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Mexican president-elect's woes include placing Venezuelan president's name on guest list for inauguration

Mexican president-elect's woes include placing Venezuelan president's name on guest list for inauguration
Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador participates in a public event at the port of Acapulco on Oct. 3, 2018. (David Guzman / EPA/Shutterstock)

For Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the post-victory honeymoon may be over more than a month before he takes office Dec. 1.

For weeks after his landslide election in July, the silver-haired, lifelong politician known as AMLO — his initials — was widely greeted as a down-to-earth leader whose impromptu declarations and no-frills approach provided a contrast to the more formal, scripted style of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto.

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Welcoming crowds greeted the president-elect during his “thank you tour” through the country. Lopez Obrador, long known for his abrasive style, embraced a unifying, conciliatory persona.

But cracks have begun to appear in the public relations’ edifice of Lopez Obrador, who has been on the defensive of late amid criticism of a number of initiatives and comments.

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Over the weekend, a firestorm erupted on social media as word spread that among those expected to attend Lopez Obrador’s inauguration is Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, assailed by critics as an autocrat who has left the oil-rich South American nation in shambles.

Trending on Twitter has been #MaduroNoEresBienvenido, or, Maduro, you are not welcome.

“For the dignity of Mexico, solidarity with Venezuelans and empathy with democratic values, the invitation to the dictator Nicolas Maduro should be revoked,” wrote ex-President Felipe Calderon on Twitter.

Calderon, of the center-right National Action Party, defeated Lopez Obrador in 2006 presidential balloting that Lopez Obrador denounced as fraudulent.

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Tough questions from detractors and others about how Lopez Obrador plans to go about accomplishing his wide-ranging, “transformative” agenda have contributed to a return to his familiar presence as a pugnacious politician scornful of those who doubt his wisdom. Many see a president-elect coming to grips with the difficulty of complying with grandiose vows to remake Mexico.

“A wear and tear is showing on the president elect and his team,” wrote columnist Enrique Campos Suarez in El Economista newspaper. “There is a natural meeting with reality that makes even the most enthusiastic [supporters] realize that the panorama presented during the campaign is not the same when one is in power.”

Lopez Obrador and his team have responded defensively to the inauguration criticism, noting that all leaders from the Americas were invited as a matter of protocol.

“We are friends of all the governments and all the peoples of the world,” Lopez Obrador told reporters Saturday as he left his transition headquarters in the white Volkswagen sedan that has become a symbol of his low-key style.

The confirmed inauguration guest list so far includes 15 heads of state, three vice presidents — including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, representing President Trump, who was also invited — and dozens of foreign cabinet members, said Marcelo Ebrard, the new president’s foreign secretary-designate.

Other issues also point to the thorny challenges ahead for a man whose almost evangelical belief in his own abilities and destiny famously prompted historian Enrique Krauze in 2006 to label Lopez Obrador, then mayor of Mexico City, “the tropical messiah,” after his considerable self-regard and his origins in sweltering Tabasco state.

Lopez Obrador’s call for a referendum on a new, multibillion airport for Mexico City — a project that he once assailed as a “bottomless pit of corruption” — has been widely ridiculed, as accounts emerged during balloting, which began last week, of numerous irregularities, casting doubt on the reliability of the vote.

The episode appears to have put Lopez Obrador on a collision course with much of the investor class that the leftist populist has cultivated so assiduously since his election July 1. Many of them call a new airport essential and have assailed the referendum process.

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But Lopez Obrador has vowed more balloting, or public “consultations,” on a variety of topics, including recent energy reforms that have opened up the petroleum sector to foreign investors.

“To my adversaries I say, get used to it,” Lopez Obrador said last week in a testy video message.

While the airport was Peña Nieto’s signature public works project, Lopez Obrador appears to have already committed his administration to another big-bucks extravaganza, a train that will make a 1,000-mile circuit of archaeological sites in the south, estimated to cost between $6 billion and $8 billion and take four years to erect through jungle, mountains and other difficult terrain. Some have called the idea delusional, but Lopez Obrador says he has no intention of backing down.

“Like it or not ... we are going to construct the Mayan Train,” he told reporters this month.

With a functioning majority in both houses of the new Mexican Congress, Lopez Obrador would appear to have wide latitude to push through favored projects, legislative changes and constitutional reforms. He was elected under the banner of the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena, a party that he founded only four years ago but is now Mexico’s dominant political force.

In September, Lopez Obrador stunned many by declaring Mexico “bankrupt,” alarming the business sector and others. Economists and government officials quickly denied that Mexico was broke, noting that the country has enjoyed steady, albeit slow, growth, moderate inflation and a manageable public debt.

Lopez Obrador later issued a qualified apology for the bankruptcy comment, but insisted that the country was mired in a crisis decades in the making. In a bow to his populist base, he also dismissed his critics as fifi, a derogatory term alluding to the nation’s wealthy classes.

Behind the bankruptcy controversy, many analysts said, was the president-elect’s growing recognition that funding his wide-ranging social agenda — including new cash grants for the elderly, poor, students and others, and guaranteed jobs for the young — may prove more costly than candidate Lopez Obrador had envisioned.

He has been vague on how he plans to finance his ambitious anti-poverty program, for which he has provided no cost estimate, beyond pledging to rid Mexico of long-entrenched corruption. He insists the government can raise the needed money by getting rid of crooked administrators and demanding honesty — a tall order in a nation with a deeply entrenched culture of profiteering from the public trough.

Lopez Obrador’s well-honed image as a champion of austerity has also taken some hits.

His appearance in September at the extravagant wedding of a longtime aide generated a barrage of mockery. Reports focused on the abundant menu, including lobster, and more than 600 guests.

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“It wasn’t me who was married. I was invited. I attended,” responded Lopez Obrador, who is regularly pictured on the road in official photos eating meals at humble, family-style restaurants. “It wasn’t an act of the government. It was a private social event.”

Still, the issue became a substantial controversy and was featured prominently in newspapers, magazines and websites.

On the issue of crime, Lopez Obrador’s calls for Mexico to “forgive but not forget” have generated a sometimes hostile response from crime victims and from relatives of the ever-expanding ranks of the murdered and disappeared. In a nation where impunity is rampant, many people are not particularly interested in contemplating mercy. Mexico experienced its highest number of homicides in recent history last year, more than 31,000, and so far 2018 is on pace to set a new record.

At a recent forum before several hundred people in an auditorium in the crime-plagued border metropolis of Ciudad Juarez, mothers carried posters with images of lost daughters — killed or vanished — and shouted “Justice!” and “Punish the guilty!” as the president-elect called for forgiveness.

“I am with you in my heart,” Lopez Obrador assured the mothers and others in attendance in Ciudad Juarez. “I tell you sincerely, we are going to pay attention to you and we are going to be sure that there is justice in Juarez and in the country.”

Cecilia Sanchez of the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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