Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was supposed to be his country’s leftist savior — a seasoned grassroots nationalist, an economic populist and a fiery anti-Trump climate change warrior who would solve the country’s bloody, long-running drug war through the decriminalization of illegal narcotics.
But in the two years Mr. Lopez Obrador has been in office he had become known for a different set of actions: pushing big state oil projects and stripping environmental protections while winning praise from the Trump administration and U.S. conservatives for a surprisingly bare-knuckle crackdown on Central Americans seeking passage through Mexico on their way to the U.S. border.
AMLO, as he is universally known at home, is preparing for his first visit to Washington as president this week. He is casting himself as a buddy of President Trump and can expect a warm White House reception to celebrate the implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, one of Mr. Trump’s signal trade accomplishments, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The political moment is likely to be topsy-turvy for Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr. Trump. U.S.-Mexico watchers say both men are hoping to exploit the meeting for political gain despite their history of antagonism toward each other.
“Before his resounding election victory two years ago, AMLO leveled harsh denunciations against Trump and his administration that resulted in a book, ‘Oye, Trump’ (‘Listen, Trump’),’” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches at Georgetown University.
“He fiercely opposed [Mr. Trump’s] border wall and vowed to counter all of Trump’s anti-Mexico tweets. On that score, AMLO positioned himself as a leftist, setting up what seemed to be an inevitable clash with Trump,” Mr. Shifter told The Washington Times.
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The expected clash, however, never materialized.
“But right after his win, AMLO sang a radically different tune,” Mr. Shifter said, “starting with an over-the-top friendly letter to Trump that signaled a notably accommodationist stance towards the U.S. administration, a move not exactly out of the leftist playbook.”
Mexican political observers say Mr. Lopez-Obrador is as much a raw populist as he is a leftist. That has made it easy for him to find common ground with Mr. Trump, whether the two actually see eye to eye or just work together on a kind of quid pro quo basis.
“AMLO has certainly proved he is not a traditional leftist,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
“Yes, he seeks to increase spending on social programs and believes in big government, but he is also a fiscal conservative unwilling to take on debt or raise taxes. Above all, though, he is a populist nationalist.”
Mr. Lopez Obrador’s populist approach may explain the push during his first two years in office for aggressive development from the troubled state oil company Pemex, long the key source of revenue for the government’s social agenda, over more climate-friendly proposals by private renewable-energy companies, Mr. Wilson said.
Indeed, Mr. Lopez Obrador has sought the construction of a major refinery for Tabasco, his home state, on grounds that it would create some 35,000 jobs. He canceled a government program designed to promote more wind and solar projects and pushed a 30% budget cut for Mexico’s environmental agency.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Lopez Obrador routinely accuses his nation’s press of reporting fake news and says he trusts his instincts and connections to his political base over polls and reports.
He also has a Trump-like instinct for provocative, media-savvy gestures. Notoriously frugal, he will fly to the U.S. on a commercial flight, complete with a layover and change of planes.
While he remains popular in Mexico, Mr. Lopez Obrador is facing a wave of domestic criticism. His populist approach may have led him to embrace the U.S. despite an economically damaging coronavirus crisis in Mexico and the United States, and the political sensitivity of traveling to Washington in the midst of a presidential campaign while Mr. Trump is behind in the polls.
“Many analysts in Mexico are saying that his visit with Trump is meant to distract from his shortcomings back home in dealing with COVID, the economy and high levels of criminal violence,” said Mr. Wilson. “There are huge political risks associated with this trip for AMLO. For him to show up in the U.S. during a presidential election and risk even the appearance of taking a side or of intervening is just incredibly risky.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the third member of the leadership behind the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, revealed Monday that he will not go to Washington for the trade agreement celebration. Mr. Trudeau signaled his doubts this weekend to reporters in Ottawa by citing the coronavirus outbreak and recent U.S. threats to reimpose aluminum tariffs.
Mr. Lopez Obrador gave no indication that he will visit any Democratic leaders, including presumptive presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, headed by Rep. Joaquin Castro, Texas Democrat, wrote a letter Thursday calling for Mr. Trump to rescind Mr. Lopez Obrador’s invitation and accusing the president of using the visit to “distract from the coronavirus crisis” and his “failure to lead an adequate response.”
Friction on immigration
Mr. Lopez Obrador will be visiting Wednesday and Thursday, a week after he celebrated the second anniversary of his election victory by stressing his administration’s progress in fighting waste, corruption and authoritarianism.
In a speech last week, he said big companies have been forced to pay back taxes and that salaries of top officials have been reduced. On Wednesday, he celebrated the official implementation of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which Mr. Trump hailed as a badly needed correction to NAFTA.
