence is haunted. Not even by cleaning it can you solve the problem of that building.”

Instead, López Obrador said he planned to “moralize public life.”

“We are going to get rid of the luxuries of government,” he said.

But many Mexicans questioned how serious he was about his most radical promises: moving out of Los Pinos, selling the presidential airplane, disbanding the secret service.

Yet on the first day of his presidency, Los Pinos was indeed open to the public. Brochures were handed out reading, “Welcome, citizens of Mexico, to Los Pinos.” It is now overseen by Mexico’s secretary of culture,

Some of the visitors had come from across the country. Others stopped in the middle of their morning jogs. Some wore Mexican flags as capes. At least two men wore López Obrador masks.

One woman exclaimed: “We are the first humble Mexicans to ever enter this building.”

But some of those who visited the complex on Saturday morning raised questions about whether turning Los Pinos into a museum was a practical idea — the same critique political analysts have been making for months.

“Every other country in the world has a place where leaders can meet, where foreign dignitaries can visit. Where will that be in Mexico?” said Erika Valencia, 22, a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

For others, it was a peek into the private lives of the leaders they had only read about, or watched on television, or simply an opportunity to see the kind of mansion they knew few Mexicans could ever afford.

Beneath the chandelier in the house’s foyer Natalia Hernandez, 4, leaned close to her mother, Angelica Remigio, 35.

“Is this where princesses live?” the girl asked.