Mexico: Competing State Strategies and Results on COVID

By Piper Neulander*

Disinfecting city street in north-central Mexico./ Carl Campbell/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

In the face of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s relatively cavalier attitude toward the COVID‑19 virus, the governors of states as varied as Nuevo León and Oaxaca have implemented contrasting approaches – with different levels of success and political gains. AMLO’s response has been colored by relatively late shutdowns, limited ramping up of national-level coordination mechanisms, and the maintenance of strict austerity despite an extraordinary decline in economic activity. Yet state governments have a large degree of autonomy in Mexico’s federal system, and some have taken advantage of it. Nuevo León – a northern, industrial, relatively urbanized and wealthier state – and Oaxaca – a southern, more rural and poorer state – both initially followed AMLO’s hesitant lead towards the virus, but eventually diverged in their strategies.

Nuevo León

The governor of Nuevo León, independent Jaime Rodríguez, has adopted policies that have departed sharply from federal guidelines. The state began to count private and state labs’ coronavirus tests together and quickly, while the federal government still only had one lab to officially confirm tests. It also used its own measurement system in many industries to allow for slower, safer re-openings – developing 12 measures, rather than the federal government’s four – and cooperated with neighboring states to prevent spread of the disease.

  • These policies gave Nuevo León a fighting chance to slow the spread through its dense population and industrial workplaces. Early testing meant the state had a far more accurate initial count of cases, and local processing of the tests enabled faster action. While these steps made Nuevo León citizens more aware of the spread within their communities early on, they caught medical workers unprepared for the surge, prompting protests over the lack of preparation.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat, who aligns himself closely with AMLO, took advantage of that relationship during the pandemic. The state received federal help from the military to build much-needed hospitals in the region – one of which AMLO personally inaugurated during a tour of the Istmo region. (It was unclear, however, if the hospital actually began operating upon inauguration.)

  • This strong partnership with the federal government, however, made the state vulnerable to the same pitfalls as national-level policies, including inadequate testing and slow identification of virus trends, contributing to striking lethality rates from COVID‑19 in certain Oaxacan counties. The county of Juchitán, for example, experienced an 18 percent fatality rate.

In Nuevo León, Rodríguez saw a huge boost in popularity during the early months of the pandemic – an average of 25 percentage point increase in various polls conducted between March and May. His approval rate for his handling of the COVID crisis specifically was 72.3 percent in June – one of the five highest approval rates among Mexico’s 31 states. In Oaxaca, where polling figures vary, most pointed to a 6.6 percentage point increase in Murat’s approval rate between May and July. Also in June, opinion on compliance with isolation and decreased mobility was at 68.3 percent approval in Nuevo León and 60.6 percent approval in Oaxaca.

The governors’ political fortunes seem to parallel the states’ health results. Rodríguez was successful on two fronts: relative success against the coronavirus, and clear success in grasping the moment for his own political purposes. He was smart to forge his own path against the virus, focusing on essential tools like testing and regional cooperation, and, despite the health workers’ protests, delivering quality care to victims of the disease. Rodríguez was consistent and clear with the public about the risks of the virus, allowed his Secretary of Health to guide a response to the virus, and harnessed his urban, industrially supported state’s strengths in his response, while avoiding many of the mistakes of the federal government. In Oaxaca, Murat’s close adherence to AMLO’s lead placed the state at a disadvantage in combatting COVID‑19. While he did also gain in popularity for his response, the gain was smaller. Much of Oaxaca’s actions were boosted by support from the federal government, making the state-level response less distinguishable from Mexico’s central government strategy.

September 18, 2020

* Piper Neulander is a student in the School of International Service focusing on Latin America.

Mexico Elections: Successful Balloting, Mixed Results

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Preparing for elections in Chiapas, Mexico last week.  Photo Credit: Dimitri dF / Flickr / Creative Commons

Preparing for elections in Chiapas, Mexico last week. Photo Credit: Dimitri dF / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s mid-term elections last Sunday to select governors, mayors, and local and federal legislators confirmed popular engagement in the democratic process, but deep frustration with the country’s political parties.  Voter turnout – 47 percent of eligible voters cast ballots – was high  despite violence, isolated ballot-burnings, attacks on election board offices, and calls for boycotts.  The elections were carried out under highly adverse conditions. Some 1,400 murders were recorded nationwide in April – the highest rate in a year – and a clash between privately supported vigilantes and suspected cartel members left 13 dead in Guerrero state the day before voting.  Four assassinated candidates remained on Sunday’s ballots (and at least one won).  Pre-election polls showed that some 90 percent of citizens distrusted the political parties, and over half expressed disapproval for President Peña Nieto half-way into his six-year term.  According to press reports, voters were motivated by concern about the government’s inability to deal with the resurgence of violence or even satisfactorily explain massacres, such as the disappearance last September of 43 students who were last seen in police custody.  Mexico’s sluggish economy may have driven people to the polls as well; the government cut growth estimates in May because of lower than expected oil revenues and U.S. growth.

As predicted, the President’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its partners won a parliamentary majority – winning about 40 percent of the votes and, as a coalition, 260-plus seats in the 500-member Congress.  The PRI and the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) lost governorships in the country’s two most violent states – Guerrero and Michoacán – in what’s widely seen as a rebuke to both.  The opposition National Action Party (PAN) held largely steady, garnering about 20 percent of the votes.  By most accounts, the big winner on Sunday is Governor-elect Jaime Rodríguez of Mexico’s second-richest state, Nuevo León.  Running as an outsider, El Bronco took advantage of an electoral reform allowing independent candidacies and waltzed to victory with 48 percent of the vote despite a modest campaign and opposition from local media.  He has pledged that his election marks “the start of a second Mexican Revolution.”

El Bronco can legitimately claim to embody rejection of the traditional parties, and in that respect his rise to prominence is not unlike that of many charismatic politicians in Latin America’s recent and not-so-recent past.  Given his campaign’s lack of programmatic clarity, it is not clear that he or the votes cast in his favor represent anything more than that.  President Peña Nieto achieved important reforms during his first three years in office, particularly in energy and education, but these have neither generated enthusiastic support nor their anticipated benefits.  Whether the President has any new compelling ideas to offer for the remainder of his term remains to be seen.  The relatively high turnout last Sunday despite popular cynicism toward the parties and myriad security challenges does testify to Mexicans’ resilient democratic aspirations, but the election also reflects widespread public disillusion with the available options – incumbent as well as opposition.  The ruling PRI failed to offer (or even project) a credible agenda for Mexico during what are clearly times of trouble, and the country suffers from a lack of coherent alternative visions for either conservative modernization (the PAN) or progressive transformation (PRD or its former standard-bearer, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with his newly established Morena party).  Across the ideological spectrum, Mexico’s politics are stuck, and it’s going to take more than one Bronco to drive out the dinosaurs.

June 11, 2015