(Bloomberg) -- As an iconic Mexican resort lay devastated by a surprise hurricane, the country’s president was, quite literally, stuck in the mud.
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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador got out of his car, wearing heavy boots, and trudged through mud to an army vehicle — which made it just a few meters before also getting stranded. So, the 69-year-old began to walk about four kilometers toward Acapulco, while his team asked journalists to stop following them, local media reported.
The unexpected, violent strength of Hurricane Otis had caught the president similarly flat-footed the night before.
Lopez Obrador warned about the storm on social media less than five hours before it made landfall, having suddenly swelled to become the strongest hurricane to hit the country in decades. Now, the highly popular Lopez Obrador faces one of the biggest challenges of his presidency: marshaling the response to a catastrophe that has killed at least 27 people, with another four listed as disappeared.
Read More: Acapulco Death Toll Rises as Otis Losses Seen at $15 Billion
Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, has less than a year left of his single six-year term, but his popularity — hovering around 60% — is crucial for the chances of his longtime protégé, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, in the 2024 election.
Sheinbaum’s lead opponent, opposition Senator Xochitl Galvez, has already criticized the failure to evacuate the city while insisting that she didn’t want to politicize the tragedy.
“The government was irresponsible in not warning the population,” she told reporters Thursday. “Now is not the moment to trade blame, it’s the moment for all Mexicans to close ranks, to end division and focus on Acapulco.”
Sheinbaum, for her part, suspended her campaign tour around Mexico and focused on collecting resources and donations to help the hurricane victims.
Lopez Obrador has been adroit at dodging the fallout from major scandals and catastrophes throughout his presidency, deploying a mix of skillful politicking and homespun charm to minimize controversies and shift blame.
When videos surfaced in 2020 of his brother handling bundles of cash, Lopez Obrador said these were simply donations “from the people” to pay for small campaign expenses. Criticism for a Mexico City metro crash that killed 26 people in 2021 was shunted away from his allies who ran the city and onto Mexico’s richest man, whose firm built the collapsed line. And he survived politically unscathed from the pandemic despite the country suffering one of the more deadly Covid-19 outbreaks in the world.
It’s also true that Hurricane Otis’s rapid surge of power was hard to predict, taking emergency services and weather forecasters by surprise and preventing timely evacuations.
In Acapulco, however, those worst affected will be from Lopez Obrador’s own base — the thousands of working-class people whose homes have been wrecked and who don’t have insurance to fall back on because they live in precarious conditions in the first place. They will also be jobless, with the tourism sector that drives the city having been scythed apart by Otis’s 165 mile-per-hour (265 kilometer-per-hour) winds.
Read More: Hurricane Otis’s Power Surge Is Now a Common Nightmare Scenario
But, curiously, Lopez Obrador — normally a master of political theater — didn’t hang around to pose for photos of himself helping out in the wreckage. Instead, he returned to Mexico City by helicopter. On Friday, he thanked people who had given him rides along the way in order to get to Acapulco despite the blocked roadway.
The public was expecting AMLO to appear at the ground zero of the disaster quicker. Though AMLO said conditions didn’t allow him to fly, and the lack of signal affected communication in most of the city, his absence could affect the image of his government in the crucial months before elections, said Juan Carlos Villarreal, a political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.
“You’d expect the president to be in the epicenter of the conflict, to have arrived by helicopter,” he said. “There’s a cocktail here that can turn into a much bigger problem for the end of the government.”
The biggest challenge ahead to rebuild Acapulco will be logistics — especially for a government whose major projects have consistently blown past budget ceilings and time limits, said Valeria Moy, an economist with experience in disaster response from working in the insurance sector. The fact that it took a day for the government to start posting a death toll is a bad sign, she said.
“The first thing you have to automatically do is a rapid census and a damage evaluation,” said Moy, director of the think tank Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. “They’ve shown themselves to be very inefficient in many areas and I think that’s a problem.”
Hurricane Otis has hit a sensitive spot for Lopez Obrador. Acapulco was already a symbol of a policy failure that Galvez has consistently hammered: the searing political violence that has worsened recently in a state governed by a close ally of AMLO. The security failure has aggravated the decline of a beloved resort that went from a Hollywood hotspot in the 1960s and 1970s to become one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
Read More: Acapulco’s State Sees Political Violence Reemerge Ahead of Vote
Salvaging Acapulco and its surroundings in that environment will be complex, Moy said.
“Guerrero is one of the poorest states in the country; it’s a state that’s co-opted by the narcos. I can’t imagine rebuilding in a state where you have narcos controlling part of the economy,” she said.
While part of the rebuilding will be driven by the tourism sector’s private insurance, the famously austere Lopez Obrador will likely have to turn to government credit lines. One estimate puts the damage at between $10 billion to $15 billion, but the government has just about a 10th of that sum in its disaster relief fund.
Lopez Obrador has already gone against his nature by proposing the biggest budget deficit in 36 years for 2024, in an effort to finish a handful of grand projects in his final year in office. On Thursday, the president said that when Mexican people are in need, “there are no limits” to what the government can spend.
Yet even money won’t automatically restart one of Mexico’s biggest tourist destinations at high season and formuch of the population, access to insurance isn’t an option.
“It’s an important loss for people, and for small businesses,” said Mauricio Gonzalez, an economist who worked in the Finance Ministry when a major earthquake hit Mexico City in 1985. “For them, it will take a long time for the economic life of the city to get back to normal.”
--With assistance from Robert Jameson.
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