Issue 52: Mexico's populist catastrophe

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Mexico, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador faced a choice between the economy and the people. He chose neither.

Todays’s briefing is by Mariel Aramburu (MA), a graduate student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.  She has worked for the Government of Alberta in a variety of roles, most recently managing cross-ministry policy files for the Ministry of Advanced Education. She has also spent time in Washington, D.C. with the Inter-American Dialogue and in Panama with the United Nations World Food Programme. She is a Mexican immigrant and a first-generation Canadian. 

(AMLO with supporters on March 14 2020 — Reuters photo)

AS COVID-19 CASES BEGAN TO RISE IN MEXICO, the country’s populist leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), encouraged Mexicans to continue to go out and “lead a normal life.” He remarked that Mexicans, because of their cultures, were very resistant to all calamities. Going against the advice of his own health experts, AMLO continued to kiss and embrace supporters, assuring them “nothing will happen.”  

Today, the number of confirmed fatalities in Mexico surpasses 60,000, which is a level earlier identified by the country as a “catastrophic” scenario. And this is why even though AMLO ran on a platform focused on governing for the country’s most vulnerable, Mexicans are questioning whether he can deliver on his promise.  

Running for president for the third time, AMLO was elected in 2018 with a landslide victory of over 53 percent of the vote (in contrast, his closest competitor Ricardo Anaya received just over 22 percent of the vote). His voter base was a population hungry for change and seeking solutions to the country’s challenges of pervasive corruption, escalating crime, and persistent inequality. AMLO promised a “fourth transformation” for the country (alongside Mexico’s three nation-building movements: the Independence War, the Reform War, and the Revolution.) His vision included ending the abuses of power by political “elites,” reducing violence, and addressing inequality and poverty. This would be achieved without increasing taxes or debt but through austerity measures, which included savings won from reducing corruption.  

AMLO’s quest as a “moral” leadership figure has begun to be questioned as he currently finds himself entangled in corruption accusations relating to charges of illegal campaign financing leveled against his brother. Data from 2019, AMLO’s first year in office, has shown an increase in actual corruption activities from public services, and the total cost of the resulting corruption has risen to $12.8 billion pesos (or $767 million CAD), an increase of nearly $5 billion pesos (or $300 million CAD) from 2017. In his first year, AMLO also made cuts to an already pressed public health care system (a system stifled by parallel private health care for those who can afford it) and has been criticized for overly focusing on rhetoric over concrete policy action.  

At over 64,158 fatalities, Mexico is alternating between the third and fourth highest number of COVID-19 related deaths worldwide, and researchers estimate the toll will rise to a total somewhere between 88,000 to 150,000. While India is just ahead of Mexico with over 64,469 deaths, Mexico’s fatalities represent nearly 11 percent of its total reported cases (595,841) while India’s only represent close to 2 percent of its more than 3.6 million cases. Like other countries, Mexico is also presumed to be severely underreporting its cases. With extremely low testing rates (the lowest of all OECD countries), data is showing a significant number of unaccounted excess deaths (deaths above the historical average plus confirmed COVID-19 deaths). Some have gone as far as to estimate Mexico may have the world’s highest number of excess deaths, with Mexico City alone reporting 19,100 excess deaths.  

The complexity of Mexico’s social and economic situation, like those of other markets, requires tailored policy responses. Almost 50 percent of Mexico’s population lives below the poverty line and approximately 56 percent of its workforce (15 years and older) provide informal labour. For those in the formal economy, there is no national unemployment benefit program. 

When placed in the difficult position of developing an appropriate pandemic response, the presidential administration chose to frame it as a choice between its people and its economy. Initially, they landed on the economy. Dr. Hugo Lopez Gatell Ramirez, Undersecretary of Prevention and Health Promotion, stated that Mexico would not be closing its borders to international tourists travelling for spring break (the country continues to have no restrictions on entry). As late as March 14-15, the Vive Latino music festival was permitted to move forward in Mexico City with an estimated 40,000 to 60,000+ in attendance. Concerned that the effects of suspending the economy could be more devastating on Mexican society than the pandemic itself, Mexico stalled announcing a national state of emergency until the end of March.  

While Mexico’s partners in North America, Canada and the United States, have turned on the spending faucet in response to the pandemic-induced economic collapse, throughout his pandemic response, AMLO has continued to fixate on austerity measures. He introduced an underwhelming economic recovery plan in April, which dismissed the need for economic stimulus measures. Increased social supports to existing programs were seen as insufficient to address existing poverty rates, much less the rising populations affected by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, a commitment to hire 45,000 health care workers leaves a deficit of 155,000 doctors alone. Mexico’s public health care system is also experiencing extreme shortages of PPE and Mexicans are fearing the care they will receive. In Mexico’s Indigenous communities, COVID-19 mortality rates are 7 percent higher. AMLO has consistently rejected the use of wearing non-medical masks to mitigate spread, citing lack of substantive scientific proof, while his cabinet is seen wearing them outside his presence. A national non-medical mask and face covering campaign has not been introduced. Investors fear AMLO’s lack of substantive economic measures will cause even deeper recession for the country and business leaders have continued to advocate for action, arguing tens thousands of jobs are at risk.  

AMLO is expected to announce a further economic recovery plan shortly, set to include energy and construction projects. In the current pandemic context, late is still better than never. The multi-party coalition under which AMLO was elected is named “Together We Will Make History.” Unfortunately, the current reality in the country is proving to be a history that Mexicans didn’t sign up for.  (MA)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca