Mexico: The subordination of the president to the media is over

By Regeneración

The coordinator of social communication and spokesman of the presidency defends the communication policy, which skips the media and journalists and speaks directly to the people. He accepts that there are excesses and contradictions and that they have failed to communicate with the new generation.

Jesús Ramírez Cuevas is part of the radical left-wing of the cabinet of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. A journalist formed ideologically on the left, who for many years was a member of the Zapatista Movement, anti-capitalist, anti-system, a defender of civil society, feminist and environmentalist. Today he is responsible for the social communications of the federal government and a mission that seems impossible: to be a spokesperson for a presidency that does not stop talking. He is the one who implements many of the decisions and who gives them a conceptual framework.

In a long interview with “Pie de Página”, which at times becomes a simple talk and leads to several complaints from four journalists of different generations and contexts, he recounts the decisions that have led López Obrador’s administration to a controversial communication strategy, which basically seeks to reach people without going through intermediaries, in this case the media and the journalists themselves.

«This country has changed, and one of the areas where that is crystal clear is the media. We came from a tradition of media with enormous strength, especially radio and television. They were “The Media”. That is over now. They still have a lot of influence, they still have a large audience, they still set the debate in some ways, but there are already other sources, other dynamics and ways to get informed», he says.

People receive the information from social media, he says. That has its risks, but paradoxically, part of the change in the country has to do with changing the media, in his view. And he breaks down what, from his vision, is the before and after of the government he represents.

“We came from an authoritarian system that had absolute control of the media, its content and the public debate. Then neoliberalism undermined political and economic power, and with it came a change in the role of the media. Economic power, by growing ever stronger, weakened and subordinated political power. This is important because we went from the famous phrase of the “tiger” Azcárraga (media mogul owner of Televisa, the most important broadcaster in Mexico) of “I make television for the fucked up and I am a soldier of the PRI” (the political party who ruled Mexico without interruption for 71 years), to a moment in which Televisa was already manufacturing a president, “with the power to remove from the race whoever I wanted».

— From a soldier of the PRI to boss of presidents?
-Yes. To running the government. Because it was not only dictating the agenda, but also establishing a colonization of the public budget. The media companies diversified, they became construction companies, energy companies, government supplier companies in several fields, even some of them ended up in the pharmaceutical industry.
That would break down in 2018, due to the dynamics of social networks and the public deliberation generated by the use of social networks, says the presidential spokesman: «We emerged from this change in which citizens were empowered,» he insists.

“Las Mañaneras” (Morning press conferences)

If you do not have the media, it is necessary to create a media front that is not subject to the interests of the industry, says Ramírez Cuevas: “It was necessary to create an informative communicational force that could confront this media ecosystem opposed to change, because they were very used to getting a lot of money ”.
This is how the morning press conferences of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador were born, “Las mañaneras” (“The morning sessions”), as the press renamed them, a remastered version of the conferences he held every day at 6 in the morning as Mayor of Mexico City Today these conferences are at 7 in the morning (before that the president has a meeting with the security cabinet) and are broadcast on all the channels available to the government: Youtube, Periscope, Facebook. They are the main communication tool of the government and have come to have millions of people connected at the same time on the different platforms.

«They were born as a way to set the agenda, to make government action transparent, but also to establish this dialogue from the president in order to build a consciousness favorable to change,» he says.

“At first (the traditional media) were very sceptical, they said «let’s see how long it takes them to face us, in the end they will need us. His image, his prestige, is going to start to fall, so they’re going to need us, they’re going to give us money and they are going to be subject to the interests that we want to promote” This has not happened. What we were looking for was to be an open door government, that would show its face and give explanations of the decision-making, that would be transparent in its logic and, as much as possible, the information on why decisions are made”.

The morning conference is not a traditional press conference, he accepts. But not only because it has occuped the agenda of public life, with comments, right or wrong, from the president, but because it plays another role, which Jesús Ramírez defines as “a kind of school of citizenship”.

