MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The world’s eyes are on Mexico and its deadly swine flu outbreak, but President Felipe Calderon has gone to ground, barely showing his face since the crisis broke five days ago.
Aides say Calderon, a tough but aloof conservative, is working hard behind the scenes to rein in an epidemic that global experts fear could become a deadly pandemic.
But he has left a little-known health minister to face the world’s questions over a virus that has killed up to 159 people in Mexico and an infant in the United States, and infected dozens around the world.
Calderon, whose office says he has been busy with “private activities” for much of the past few days, has not been seen in public since Saturday, when he said at a hospital in the southern state of Oaxaca that the flu is curable and Mexico has ample antiviral medicine to treat those infected.
He has not addressed the nation directly on television or had media interviews to talk about the crisis, prompting the daily El Universal to run a cartoon on Wednesday titled “Where is the captain?” The sketch shows Mexico’s ship sinking.
“It looks messy. What’s missing is a very strong figure of leadership,” said business economist Rogelio Ramirez de la O, an advisor to the leftist candidate narrowly beaten by Calderon in the 2006 presidential election.
Calderon held talks with Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova and former health ministers at the presidential residence on Wednesday as concern grew about whether authorities have been quick enough to identify the flu virus and its origin, work out how it is spreading and treat the sick.
A video without sound was distributed by Calderon’s office, showing the men around a large wooden table in a garden.
Mexico’s international image, already in tatters over rampant drug violence, has taken a hit and Calderon has not stepped up to defend it as governments around the world warn against non-vital trips to Mexico.
Residents of Mexico City, struggling to get on with daily life, seem to need guidance from their government.
“I’m depressed. I don’t understand where this came from, how it spreads, how long it will last or what it will do to the economy,” said an almost tearful elderly woman called Licha sitting on a park bench wearing a surgical mask.
“Calderon is focused on the internal side of this, which is fine, but I’m worried foreigners will stop coming here,” said her daughter Nelly, who declined to give their surname. “Our image was already bad, now it’s an outright disaster.”
The flu crisis has hurled a brand new challenge at Calderon who already had his hands full fighting a high-stakes drug war and dealing with an economic recession.
An astute lawyer, Calderon has scored popularity ratings above 60 percent since taking office in late 2006.
But opponents are mystified by Calderon’s hands-off approach as he fails to appear at his health minister’s side.
“We may have the best Mexican talent all over the place but if the leader is absent there is no one to guide it, and even the best talent has to be guided,” said Ramirez de la O.
Mexicans pay close attention to their leaders’ responses to major crises. The terrible handling of a 1985 earthquake that killed at least 10,000 people in Mexico City is seen as the beginning of the end of seven decades of one-party rule, which fell when Calderon’s conservative party won power in 2000.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s popularity dropped sharply because of his government’s slow response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005.
Before the flu outbreak, Calderon was expected to lose seats in July congressional elections and his handling of the crisis could make or break his presidency. Pollsters say Mexicans tend to rally around their president in a crisis but could turn against Calderon if he does poorly.
With life in the capital at a virtual standstill and Mexico’s tourism industry facing a flood of cancellations, Calderon’s silence is hardly reassuring.
“They’re not doing a great job of communicating to the world,” said an American working as a consultant in Mexico City who preferred not to be quoted by name, strolling past shuttered restaurants and bars.
“Everyone wants to know when life is going to get back to normal. There are a lot of questions.”
Thrust into the international limelight, Calderon’s health minister almost lost control of raucous media at a news conference on Tuesday as he gave a confusing set of figures that showed a rise in the flu death toll but fewer fatalities confirmed by global health experts.
Mexico has around 1,300 people in hospital being tested for swine flu and has counted some 2,500 suspected cases in all.
Editing by Kieran Murray