Thousands of triumphant supporters crowded the main square of the Mexican capital two years ago to celebrate the resounding victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – who captured more than half the votes in the presidential election, pledging to improve the lives of the poor, root out rampant corruption and fundamentally alter his predecessors’ approach to combating the country’s spiralling drug-fuelled violence.
But instead of the sweeping change that captured the imagination of millions of Mexicans who were fed up with traditional politicians, the left-wing leader’s time in office has been beset by a badly managed pandemic, economic recession, a record-high homicide rate, and pressure from the Trump administration to curb US-bound migrants.
“In terms of the facts on the ground, the situation in Mexico today is worse than it was before he took office,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center.
Since he took office in December 2018, he is credited with putting in place scholarships and grants, as well as training and employment programmes for young people. He also expanded pensions to the elderly and government workers, and created a stipend for people with disabilities.
But the programmes are not expected to have a major effect on an economy that is forecast to contract by as much as 8.8 percent this year.
But the trip, which Mexican officials said will take place on July 8-9, is Lopez Obrador’s first abroad and drew a slew of criticism, because of its timing, in the middle of a worsening pandemic, and because it is to meet Trump, a leader who likened Mexican migrants to rapists and drug dealers in his 2016 presidential campaign.
The austere leader, known by his acronym AMLO, who eschewed living in the lavish presidential residence and slashed his own salary, said he and his team, which includes the foreign minister, would fly commercial, even though there are currently no direct flights to Washington due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are huge questions surrounding the visit, and it leaves sceptics thinking that he is looking for something to distract from the challenging scenario at home,” Wilson said.
His disapproval ratings, 37 percent according to the latest poll, up from 19 percent when he first took office, are at an all-time high.
Although the spread of COVID-19 took the world by surprise back in January, observers said Mexico had ample warning, as cases of the coronavirus only began to surface in late March.
Lopez Obrador, who had not been seen in public wearing a mask, downplayed the dangers of the virus, refused to shut down the country’s borders and, up until April, was attending large rallies during which he was hugging and posing for pictures with his supporters.
“He underestimated the gravity of what could happen,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at the Baker Institute.
“A combination of incompetence and bad luck has essentially put Lopez Obrador at a huge disadvantage,” Payan said.
Though the country began to gradually reopen in early June, the numbers of COVID-19 infections and fatalities continue to rise, with more than 226,000 confirmed cases and 27,769 deaths, according to the latest count.