MEXICO CITY – Retired auditor Rafael Silva pours himself a cup of coffee and turns on his TV every weekday at 7:00 a.m. to watch. Also in Mexico City, Amalia Meléndrez joins in after her morning bath. In the US, engineer Raúl Juárez is connected to the internet four thousand miles away, no matter where he is – home or in his car – to watch the show they would all miss for nothing.
It’s not a Mexican soap opera – although the number of viewers is comparable to some – it’s the daily marathon morning press conference that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has held every weekday since he took office on December 1, 2018. That’s over 500 open press conferences that sometimes last up to three hours.
They are a platform for the president to pass on information that the media ignore or misrepresent. Others say they are propaganda sites where López Obrador attacks his critics. You are undoubtedly a break with the past in a country where some presidents could go years without answering an unanswered question from a reporter.
“It’s my favorite series,” said Ana Errasti, an interpreter in Mexico City. “Any reporter can question the president directly and he shows his human side without a script.”
While other officials do speak at times, it’s definitely a one-man show. López Obrador, 67, has never left the stage or sat down when others are talking. And most of the time, it’s just him answering reporters’ questions without stopping for a sip of water.
“It’s nice to see the government’s strategy every day to take the wind away from the people who looted the country,” said Juarez, who has lived in the US for 30 years.
According to López Obrador, his main goal is to end the long legacy of crippling corruption that has led many Mexicans to leave their country. Juárez is convinced. “It will end with this man,” he says.
The President’s Office estimates that about 10 million people watch the La Mañanera program on an average day, but this number has not been confirmed.
“It’s never been seen in Mexico before, and that’s the part that excites us,” says Errasti.
In the morning talks, López Obrador demonstrated the amulets that he claims will protect him from the evil and the coronavirus. Sometimes his invited guests tell Mexicans where to find the cheapest gasoline, or the president shows videos of his pet infrastructure projects being built. Some web-based reporters are famous for showing up tirelessly every morning, sometimes wearing strange outfits, like a bald journalist in a bow tie who calls himself “Lord Molecula” in English.
For example, there were moments of drama in 2020 when López Obrador said he personally made the decision, in one of the most criticized episodes of his tenure, to release a son of cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán after the cartel started a 2019 gunmen Hours of shooting in the town of Culiacan. He defended the decision, saying it likely saved hundreds of lives. He also put the Secretary of Defense in front of the press shortly after the event to answer questions about the failed operation, a move unprecedented in Mexico.
“The President has made it clear that he must address this directly,” said the President’s press representative, Jesús Ramírez. “If you don’t say anything, other people will fill the room.”
When he was Mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, López Obrador held similar press conferences earlier in the morning. Some have compared his use of the media to reaching people directly with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1930s “fireplace chats”. The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez showed himself to be even more lengthy in his marathon appearances “Alo Presidente” from 1999 onwards.
“I think it is a very smart strategy for the president to set the agenda and decide what topics to discuss,” said Clara Jusidman, who heads the Incide Social civic group. “He speaks to his followers, to the people who believe in him and are waiting for his instructions, and that enables him to maintain a certain group cohesion.”
Milenio, a news agency critical of the government, reported in November that the frequency with which “La Mañanera” was shared on the president’s official Facebook page had tripled this year from 2019, with almost 800,000 shares a day. Add to this over 2 million subscribers on YouTube and others watching otherwise, and he has an audience that rivals some of the most popular soap operas.
However, many note that while the president is long talked about, he often lacks the facts. When his claims and numbers are challenged on the morning shows, one of his favorite sayings is “I have different dates.”
Alfredo Coutiño, Moody’s Latin American director, said the president’s conferences “contain little objective information about major economic problems.”
Many are more amused than fascinated. Edgar Quiroz, sales manager at a steel construction company in the suburbs of Mexico City, said his boss watches the morning show and that he has learned to mimic López Obrador’s favorite phrases well.
“When the boss comes in – he looks at it every day – I say to him:” How was the sermon at seven o’clock today? “Says Quiroz.” I think he sees it out of morbid interest, because 70% of us don’t agree with him here (López Obrador), although there are times when you have to say, “That was good.”
Although it looks free-running, the morning conferences are carefully planned, says Ramírez.
“We look at the agenda, the political scene, the situation with the United States, what kind of spin the press is putting on it,” said Ramírez. “Everything forms the basis of what answers we give and how.”
“The President ends (the daily session of the Security Cabinet) with instructions as to which issues are dealt with in the mañaneras and which are not,” he said.
But the president can be caustic, rocky, and insulting when asked about a newspaper article he disagrees with or about a reporter.
Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexican representative of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, noted that the president used press conferences to attack critics rather than provide information.
“The government is not doing the kind of direct censorship that has been practiced by previous governments, and that is positive,” said Hootsen, but the verbal attacks are not helping in a country where there are currently over 20 journalists in López Obrador’s government were murdered.
With all the long hours of idiom, there is one topic that López Obrador has largely left to his scientific advisors: the coronavirus pandemic. The president himself has largely refused to wear a face mask and has made conflicting statements about precautions Mexicans should take.
“It seems to me a waste not to have used the ‘mananeras’ as a space for clear advice,” said Jusidman, the leader of the citizens’ group.
The lasting effects of “La Mañanera” are not yet in sight, but many find it difficult to imagine a return to the distance between the president and people that previously existed.
“I can no longer imagine a government that does not provide information,” said Errasti.