MEXICO CITY -- Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador held a massive rally in Mexico City Wednesday to mark the midway point in his six-year term with polls showing that about two-thirds of Mexicans approve of the job he is doing.
López Obrador’s masterful use of televised news briefings, his folksy style and personal austerity have apparently won over Mexicans, despite a number of indicators suggesting the country isn’t doing so well.
Mexico is approaching 450,000 COVID-19 deaths, has fully vaccinated only about half its population; inflation has reached around 7% and there is an almost unabated wave of drug gang homicides.
But with no mask requirements — a hallmark of his administration, which has eschewed mass testing and travel bans — on Wednesday the president did what he loves best: bask in crowds of cheering supporters.
“We are standing tall, despite the pandemic,” López Obrador told the crowd, repeating his calls to nationalize the country's lithium deposits and demand the United States grant legal status to 11 million migrants living north of the border.
He predicted that money sent home to Mexico by migrants would top $50 billion this year, and asked for a round of applause for the country's migrants.
López Obrador angrily defended his unprecedented reliance on the army, which he has entrusted with everything from building and operating infrastructure projects to taking the lead role in law enforcement.
“They are not the same as any other armed forces in the world!” López Obrador said, practically shouting. “Soldiers are the people in uniform!”
Bands played for thousands of supporters packed into the plaza. Most had facemasks but were crowded shoulder to shoulder, and a significant number appeared to be government employees.
Patricio Morelos, a political science professor at the Monterrey Technological Institute, said the president has an unusual ability to market his politics.
López Obrador “controls the political agenda, controls the public opinion tendencies, and that has allowed him for the last three years to tell us every morning in the ‘mañaneras’ what Mexico's political reality is," Morelos said.
The “mañaneras” are briefings López Obrador has held almost every weekday since he took office on Dec. 1, 2018. While not really news conferences — seating and admission limits largely restrict questions to a preselected core of supportive web sites and bloggers — the televised briefings have given Mexicans unprecedented access to a president who likes folk sayings and eating at working-class diners.
The president clearly has the common touch, and was disappointed when last year's Dec. 1 rally was held without crowds because of the pandemic. Even though the omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused concern, López Obrador said earlier this week, “It has been too long, and we have to gather” in the Zocalo, the capital's sprawling main plaza.
The pandemic also caused an 8.5% economic contraction in 2020, and while the economy recovered about 6.4% in the first nine months of 2021, it is still hurting.
Ana Laura López, a 37-year-old cleaning employee, reflected glumly on the day.
“I don't have anything to celebrate today because I am worse off than I was three years ago,” López said as she ate a chicken taco a neighbor had given her. López, no relation to the president, sat in a car where she has lived since losing her steady job during the pandemic. A hotel where she previously rented a room also closed because of coronavirus.
The $73 López makes every week sweeping streets isn't enough to rent an apartment, or even a room, in the rough Obrera neighborhood of Mexico City.
Nor has crime gotten much better; Mexico's nearly 29,000 homicides in the first ten months of 2021 are just 3.6% below the 30,030 in 2020.
The Mexican peso has dropped in value against the U.S. dollar, and rising fuel prices spurred inflation.
Francisco Velasco, a 55-year-old barber, also isn't doing well. He was laid off during the pandemic from the barber shop where he had worked for 23 years.
Velasco has rented a tiny storefront barbershop in the Obrera neighborhood to try to support his wife and three children.
“Prices have gone up a lot even though the president promised they would go down,” Velasco said, though he doesn't blame López Obrador. “Things will get better,” he said. “Three years isn't enough for the president to do anything. ... It takes more time.”
The president has made strides in increasing minimum wages, and prohibiting tax forgiveness once frequently granted to influential businessmen.
On Wednesday, the country's Business Coordinating Council said it had reached an agreement with the government and labor to raise the minimum wage by 22% in 2022, to the equivalent of about $6.90 per day. Along the northern border a higher $8.25 regional daily minimum wage would apply. The government later confirmed that agreement.
Adding to López Obrador's luster is the utter lack of any opposition figure with credibility or charisma.
But the president hasn't done himself any favors by dismissing academics, critics, nongovernmental organizations, businessmen and opponents and lumping them all together into one basket as “conservatives” nostalgic for the old day — a sort of “us versus them” approach to almost everything.
“You cannot govern by making enemies of a significant part of the population," Morelos said. “Having a more open president would do Mexican democracy a lot of good.”