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What AMLO Really Thinks About Biden

Mexico’s president has been a thorn in the new U.S. leader’s side—but it’s all in the service of a constructive relationship.

Joe Biden shakes hands with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during a meeting on March 5, 2012 in Mexico City.
Joe Biden shakes hands with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during a meeting on March 5, 2012 in Mexico City. YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images

In the weeks between the U.S. election and the inaugural, Mexico’s president took several actions that seemed surprisingly hostile to the United States. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known as AMLO) was one of only three world leaders who did not recognize President Joe Biden’s election victory until after the formal Electoral College vote. In December, AMLO oversaw the approval of a new security law that will greatly constrain U.S. anti-drug operations in Mexico. In early January, he offered political asylum to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who faces felony charges in the United Stat­es for publishing classified documents.

Then, in mid-January, his government exonerated a Mexican general and former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, arrested in the United States for collaborating with a drug cartel. (This came after the United States agreed to extradite Gen. Cienfuegos in response to a Mexican demand to preserve effective security cooperation. The Mexican government then publicly released the Drug Enforcement Administration evidence against the general, information provided to Mexico in confidence and protected under the bilateral treaty on mutual legal assistance.)

This litany of friction upset cross-border security cooperation and threatens to generate a broader crisis in the relationship. That’s why AMLO’s actions set off speculation among Mexico watchers over his motivation. Some argued he was indulging in yanqui-bashing for the sake of domestic politics. Others believed he was signaling his strong preference for the previous U.S. president, Donald Trump, with whom AMLO was notably friendly.

In the weeks between the U.S. election and the inaugural, Mexico’s president took several actions that seemed surprisingly hostile to the United States. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known as AMLO) was one of only three world leaders who did not recognize President Joe Biden’s election victory until after the formal Electoral College vote. In December, AMLO oversaw the approval of a new security law that will greatly constrain U.S. anti-drug operations in Mexico. In early January, he offered political asylum to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who faces felony charges in the United Stat­es for publishing classified documents.

Then, in mid-January, his government exonerated a Mexican general and former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, arrested in the United States for collaborating with a drug cartel. (This came after the United States agreed to extradite Gen. Cienfuegos in response to a Mexican demand to preserve effective security cooperation. The Mexican government then publicly released the Drug Enforcement Administration evidence against the general, information provided to Mexico in confidence and protected under the bilateral treaty on mutual legal assistance.)

This litany of friction upset cross-border security cooperation and threatens to generate a broader crisis in the relationship. That’s why AMLO’s actions set off speculation among Mexico watchers over his motivation. Some argued he was indulging in yanqui-bashing for the sake of domestic politics. Others believed he was signaling his strong preference for the previous U.S. president, Donald Trump, with whom AMLO was notably friendly.

Both explanations are flawed. AMLO has never been reflexively anti-American nor interested in an antagonistic relationship with his northern neighbor. And just because he worked with Trump does not mean he will be opposed to Biden. More likely, AMLO is trying to preemptively set his preferred terms of cooperation with the new U.S. administration.

Understanding López Obrador’s actions requires first understanding that he is a man on a mission. He has dedicated his career to building a more egalitarian and more prosperous Mexico, under the guidance of a benevolent yet powerful state that pilots the economy and society. Now that he is president, but limited to a single six-year term, he is also in a hurry. He has instituted and enshrined in the constitution a series of social-welfare programs directed at long-neglected sectors of society, and initiated infrastructure projects designed to benefit poorer regions of the country. He has increased regulation on firms while trying to rebuild the dominant position of the state oil company (Pemex) and electricity firm (CFE) to reestablish Mexican energy independence. And he is actively limiting checks and balances on presidential power to ensure the long-term survival of this project. He will not stand for anything that could delay or derail his plans. Since coming to office in 2018, he has pressed forward in the face of a vocal opposition, a global pandemic, and mounting evidence that his plans will fail in the long term.

