The conflicts that marked the first sixteen months of the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) — over Trump’s tariff threats, economic stagnation, the failed raid against the son of El Chapo — were simply initial skirmishes in the open offensive the Mexican right is now launching under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic.
The timing comes as no surprise: in stark contrast to the wooly rhetoric of cooperation in times of crisis, pandemics represent the perfect opportunity for authoritarian forces to strike out against opponents. For what are crudely known as emerging economies, the danger is magnified: as speculators “flee from risk,” currencies fall, capital flies, and, due to depressed demand, the price of exports such as oil tumble even into negative numbers.
In Mexico, the foot soldiers of the assault have been the pundits, anchors, and celebrities in the employ of the nation’s mass media. Behind them stand an array of powerful interests, both national and international.
The Fake News Deluge
Throughout the crisis, the punditocracy of the ancien régime has been in competition to see who can make the biggest fools of themselves in their attempt to blame the government for everything.
After falsely reporting the death of José Kuri Slim (cousin of magnate Carlos Slim) from COVID-19, television and print commentator Raymundo Riva Palacio went one better, devoting a column to a supposed bilateral meeting between the United States and Mexico on COVID-19 which was to have ended in “shouting and threats.” This was roundly denied by US Ambassador Christopher Landau, who called the column “irresponsible.”
In an attempt to save face, Riva Palacio claimed that the ambassador’s response was due to his anger at the leaking of secret information, to which Landau replied that it had more to do with the fact that his report was absolutely false, ending with the riposte: “Now don’t go reporting that I died from coronavirus, too.” Difficult as it is to make the American ambassador come out looking good in Mexico, Riva Palacio somehow managed it.
In addition to chiming in on the José Kuri “report,” former Televisa anchorman Joaquín López Dóriga, all but rubbing his hands with glee, followed up with the bogus scoop that the Mexican government was to decree a strict, Level 3 COVID-19 pandemic response on the following day. (As coincidence would have it, both Riva Palacios and López Dóriga were beneficiaries of massive expenditure in government publicity during the Peña Nieto administration.)
Not to be outdone, prominent commentator and columnist Denise Dresser retweeted the “news” that a doctor had died in a Mexico City hospital after attending coronavirus patients for six straight days; the only problem was that the clearly fictitious name of said “doctor” was that of a Spanish porn star. When Dresser “apologized,” after a fashion, for not knowing the names of porn actors, an astute responder pointed out that it had nothing to do with that, but with “using absolutely any pretext to pile on to information without verifying it.”
Making use of his dramatic skills, movie actor Eugenio Derbez released a mawkish video where he read out a supposed letter from a doctor in a Tijuana hospital lamenting a lack of material and equipment to face the pandemic. Although the missive, a fake lifted from a WhatsApp group, was promptly denied by the hospital in question, this has not stopped Derbez’s video from going on to receive some 2.6 million views.
And so on and so on, in a deluge of fake news that would make professional propagandists wince.
But the coup de grace occurred on TV Azteca’s nightly news broadcast of April 17, when anchor Javier Alatorre launched a surprise attack on Dr Hugo López-Gatell, subsecretary for health prevention and promotion in the Federal Health Ministry, who has been giving daily televised conferences on the government’s response to the pandemic:
Today, Dr. López Gatell headed his conference regarding the contagion and death statistics from COVID-19. But his figures, and his conferences, have become irrelevant. What is more, and we say this very explicitly, do not pay any further attention to Hugo López-Gatell.
Alatorre’s broadside stunned millions of viewers who have become accustomed to Gatell’s popular briefings as a daily source of information. Coming as it did just as the country is about to enter into the most critical stage of the pandemic — and as a fatigued public is already being tempted to give up on social-distancing measures — the wantonly irresponsible call to ignore the subsecretary’s recommendations from the platform of the nation’s second-watched news show could wind up costing countless lives.
