MEXICO CITY – It was a lovely wedding, officiated by an archbishop, with designer dresses, palatial decorations and a huge convention-center reception. But for Mexico’s austerity-minded president-elect, it was likely the last image in the world he wanted one of his closest advisers projecting, and it quickly drew criticism.
The beaming newlyweds, Cesar Yanez and Dulce Silva, landed on the cover of the society magazine “Hola!” — and so did President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who attended the nuptials and appeared to be out of place and perhaps uncomfortable.
With good reason: Lopez Obrador has prescribed a policy of “republican austerity” for the government after he takes office Dec. 1 as an antidote to decades of corruption and high-living politicians who have disgusted average Mexicans, a promise that helped win him a crushing victory in the July 1 elections.
“There can’t be a rich government in a poor country,” Lopez Obrador is fond of saying.
The late September nuptials and 19-page glossy photo spread in Hola! drew widespread criticism this week from those who said it had little in kind with the image of a man who has pledged to halve his presidential salary, flies tourist class, refuses secret service details and prefers pressing the flesh with small-town farmers and eating cheap meals at local restaurants.
Lopez Obrador has recently taken to using the word “fifi” to dismiss things as opulent, frivolous or out-of-touch with the people. But on social media, many opined that nothing fits the definition better than the tuxedo-drenched bash.
“It is now prohibited for coming administrations, and forever, to use the word ‘fifi,'” newspaper columnist Genaro Lozano said in tweeting the Hola! cover story.
The wedding of Yanez, a soft-spoken, ever-present shadow to Lopez Obrador for more than two decades, and Silva, who was born into a wealthy business family, illustrates the difficulty of weaning Mexico’s political class from its long-standing love of luxury.
It is a love affair that goes back to the days after the 1910-1917 Revolution, when the rich were vilified and officials cracked down on the Roman Catholic Church — while secretly sending their children to catholic schools, marrying into society families and building themselves neo-baroque mansions in posh neighborhoods.
In recent years, lavish homes and glittering wristwatches have been the favorite calling cards of the political elite. Ironically, it was Hola! that inadvertently brought to light the worst corruption scandal of recent times. In 2013 it published a gushing photo spread of first lady Angelica Rivera — wife of current President Enrique Pena Nieto — posing in a luxurious, all-white mansion. It turned out she was buying the mansion from a favored government contactor; she was later forced to give it up.
“It is terrible,” Guadalupe Loaeza, a Lopez Obrador supporter who has written books about the foibles of Mexico’s upper class, said of the wedding photos. “What Hola! Magazine published today is the same as (Angelica Rivera’s) white house, the same magazine, the same scandal.”
Loaeza estimated the wedding cost over $250,000 and said the outrage was worse among people who had supported Lopez Obrador: “They offered us a different country … they insulted us with this.”
It could be hard to change things: Right up to the end — the crushing defeat of Pena Nieto’s PRI party in July — PRI politicians favored wristwatches from Rolex and Patek Philippe, models that cost tens of thousands of dollars in a country where the average worker earns less than $10 per day.
Politicians sporting that kind of bling “show the evident contradictions between what public servants earn and the value of the watches,” Morena lawmaker Mario Delgado said in July. “They are like a symbol of corruption.”
So it was all the more surprising when Yanez showed up that same month at one of his boss’s news conferences wearing what appraisers — based on a photograph — said was a Rolex worth perhaps $15,000.
Asked about it, Yanez said somewhat sheepishly that it was a gift from his soon-to-be-wife, a businesswoman whom he had once tried to help in a brush with the law.
“It’s something personal,” Yanez said at the time. “I have been austere like you have no idea.”
Yanez could not immediately be reached for comment about the wedding — he was apparently on his honeymoon — and many suggested that the bride’s family had paid for most of it.
Lopez Obrador, for his part, pushed back Thursday at the criticism, saying that it was a private, social event rather than one sponsored by the government.
“I wasn’t the one who got married. I was invited, I attended, every individual is responsible for their actions,” the president-elect said. He denied any negative reflection on his austerity promises and attributed the criticism to opponents who “are looking for any possible mistake to criticize us.”
Much of Lopez Obrador’s future Cabinet, in which Yanez has been picked to play a second-tier role as a kind of community contact coordinator, has been working without pay during the five-month transition period.
And legislators from Lopez Obrador’s Morena party have notably taken the austerity challenge to heart. Soon after taking control of congress, they slashed luxurious personnel budgets that gave legislators cars, trips, cash and endless free buffets, and even launched a Twitter campaign dubbed “Tupperware challenge” showing them bringing packed lunches from home.
Soon afterward Morena reinstated a fruit-and-cookie service because legislators demanded it.
Most in Lopez Obrador’s inner circle say ostentatious displays of wealth by politicians are a relic of the past, and they hope that will spill over into the business elite.
“We are going to get rid of all the excesses,” said Alfonso Romo, a business magnate himself who has been tapped to be Lopez Obrador’s chief of staff. “The party is over. We have to invest everything we have, to extricate Mexico from poverty.”
Associated Press writer Maria Verza contributed to this report from Mexico City.