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The Mexican Politics of Hurricane Otis – Mary Anastasia O’Grady/WSJ

President López Obrador’s emergency response has failed the storm’s victims. An area hit by Hurricane Otis in Acapulco, Mexico, Oct. 26.(Jesus Espinoza/Zuma)
President López Obrador’s emergency response has failed the storm’s victims. An area hit by Hurricane Otis in Acapulco, Mexico, Oct. 26.(Jesus Espinoza/Zuma)

By Mary Anastasia O”Grady

Hurricane Otis was a Category 5 storm when it slammed into Acapulco in the wee hours of Oct. 25, blowing out the windows of the tall hotels that line the beachfront and hollowing out their interiors. It turned humble dwellings into piles of sticks, knocked out power, laid waste to shopping centers, and flooded streets. The world-famous resort city, already in decline because of cartel violence across the state of Guerrero, is destroyed. The death toll stands at 48 with three dozen missing.

Nature’s fury, beyond man’s control, brings inevitable disasters. Mexico, sitting between two oceans in an active seismic zone, is especially vulnerable. But that’s all the more reason for government preparedness. Instead, the municipal, state and federal handling of Otis has been abysmal.

The reason is purely political, the fruits of five years of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s centralization of power under a plan he calls “the fourth transformation” of Mexico. Mr. López Obrador’s single six-year term ends in 2024. But the giant failure of government to handle Otis is the clearest indication yet of what the country is in for if his Morena party—which also governs Guerrero and the city of Acapulco—succeeds at the polls in the June presidential and congressional elections. AMLO, as the president is known, has chosen Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum to succeed him.

Otis began as a tropical storm at sea and picked up steam quickly. Even so, officials ignored warnings from the U.S. National Hurricane Center of the oncoming weather freight-train. According to Mexican investigative journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, on the evening of Oct. 24, hours before Otis made landfall, the state’s secretary general was participating in the opening of a mining conference of 5,000 guests in a hotel near the beach. The Spanish daily El País reported there was also a sports convention under way in the city with 800 minors in attendance.

The cleanup isn’t going any better. Residents say they’ve been left to fend for themselves. Bodies are reportedly rotting under the rubble. Video has shown bare store shelves; food, diapers and other essentials are in short supply. There are gasoline shortages and long lines for drinking water.

Looting has been rampant. The Morena mayor of Acapulco, Abelina López Rodríguez, excused the thieves, saying that “taking things that don’t belong” to them is “social cohesion.” Some business and home owners took up machetes to defend their families and property.

AMLO planted the seeds of this catastrophe by politicizing the civil service, seizing power from independent agencies, and giving the military an ever-larger role in the economy. He has said he doesn’t care about the capabilities of his lieutenants in government, only that they’re honest. His national coordinator of civil protection, the top job for federal emergency response, is an art historian.

Far from advancing modern liberal democracy with its checks, balances and decentralization, AMLO is centralizing authority. He frames the fourth transformation as a national step forward. But it looks more like a reformulation of the one-party state under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, with the new name of Morena and AMLO as the alpha dinosaur.

Take the president’s decision to eliminate Mexico’s fund for natural disasters, known by the acronym Fonden. Created in 1996, it was the country’s financial-risk and crisis-prevention manager for hurricanes and earthquakes. It was also the administrator of funds for emergency response, recovery and reconstruction. The president claimed it was a slush fund for corruption.

Government officials and a Fonden technical committee traditionally made decisions about disbursements. AMLO wanted a more direct role, and he got it by closing down the trust and seizing its assets for his pet projects. Mexico still uses the World Bank catastrophe bonds that Fonden put to work to insure itself. But now, when disaster strikes, government handouts arrive straight from AMLO’s treasury. Populism on steroids.

The Mexican military has also come under sharp criticism for its response to Otis. It isn’t the fault of the men and women in uniform for failing on one of their most basic responsibilities. Rather, as AMLO has increasingly tasked the armed forces with running ports and airports and supporting his grandiose projects, like the construction of the Mayan train on the Yucatán, its capabilities have been diluted. Mexicans in crisis pay the price.

The day after the storm, Mr. López Obrador was photographed in a military jeep, stuck in the mud, on his way to Acapulco. He had to get out and walk.

He claimed he had been unable to arrive by helicopter. But he returned to Mexico City that way shortly thereafter, which weakened his story and strengthened the allegation that he had engaged in theatrics. It wouldn’t be the first time the president made Mexican hardship all about him.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

______________________________________________

Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes “The Americas,” a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis­-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally on the WSJ in the Nov 7, 2023. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.

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