AMLO is now approaching the Biden administration—which has signaled a desire to establish a good working relationship with Mexico even as it promotes clean energy, democracy, and human rights as the pillars of its Latin American policy—as another potential domestic impediment. He doesn’t want to be disruptive or antagonistic toward Biden on the world stage, but he does want to preemptively push back against resistance the new U.S. president might display to AMLO’s domestic policies. It’s a signal that, while AMLO desires a constructive relationship with the United States, he will strongly oppose anything emanating from Washington that questions, let alone counters, his domestic agenda.

AMLO’s brushbacks certainly don’t bode well for U.S.-Mexico relations at the start of the Biden administration. Cooperation on security affairs had already declined under AMLO, with suspicions stoked on both sides. Mexico accused the U.S. DEA of fabricating evidence against Cienfuegos, the Mexican general and former defense secretary, and the U.S. Justice Department accused Mexico of bad faith and threatened to stop sharing information that is crucial to effective operations against organized crime. Collaboration in the fight against crime and violence in Mexico will inevitably suffer in the near term, including efforts to combat a burgeoning traffic in fentanyl which is contributing to a serious public health challenge in the United States.

Yet AMLO has already walked back some of the provocations, signaling that he ultimately would prefer a constructive relationship with the United States. The restrictions on U.S. law enforcement operations in Mexico have been loosened, for example. AMLO has also suggested that U.S. authorities arrested the general on the eve of the election for political reasons, implying that it was an aberration, not representative of U.S. behavior toward Mexico. And AMLO argued that his release of confidential information from a Trump administration investigation should not get in the way of good relations with Biden.

AMLO’s objective is to prevent his powerful neighbor from exploiting its advantage to pressure Mexico to alter its domestic policies. For two years now, Mexican relations with the United States have reflected a desire to deny Trump a reason to translate his anti-Mexico rhetoric into anti-Mexico policy. Aware of its great importance to Trump, Mexico willingly modified its migration policies. AMLO deployed the National Guard to prevent Central American migrants from crossing Mexico to get to the United States. He also allowed the United States to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border towns for their day in U.S. court. And in exchange, the Trump administration kept quiet as AMLO pursued what he calls Mexico’s Fourth Transformation—a domestic policy program that has involved the Mexican president weakening democratic institutions, effectively eliminating private investment in the energy sector, contravening Mexican commitments on climate change, and most recently threatening to eliminate institutions dedicated to enforcing freedom of information and anti-trust efforts (which would directly contravene provisions in the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement trade agreement, or USMCA, the revision of the NAFTA that Mexico signed in 2019).

Given the Biden team’s emphasis on democracy, human rights, and climate change, and its stated concern about the treatment of U.S. investors in Mexico, AMLO is expecting greater U.S. pressure to modify elements of AMLO’s beloved domestic-policy project. To prevent this, he is returning to his roots as a Mexican nationalist, protecting Mexican sovereignty in a tactical shift to limit U.S. meddling in Mexican affairs.

At the same time, AMLO is fully aware that the deep integration between the two countries’ economies means that a good working relationship with the United States is also essential to his domestic-policy success. He understands that cross-border integration of supply chains means that the most sophisticated sectors of the Mexican economy cannot operate without a seamless trading relationship. And he knows that this export sector is the engine that will pull Mexico out of its current depression and provide significant tax revenues on which his expansion of the state depends.

In dealing with AMLO, the United States must adhere to an adage about Mexico that is true once again: Mexico is more prone to cooperate when policy differences are expressed quietly, behind closed doors, than when they are aired in public. The Biden administration will need to take AMLO’s sensibilities into account as it selects where, when, and how to challenge him. It should also rely heavily on the USMCA. AMLO has proven to be hesitant to take actions that run contrary to the terms of this treaty.

AMLO’s dual objectives—the need for good relations with the United States, but also to constrain the likelihood of U.S. efforts to press Mexico for policy change—points to a Mexico that will be a prickly partner for the new Biden administration, but not an anti-American antagonist. Dealing with Mexico will be more challenging than it was four years ago, but with deft diplomacy the relationship can be productive.

Pamela K. Starr is an associate professor of international relations and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, and senior adviser at Monarch Global Strategies.

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