Most days he acts like a humble city sparrow but when it comes to political discourse Mexico’s president is no ordinary bird. Elected in 2018 in an environment of widespread popular frustration with disappointing economic growth, out of control crime and violence, and a perception of pervasive corruption, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promised to transform Mexico, clamp down on political malfeasance, and re-build the country’s struggling rural communities. Unfortunately, more than a year after his election, Lopez Obrador is still just spooling out complicated narratives about the future he promises to build. He contradicts himself and stumbles as he explains the details of his policy agenda. Lopez Obrador is a skilled orator and a disastrous communicator. Like his counterpart to the north, Donald Trump, he continues to hold campaign-rally style events for members of his base. Lopez Obrador seems most comfortable when speaking to communities in Mexico’s under-developed and often over-looked south. Given the time and space to expand his wings, Lopez Obrador soars, word by word, sentence by sentence, he circles higher and higher, carrying his audience along, articulating a comprehensive vision of what Mexico can and should be. On his own terms, unprovoked by critics, unchallenged by analysts, Lopez Obrador is a masterful speaker, majestic even, like the eagle that sits at the center of Mexico’s flag. Caged in under the bright lights at his daily early morning press conferences, however, Lopez Obrador seems trapped and defensive, and too often finds his feathers ruffled. Preening, he feigns a stance of propriety. He clucks out under-handed insults at his rivals and critics. Asked for clarification on the still-sketchy framework of policies that will translate his grandiose plan to transform Mexico into reality, he flutters between campaign-trail platitudes, disingenuous falsehoods, and weak assertions that he has “other data” to support his positions.
The press conference-style format means that Lopez Obrador never faces rigorous scrutiny on any particular policy area. Substantive criticism of his policies is flippantly dismissed with folksy humor and self-righteous falsehoods. Rather than talk about whether or not his government will invest in reforming Mexico’s police forces he calls out to criminals to change their ways. Instead of discussing how his government is remodeling Mexico’s healthcare system, he lambasts doctors and nurses for not traveling abroad to personally buy medicine to save a dying girl. Lopez Obrador always finds ways to place the onus of responsibility on individuals and any semblance accountability for his actions as president is short-lived. The press conferences are open-ended and the questions cover a gamut of topics. Uncomfortable questions can be brushed aside for a new question on a new topic. The overall result is cacophony. A year after his election, Lopez Obrador is still promising to radically transform Mexico without raising taxes or expanding the fiscal deficit. He promises that the era of political corruption in Mexico is over but shares little information on his administration’s efforts to construct institutions and policies to promote transparency and accountability. He promises that Mexico will soon produce all of the food it consumes but hasn’t launched any major initiatives to boost domestic production. He promises that job creation and a new national focus on personal rectitude and responsibility will lower Mexico’s criminal indices. He continues to blame the corruption and indifference of the “mafia of power” that preceded him without accepting the fact that he now bears responsibility for building the institutions that will transform Mexico. Squawking for an hour or two every morning Lopez Obrador is at risk of becoming one of the metaphorical figures he uses to denigrate his critics: the chachalaca.
The ortalus vetula, a pheasant-like bird, is an ancient species believed to have evolved in the pre-colonial era either in North or Central America. Found in the same part of south-east Mexico from which Lopez Obrador hails, variations of the bird also live in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and the south of the United States. Lopez Obrador refers to long-winded rivals as chachalacas, denouncing their empty rhetoric. The insult is particularly scathing when taken literally. The chachalaca’s piercing song is somewhere between the tone of a turkey’s gurgle and the discordant squeal of an old farm truck whose motor chirps and belches but never quite purrs to life. Over a year after his election, Lopez Obrador is at risk of being branded as a chachalaca. The sheer volume of verbiage he exhales at his press conferences and public events is exhausting but yet ineffective. His overall message is impossible to distill out of the hours of oratory. Lopez Obrador promises to be an ally to industry, a champion of the rural poor, an architect of regional development with Central America, and an enforcer of Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict Central American migration. By the start of 2020 as he pushes through his second year in office, Lopez Obrador is going to have to clearly define his vision for Mexico in a concrete policy agenda and publish a detailed national development plan. Policy analysts may hope that Lopez Obrador will also clearly articulate his stances toward business chambers and unions, environmentalists and mining companies, urban activists and real estate developers. But, it seems more likely that regardless of what policies his administration actually seeks to implement he will protect the nest he’s already built, swatting away rigorous analysis and criticism, defending his own positions with stubbornness and obfuscation.
Immensely distrustful of the political order that preceded him from the start of the NAFTA era through his election in 2018, Lopez Obrador conflates the corrupt self-dealing of political power brokers and business elites with the well-trained technocratic advisors who worked in Mexico’s internationally respected government agencies. He has already canceled a number of well-regarded programs, slashed agency budgets, and pushed aside non-partisan experts, while insulting institutions that provide transparency, oversight, and analysis as out of touch and elitist. He responds to questions about his own administration’s nebulous process for awarding government contracts by broadly stating that the era of corruption is over. But, over time, Lopez Obrador is going to be held accountable for his actions and his administration’s performance. If economic growth continues to stall, investment evaporates, crime escalates, and new corruption scandals further erode public trust, Lopez Obrador will struggle to transform Mexico through the weight of his personality and the sheer volume of words he speaks. For now, Lopez Obrador continues to dismiss the criticism of foreign ratings agencies and economists along with the complaints from local business chambers and academics, as he continues to enjoy a relatively high overall approval rating from the general population.
In his first annual state of the union Primer Informe speech on September 1, Lopez Obrador admitted, “we have to keep working because the results aren’t good in terms of reduction of the incidence of crime in the country. It’s our biggest challenge.”
Unless he can start prove that his ambitious discourse is leading to tangible change, Mexico’s public may soon start to tire of the chachalaca’s strident song.