Mexico, under Mr. Lopez Obrador’s leadership, was the first to sign the agreement, but some fear it may damage rather than strengthen the Mexican economy. The peso has dropped more than 12% in value against the U.S. dollar over the past six months during a wrenching COVID-19 economic meltdown.
Although the North American free trade zone remains largely intact under the revised deal, Mexico is likely to lose some auto production to the U.S. and face pressure to raise wages and allow labor unions.
Mr. Lopez Obrador is famous in Mexico for shunning international travel to focus on his populist agenda at home. The U.S. visit will be his first outside Mexico as president.
Roberto Velasco Alvarez, the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s top North America official, said in a Twitter message that the main objective will be “promoting [Mexico’s] interests.”
Mr. Alvarez rejected the notion that the timing may be sensitive and asserted that the trip is simply “not related to internal [U.S.] political processes.”
But news media in the U.S. and Mexico say Mr. Lopez Obrador may face some uncomfortable moments. Mr. Trump angered many Mexicans and Americans when, as a candidate in 2016, he said Mexicans crossing the border illegally were bringing drugs, crime and “tremendous infectious disease” to the U.S. Since taking office, Mr. Trump has pursued his promise to build a border wall and insisted he will make good on his pledge to “make Mexico pay for it.”
Analysts say Mr. Lopez Obrador has made an art of avoiding conflict since Mr. Trump in 2018 threatened to impose crippling tariffs on Mexican goods unless Mexico did more to stop migrant caravans of Central Americans on their way to the U.S. border.
Mexico has effectively blocked the caravans through an initiative backed by Mr. Lopez Obrador to beef up Mexican national guard crackdowns. Controls have been tightened at Mexico’s southern border, and Mexican units are helping enforce Mr. Trump’s efforts to turn back asylum seekers in the north.
“The clearest measure of that accommodation towards Trump has been on the immigration issue, with Mexico adopting a hard-line security approach on its southern border,” Mr. Shifter said in an interview.
Mr. Lopez Obrador’s goal, he said, “seems to be to keep Trump happy and the U.S. at bay, even more so than previous, non-leftist Mexican presidents.”
Mr. Trump recently heaped praise on Mr. Lopez Obrador. “He’s really a great guy. I think he’ll be coming into Washington pretty soon,” the U.S. president told reporters. Mr. Lopez Obrador called Mr. Trump a friend and said the U.S. administration has shown respect for Mexico.
The situation has frustrated and outraged some in Washington, who expected Mr. Lopez Obrador to take a much harder line.
A spokesman for the Washington Office on Latin America told The Times that the organization’s “biggest concern as it relates to President Lopez Obrador and his relationship with the United States is that he’s made it a point to cow to pressure from the Trump administration on agreeing to cruel migration policies such as ‘Remain in Mexico,’ metering, and deploying the Mexican national guard on the Mexico-Guatemala border.”
While the immigration issue looms, some note that Mr. Trump and Mr. Lopez Obrador have worked together on other fronts. Most notable is coordinating a behind-the-scenes deal in April in which Mr. Trump clinched a global agreement to boost oil prices by openly promising to help Mexico deal with the strains of production cuts meant to stabilize plummeting crude prices.
Mr. Lopez Obrador worried that production below 400,000 barrels per day would cripple the Mexican economy, nearly scuttling the deal Mr. Trump had worked out with major producers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Mr. Trump then announced that the U.S. would slash its own production so Mexico could stay solvent. “The United States will help Mexico along, and they’ll reimburse us sometime at a later date when they’re prepared to do so,” the president said at the time.
Mr. Wilson told The Times in an interview that rumors suggest Mr. Lopez Obrador’s decision to visit may be linked to the oil development.
“There’s speculation or a conspiracy theory that this visit is payback, that AMLO may have agreed to help Trump’s reelection bid in exchange for the U.S. having helped Mexico with the oil production cut,” Mr. Wilson said. “I only mention this, though, because it’s so hard to understand why this visit would be taking place right now.”
Mr. Shifter, meanwhile, agreed that “AMLO has come under fire in Mexico for the visit.”
“Many are convinced,” he said, “that AMLO will be used by Trump to boost his reelection campaign.”
Mr. Lopez Obrador has said only that the visit is necessary now to celebrate the revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
“I don’t have a bad conscience about traveling to the U.S.,” he told reporters last week. “I am not a sellout. You can have a good relationship with the U.S., a neighboring country, maintaining decorum, our dignity, our independence and our sovereignty.”