«If information is the base, the core of democracy, this public deliberation, with decision-making, with different realities, has helped to build a political culture that previously was alien to the majority of the population,» he maintains.

«For the first time, the government took citizens into account,» he continues. In other words, it built a communication policy based on the Right to Information and the Right to Freedom of Expression that citizens have. Through the networks we have generated another type of communication: one very focused on the president, and another on the departments and the work they have been doing. And the most important point: to turn citizens into sources of information for the government”.

“The evening sessions”

The SARS-COV-2 coronavirus, says Ramírez Cuevas, has forced the government to change the communication strategy to “prevent the interpreters of reality, that is, columnists, communicators and analysts, from taking over the discourse on what was happening with the pandemic.»

On the other hand, he insists, it allowed the construction of a direct channel regarding health concerns.

«No government anywhere in the world has given so much information about what it does, how it does it and what it does it for.»

—»Does that have risks?»

-Yes. The risks are the same as always, to reveal even our insecurity. Even saying: «we need to flatten the curve or slow down the infections because our health system is not good enough.» What Hugo López-Gatell has done has been to accompany that process and remove fears and break with this idea that technical and scientific ideas are far removed from people.

And then came the welfare and economic press conferences, until the program was filled with official information…

—Because the problem is becoming more complex with the economic situation. This has been a war of interpretation. But we are seeing that over time it is a reassertion of our original strategy to support broad popular sectors to achieve social peace.
—These weeks have not seen much social peace…

—There is social peace. There have not been crowds complaining because they feel abandoned, not even in the most critical moments in Ecatepec, in Baja California or here in Mexico City, due to hospitals being overwhelmed. Yes, there is a social and political effect of peace. So what had to be done? To communicate this in all its complexity.

We do this, he insists, to show that it is not a communist or authoritarian government. So what is it? «A democratic government, which respects the market, but does not subordinate either government or society to the needs of the market, instead the market has to adapt to the needs of the State. This pandemic led to an emphasis on health, employment, and the environment. It gave us a serious blow. I think there are ways to get out of it, and in the end it’s a temporary blow. And it is a global pandemic that has everyone in the same situation. »

The social imaginary «Why are the conferences held at the National Palace?»

—To send the message that it is a decision of the whole Government, not just one Department, and that is in the President’s interest. And to raise their profile. At the height of the pandemic, the health conference had a larger audience than the morning session.
«Isn’t there a risk that everything is again centered on one figure and that we continue to reproduce this idea that everything is through the work of one person and thanks to him?»

—Quite the opposite. Ministers have an image and people get to know them.

—But in a presidential, paternalistic, patriarchal country, don’t you see a risk in strengthening the idea that everything moves from one person?

—The president is convinced of the democratization of the presidency, that’s why he made it so intimate. It is more comfortable for a ruler to do what he wants, but that kind of presidentialism is over. We have a man of flesh and blood who does politics and, of course, he is not going to give up the strength of Mexican institutions, where presidentialism is still very strong, but he puts it at the service of what he considers the causes of the majority. Before, in the presidency there were many subjects interacting, and it is very important for that to happen, but at the same time there was a pretence of democracy. That is, there was a deliberation, but in the end there was an authoritarian regime that made the decisions, regardless of the deliberation itself.

Civil society.

—There is a communications cabinet, a team … does the president pay attention?
—He listens to things that are reasonable, but he is also considers the situation, and if reality shows the need to change, yes.

