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AMLO and the Foreign Press

By Damian Fraser, Partner, Miranda Partners

As AMLO travels to Washington next week to meet Donald Trump, the eyes of the world’s press will briefly be on Mexico’s President. What should we expect?

Despite his folksy, down to earth image, and still high popularity within Mexico, the foreign press almost without exception has turned negative on Mexico’s President, his policies, and results of his administration to date. This is true of reporters, editorial and opinion writers. The Wall Street Journal, El Pais and New York Times have been especially critical of AMLO’s failures in reacting adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic – but since the beginning have pointed out failings by AMLO’s government in combatting drug violence, inconsistencies in anti-corruption drive and poor economic results. (“A New Revolution? Mexico Still waiting as Lopez Obrador Nears Half-Year Mark”, May 10th, 2020, The New York Times; “Mexico’s Polarizing President Presides Over Rising Violence, Flailing Economy” Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2019, The Wall Street Journal).

The Financial Times has written extensively on negative investment climate caused by nationalist energy policy (“Investors see uncertain future in Mexico” May 24, 2020), and other failings (“Lopez Obrador’s anti-corruption is failing”). Forbes, Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times among others have published harsh opinion pieces on the country’s deteriorating outlook under AMLO. (“Mexico leader as heedless as Trump in Coronavirus crisis”, Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2020). Its hard to imagine a foreign newspaper now publishing a piece similar to the New Yorker’s June 2018 pro AMLO hagiography “A New Revolution in Mexico” again.

AMLO himself does not seem to care too much. Unlike previous Mexican Presidents, AMLO hovers between showing little interest in the foreign press to open hostility. He appears not to have given any one-on-one interviews to the foreign press based in Mexico since taking office, and only one to the foreign press outside Mexico (to Bloomberg’s Editor in Chief). When foreign press criticize his government (as is common), he usually brushes this aside, arguing they lack moral authority because (he claims falsely) they failed to criticize corruption in the previous governments.

AMLO’s lack of interest in what the foreign press say about him and Mexico probably is fairly genuine. He cares mainly about domestic politics, not foreign affairs. (“La mejor política exterior es la interior” he said on numerous occasions”.) He does not appear to court popularity outside Mexico, not even with leftwing elites. He does not think foreigners offer any special insights into how Mexico should be run, nor that there are lessons to be learned on what is happening elsewhere in the world. To the extent he thinks about the foreign press at all, he probably sincerely sees them as part of the mafia of power that kept neoliberal governments running the country. And for sure much but not all of the international media was far too positive on AMLO’s now disgraced predecessor (I.e., “Saving Mexico”, TIME Magazine cover on Enrique Peña Nieto in February 2014.)

AMLO’s main foreign policy priority is to avoid a conflict with the Trump administration, and since the Trump administration is itself dismissive of most mainstream media, he and his advisors may think there is no need to worry too much about the perception of him abroad. Trump’s longstanding point man on Latin America – Mauricio Claver Carone, the new head of the IDB – is mainly interested in Cuba and Venezuela, not Mexico. Trump is mainly focused on illegal immigration. As long as AMLO stays away from Cuba and Venezuela and keeps Trump happy on immigration, he and his advisors may think they have a free pass.

With AMLO’s visit to Washington next week to celebrate USMCA — in which he has vowed to fly commercial — his policies as well the US-Mexico relationship will no doubt face additional and negative scrutiny by international media. And given that Trump is in reelection campaign mode, it’s hard to believe that he won’t take at least some quick jabs at AMLO and Mexico, while complementing his amigo as well. This is perhaps why many pundits (especially in the Washington Post) have criticized the decision to fly north during peak COVID deaths and contagion, and many have cited a similarly ill-fated meeting by AMLO’s predecessor Peña Nieto. 

AMLO can and does hit back aggressively if a negative story emanates from the foreign press corps and impacts the domestic media agenda. Just like Trump, AMLO appears to take criticism of his government highly personally, wherever it comes from, and that offense is the best form of defense. Hence in his mañanera he has hit back aggressively at the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times in response to critical articles, usually attacking the publication and not addressing the content of the article itself.

Hence he has described the Financial Times as “Unprofessional and unobjective” (July 11, 2019). As for The New York Times, “El New York Times es un periódico famoso pero con poca ética. En este caso es evidente que no hicieron un buen trabajo” (May 11, 2020). He has attacked The Wall Street Journal on numerous occasions, especially its opinion writer Mary O’Grady, but also some of its hard-hitting reporting (Death Certificates Point to Much Higher Coronavirus Toll in Mexico). Even EL Pais has come in for its own attacks.

This treatment of the foreign press is broadly consistent with AMLO’s approach to all institutions that challenge his government. They are to be dismissed as corrupt or enabling corruption, or preserving the power of the existing elites that have impoverished Mexico for so long. This feeds into the AMLO narrative that he (almost) alone can save and transform Mexico. But by criticizing the foreign press, AMLO for sure also taps into a still strong nationalist sentiment in the country, especially prevalent in his base of supporters.

AMLO’s unwillingness to give interviews to foreign journalists is consistent with his broader media strategy of controlling the narrative, and speaking directly to the people through the mañanera. In any case, as he speaks for several hours a day in public, and rarely veers from his set piece of the world, it’s unlikely he would say anything much different in a one on one interview. He is a master at sticking to his script.

Of course the foreign press is far from homogenous. Bloomberg has the largest team in Mexico, focused on the financial and corporate sector, but with strong political reporting too. They recently published the scoop on WalMart de Mexico paying about US$400mn in back taxes after being threatened with criminal charges, but write for the most part about the public record. The Wall Street Journal also has a large and highly experienced team, and has broken a series of important and original stories (with especially strong coverage of Mexico’s Coronavirus challenges, and drug-related violence in the country). As it broke the story of a Finance Minister’s alleged corruption in the previous government, it can hardly be accused of being biased. The New York Times, unlike the Journal, has not focused much journalistic resources on Mexico, presumably because it’s not a major global diplomatic story (yet). The Financial Times mixes reporting public facts and opinion, in a way that the American newspapers tend to avoid, and is influential in the financial sector.

The increasingly negative foreign press coverage of AMLO and his government may have more of an economic and political impact than AMLO seems to think. Foreign and often domestic investors receive most of their information from the foreign press, and are turning increasingly negative towards the country. Social media often reflects what the foreign press are writing, and the WSJ, NYT among others, set the agenda, in part. With even the US Ambassador to Mexico criticizing the AMLO government for not respecting investment rules, the relationship with the United States may start to turn sour, especially as the election campaign begins. (And of course Trump may lose, in which case mainstream media will recover some of its influence on the bilateral US/Mexico relationship). And with the local press suffering from limited resources and credibility, they will continue to look to what the foreign press are saying and writing, whether AMLO likes it or not.

If and when this happens, one thing is likely. AMLO will blame the messenger.