MEXICO CITY—Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has thanked his U.S. counterpart effusively and often. He thanked Donald Trump for agreeing to send ventilators to Mexico. He thanked Trump for helping Mexico in OPEC+ negotiations. And he thanked Trump for the new USMCA trade deal (NAFTA by any other name, with a few revisions), which came into effect July 1. And now Mexico’s president is traveling to Washington to “thank the United States government for treating us with respect.”
Some may find that statement surprising.
Even more counterintuitive is a pattern of mutual backslapping that’s budded into a conspicuous bromance between the two populist presidents. Just how deep that goes, or not, will be on display when AMLO, as López Obrador is widely known, goes to the White House on Wednesday.
The visit is rife with risks for Mexico, and for AMLO, coming just as the U.S. election season gets really hot and increasingly ugly. Trump could well be standing him up to take him down in a show for those core cultists who still love to chant “Build the Wall!” at rallies.
When Trump was a candidate in 2016, having launched his campaign talking about rapists and murderers from Mexico, AMLO’s predecessor President Enrique Peña Nieto thought it would be wise to invite Trump south of the border—only to be hit with a barrage of Wall-talk.
Critics of the AMLO trip see history repeating itself—and not in Mexico’s favor.
“There is no reason that justifies the visit,” a former foreign secretary, Bernado Sepúlveda, wrote in a letter to AMLO’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard. “President López Obrador’s attendance at an irrelevant ceremony will be interpreted as supporting President Trump’s reelection.”
“We have a good relationship with the [U.S.] government,” AMLO insisted in a pre-departure press conference. “When they act in a way that affects Mexicans, they alway attend to our demands.”
AMLO often uses the word respect when referring to his U.S. counterpart. For his part, Trump speaks positively of AMLO, too. He’s referred to AMLO as a “great guy”—even as he maligns Mexico and even though he erroneously referred to Tijuana as “the most heavily infected place anywhere” as part of an unsubtle effort to blame Mexicans for the surging COVID infections in the Southwest.
Certainly the blossoming relationship is one not envisaged prior to AMLO’s election in 2018—although both men present themselves as anti-system and leveraged anti-elite sentiments in their campaigns.
AMLO published a book, Oye Trump (“Listen Trump”) in 2017, which spoke of “the urgent need for unity in the face of the Republican president's dehumanizing and capricious policy.” He later said Mexico wouldn’t “do the dirty work” of any foreign government on migration enforcement. But as president, AMLO has stayed mostly silent about the Wall.
When Trump threatened escalating tariffs in mid 2019 if Mexico didn’t stop Central Americans transiting the country—demands Mexico quickly caved on, wanting to avoid damage to its export-oriented economy.
As people there are ample differences between the presidents, as politicians, not so many. Trump was born wealthy, while López Obrador identifies as a lefty (though he’s governing as a conservative) and hails from swampy Tabasco state. Both men practice parochial politics, have a penchant for picking fights with the press, and prefer dividing rather than uniting populations in their respective countries. Trump trolls opponents with his tweets, while López Obrador baits them with daily two-hour press conferences. Both stoop to name-calling—and can make unflattering labels stick. They also express misgivings about bureaucracies, dislike autonomous institutions, and deal in conspiracies.
Neither man responded promptly to the coronavirus, neither wears a mask and both men are losing popular support as the pandemic drags on.
“Growing majorities in both countries seem to believe the presidents have screwed up the virus response,” said Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
Under the circumstances the Mexican president’s posture toward Trump has bemused and bewildered many here, especially since AMLO—an avowed nationalist—acquiesces to a man with a history of treating Mexico like a punching bag for political purposes.
“Some of us in Mexico are developing this creeping feeling about AMLO with Trump that must resemble the feeling that Americans have developed with Trump regarding Putin,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst in Mexico City. “What is it about this guy that makes him concede every time?”
The Washington trip marks AMLO’s first foreign foray since taking office on Dec. 1, 2018, and social media have buzzed with speculation about AMLO’s travel details—he takes commercial flights in economy class and plans to seek modest accommodations. But foreign policy observers struggle to explain the trip since the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) —López Obrador’s stated reason for going—is already in effect.
“He’s looking to adapt to Trump, to appease Trump, to get along with Trump,” said Carlos Heredia, professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. “He must be one of the few people in international politics who thinks that’s possible—or perhaps the only one.”
AMLO won’t meet with Democratic candidate Joe Biden on his trip. He also hasn’t announced a meeting with migrant groups. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus urged Trump to call off the trip, which it blasted as a “blatant attempt to politicize the important U.S.-Mexico relationship along partisan lines.”
Estévez says Mexico was always willing to do whatever was necessary to get a deal done—even if that means AMLO appearing with Trump in a photo-op and avoiding the Democrats for now.
“We are stuck at the border—for better or worse—and we can’t give ourselves the luxury of choosing sides,” Estévez said.
AMLO often rails against “neoliberalism” as the source of Mexico’s problems over the past three decades, during its economy was opened through continental free trade. Yet he’s made approval of the USMCA a priority and says the agreement will “reactivate” an economy waylaid by COVID-19.
AMLO recently referenced the tariff-threat episode as an example of the United States “attending” to Mexico’s demands. “We reached an agreement,” he added. “They respect us.”
At Trump’s behest, to avoid the threat of massive tariffs, Mexico deployed its newly created National Guard to both its northern and southern borders—effectively becoming the wall that Trump promised and keeping migrants bottled up in Central America.
It’s also gone along with a scheme known as Remain in Mexico, which forces asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities while their cases wind their way through U.S. courts. With the pandemic, Mexico has allowed deportees from third countries to be sent back to Mexican territory.
Trump’s ability to strong-arm Mexico on immigration is likely to be trumpeted as a kept campaign promise, especially as Trump’s popularity slides.
“He is going to present AMLO and the Mexican National Guard as the Wall —that’s being paid for by Mexico. And he’s not entirely mistaken,” said Brenda Estefan, former security attaché at the Mexican embassy in Washington.