Next week, Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be the rare foreign head of state to fly commercial to meet the U.S. president. That he’s making the trip during a global pandemic — and as coronavirus cases in Mexico peak — has turned a divisive presidential promise into a deeper public health concern.
The populist leader promised to sell Mexico’s presidential jet when he began his term in 2018 — part of a larger effort to throw off the luxe trappings of the country’s highest office. He has also opened the presidential palace to the public, and is ferried around the capital in his own Volkswagen Jetta.
While the jet is still unsold, López Obrador has stood by his pledge to fly only on commercial airlines. He says he’s saving the government millions of dollars. Critics call it political theater.
But he has yet to travel outside Mexico as president. On Monday, he described his plans.
“I am going to travel on a commercial aircraft,” López Obrador told reporters during his morning news conference. “There is no direct trip from Mexico City to Washington, but you can make a stop. I will arrive a day before the meeting that we will have.”
López Obrador said he was traveling in part to celebrate the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which takes effect on Wednesday. He has encouraged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to join in. Trump has said he expects López Obrador in Washington “soon.” The White House has not confirmed the visit.
López Obrador has not been seen publicly wearing a face mask during the pandemic. For weeks into Mexico’s outbreak, he made light of the precautions espoused by the country’s public health experts. Officials said he has never been tested for the novel coronavirus, even as many people in the country’s government have fallen ill.
In his decision to lead a delegation on an indirect commercial flight to Washington, many here see yet another sign of an irresponsible response to the pandemic. As of Monday, Mexico had reported more than 216,000 cases and 26,648 deaths, seventh in the world.
Analysts see other problems.
“Sure, for a head of state to fly commercial is a challenge — to say the least — in this covid era,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “But more importantly, it raises concerns about the security of the president and the apparatus — both human and technological — which is needed to ensure a security bubble so that his [communications] and conversations in transit and on-site are secure and not vulnerable before a bilateral meeting with his U.S. counterpart.”
As López Obrador has crisscrossed Mexico on commercial flights, Mexicans have had
the surreal experience of bumping into the president in departure terminals or at metal detectors.
Videos frequently circulate on social media of crowds of travelers approaching the president, some shouting questions or criticisms, others standing in long lines for selfies. Some passengers have complained of the frenzy that ensues when the president boards their flight — with fellow travelers crowding around to take photos.
In one case that drew attention this year, a family refused to travel on the same flight as López Obrador because they were worried the plane could be targeted by his political opponents.
Francisco Javier Quiroz Sandoval asked that Aeromexico allow him and his family to disembark and reschedule his flight from Mexico City to the city of Villahermosa.
“It seems to me irresponsible to put citizens on commercial flights in a vulnerable position with regards to security,” he said.
López Obrador travels with a small team of assistants and escorts, but none of them are armed, he has said. He has continued to defend his choice to fly on commercial airlines.
How can I board that [presidential] plane with so much poverty in Mexico? he has asked repeatedly.
The former presidential plane has been available to potential buyers at around $130 million. The Mexican government has been paying fees for its maintenance and storage. López Obrador suggested this year it could be raffled off, but the idea has not come to fruition.