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Dispatch

Coronavirus Brings Mexico’s Governors to the Fore

State leaders are showing up the president in their pandemic response, giving López Obrador’s critics their loudest opportunity yet to oppose his policies.

A worker from the Iztapalapa government waits to apply antibacterial gel at the San Nicolas Tolentino Civil Pantheon in Mexico City, on May 12.
A worker from the Iztapalapa government waits to apply antibacterial gel at the San Nicolas Tolentino Civil Pantheon in Mexico City, on May 12. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

MEXICO CITY—As Mexico’s states forge their own responses to the ongoing public health and economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to sour an already distant relationship between state governments and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador before pivotal midterm elections next year.

Several governors have felt the need to put in place stricter protective measures than those of the federal government. Eighteen states have imposed a mix of measures, such as obligatory stay-at-home orders, the mandatory use of face masks, and fines for social gatherings. Twenty-five of Mexico’s 32 states are offering small and medium-sized businesses tax incentives and credits beyond the limited fiscal stimulus provided by the federal government. A few state leaders suspended schools and universities before the federal government and, together with business groups, have called López Obrador’s response insufficient. Now, the governors of nine states have said they will not follow the federal government’s timetable to start lifting some coronavirus restrictions and reopen schools.

“Do not abandon Mexicans,” Michoacán Gov. Silvano Aureoles wrote in a tweet directed at the president last month. “We hope you and your government will be able to respond to this crisis before it’s too late,” he added. And in a letter to the president, nine opposition party state leaders declared that the federal economic relief promised to businesses would “not be enough.”

Experts say the rift between state and federal leadership over the coronavirus crisis could alter Mexico’s political landscape by weakening López Obrador’s coalition, known as Morena, which currently has a majority in both houses of Congress, and by emboldening opposition parties. Mexico will hold legislative midterm elections in 2021 to choose 500 seats in the lower chamber of Congress, 16 governorships, and other local races.

“Within [Morena], this is raising tensions and threatens to fracture the party even more than it is already,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

“The country will be severely divided after the pandemic,” said Rodrigo Montes de Oca, a researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute Center for the United States and Mexico. Local leaders have found the loudest opportunity yet to voice disapproval of the president, he said, which could bolster opposition parties before next year’s election.

So far, the pandemic shows no sign of slowing in the country. Mexico has registered some 51,000 coronavirus cases, but the government believes the real number may be eight times higher than the official count, a theory that seems plausible given the low number of tests available. As of Sunday, 5,177 people had so far died of COVID-19.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Mexico’s GDP could shrink by 6.6 percent this year. But López Obrador, who in late April earmarked $26 billion of reallocated funds for social spending on programs for the poor and older people and infrastructure projects on an airport and refinery, has ruled out raising public debt or issuing tax breaks to combat the crisis. Instead, he has cut salaries for top-level bureaucrats and offered small loans to 3 million businesses. Some lawmakers welcomed the package, but the efforts lag behind those of regional peers such as Peru and Chile.

Since Mexico announced a health emergency in late March—closing schools and shutting down nonessential businesses—the gulf between state and federal policy has only widened. Mexico’s deputy health secretary, Hugo López-Gatell, who is leading the federal response to the outbreak, has questioned the efficacy of face masks as a primary measure, although he recommended their use when outside. And López Obrador has resisted enforcing stay-at-home measures with sanctions, calling the practice unnecessary. “No to authoritarianism,” he said in a press conference last week, adding that he had “trust in people.”

State leaders felt differently. In April, the governors of Michoacán, Jalisco, and Sonora declared mandatory stay-at-home measures in their states, even though they have struggled to actually police them. Some states ordered liquor stores shut. At least five governors have required the use of face masks in public. Even state leaders who belong to López Obrador’s Morena coalition have taken measures beyond those of the federal government. In Mexico City, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum mandated the use of face masks on the metro and, as in other states, announced a deferment on some tax payments. Elsewhere, the governors of Puebla and Baja California accused the federal government of lying about the amount of medical supplies it provided and cast doubt on its health data. “No one has helped us,” said Miguel Barbosa, the governor of Puebla state, in a press conference in early May. “We will help ourselves alone here.”

In some ways, the rift between the president and his state leaders predates the pandemic. López Obrador’s critics accuse him of centralizing power through his signature social programs and controversial infrastructure projects. Several states also received less money from the central government in 2020 than in the previous year’s budget. Local governments have at times chafed at these changes; the coronavirus is bringing these divisions into relief, experts say.

“There’s a void of a federal coordinated response. That creates this sort of political opportunity and necessity for governors to take measures by themselves,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and professor at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

The subdued federal response may also result in more organized long-term opposition from powerful states. In Mexico’s industrial heartland, governors from three prosperous states—Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila—ratcheted up their complaints against the federal government’s pandemic response plan by calling for revisions to a state tax deal. Under the agreement, which dictates how states receive federal tax revenue, Mexico’s 32 states remit oil and sales taxes to the federal government in exchange for government transfers, which comprise nearly 80 percent of their income. The governors, who belong to a mix of opposition parties, say states lack fiscal autonomy under the pact and that richer states contribute more to federal revenue than what they receive in return. Since then, the governors from Chihuahua, Michoacán, Durango, and Jalisco also backed calls to revise the pact.

“We’ve had enough of abuses toward states that produce wealth, work, and opportunities for people,” Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro said in a press conference last month. Martín Orozco, the governor of Aguascalientes, who heads a governors’ association of opposition party leaders, said the deal, which was last revised in 2007, “doesn’t fit Mexico today and much less after the pandemic,” according to the Mexican paper El Financiero.

Since taking office, López Obrador’s once sky-high approval rating has steadily dropped, falling 11 percent over the past year. Fifty percent of Mexicans currently support the president, according to the pollster Consulta Mitofsky, but the headwinds facing Mexico’s economy and the federal response to the health crisis could worsen an already cloudy outlook for López Obrador.

The coronavirus arrived at a moment of particular vulnerability in Mexico’s health sector due to budget cuts and the botched implementation of López Obrador’s health care reforms. Under the previous Seguro Popular system, the federal government delivered resources to states, which administered health care to Mexico’s poor. In January, López Obrador’s government replaced it with the new Institute of Health for Well-Being and centralized drug purchases along with the provision of health care, which is free at point of service. The drug procurement changes and shaky rollout of the new system  resulted in medicine shortages even before the coronavirus reached Mexico.

State leaders, many of whom did not approve of the new system, have piled on criticism about the government’s lack of preparedness to combat the crisis. And as the contagion spreads, Mexico’s hospitals are growing overwhelmed. In recent weeks, doctors and nurses across the country have protested the lack of protective gear for health care workers. That could have lasting effects on how Mexico emerges from the crisis. “After the pandemic ends, I think we are going to see that federalism in Mexico in some areas is completely broken,” said Montes de Oca, the Rice researcher. The country’s worsening economic outlook adds to the mounting challenges López Obrador and his coalition will face ahead of next year’s elections.

Suman Naishadham is a journalist based in Mexico City.

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