AMLO’s Strange Trip to Washington Baffles Mexicans but Thrills Trump

World Politics Review, 09.07.2020
Frida Ghitis, columnista en asuntos internacionales

President Donald Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Rose Garden at the White House, Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

From the moment Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced plans for his first state visit to the United States, where he would meet with President Donald Trump at the White House, the news was greeted with a mixture of revulsion and astonishment. At home and abroad, critics and observers marveled at a decision to undertake a diplomatic mission so rife with potential to cause damage to Mexico and such negligible upside. The lone voices of support maintained that the lopsided odds belied the finely honed political instincts of AMLO, as Mexico’s president is widely known.

Dismissing his critics, the populist leader Tuesday took his seat in coach on a commercial flight to Atlanta, where he changed planes on the way to Washington, as critics cringed at the repercussions of his gamble. Only Trump is all but assured to benefit from the jaunt. Most everyone else has been left wondering why on Earth AMLO chose to meet with an American president who has made a political punching bag of Mexico, at this charged moment, with less than four months left until Election Day in the United States.

The last time a Mexican president took a similar gambit, it ended in disaster. It was 2016 and Trump, then a presidential candidate, was punctuating his campaign with ugly attacks against Mexico and Mexicans, referring to some of the people trying to cross the border as rapists, murderers and drug dealers. Then-President Enrique Pena Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City to clear the air. The visit was a triumph for Trump and a disaster for his Mexican counterpart, providing the candidate with a new opportunity to highlight his racist claims and leaving the Mexican leader looking weak and the country humiliated. The meeting was deemed a “monumental failure” in Mexico, creating a grave political crisis for Pena Nieto, who fired his finance minister, the man who had engineered Trump’s visit.

AMLO, who compared Trump’s rhetoric at the time to Hitler’s, seized on the disaster months later as he ran for president. He fulminated against Pena Nieto, declaring, “He didn’t have the guts to tell Trump, ‘You will respect our migrants.’” Standing up to Trump was a hallmark of AMLO’s presidential campaign during a time when Trump’s rhetoric and treatment of migrants had made the bilateral relationship neuralgic. He even wrote a book, “Oye, Trump!” (Listen, Trump!) outlining his plans to stand up to Trump’s outrages as president.

AMLO hasn’t exactly been forceful, however, since he was elected. The two populist leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum have instead developed a cordial relationship, with the Mexican president becoming a key part of Trump’s anti-immigration tactics. AMLO has acceded to several controversial Trump demands, deploying the Mexican military to the border and forcing Central Americans to remain in Mexico in dismal conditions while awaiting entry into the United States.

This week’s trip risks further exposing this troubling aspect of AMLO’s presidency at a time when Mexico, and his reputation, are taking a beating. His response to the coronavirus has hewed toward nothing-to-see-here denialism, even as cases and deaths are climbing. His management of the economy has been dismal, and his once sky-high approval ratings are now also spiraling down.

But it’s not the repercussions for AMLO’s personal standing that critics worry about. It’s the potential damage to Mexico. The official reason for the trip is to mark the formal start of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the retooled NAFTA that Trump has heavily promoted. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not coming, so the celebration is muted. The real reason for the trip, though, remains something of a mystery.

Even Agustin Gutierrez Canet, the prominent husband of Mexico’s ambassador to Washington, published an article pleading with AMLO to cancel the visit, under the headline “The March of Folly.” With the U.S. election drawing near, and tens of millions of American voters with Mexican heritage, he said, the visit will be leveraged by Trump for electoral purposes. The well-connected Gutierrez Canet noted that people close to former Vice President Joe Biden, who has a steady lead over Trump in polls, believe that some in AMLO’s Cabinet see the visit as a way to help Trump win, and even expect it will bring them personal benefit. The visit, Gutierrez Canet said, is a historic mistake that will harm Mexico if Biden becomes president and believes Mexico worked against his election.

In another article, former Foreign Minister Bernardo Sepulveda said the trip has no reasonable justification and will be viewed in the U.S. as an act of political interference in Trump’s favor. Even if Biden loses, he said, Democrats in Congress will remember.

The powerful governor of Michoacan state scathingly framed his objection as a matter of national dignity, pointing to Trump’s “contempt for Mexicans” and the way his administration holds Mexicans, “both women and men, in real concentration camps.” He also questioned how AMLO, “a man who claims to be of the left,” can take a trip that will “contribute to the re-election of one of the worst presidents in US history.”

In the U.S., as well, Hispanic officials have tried to stop the visit. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus formally called on Trump to cancel the meeting, calling it a “blatant attempt to politicize” the bilateral relationship and distract from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But that may just help explain why AMLO decided to accept Trump’s invitation.

It’s hard to find any aspect of AMLO’s presidency that is going well at this moment. His economic mismanagement predates the pandemic. The security situation is worsening, with homicide rates rising in at least six states. Two weeks ago, gunmen tried to kill Mexico City’s police chief in a shockingly brazen attack.

Popular support for AMLO once seemed crisis-proof, yet in recent months, the spell has been broken. He may believe that standing shoulder to shoulder with the world’s most powerful leader will burnish his credentials, raise his stature and strengthen his shaky position at home. But if that’s the calculation, it seems foolhardy. The trip is more likely to do the opposite, drawing attention to how he has enabled Trump’s cruelty, and how now, wittingly or otherwise, he is lending a hand for Trump’s reelection.

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