Mexico's president is trying to use the swine flu to consolidate his power.

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 27 2009 4:09 PM

An Outbreak of Opportunism

Mexico's president is trying to use the swine flu to consolidate his power.

A man reads the paper in Mexico City. Click image to expand.
A man wears a face mask to protect against swine flu in Mexico City

The Mexican government's initial reaction to the outbreak of swine flu does not inspire confidence. Practically speaking, its slow response has allowed the disease to spin out of control, leading to up to 100 deaths in Mexico and 20 cases of infection in the United States. From a political standpoint, Mexican President Felipe Calderón appears to be using the outbreak to consolidate his power.

New influenza cases started appearing in Mexico City on March 18. The first death occurred April 12. But the government dragged its feet, hoping that this was an isolated case. As deaths mounted over the following days, the Calderón administration refused to take decisive action.

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It wasn't until half a dozen cases were discovered in the United States that the Mexican authorities sent mucus samples to Canadian and U.S. laboratories for testing. The lab results immediately sent alarm throughout Mexico and the world. But almost a month had been lost.

A more fundamental cause of the late response is the terrible state of Mexico's public health system. Due to years of neglect by the government, the poorest patients normally need to wait for hours or even days to see a doctor. Medicines are scarce. The largest network of public hospitals recently won an "award" as the government agency with the most useless red tape.

A large percentage of the poorest Mexicans therefore do not even bother to go to the doctor when they feel sick. It is more effective to self-prescribe antibiotics or anti-virals, which are easily available over the counter at pharmacies. This leads to serious problems with early detection of new diseases. To make matters worse, Mexican labs do not have the profiling data needed to detect many new viruses.

Calderón has acted with determination by closing schools and canceling public events in recent days. But such actions come late. He could have significantly reduced the severity of the outbreak if he had given priority to public health care from the beginning of his administration and responded effectively at the first signs of alarm.

In addition, Calderón has used the health crisis to concentrate political power in his hands. On Saturday, he issued a decree that places the entire country under a state of emergency. He has authorized his health secretary to inspect and seize any person or possessions, set up check points, enter any building or house, ignore procurement rules, break up public gatherings, and close down entertainment venues. The decree states that this situation will continue "for as long as the emergency lasts."

This action violates the Mexican Constitution, which normally requires the government to obtain a formal judicial order before violating citizens' civil liberties. Even when combating a "grave threat" to society, the president is constitutionally required to get congressional approval for any suspension of basic rights. There are no exceptions to this requirement.

Congressional consent provides a key element in the system of checks and balances. Otherwise, "states of emergency" turn into excuses for the long-term rollback of democratic freedoms and civil liberties. The response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, led to the dangerous erosion of fundamental guarantees throughout the world, including the rights to privacy, movement, association, and a fair trial. In Latin America, there is a long history of using states of emergency as ploys to justify military action and a return to authoritarianism. This has happened most recently in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Calderón has already moved in this direction in his fight against the drug cartels. Without the consent of Congress, he has placed the military in charge of law enforcement, set up illegal checkpoints throughout the country, and established a de facto state of emergency in cities such as Ciudad Juárez. His response to the flu epidemic only exacerbates this authoritarian tendency.

Indeed, it appears that Calderón is now seeking to consolidate his break with the fundamental principles of liberal constitutionalism and the separation of powers. This past Thursday, Calderón presented a bill to Congress that would allow him to declare a state of emergency at any time without its consent. If approved, the bill would allow the National Security Council, made up of presidential appointees, to grant broad powers to the military and to suspend basic civil liberties in all or parts of the country at the president's request. This council would have the power to continue the emergency for as long as it wants.

Such a law would deal a body blow to Mexican democracy. Calderón would have no trouble gaining the overwhelming support of Congress to his important emergency measures against the swine flu. But he should not be allowed to use this emergency as an excuse to undermine Mexico's democratic institutions or ignore the deeper causes of the present health crisis.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review, and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper.