The coronavirus crisis has laid bare every pre-existing socio-economic ill in the Latin American region: the wide chasms of economic inequality, with more than half of workers laboring in the informal economy; the wholly inadequate social support programs; and public medical services already stretched beyond capacity.
The economic damage has already been vast. Enormous costs have come from nationwide lockdowns, from closing the borders, from diminished demand for oil exports, the disappearance of tourist spending, and the drying up of remittances. The free market will do nothing to help people in desperate need right now. As center-left Argentine president Alberto Fernández commented, saving lives must come first. “In the dilemma between the economy and the people, I choose the people,” Fernández said, adding, “an economy without people makes no sense.”
Those Latin American leaders who have done the most to put firm social distancing rules in place and offer at least some authentic emergency relief are the ones who have earned the highest approval ratings. Those who denied the health crisis and did little about it have polled the most poorly.
AMLO IN MEXICO
Hopes were high for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, elected to the Mexican presidency in 2018. “AMLO,” (as he is known in Mexico), seemed poised to establish himself as the most effective and progressive of Latin American leaders. His campaign offered a sweeping vision of positive change, promising to end corruption, vanquish crime, and lift millions of Mexicans out of poverty.
But in office, AMLO’s approach to rooting out corruption has been simplistic: the president seems to believe that because he personally is not corrupt–something which is no doubt true–then this fact alone would somehow end corruption in Mexico. It hasn’t. A third of Mexicans continue to report that if they encounter the police, then they will have to pay a mordida (a “little bite,” that is, a bribe). The mordida remains a daily irritant, part of life in Mexico.
In 2019, Mexico suffered over 35,000 reported homicides, its highest level ever.
Mexico, with a population one third that of the United States,has 20,000 more murders than the United States every year.
AMLO’s solution has been to bring back the often tried and always failed idea of forming a new military force, in this case a National Guard, to crack down on criminals. This approach betrays a basic misunderstanding: the role of the police is to prevent crime; the role of the military is to kill the enemy.
Before he could unleash his new military force on the citizenry, the role of Mexico’s National Guard was hijacked, moved over to border control in an effort to appease U.S. president Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. Trump threatened severe economic penalties on Mexico’s trade with the United States if Mexico did not block Central American refugees. AMLO has been sending these families back home to meet their fate.
Although AMLO claimed that he could deliver 4% annual GDP growth in Mexico, when the reports came back showing far less than this, he simply denied the data. But the numbers are correct: even before the pandemic, Mexico’s economy had stopped growing. In fact, AMLO’s first full year in office saw the worst economic showing for Mexico in a decade. This year in Mexico, as nearly everywhere else in the world, will be an economic freefall, with current projections anticipating at least an 8% decline.
Poverty is increasing in Mexico. The key problem here has been AMLO’s stubborn insistence that he must always balance the nation’s budget. In this he resembles not so much a socialist as a business school graduate from the University of Chicago. But Mexico actually carries a lower debt to GDP ratio than many other Latin American nations. AMLO might have used this fiscal flexibility to roll out some routine Keynesian counter-cyclical poverty reduction and employment programs. Instead, his austerity measures have earned the praise of the International Monetary Fund, always a bad sign for social progress.
Mexican social programs, starved for funds, have been no match for the nation’s desperate poverty. The stipends for retirees, the disabled, and unemployed young adults have not succeeded in reducing poverty. Before the current pandemic, four of ten Mexicans lived in poverty. Now the situation has grown much worse, although it may take some time to try to add up all the damage. Mexican poverty rates, after gradually inching downward in prior decades, will shoot back up to include more than half of all families this year.
López Obrador’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to make the same basic mistakes Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro: reject science, deny or minimize the extent of the health problem, do little, do it much too late, and then give up and announce the reopening the economy, with not a glance in the rearview mirror to assess the damage.
Mexico has accomplished very little coronavirus testing, so official tallies of confirmed cases cannot be used to provide evidence of anything. Thus uninformed, in March, as the virus began to spread uncontrolled, the president instructed Mexicans to “keep taking your family out to restaurants.” Then, in June, as hospitalizations soared upward, he declared victory: “we have left behind the worst of the pandemic.” This statement was false.
Michael Ryan, Director of Health Emergencies for the World Health Organization (WHO), has expressed alarm over “blind reopening[s],” that could lead to “the potential collapse of health systems.” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus predicted that without taking serious steps to control the virus “it’s going to get worse and worse and worse.”
Beyond the callous recklessness of AMLO’s claims, his push for reopening is proving to have been unwise politically. His approval rating has now slipped below 50% for the first time in his sexenio (the six-year Mexican presidential term).
Many Mexicans, disgusted with his show of obsequiousness to Donald Trump, could not bear to watch as he journeyed to the White House for a press conference in July. Despite Trump’s many racist insults against Mexicans (although “some,” Trump has allowed, “are good people”), López Obrador heaped praise on the U.S. leader.
Mexico’s last previous progressive leader was the hugely popular and widely successful Lázaro Cárdenas (1934 – 1940). For Mexicans, if AMLO is what a progressive leader looks like, then there is no reason to vote for another. AMLO’s many failings in office may have enormous implications for the Mexican Left far into the future, perhaps even longer than 80 years this time.