Despite AMLO’s attempts to downplay the incident as one of “freedom of expression,” the public, less patient with years of disinformation pouring through their television screens, launched a petition to withdraw TV Azteca’s broadcasting license. As of this writing, it has gathered nearly 300,000 signatures.
The seamy underside of the TV Azteca affair reveals much about the forces lined up against the administration. On April 6, AMLO announced an economic rescue package to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including loans for small businesses and personal mortgages, an advance on pension payments, and the acceleration of tax reimbursements. Although underwhelming, the package at least had the advantage of being targeted at the working and middle classes rather than the rich.
In response, business leaders raised a hue and cry that it did not include a bailout for them, as was being done in enlightened places such as Europe. But as Jorge Zepada Patterson points out, the vast majority of Mexicans work in the informal sector and would not be reached by a payroll bailout of that kind. It would, instead, become yet another form of upward wealth transfer.
In response to the complaints, AMLO pointed out that fifteen large businesses owe back taxes of 50 billion pesos ($2.07 billion US) to the government that they might want to consider paying. A large chunk of this is reportedly owed by the Elektra Group, owned by Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Mexico’s second-richest man and also the owner of TV Azteca. His Elektra chain of stores has continued to operate as normal throughout the crisis, putting both staff and customers at obvious risk — a state of affairs that could not continue if the federal government follows through on its threat, made by Dr López-Gatell himself at his April 15 conference, to shut down and investigate nonessential businesses that refuse to close on their own. In this context, having a TV station at your disposal to do your dirty work constitutes a very distinct benefit.
And all of this despite the favors Salinas Pliego has received from the AMLO administration: not only are the funds for the president’s social programs being disbursed through his Banco Azteca banks, his company Seguros Azteca Daños just received a juicy contract for 969 million pesos ($40 million US) from the Public Education Ministry, headed by his former employee Estaban Moctezuma Barragán, ex-director of the Azteca Foundation.
Meanwhile, foreign interests were doing their part, as always, to throw gasoline on the fire. On the border, American-owned maquiladoras have refused to close, spreading the contagion. Right on schedule, Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch took advantage of the pandemic to further reduce the classification of governmental and PEMEX bonds. The downgrades put further pressure on the peso, which has lost some 20 percent of its value since the crisis began.
Then, in a bizarre editorial entitled “Mexico’s Unfolding Presidential Tragedy,” the Financial Times saw fit to take AMLO to task for his handling of both the economic and public-health aspects of the pandemic. If the editors’ hypocrisy in attacking the president from the left for not spending enough on stimulus weren’t enough, the spectacle of their lighting into his handling of the health effects of the pandemic — this is the Financial Times of London we’re talking about, from a country whose sluggish response and “herd mentality” strategy has caused the unnecessary deaths of thousands — takes the cake. For good measure, the editorial concludes with a call for Mexican governors and business leaders to rise up and take legal action against the president’s “more questionable” policies.
Someone, at least, appears to be taking them seriously: on April 19, an alleged phone conversation was leaked of businessman Pedro Ferriz de Con conspiring with other members of the Entrepreneurial Coordinating Council (CCE) to support the efforts of Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro to reject the authority of AMLO as president.
“There are two possibilities: one, that we act; one, that the gringos act, and one that we do it at the same time,” he was to have said.
A Public Held Hostage
None of the above is to suggest that AMLO’s coronavirus response has been without reproach. The president was slow to take social-distancing measures at the outset of the pandemic — by his own admission, for fear of leaving a vacuum of power for the Right to exploit. A series of glib comments at his morning press conferences have made him an easy target of social media scorn.
But in a country where half of the population lives day to day, his government has made the key decisions in closing schools and nonessential government functions in a timely manner, in pooling public and private resources for COVID-19 patients, and in coordinating with other countries to prevent price-gouging in medical supplies. And this he has accomplished in the face of a hard right determined to use the crisis not just to score political points but to dislodge him from power, using the public as hostages to its ends.