Mexico’s President Flies Coach to Washington to Seal His Bet on Trump
(Bloomberg) -- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wrote a book called “Listen, Trump” before becoming Mexico’s president in which he promised to stand up to the U.S. leader, yet he is now ready to take the biggest gamble in his 19-month presidency by cozying up to his counterpart at a delicate moment.
The 66-year-old is traveling to Washington on Tuesday to see President Donald Trump despite domestic criticism in Mexico and against the counsel of some of his top advisers, who are worried about the optics of a White House visit four months before the U.S. general election.
The decision to travel now in the midst of an unchecked pandemic is even more remarkable given Lopez Obrador’s historic reluctance to leave the country -- it will be his first trip abroad in three years. And true to his ‘man of the people’ image, he is flying coach and doing a layover in Atlanta given the lack of direct commercial flights between Mexico City and Washington due to reduced schedules.
This risky bet is driven by Lopez Obrador’s conviction that, above all, he needs to safeguard the commercial relationship with the U.S., worth over $600 billion last year, and avoid clashes with Trump, even if his counterpart remains reviled south of the border for having called the nation’s people criminals and rapists and pushing to build a wall.
The trade and investment aspect of the relationship is key to Lopez Obrador, especially now that the Latin American country faces its deepest recession in almost a century.
“It is a very beneficial meeting; it will be very important to encourage economic integration,” AMLO, as the president is known, told reporters in Mexico City on Tuesday before starting the trip, maneuvering to avoid answering questions about the thorniest bilateral issues, such as Trump’s wall.
Still, the fact that AMLO doesn’t have scheduled meetings with the opposition in the U.S. puts him at risk of being seen as taking sides in the campaign, where Trump trails Democrat Joe Biden in most polls.
“At the very best, it’s careless; at worst it’s putting a finger on the scale of preference in the U.S. election, and that makes no sense,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is currently advising Biden’s campaign.
While the meeting was touted as a celebration of the new North America free trade deal, the other head of government represented in the bloc, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, excused himself from attending, amplifying AMLO’s presence.
Yet none of these concerns eclipse AMLO’s main goal: getting close to Trump by focusing on areas where they agree and ignoring those where they don’t, according to a person familiar with his internal deliberations, who asked not to be named discussing private conversations.
AMLO publicly said that the visit for little more than 24 hours is unrelated to the U.S. election. Yet privately, some of the president’s top advisers have argued against flying to Washington at this moment to avoid potential backlashes, a view that was overruled by Lopez Obrador, according to people familiar with the planning, who also asked not to be named.
While panned widely by pundits, the trip is supported by 59% of Mexicans according to a new poll, even if 70% have a negative opinion of Trump.
Lopez Obrador’s spokesman, Jesus Ramirez, said that if there were any differences of opinion about the trip within the administration they’ve been resolved through dialog. The cabinet has thrown its full support behind the president regardless of individual opinions, he said.
“There’s no unanimity, but there is institutional unanimity,” he said. “The right to voice an opinion is guaranteed in this government. But the obligation to close ranks as a state and government around political and international issues is also a reality.”
Ramirez said no topic is off the table during the bilateral meeting, which will take place Wednesday. But he said AMLO doesn’t plan to discuss the energy sector with Trump, a controversial topic after private companies criticized Mexico for changing existing rules.
The visit will feature a dinner on Wednesday that will be attended by business people from both countries, including Mexican billionaires Carlos Slim Helu and Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
AMLO has sought a partnership with Trump since the start of his administration, focusing on building an unexpected alliance with a counterpart he once accused of using anti-Mexico rhetoric similar to the vilification seen in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. And other than a brief showdown over migrants from Central America, the strategy has for now kept AMLO in good graces with the U.S. president, who last month referred to him as “really a great guy.”
That’s a clear contrast to his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, who frequently clashed with Trump over the wall, a topic the current Mexican government has assiduously avoided. Pena Nieto’s invitation for Trump to visit Mexico in 2016 ended in a historic embarrassment, an outcome the Mexican authorities will try to avoid at all costs this time.
Trump’s warming to the Mexican leader is in part explained by AMLO’s reputation as an outsider who disrupted the political establishment, which the U.S. president sees as similar to his own. In private, Trump in 2018 took to calling AMLO “Juan Trump” when speaking with his own advisers in a sign of his affection.
While the rapport between the two leaders is difficult for some to understand, they share striking similarities, says Sergio Sarmiento, one of Mexico’s top columnists: they’re both populists who want interventionist governments, frequently boss the private sector around and can’t tolerate media criticism, he said.
AMLO’s non-confrontational strategy with Mexico’s main trading partner was cemented a year ago when Trump demanded that the country do more to stop surging numbers of migrants from Central America. Trump for a week held out a threat of imposing 5% duties on Mexican goods if the nation didn’t act.
AMLO’s advisers were divided between those suggesting a hard line by calling Trump’s bluff, and those asking for restraint, one of the people familiar with the situation said.
The amicable approach prevailed and AMLO paid the political price of deploying the national guard to stop migrants, a decision that was criticized by prominent members of his own political party.
Since the deal, the number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border, a proxy for illegal crossings, has fallen by more than 80% and Mexico has also accepted about 60,000 migrants from the U.S. as they await their asylum processes.
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