Interview with french essayist JBG on Mexico’s left-wing populism and pandemic management

The following interview was conducted by Simon Leduc with Jérôme Blanchet-Gravel, a French Canadian essayist, journalist and columnist.

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Q: Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been President of Mexico since December 2018.  Broadly speaking, what’s his agenda and political philosophy?

JBG: As the former mayor of Mexico City, the man nicknamed AMLO promised above all to liberate the country from corrupt elites, which was going to be extremely difficult. During the presidential campaign that led to his election, he presented himself as a politician who was going to clean up public institutions, a sort of incorruptible vigilante that the big media would try to silence. He plays the hero card a bit against the bad system. 

AMLO is a man of the left, but above all of the economic left: in Latin America, the woke left is still very embryonic. Ultra-populist, the Mexican president likes to present himself as a man who listens to the poorest classes, and by the same token, to the people of Amerindian origin. 

Q: What health policy did Mr. Obrador put in place during the pandemic?

JBG: First of all, we must remember that Mexico is a federation. As in Canada and the United States, each state was called upon to develop its own health policy. Cities may also have a role to play. The central government has of course put in place a national strategy against the virus, but it is not responsible for everything. 

Basically, López Obrador surprised many people in Mexico and internationally by appearing to be a very understanding president who would not play Covid-19 police. Recently, AMLO stated that he caught the virus “because he had to work like millions of Mexicans”. On the same day, he also said that “we could not live locked up” and that he would no longer wear the mask because it was no longer contagious anyway. We are far from the approach of Western leaders and especially that of our Quebec premier, François Legault, who has decided to make Quebec a world leader in sanitarianism. 

However, what is most interesting to observe for Quebecers is that the number of deaths per capita attributed to Covid-19 is only slightly higher in Mexico than in Quebec. Go see the numbers. It’s quite phenomenal when you realize, here on the ground, that the measures are much less restrictive. Except for the schools, everything is open, or almost, except that the wearing of masks is generalized. Mexicans are willing to wear the mask as a kind of amulet that allows them to continue their activities normally. They would not give up their lifestyle. 

So: either many of the measures adopted by the Legault government are completely useless (such as curfews and restaurant closures), or its record is comparable to that of a developing country, which is far from brilliant. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. 

Q: Are Mexicans satisfied with their president’s work in managing the health crisis?

JBG: It’s hard to say. Many Mexicans are convinced that their country will be laughed at internationally, but not all of them realize that more and more Westerners are feeling stifled by the situation. A wind of protest is picking up in the rich countries. Who would have thought that a country as poor and corrupt as Mexico could finally appear as a model for something? 

But what must be kept in mind above all is that the Covid-19 crisis is far from rivalling poverty and violence in terms of the problems to be solved. The police don’t really have time to issue fines on the basis of Covid-related offences: they have many other priorities, such as robberies, murders and disappearances. Like the President himself, I think many Mexicans are well aware that rigid containment measures would do far more harm than the virus itself. If you can’t eat because you can’t get out of the house to do your job, it’s not much better than catching the virus.

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