One of the more surreal episodes of President López Obrador’s 21-month-old government is coming to a close. The draw in the raffle for the presidential plane, in which the aircraft is not in fact the prize, began at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday and was expected to take a few hours to complete.
The president announced Monday that enough tickets had been sold to cover the 2-billion-peso (US $95 million) prize pool, made up of 100 prizes of 20 million pesos (US $950,000) each.
“We met the goal to obtain [the money for] the prizes, that’s resolved so the raffle will take place [Tuesday] ” López Obrador said.
In fact, the money raised from the sale of the raffle tickets was never intended to be used to pay out the combined prize pool, which is supposed to be representative of the value of the plane, although its real worth has been estimated at $130 million.
The funds for the prizes were actually transferred to the grandiloquently named Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People by the federal Attorney General’s Office in February. The money was obtained via a successful lawsuit against a company found guilty of defrauding the previous federal government.
Indeed, López Obrador, after telling reporters that the funds needed to pay the prizes had been raised, contradicted himself by saying that all of the raffle revenue would be used to purchase medical equipment.
“Everything we’re getting from the sale of tickets is to purchase health equipment, equipment for hospitals. … Next week, we’ll present a report about the money obtained, and all that money will be [used] to buy medical equipment,” he said.
The president said the government will buy the equipment via a tendering process and that a small plaque will be placed on each purchase that reads: “Resources obtained from the presidential plane raffle. Contribution of the people 2020.”
López Obrador first floated the idea to raffle off his predecessor’s luxuriously-outfitted Boeing 787 Dreamliner in January.
He had described the jet, which was actually purchased by the government of former president Felipe Calderón but not delivered until after his term ended, as an “insult to the people” and an “example of the excesses” of his predecessors. A year ago he presented infographics that showed that the government of ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto had spent more than 1 million pesos for supplies for a single flight on Mexico’s equivalent of the United States’ Air Force One.
The president pledged repeatedly that he would never step foot on it.
Shortly after he took office in late 2018, López Obrador put the plane up for sale but with the market for opulent, expensive aircraft undoubtedly small, it failed to sell.
As a result, AMLO, as the president is best known, came up with the idea of offloading it via a raffle but in February shattered ordinary Mexicans’ dreams of owning the plane, announcing that a lucky draw would indeed go ahead but that cash prizes rather than the jet itself would be up for grabs.
That decision came after the idea that an ordinary person could become the owner of a $130-million plane – and have the means to pay for its hangaring and operational expenses – was widely ridiculed on social media.
The president’s raffle plan became something of a national joke, with social media users musing about what they would use the plane for should they win it and wondering where they might be able to park it.
Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., told The New York Times that López Obrador’s efforts to keep his promise to get rid of the plane became more elaborate, expensive and just “too weird” over time.
“If this was an episode of Black Mirror, it wouldn’t make it to the screen,” he said.
Black Mirror is a dystopian television series that explores a wide range of weird and wonderful premises.
Apparently undeterred by the criticism his raffle idea faced, and it becoming the brunt of countless jokes and memes, López Obrador forged ahead with his plan and turned his focus to the most important job in any raffle: selling tickets.
In February, he hosted a dinner at which he asked some 150 company owners, chief executives and business leaders to commit to purchasing large bundles of tickets.
The president has also repeatedly urged citizens to buy tickets for the draw and even broke his promise never to enter the plane when he stepped aboard last month to record a video designed to boost slow sales.
But despite his best efforts to get Mexico’s business elite as well as ordinary citizens to buy the raffle tickets at 500 pesos (about US $24) a pop, millions remained unsold, prompting López Obrador to announce last week that the government would spend 500 million pesos (US $23.7 million) on 1 million cachitos, as the lottery tickets are known in Mexican Spanish.
Still, as of Monday, 30% of 6 million tickets – 1.8 million in total – hadn’t been sold, the newspaper Reforma reported. Members of the general public have only purchased just over 1 million tickets since they went on sale in February, it said.
Reforma also pointed out that none of the revenue raised by the raffle will be used to offset the costs that the unsold plane, which returned to Mexico from a hangar at the Southern California Logistics Airport in July, continues to generate.
“Not a single peso from the raffle will be used to pay for the purchase, maintenance and storage of the presidential plane, which is [still] stranded without a solid purchase offer 21 months after it was put on the market,” the newspaper said.
Critics say that the entire raffle spectacle is part of efforts to divert attention at a time when Mexico’s Covid-19 death toll continues to mount – it currently stands at more than 71,000 – and the economy is facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression. López Obrador’s brother is also embroiled in a possible corruption scandal, which is not a good look for a president who has pledged to eliminate the scourge and is looking to lead the ruling Morena party to success at federal midterm and state gubernatorial elections in 2021.
Carlos Elizondo, a government professor at the Tec de Monterrey university, told The New York Times that part of the motivation for the raffle was to “keep alive the idea of the abusive political class of the past” and portray the current administration as “the austere ones.”
But “along the way,” he added, “he’s gotten entangled in an increasingly ridiculous exit strategy.”
Paula Ordorica, a columnist for the El Universal newspaper and a television host, told the Times that the plane is a “symbol” that the president is “not willing to let go.”
“The two rallying cries of this president are the fight against corruption, and austerity, and the plane allows him to address both,” she said.
Mexico News Daily