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Young Mexican Governor's Celebrity Reputation Takes a Hit After Web Mishaps

The nation saw another side to Manual Velasco when a viral video surfaced of him slapping a young government employee at a public event.

by John Holman
Feb 20 2015, 11:55pm

Photo via Gobierno de Chiapas

A successful politician in the very south of Mexico had everything — youth, good looks, charisma, and a distinguished family name. But true love had eluded him. Then, on one fateful night in 2011, his life changed. He was introduced to a beautiful woman, and they embarked on a love affair which ended with him asking for her hand.

The youngest ever governor of the impoverished southern Mexico state of Chiapas is now engaged to Anahí Puente, a famous Mexican singer and actor who's sold over 5 million records, and starred in several hit TV shows. Together they're living out a real life version of the soap operas adored by people throughout Mexico. Gossip magazines and TV shows avidly follow the latest developments in their romance, and the couple themselves are fond of sharing selfies with Anahí's almost 8 million Twitter followers.

In terms of sheer visibility, Velasco is second only to President Peña Nieto among the country's politicians. The similarities between the two men are striking. Both have raised their profiles through celebrity relationships and extensive self-promotion campaigns. Although Velasco denies it, speculation is rife that he is positioning himself to succeed Peña Nieto, who he counts as a friend, as president in 2018.

But last month things went off script. 

The nation saw another side to the politician at the end of January when a video went viral on the internet that showed Velasco berating and then slapping a young government employee at a public event. Suddenly, Velasco became a trending topic on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. After a day of memes, spoof articles, and general online ridicule, he was forced to apologize for what he called an unfortunate "accident."

But the slapping incident wasn't all. Another video emerged soon after, this time of Velasco being heckled at the opening of a film festival in his own state. Spectators could be heard calling out "Murderer!" 

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The gleeful way in which the nation's online media and Twitter users have jumped on the incidents reflects a backlash against Velasco, which began when he covered Mexico City with adverts for his 2013 end of year governmental report. Velasco's mug beamed out from buses, cinema screens, and billboards in an all out publicity bombardment. 

"It's an offensive and obscene campaign," influential radio host Carmen Aristegui said at the time, as journalists and politicians questioned why the governor of a state 500 miles away was splurging on advertisements in the capital. The country's main opposition parties both officially complained to Mexico's electoral organ that Velasco had violated the constitution by advertising outside of his own state.

To further muddle matters, the Chiapas governor has in the past used public funds for what are essentially personal publicity drives. Chiapas is the poorest state in all Mexico, with three out of every four of its citizens living in poverty, according to 2012 government statistics. During his campaign, Velasco had been preaching austerity — after the previous governor left behind a crippling $1.5 billion debt — but those cutbacks didn't seem to extend to the state budget for press promotion, which in 2013 was close to $10 million.

"The self-proclaimed 'governor' of Chiapas, Mexico, has solemnly declared that his administration has 'tightened its belt' with the implementation of an austerity program," said a communique from the Zapatistas — an influential movement of farmers who set up their own autonomous region within Chiapas in 1994. "As evidence of his resolve, the governor has spent more than 10 million dollars in a national publicity campaign whose enormity and cost doesn't make it any less ridiculous… not to mention illegal."

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President Peña Nieto with Governor Manuel Velasco, during a visit to the state of Chiapas last year. (Photo via Chiapas government) 

The sustained criticism hasn't meant a change of approach for Velasco, who didn't respond to VICE News' request for an interview. As the grandson of a former state governor, he knows the Mexican political game, and his strategy has already borne fruit. 

Velasco was the youngest senator in the country's history, and became governor at the age of 32, running for the Green Party — known more for campaigning for pharmaceutical coupons and stiffer sentences for kidnappers than for its environmental policies. The party is a strong ally of the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), something that could benefit the Chiapas governor if he runs for president.

But it's not just Velasco who has found success in relying on image rather than policies. Proposing real change is a risky business for Mexican politicians if they want to keep the support of the country's elite, according to Jenaro Villamil, a Mexican journalist who covers media and politics. It's far easier to simply sell spin. 

"There is a powerful political and business ruling class in Mexico that really control who gets in to power, and they want people who are malleable and won't shake things up or touch their interests," said Villamil. "So the system generates politicians who are all about image rather than real policies."

The country's current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, serves as a prime example. Five years ago, the then-governor of the state of Mexico announced his engagement to Angelica Rivera, who at the time was a wildly popular soap opera star. During Peña Nieto's push for the presidency she released a series of videos from the campaign trail gushingly titled, "What my eyes see, what my heart feels." 

The photogenic couple were all over the country's largest television networks, to the extent that allegations surfaced of a secret agreement with Televisa — the largest Spanish language broadcaster in the world — to boost his campaign. 

Governor Manuel Velasco and President Peña Nieto together during a holiday meant to honor indigenous communities in Mexico. (Photo via Chiapas government)

Velasco is clearly following the president's playbook, according to Chumel Torres, the host of a popular YouTube-based news channel El Pulso de la Republica.

"His relationship with Anahí is a marketing strategy," Torres told VICE News. "She's got a lot of weight with young people who will be voting in 2018. In our show we drew up an account of the actresses that have married politicians and there are loads of them. It's the same strategy that Peña Nieto used, and it put him on the map, so it does work."

But this may not be the best moment to be copying Peña Nieto. In December his approval rating dropped to around 40 percent — historically low for a Mexican President. Many citizens are angry with his tepid reaction to the forced disappearance of 43 students in which police and authorities were involved. A scandal over a house that his wife bought on credit from a favored government contractor hasn't made matters any better.

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"By copying Peña Nieto, it ties Velasco in with the rejection that the president is getting right now, which is caused by the excess of publicity with few actual results," Villamil said. "It's the worst time for this strategy."

Peña Nieto and Velasco both have another problem, namely the hostility they face online. While they have been successful in achieving positive coverage in newspapers and on TV, social media networks have proved significantly harder to tame.

"Velasco is appealing to middle-aged women watching Televisa, to a generation that isn't using the Internet," Torres said. "For people that have Twitter and Facebook, who know what's going on, he's almost the object of bullying."

And use of social media is only going to rise in Mexico. The government's plan to provide widespread wireless Internet coverage in public spaces throughout the country means that by the 2018 elections the pool of potential trolls will grow. By then, around 27 million Mexicans will be between 18 and 40 years old. That sector of the electorate, raised not only on Televisa, but also YouTube and Facebook.

"Velasco's young, but his approach is so, so old-school, and that means he can't connect with the young who are going to make up a big part of the voting population in 2018," Villamil said. "The challenge for him is to reach out to the new generation who doesn't watch TV. Unless he changes his strategy, it's going to be difficult for him to be the next president."

In response to rumors that he is preparing for a presidential run, Velasco said, "Consider me dead in 2018. And if it's not like that, you can call me a liar. I do not aspire to be a presidential candidate, as many speculate."

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Follow John Holman on Twitter @Mexicorrespond.