López Obrador Goes to Washington to Play Nice With Trump

Once an anti-Trump firebrand, the Mexican president knows he needs his U.S. counterpart—and isn’t taking any chances on the November election.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks with the press on November 13, 2019 in Mexico City.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks with the press on November 13, 2019 in Mexico City. Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

After more than 18 months in office without leaving the country on any official trips, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is finally venturing on his maiden voyage to Washington to mark the signing of the United States-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement. López Obrador’s attendance at Wednesday’s White House ceremony hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump has drawn widespread ire at home, where Trump’s single-digit confidence rating is the lowest of any country surveyed by the Pew Research Center.López Obrador’s attendance at Wednesday’s White House ceremony has drawn widespread ire at home, where Trump’s single-digit confidence rating is the lowest of any country surveyed by the Pew Research Center. Critics have denounced the trip as a “colossal error” that will enable Trump to use López Obrador as a prop in his reelection campaign, with one prominent Mexican commentator going so far as to call it an act of “national treason.”

Absent from the summit will be the third country that signed the new trade agreement. On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would not attend the meeting, citing coronavirus concerns and U.S. threats to impose new tariffs on aluminum and steel imports from Canada.

López Obrador is already playing down the significance of the trip, and his foreign minister recently made it clear that the purpose of the visit will be limited to the signing of the trade agreement, which some are calling a mere update of the old NAFTA that Trump famously labeled as “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made.” But the success of López Obrador’s trip may depend on whether Trump noticed the many unflattering statements the now-Mexican president made about his host during his previous visits to the United States.

While running for president in 2017, López Obrador made several stops in the United States to campaign among the millions of Mexican nationals living there but able to vote back home. Not only did he strike a defiant tone at these rallies in response to Trump’s broadsides against Mexicans as criminals and “rapists.” He also published a book aimed at these voters, titled Oye Trump (Listen, Trump), that includes such headings as “A Bankruptcy Called Trump” and assails the American president as someone with “racist contempt” for Mexicans. At a rally held hours after Trump’s January 2017 inauguration speech, López Obrador dismissed the speech as an affront to the “dignity” of Mexicans and a “vulgar threat to human rights.” He was even harsher a month later in Los Angeles, where he described Trump’s plans for a border wall as the work of “cunning and irresponsible neofascist leaders who … equate Mexicans and particularly our fellow migrants with the stigmatized and persecuted Jews of Hitler’s time.”

A veteran of three presidential campaigns and a former mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador understood that Trump’s tirades against Mexicans were more than just political rhetoric. “We should not underestimate the capacity of the current government officials in the United States; they are not fools,” he cautioned in the February 2017 speech. “Donald Trump’s angry discourse follows a cold and calculated political strategy.” And unlike many pundits in the United States, López Obrador was under no illusions that Trump would morph into Mexico’s amigo once in office. Instead, López Obrador predicted that Trump would drill down on his anti-immigrant message “because he won the presidency with words of hate and discrimination, [and] plans to use the same propaganda in government and [to] win reelection in 2020.” One month later in El Paso, however, López Obrador was doubtful that Trump’s anti-immigrant strategy would succeed the second time around, arguing that “a campaign of phobia against migrants and Mexicans” would not help him win reelection.

On the campaign trail, López Obrador promised direct confrontation with Donald Trump on social media. Referring to one of Trump’s anti-immigrant tirades, he assured Mexicans that Trump “is going to have to learn to respect us … every time he does what he did today, he will have a direct answer. … He uses his Twitter, his Facebook—I am going to use it too. And I’m going to say what I think.”

Once in office, however, López Obrador’s defiance subsided. When Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports unless Mexico moved to block a group of migrants from Central America, López Obrador sidestepped questions and said he preferred “love and peace,” but nonetheless sent the Mexican National Guard to the Guatemalan border to keep migrants from crossing north. Mexico also agreed to implement the U.S. government’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which deports asylum-seekers to makeshift camps on the Mexican side of the border while waiting for their petitions to be heard. To many Mexicans, López Obrador’s willingness to enforce Washington’s immigration edicts meant that “Mexico has agreed to become Trump’s wall,” as one Mexican commentator put it.To many Mexicans, López Obrador’s willingness to enforce Washington’s immigration edicts meant that “Mexico has agreed to become Trump’s wall,” as one commentator put it. Trump recently referred to his Mexican counterpart as “a great guy.”

López Obrador does not come to Washington in a position of strength. His administration stumbled in its initial response to the coronavirus, which is now ravaging the country even as health officials acknowledge severe undercounting of confirmed cases. In June, Mexican health officials proclaimed that the pandemic was “under control” and would run its course later that month. More than 32,000 deaths later and with numbers still rising, last week Mexico overtook France as the country with the fifth-most total fatalities in the world. To make matters worse, Mexico has the world’s highest rate of positive coronavirus tests, a sign that not enough tests are being administered.

López Obrador came into office promising to grow the economy by 4 percent annually, create over 2 million paid apprenticeships for young people, and reduce crime while avoiding the bloody confrontations of his predecessors. However, the country’s gross domestic product was virtually flat during his first year, and in April alone, more jobs were lost than were created in all of 2019. The national oil company’s bonds are rated “junk,” crime is on the rise, and the government is embroiled in several disputes with local and foreign investors. The International Monetary Fund recently predicted that Mexico’s economy will shrink by 10.5 percent in 2020. In the current crisis, the United States, which buys over three-quarters of Mexican exports, is Mexico’s critical lifeline. Unlike the recently reelected Trudeau, López Obrador still has more than four years left of his six-year term and cannot afford to alienate Trump. And although López Obrador’s approval ratings are at the lowest point in his tenure, they are still high at 56 percent, and he may believe that his loyal supporter base will understand that he must placate the U.S. president—even if Trump is universally rejected by Mexicans.

López Obrador once predicted that Trump would intensify his vitriol against Mexico and Mexicans as the November 2020 U.S. election grew near. Whether López Obrador was correct that Trump’s reelection strategy would fail remains to be seen. But with a faltering economy and rising pandemic numbers, don’t expect López Obrador to bring up his old grievances with Trump at the White House this week.

Jose W. Fernandez practices law in New York. He was an assistant secretary of state for economic, energy, and business affairs during the Barack Obama administration.

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