Shunning Wall Talk, AMLO Wants Trump to Aid Central America

(Bloomberg) -- Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador chose not to respond to the U.S. president’s provocations about paying for a border wall and insisted Donald Trump pay to aid Central Americans.

Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he’s known, said he didn’t discuss the wall in his first phone call with President Trump the prior evening. Instead, he called on Trump to join Mexico in the nation’s pledge to pay $5 billion next year to stem migration through jobs and development programs in Mexico and Central America after Trump tweeted that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Trump "invited me, and I’m also able to go to Washington, but I think for both him and me, there needs to be a motivation, and the most important one would be to sign this accord" to fund Central American development, Lopez Obrador said at a press conference Thursday. "I consider this to be more important, or as important, as the free trade agreement."

Lopez Obrador faces a pitched battle over immigration and border security with Trump, who has called on Mexico to stop migrant caravans or risk a complete border closure. In contrast to the Pena Nieto administration’s constant rejection of Trump’s wall payment tweets, AMLO shifted focus of the conversation toward his Central America fund.

Since taking office a week and a half ago, AMLO has evaded a dust-up with Trump and appears to be attempting to direct the exchanges with the U.S. president toward his own anti-poverty agenda. Trump isn’t making it easy; he took to Twitter early Thursday to say, in all caps, that Mexico is paying for the wall.

"The strategy to focus on Central America has many merits but it is clearly not working in terms of distracting Trump from the wall," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington."Illegal migration and border security are going to continue to be hot buttons for Trump as we head towards the 2020 election."

Trump tweeted after his phone call with Lopez Obrador: "I often stated, ’One way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the Wall.’ This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico (and Canada), the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!"

There’s a silver lining to Trump’s tweet, says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. By saying the new trade agreement pays for the wall, Trump is finding a way around his campaign promise to make Mexico pay for it outright.

That "certainly removes a persistent irritant in the relationship" between Mexico and the U.S., Selee said, although Trump won’t likely sign onto AMLO’s Central America fund amid a rising U.S. budget deficit.

Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump spoke to AMLO about the "positive relationship" between the two countries. They discussed the need to address illegal migration by addressing its drivers, she said, such as insecurity and economic stagnation.

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