—Does he reconsider?
—Yes, the president is very adaptable … he is very committed to a model of political confrontation, which amounts to a very pedagogical way of taking a stand and saying: “These groups, which everyone thinks are independent, well no, they are not. They have interests». It is a didactic exercise and it is important…
— But again, risky, because he makes direct accusations against non-governmental organizations. And there are many organizations that for years did the job of the government, and that have given body and soul for many issues. As also with the journalists: he is thinking of Loret de Mola, not Miroslava Breach. But he also has all the power to keep saying things, day after day, without those accused being able to say anything.
— What do you mean they can’t say anything? Now anyone can say what they want…
— No, no, but others don’t have his audience. We can all talk but we do not have that projection that he has from where he speaks, and also, with his 40 minute answers…

—You are already confirming the effectiveness of that communication model, because the media power has already changed. And yes, civil society organizations are very important, but there was also a process from (Vicente) Fox onwards of co-opting the NGOs.
— Not all of them…
—I didn’t say all of them. I said a lot. The deformation of neoliberalism with respect to the NGOs is that, while reducing the role of the State, reducing budgets and nullifying the social responsibilities of the government, it created organizations to fill these gaps. It was a way to displace the State. But in this government it was decided that since it is a task of the State, it is assumed by the State. The organizations are still there, the relationship with them was not annulled, only changed, and those that are doing real work carry on.
—This speech without nuances also inhibits social participation…
—I don’t know if inhibits it. Perhaps it makes it less necessary because of urgent actions.
—But urgent actions may dismantle the few advances there were in the organizational schemes of civil society.
—Yes, it has happened in other countries, like in Ecuador. But here I do not see it, on the contrary, rather new leaders are emerging, new organizations, new movements. And that is also a risk because if there are no proposals from the left they will come from the right.
The momentum of recent years by non-governmental organizations is based on an ideological issue, he insists. «Anti-statism», he says, led some groups to present themselves as representatives of civil society and oppose non-governmental organizations to the government.
“The extreme right was enthroned and empowered in the government which was colonized, that is why they created the career civil service. That was an invention of the right, there it is, but let’s see, how do you get rid of them? They themselves finance and divert resources to all these movements, to the most recalcitrant catacombs of the extreme right. Ultra-Catholic and anti-communists, anti-feminists, militants. Those who are marching, there they are. And they are coup plotters and they go against the liberties of the people.”
—But is the answer to continue excluding them all, where is the civil society necessary to counterbalance the State?
—It may be that in the discourse there seems to be a confrontation and a definition of reality that leads to being a bit Manichean, a bit polarizing. But no. In fact, we are working with non-governmental organizations, with people, professionals, and academics. Yes, we are building bridges to solve problems.

Feminisms

—Has the president ever read Boaventura? In particular, his view that the transformation must be feminist, environmental, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist?
—This transformation (refers to 4T: The Fourth Transformation) also has those values
—Very feminist it is not…
—Yes it is. We don’t want to reduce everything to the President. It is the first cabinet with gender parity. It is the first time that there are two women leading the Legislature, a third of the people who receive the program “Sembrando Vida” are women and the Agrarian Secretary is giving property deeds to women. That had never happened in this country. And there are other elements of female empowerment that do not go through ideological discourse.
— But the women in this cabinet do not have a feminist discourse. They have the discourse of equality and the reduction of the social gap, which is fine, but not one that asserts gender values.
–There is a generational break, because that feminism of which you speak is anchored in different cultural foundations. But in this country there is still very great inequality, and not only in terms of sex. There is an ancestral inequality of large sectors and there are priorities. Only if we manage to build a discourse to build social bridges with society, it also helps the government to have that policy. Today, like never before, feminism, like environmentalism, like the struggle for sexual freedoms and identities, and the struggle of the indigenous people are all fundamental to build a better country.

