The Quest to Raffle Off Mexico’s Presidential Plane

Even before he was elected, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pointed to Mexico’s presidential plane as a symbol of all that was wrong with the political establishment in Mexico, where leaders lived lavishly amid a population in dire need.

The $130 million jet was an “insult to the people,” he said, “an example of the excesses” of the country’s former leaders.

If elected, he would sell the plane, Mr. López Obrador said, and return the proceeds to the people as part of a radical transformation of Mexico that would empower the disenfranchised, end corruption, and root out inequality.

Since winning in a landslide in 2018, he has tried to sell, raffle, or otherwise use the plane — Mexico’s Air Force One — to raise money for social causes. Each time, he failed, as reality intruded: The market for secondhand customized jets is small, and a Boeing Dreamliner’s upkeep would ruin an ordinary citizen.

Over time, the president’s efforts to make good on the promise have grown more elaborate, expensive and just “too weird,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a research center in Washington D.C.

“If this was an episode of Black Mirror,” he said, referring to the dystopian television show, “it wouldn’t make it to the screen.”

The raffle will be held on Tuesday. But the prize, after all, is not the plane — it’s cash. Among the biggest participants is the Mexican government, which spent nearly $24 million to buy tickets and then gave them to hospitals, for a chance at winning sorely-needed funds.

His persistence says much about the showmanship that has characterized his presidency, and how challenging it has been for him to make good on a grand vision when confronted with the complexities of the real world.

Two years into his tenure, Mr. López Obrador has a mixed record on the transformation he promised, and his high approval numbers are dragging in the face of a pandemic, an economic recession, and surging violence.

The president is carrying out major investigations into corruption scandals, but now his own brother may be involved in one. He cut budgets so much that some ministries are struggling to pay their electric bills. Yet he’s funneling money into an oil refinery and other pet infrastructure projects.

Perfect timing for a spectacle, critics say, especially one that puts him back in the Robin Hood role, taking from the nation’s rich and giving to its poor.

“Part of it is to keep alive the idea of the abusive political class of the past,” and his government as “the austere ones,” said Carlos Elizondo, a government professor at Tec de Monterrey. “But along the way, he’s gotten entangled in an increasingly ridiculous exit strategy.”

The president has been railing for years against this plane, which was ordered by former president Felipe Calderón, arguing that the money should instead be invested in improving conditions in Mexico.

Mr. Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, was later criticized for using the plane to take his family members on lavish trips, including one to China with his wife’s makeup artist. After a spate of corruption scandals, Mr. Peña Nieto left office in 2018 as one of the least popular presidents in Mexican history.

Mr. López Obrador took direct aim at the plane in one of his campaign ads, saying “not even Donald Trump” had a presidential jet like this one.

As soon as he took office, he began trying, with great fanfare, to offload the jet. He speaks about it regularly in the hourslong news conferences he holds every morning — one of them held in front of the Dreamliner parked in its hangar. As president, he makes a point of flying commercial.

But offers didn’t exactly start rolling in for the Boeing 787, which, with its king size bed and treadmill, does not lend itself to commercial use.

When he raised the spectacle of a raffle, Mexicans flooded social media with memes about what they would do if they won the plane and suddenly had to pay for its maintenance, gas and parking.

Confronted with the questionable wisdom of giving an airliner to a regular citizen, he nixed the idea. He’d hold the raffle, he decided, but would instead give away 100 prizes of nearly $940,000 each.

To promote the new scheme, he invited businessmen to a dinner in which he served tamales and passed around a sign-up sheet so they would pledge to buy tickets.

“The plane is a symbol that he’s not willing to let go,” said Ana Paula Ordorica, a Mexican newspaper columnist and television host. “The two rallying cries of this president are the fight against corruption, and austerity, and the plane allows him to address both.”

There is also the imperative to not lose face. Late last month, the president released a video of himself boarding the infamous plane and encouraging Mexicans to “make history” and buy a lottery ticket, in a last-ditch effort to promote his raffle.

“He still has support for breaking with the past and getting rid of the plane,” said Ignacio Marván, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “He found a way out, so he keeps the support and doesn’t get criticized for going back on the decision, which is the raffle.”

And yet, after all the time and resources spent trying to get rid of this plane, it remains parked in its hangar in Mexico, awaiting a suitable buyer.

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