A young Mexican governor takes heat over nationwide publicity campaign

Gov. Velasco of Chiapas state, one of Mexico's poorest, has been accused of using state funds to boost his profile and target President Peña Nieto's office for 2018.

Claudia Daut/Reuters
People leave church after mass in Larrainzar, a municipality in Chiapas state, January 1, 2014.

It’s become known as the Peña Nieto model of political ascent, after the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto: Drape a comely television star on the arm of a telegenic governor. Get attention from a major television network. Then turn on a spigot of cash for publicity.

Many say the tactic helped President Peña Nieto, who is married to a former television actress, triumph in 2012. Now, other governors are trying to do the same – with mixed results.

Gov. Manuel Velasco Coello of Chiapas state is one of them. Like Peña Nieto, his smile lights up his surroundings.

For the past year, Mr. Velasco, Mexico’s youngest governor at 33, has been a staple in society magazines, partly because of his romance with Anahi Giovanna Puente Portilla, a soap opera star and singer who is universally known by just one name: Anahi (pronounced ah-nah-EE). Her tweets from her @anahi account constantly proclaim her love for the governor.

Velasco, whom one news outlet has labeled the “playboy of Mexican politics,” is finding some blowback, though, as he tries to emulate Peña Nieto.

First off, he governs Mexico’s poorest state, one where poverty rates rival parts of Africa. The state, tucked along the border with Guatemala, has one of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations in Mexico. Two decades ago, a ragtag group of Indians sparked what became the short-lived Zapatista rebellion.

So when Velasco acknowledged recently that he’d spent the equivalent of $10 million or so on publicity, much of it in a compressed period in December, howls went up. The spending binge put Velasco’s smiling visage on buses in Mexico City and on billboards in faraway states like San Luis Potosi and Baja California, on the border with the United States. Television spots highlighted his political doings.

TV and radio show host Carmen Aristegui condemned what she called “this offensive campaign, this obscene campaign.... It’s an embarrassment.”

When he assumed the post in December 2012, Velasco proclaimed that his predecessor had left Chiapas state in virtual bankruptcy, necessitating austerity.

The center-right National Action Party lodged a complaint with election authorities, saying the publicity spending broke a constitutional ban on public monies being used with “names, images, voices or symbols that imply personal promotion of any public servant.”

Velasco argues that the publicity campaign was allowed under Mexican election law, which lets governors publicize their annual state-of-the-state reports to their legislatures. Governors traditionally turn the speech into an event, seeking live television coverage and inviting national politicians. The law allows them to publicize it seven days before and five days after as long as the publicity does not have “electoral aims” and stays within their region.

In Velasco’s case, the publicity unfolded across much of the nation, sandwiching his Dec. 19 speech.

“What’s new is that he has gone outside of Chiapas’ borders,” said Alejandra Soriano Ruiz, a state legislator for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Ms. Soriano demanded that the Velasco government reveal how much it spent on the campaign and how much public funds were used, to no avail.

Velasco denied that the publicity is the prelude to a 2018 presidential bid.

“I don’t aspire to be a presidential candidate as so many speculate,” he told Proceso magazine.

Yet many observers note that Velasco is following a trail pioneered by Peña Nieto, whose run-up to the presidency included his marriage to a beloved television soap opera star, Angelica Rivera, and publicity generated by Rivera’s employer, the powerful Televisa media empire.

“Anahi also works for Televisa, so people see him (Velasco) as using the same model as Peña Nieto, who married ‘La Gaviota,’” said Soriano, using the name of the first lady’s most popular television role, which means “seagull.”

The leftist Zapatistas, now reduced to a few redoubts in the state, excoriated Velasco in a recent statement, decrying his “ridiculous” PR campaign and asserting that the governor hopes to rise to “a list of 2018 presidential candidates with just a few dozens of millions of dollars, a little Photoshop and a rosy soap opera.”

Some analysts say Velasco raised pique not only because of the massive spending in a state saddled by poverty, but also because presidential elections remain four years off.

“The political class feels that Manuel Velasco got ahead of himself in the political calendar,” said Sarelly Martinez Mendoza, a professor of communications at the Autonomous University of Chiapas.

Velasco is far from the only governor drawing attention to himself through vast publicity drives. Others include Eruviel Avila of the state of Mexico, Rodrigo Medina of Nuevo Leon, Rafael Sandoval of Jalisco and Rafael Moreno Valle of Puebla. All but Mr. Moreno Valle belong to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Fueling the ambitions of such governors are state budgets with vast allotments for publicity, and national media groups – not just television – eager to prey on the public treasury, Hernandez said.

As the governors spend heavily, including on polished spots exhibited in movie theaters before feature showings, some say it is aimed at drawing tourism to their states. Velasco in Chiapas has made the same argument.

“He says it is to provide publicity for Chiapas. But you do that showing the natural beauties of the state, not showing his face,” said Francisco Rojas, a former mayor of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital.

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