A new relationship with the media

López Obrador took office and with this a new commercial relationship with the traditional media began. Of the almost 10 billion pesos they received in 2019, in this 2020 the budget does not exceed 3 billion pesos.
– Three billion pesos is still a lot.
«We wanted it to be zero,» he admits, not jokingly.
Then he explains: “We live in a global system and we cannot end the media system either because we don’t have the means to replace it. There are other consortiums such as AT&T, Sky, NBC or TVE and global media agents who are pressing to take over the space, because it is a market. So, it is not that we are betting on a rotten system, we simply have to guarantee a transition to other types of media. As social media and other media that have no economic or political interests are maturing … “Pie de Página” represents this search as a growing alternative media. But we have to guarantee that transition. To reduce and limit their power, yes, but we cannot rely on getting rid of them either.
–What is the criterion to be taken into consideration in this transition to digital media?
– We are looking for regional newspapers, diversifying, recognizing community radio and the realities of local media, including independent radio media. We have close to 1,300 registered media. Before, there were less than 200 that were given publicity.
There are rules to follow, but there must be an «equal footing,» he explains. A public verification system for hearings where neither the government nor the media intervenes.
«Thinking out aloud, INEGI (the National Statistics Institute) could carry out audits to define how much audience each media has and in this way an autonomous instance could generate the criteria. So, we could designate budgets to the different media, free media, community radio and regional media. There is a criterion that does not only have to do with the audience, for example, supporting “Proceso”, which although it attacks us, whether it sells or not, it was punished in other governments. Or like Carmen Aristegui who had never received anything.

Public media and the Notimex case

— What role do public media play in this transition?
—They have the possibility, in the process of change, to become citizen media. Not governmental but social, that respond to the public interest. For this, a bill is being worked on, which does not yet have a release date. We also have an agreement with UNESCO for the professional training of journalists and communicators in community radio. And we are strengthening the public media in their infrastructure capacity to have national reach. The antenna part and all that. We do not want the debate to become something that hinders the growth of the media. Rather, we are making them grow, that is why we are extremely interested in resolving the Notimex labor conflict.
—What is the official position of the government in the case of Notimex?
—Notimex was a government agency, which was an arrangement to do business. There is the union, headed by Conrado García, and that man took over the agency. It didn’t matter who was in charge. It was a corrupt and abusive union and that had to be changed. Obviously that generated a conflict and dismissals, but also the union’s resistance. Now (the new leaders of SutNotimex) are challenged to be a different union and the Agency has to respect the legal labor rights of any worker and the legal requirements.
—Beyond the labor conflict, the fact that the director of the State Agency is insulting anyone by Twitter…
—That they debate does not worry me, but that they do it through insults, yes. Because we are public servants, including comrade Sanjuana, and we have to set the example of the country we want. We cannot contribute to intolerance, to insults, to moral hatred, because that leads to authoritarianism, chaos, and civil war. We have to learn to have a dialogue with those who think differently and who have their point of view, you do not disqualify people.
—And have you told her that? Has it been discussed?»
—Yes, the public media hold meetings and it has been proposed, discussed. The president himself has told her. And there are things that do have legal consequences. If you offend, if you accuse without any evidence, yes, they can make a legal claim against you.
—Is there any investigation into what Carmen Aristegui published?
—Yes. You can ask the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Freedom of Speech issues.
—And complaint against the former union leader?
—Yes. There is a complaint in the attorney office for diversion of funds, for misuse of public resources. In fact, soon there will be a resolution of that.

—On the subject of foreign correspondents… I put it this way: a 73-year-old man, with Parkinson’s, about to retire, with 30 years in the agency and the argument for not doing so is that he signed a contract that does not recognize that he spent 30 years working there. Isn’t it incongruous in the 4T labour rights discourse?
—Of course yes, but you also have to talk about realities, they were all privileged.
—Everyone?
—The majority. The one in China was the ex-wife of the union leader. But this particular man of whom you speak (the correspondent in Venezuela) can be given help. You have to examine the cases individually. Of those cases three or four – I’m not sure – were worth checking. At first I wanted to defend them, but when I saw how the situation was, I said no. They earned a lot, like diplomats, and had bonuses. So, they were asked to return and they did not want to.
—That is not the case. There has been no dialogue, no proposals, no attempt by either the director or anyone to seek a solution…
—I hadn’t gotten involved in a matter of competencies, but now that we have the task (together with the Secretary of Labor) to check this out, we’ll see. And we are going to solve it with the Federal Labor Law, with article 123 of the constitution, both the collective rights and the union, as well as the individual rights of those who are demanding their liquidation or reinstatement.

