Paying for favours? Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador goes to Washington

Perhaps Andrés Manuel López Obrador is concerned by Donald Trump’s possible plans to keep the border closed and use Mexico as a scapegoat to justify the evident failure of his health policies

Paying for favours? Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador goes to Washington
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador - Photo: Carlos Mejía/EL UNIVERSAL & U.S. President Donald Trump - Photo: Evan Vucci/AP
English 03/07/2020 18:24 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 10:38

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One of the saddest moments for Mexico’s pride and diplomacy took place on August 31, 2016, when a defiant Donald Trump, Republican candidate to the White House, unexpectedly visited Mexico City.

The xenophobic Trump, who had repeatedly insulted our country in his campaign, accusing immigrants of rape, crime, and drug trafficking in the United States, appeared along with President Enrique Peña Nieto in the official residence of Los Pinos, considered the heart of political power in Mexico.

During a tense press conference after a 1-hour private meeting, Trump quickly assumed control of the scenario, saying that border security, immigration, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were among the issues discussed.

Far from offering an apology for his racist tirades to a sombre Peña Nieto, the casino tycoon also remarked that they did not discuss who would pay for the border wall, his campaign cornerstone.

Hours later, Peña Nieto stressed in social media and television that he made it clear to his guest Mexico would not pay for the construction of the wall, as Trump had promised to his right-wing base.

However, the damage was already done. During a night rally in Phoenix, Arizona dedicated to immigration, Trump pandered to his extremist followers, affirming that Mexico would foot the bill for the 3,145-km barrier, started ten years ago by the Bush administration.

“Build the wall! Build the wall!” chanted the enthusiastic crowd in response to the announcement of a 10-step immigration plan, including a “deportation task force.”

In Mexico City, the unpopular Peña Nieto tried to justify his gambit arguing the need to establish bridges between the Republican candidate and his government.

Convinced by his influential Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, who after the scandal would turn into the new Foreign Affairs Minister, despite his lack of diplomatic experience, Peña Nieto insisted in his duty as president to look after Mexico’s interests. In the U.S. electoral campaign, he said, “there have been positions that frankly pose a threat and risk to Mexico.”

Just six days before, a poll released by the Quinnipiac University showed that Trump was trailing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, by 10 points, 41% to 51% among likely voters. Alluding to the results, Tim Malloy, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, highlighted that Trump was “in a downward spiral as the clock ticks” toward election day in November.

“Trump missteps, stumbles and gaffes seem to outweigh Clinton’s shaky trust status and perceived shady dealings,” summarized Malloy.

Nevertheless, a new Quinnipiac survey released on September 14, 2016, showed that Trump had managed to cut Clinton’s lead. The former Secretary of State still had an advantage of 48%-43% in the framework of a largely negative campaign. “No doubt the pneumonia will pass, yet as a nagging cough that just will not go away, Trump defies every remedy Clinton throws at him,” observed Malloy.

Golden opportunity
Of course, Trump took advantage of the golden opportunity of looking “presidential” offered by Peña Nieto and Videgaray. It was his first meeting with a head of state in the campaign, and while it was not the only reason for his recovery on the polls, it contributed to improving his image among U.S. Hispanics.

On the contrary, the surprising visit plunged Peña Nieto even deeper in unpopularity. His government was constantly criticized by the nationalist opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) due to flagrant corruption, crime-related violence, and low economic development.

Peña Nieto, however, was capable of falling into the same trap twice. His excessive reliance on Videgaray, a personal friend of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, who made numerous visits to Washington at the time, led him to yet another embarrassing situation with Trump during the 2017 G-20 summit in Germany.

Sitting next to Trump, now in his capacity as U.S. president, Peña Nieto stood silently while he repeated that Mexico would pay for the border wall. Peña Nieto’s weakness was an important factor in the electoral victory of AMLO in 2018. One of his last decisions as president was the decoration of Kushner with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest award, recognizing his “contributions” for the negotiation of the new trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada (USMCA).

Trump considered NAFTA as “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made.” His insistence in renegotiating the agreement under better conditions for the U.S. (Peña Nieto called this process the “modernization” of NAFTA) led on Wednesday to the entry into force of USMCA, an event used by AMLO in order to justify his upcoming visit to Washington.

According to AMLO, his first international trip as president scheduled for July 8 and 9, has the goal of “celebrating” the entry into force of USMCA because it will boost Mexico’s economic recovery. It is time, he said, to strengthen our relations with the U.S. and Canada in light of the current international economic and trade realignments.

“Due to geopolitical reasons we have to seek friendly and cooperative relations with Canada and the United States, and do not forget there are 34 million Mexicans in the U.S.,” he highlighted.

Undoubtedly, AMLO’s reasoning is correct at this point, yet as a seasoned politician he cannot ignore the fact that Trump is focused on his reelection in November. In the agenda of his trip AMLO is not contemplating any meeting with immigrants or the House Democratic leadership, despite its support for the negotiation of USMCA.

Although it has been demonstrated time and again that polls can fail, the incumbent U.S. president is 10 points behind Democratic rival Joe Biden in key battleground states and Republican strongholds such as Texas and Missouri, revealed a Pew Research poll on Thursday.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since 1932, more than 17 million people unemployed, and a country ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic with more than 131,000 deaths, Trump needs every help he can get if he is to remain as a “nagging cough” in U.S. politics.

Immigrant activists, Hispanic leaders, Democratic lawmakers, and even Roberta Jacobson, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, have warned that AMLO’s trip would play in Trump’s favor, when 59% of Latino voters said they would vote for Biden according to a June 26 NPR survey.

López Obrador himself has acknowledged this situation during his morning press conferences, pointing out that he is exposed to critics. However, his justifications seem unrealistic when he argues that he is also traveling “to thank the U.S. government for its respectful treatment toward us.”

What “respectful treatment” is AMLO talking about? Last week, promoting his border wall in a visit to Arizona, Trump insinuated that the recent spike in coronavirus cases in California was provoked by legal travel between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.

“Right next to San Diego is a wonderful town in Mexico. You know the town, I won’t mention the name, but they’re heavily infected with COVID,” he said.

Tijuana has significantly lower cases than San Diego, yet Trump also falsely claimed earlier in June that the Baja Californian border town was the “most heavily infected place in the world.” As in Peña Nieto’s times, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry remained in silence.

Perhaps AMLO is concerned by Trump’s possible plans to keep the border closed until this fall and use Mexico in the coming months as a scapegoat to justify the evident failure of his health policies.

Recently, the White House suspended H2B visas for seasonal guest workers, affecting 60,000 Mexican workers. In addition, it has vowed to challenge the Supreme Court decision rejecting the attempts to terminate the DACA program, which protects from deportation nearly a million young Mexicans and other immigrants.

In April, OPEC and other major oil producers reached an unprecedented deal to cut their output in 9.7 million barrels per day in order to encourage oil price recovery.

The largest slash in production in OPEC history was made possible due to a pact between Donald Trump and AMLO, since Mexico was reluctant to contribute with a cut of nearly 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) as demanded by Saudi Arabia.

Mexico had offered to reduce its production by only 100,000 bpd, so Washington agreed to fill in the gap and cut its production by 250,000-300,000 bpd. “The U.S. will help Mexico along, and they’ll reimburse us at some later date when they’re prepared to do so,” added Trump.

In Mexico City, AMLO acknowledged the “generosity” shown by Trump, and denied any “secret agreement” established between them. He also thanked his U.S. peer by the 10,000 ventilators sent to Mexico for the pandemic. The time to reimburse Trump probably has come.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen