FOR a traveller whose flight had been delayed by five hours, Andrés Manuel López Obrador looked surprisingly cheerful. A video published on social media on September 19th shows Mexico’s president-elect preparing to disembark a budget flight from Huatulco to Mexico City. A reporter asked whether the hold-up, caused by rain, had prompted him to reconsider his campaign promise to sell the presidential plane, a Boeing Dreamliner, which cost $219m and was delivered in 2014. Not at all, replied Mr López Obrador, who will take office on December 1st. “I’d be embarrassed to board a luxurious plane in a country with so much poverty.”
Mr López Obrador is the champion of conspicuous non-consumption among Latin American leaders. His chauffeur drives a Volkswagen Jetta. He plans to cut the president’s pay by 60% to 108,000 pesos, or $5,700, a month (and to chop the salaries of other senior officials). But when it comes to using presidential aircraft as a platform for ostentatious austerity, Mr López Obrador has rivals.
In light of Argentina’s economic woes, its president, Mauricio Macri, decided in May to postpone the purchase of a new plane (see article). The existing one, known as Tango 01, is a 26-year-old Boeing 757. Last year Lenín Moreno, Ecuador’s president, announced plans to sell one of two jets purchased by his free-spending left-wing predecessor, Rafael Correa. Ecuador’s audit office is looking into the use of presidential planes during Mr Correa’s presidency as part of a regular investigation of government accounts. Mr Correa says that the audit will show how hard he worked. He brags that the presidential palace thriftily provided catering services to his flights. “We transported [food] in tubs to save money,” he tweeted.
The alternative to such aerial self-denial is to risk political turbulence. In 2016, during the worst recession in Brazil’s history, Brazilians were outraged to discover that the government had put out to tender a contract worth 1.7m reais ($520,000) for a caterer to provision the presidential Airbus ACJ319. The order included 500 tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and one-and-a-half tonnes of chocolate cake. Michel Temer, the president, cancelled the order.
Clever presidents weave their aeroplane politics into larger narratives. Mr López Obrador’s vow to flog the Dreamliner is part of a broader campaign against political and business elites. During an election debate he joked that he “had already offered it to Donald Trump”.
The plane ordered by Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay’s president, is modest by presidential standards. The eight-seater BAe 125, delivered in February, cost a mere $1m. But Mr Vázquez has the misfortune of succeeding a notable ascetic, José Mujica. He hitched rides with fellow leftist leaders such as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. So Mr Vázquez’s pre-owned business jet looked self-indulgent by comparison. He has prudently ordered that it be modified so that it can double as an air ambulance.
Dictators face less pressure to be abstemious in the air. Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s president, travels aboard a 12-year-old Russian-made Ilyushin Il-96, furnished with a drinks bar and leather seats. It brought him on his maiden trip to the United States (to address the UN General Assembly) this week. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who presides over an economy that is suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food, would have a hard time flying commercial even if he wanted to. Currency controls have forced most foreign airlines (or “saboteurs”, as he calls them) to abandon the country. Domestic planes are grounded because of a lack of spare parts and fuel. But Mr Maduro has generously put the presidential Airbus A319 at the service of Venezuelan athletes when they take part in competitions abroad. “I can easily travel overland, by motorbike or by donkey,” he explained.
Pinching pesos on presidential planes may be a false economy. Argentina’s security services advised Mr Macri to avoid commercial flights altogether. They make it hard to provide security and medical care and to return home in emergencies. During a meeting with investors in April Mr López Obrador looked uncomfortable when asked what he would do if a delayed flight caused him to arrive late at a UN meeting. If he sells Mexico’s presidential Boeing, it will probably fetch just half of what the government paid for it. Once he takes office he might be tempted to keep it.