Hyperdemocratization

—Back to the press conferences and this hyperdemocratization in access. There are items on the agenda each day but it is not always with the best information. In fact, they are rather clumsy, and many journalists stay with the agenda of the media networks who have worked for a long time in the construction of a democratic country and who now seem to be our enemies.
—I’m going to tell you one thing about that: Make everything transparent. If a reporter does an investigation, what is it based on? That needs to be known, that is part of democracy. If (the journalists) are financed by the State Department, if they receive money from companies, you have to know, because their journalism has prestige, but it’s produced with money that has an interest. People have to know that it is not independent and hardly heroic journalism.
—But the issue is not just who finances you. There are journalists who feel an aggression from a daily speech by the president denying their job, as when he says no one said anything about what was happening in Veracruz before the Cuitláhuac government, when there were 14 journalists killed…
— … And the Plaza Lerdo is called Regina Martínez. Let’s see, the debate is confused with the media and journalists.
—But the President confuses it.

—I recommend you to watch the documentary The Great Hack on Cambridge Analytica and how there are communication strategies to prevent discussion and generate hatred and shock. That destroys democracy. So, you have to learn to assimilate all that and learn to distinguish. Society has learned to read newspapers, learned to read editorials, it has distanced itself from the media and learned to read them critically. It’s the same with the TV networks. You have to start discussing the «fake news» of half-truths that have an agenda. All that you have to learn. And what I do tell you is that nobody in history has faced a media dynamic like this government.

The left and the people

—Is this government on the left?»
—Of course it’s on the left! Firstly, because we are part of the historical popular struggle for the defense of sovereignty, democracy and freedom. Then, because we are watching and working for the majority, to make public resources really public, according to the public interest, so that the government serves the population and not a few corporations. We are designing public policies based on rights, we are breaking the authoritarian patronage system to make a rights model. For this reason our programs were given constitutional status so that they won’t change with the criteria of each government every six years. And we are on the left because we are libertarians, we are for everyone’s rights and we do believe in a plural, diverse, inclusive society.
—Many don’t see it that way.
—We are on the side of the causes of women, youth, indigenous people, people of sexual diversity. But obviously there is a way to communicate certain things with a political culture that is not of the 21st century, that sometimes costs us: to communicate for the new generations, because we are changing the paradigms and we are doing it the Mexican way.
—Talking about the Mexican way. Today we have officials who start press conferences speaking in their native language, something I have never seen before, and then a ceremony on November 20th (Mexican Revolution day) that reinforces an official hyper-mestizo story [based on racial & cultural mixing].
—And an indigenous celebration in the first act of this government, where the president kneels, not before the cross, but before the native peoples (nations). It is a cultural struggle. But we go step by step. We are talking about the government assuming a popular identity for the first time. For the first time there is recognition of the army as a force that emerged from popular war. Because November 20th [Revolution Day] is a celebration of the army. And all this in an event in which they are reclaiming Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, the emblems of Flores Magón are being reclaimed…
—That’s it: a mixed race story.
—It’s the one we have available. But yes, we must build another history, the history of the regions, of the Nahuas, Totonacas, Mayans, and the Yaquis. The nations that were most oppressed before the Revolution were the Yaquis and the Mayans, theirs are the stories that must be told, but we are the first government that says that we have to apologize to the indigenous peoples.
—If we take that to other issues: we have a program that promotes fertilizers, and another that says that they should be avoided. A secretary who talks about farmers and another one about producers. How do we interpret those messages?
—That is the moment we are living. As the president puts it: the old has not yet died and the new has not yet been born. And in that which has not yet been born there are forces expressed here, with the contradiction that implies. That is true, but it is also the result of our society. The left is greatly weakened, not its causes, its organization, its social representation, its real capacities to influence. If there were a stronger left, society would demand to be more radical. But what is radical at this moment, outside the feminist movement, is the government.