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Mexico president ramps up rich vs poor rhetoric in coronavirus fight

by Reuters
Tuesday, 31 March 2020 23:25 GMT

By Ana Isabel Martinez

MEXICO CITY, March 31 (Reuters) - As the outlook for Mexico's economy gets gloomier during the coronavirus crisis, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has driven home the message that his government is ready to help the poor to weather the storm - but that the rich can forget it.

Private sector economists believe the economy will contract by up to 7% this year and business lobbies have urged the leftist leader to pledge more money to protect jobs and cushion the impact of the slump.

Lopez Obrador says the government will make additional savings where necessary, but insists that no money will be cut from the welfare programs he has put at the heart of his agenda since taking office in December 2018.

Speaking at his regular morning news conference, he said in previous crises "those on top were protected", and attacked bailouts orchestrated by Mexico in its 1994-95 economic crash and by then-U.S. President Barack Obama following the 2008 financial crisis.

"We're going to save the people," Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday. "Because there are some who may be thinking we're going to save those on top, with this idea, this sophistry, that if those on top are doing well, those at the bottom will do well."

"No, that doesn't apply any more, wealth isn't contagious, it's not permeable, we need to ensure there's better distribution of income," he said.

Twice defeated in bids for the presidency before his resounding 2018 triumph, Lopez Obrador has publicly admitted to polarizing Mexico from his news conferences, which he has used to pillory critics and extol the virtues of his base.

He has kept his base fired up with rhetoric that Mexico's social malaises and chronic inequality are the result of years of domination by corrupt political and business elites who are now desperately trying to thwart his presidency.

Last week, Lopez Obrador said there will be no "neo-liberal" tax breaks for banks and big business to soften the economic blow, using a term he applies to capture all that was wrong with Mexican governments before his election.

Instead, he has promised help for the lower end of the economic spectrum, including one million small business loans worth about $1.1 billion and advance payment of pensions to some eight million senior citizens worth some $1.8 billion.

Lopez Obrador's flouting of government recommendations to avoid physical contact to contain coronavirus has alarmed even some supporters and his once sky-high approval rating slipped below 50% for the first time in an opinion poll last week.

On Sunday he caused more outrage by greeting the mother of incarcerated drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a rags-to-riches figure who, like the president, holds strong anti-establishment appeal among supporters.

Political analysts say the president's rhetoric suggests he is already looking to the 2021 mid-term legislative elections.

"The idea is obviously to maintain the electoral base," said Federico Berrueto, director general of polling firm Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica. "But if there are serious problems due to the pandemic, that base could be undermined." (Reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez Editing by Dave Graham and Grant McCool)

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