The Folly and Risk of Lopez Obrador’s Washington Trip

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s decision to travel to the US was met with concern and incredulity in Mexico and bafflement among many Democrats in the US. Being seen as a close ally to Donald Trump could be detrimental to the future of bilateral relations.

Expert comment Published 15 July 2020 Updated 5 March 2021 3 minute READ

Arturo Sarukhan

Former Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme (based in the US)

Demo against Donald Trump's migration policies at the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico. Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images.

Demo against Donald Trump’s migration policies at the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico. Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images.

For a leader who had not travelled abroad since his inauguration – skipping G20 and APEC summits and the UN General Assembly – and who is probably one of the most intellectually incurious and disinterested Mexican presidents of the modern era when it comes to global issues, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador could have certainly waited until after the US elections in November to travel to Washington and personally engage with President Donald Trump .

Instead, Lopez Obrador – who has sought at all cost to avoid conflict with his US counterpart, having decided that bending the knee was a better option than standing his ground with Trump – waded straight into electoral politics in the US, despite his repeated assurances to the contrary.

The decision to travel now to Washington was fraught with political and diplomatic challenges, not least the fact that President Trump will use President Lopez Obrador as an electoral prop.

To American audiences, at a time when the US is riven by social and political convulsion unseen in 50 years since the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, meeting with Trump in Washington just before the general campaign starts was seen by many as a pat on the back for a polarizing and unpopular president.

In Mexico, most discussion has been about the merits and timing of the visit, with one El Financiero newspaper poll conducted a week before showing public support (59%) for the trip, while a post-visit Reforma newspaper survey showed that a substantial majority of those polled (69%) believe a Biden victory in November is a better outcome for Mexico.

While it’s true that Lopez Obrador returned to Mexico unscathed, his visit – and his baffling Rose Garden remarks stating that Trump (the most anti-Mexican US president in modern history) has shown respect to Mexico and Mexicans – is certainly a slap in the face to migrants in the US, 11 million of whom are Mexicans, to American NGOs and activists that defend the rights of migrants and enlightened immigration and asylum policies, and a boon to Trump’s dog-whistle xenophobia and chauvinism.

Lopez Obrador’s words added insult to injury by asserting the US president has never imposed anything on Mexico, blithely ignoring Trump’s March 2019 threat to impose punitive tariffs on Mexico unless the country deterred and stopped Central American transmigration flows through Mexico on their way to the US.

Certainly if the purpose of the visit was to celebrate the July 1 entry into force of the USMCA – a spin made even more hollow by the fact that Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau decided to skip the event – then Lopez Obrador should have been reaching out to the Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership to meet and thank them too, given the important role they played in supporting the revamping of NAFTA and the ratification of the USMCA.

The best-case scenario is that the meeting between the presidents will be leveraged by both governments to address looming hurdles with the entry into force of the USMCA.

But Trump still seems intent on wielding punitive tariffs and mercantilist measures to extract concessions from either Canada or Mexico. And across the border, the Lopez Obrador government – and his party in Congress – continue enacting abrupt policy shifts and changes to the rules across different sectors of the economy that bode ill for the level playing field required under the USMCA.

What could have easily been achieved via a virtual event has now morphed into a second successive Mexican government jumping on the Trump electoral bandwagon, after Enrique Peña Nieto’s ill-advised invitation to then-candidate Trump to travel to Mexico, and a new opportunity for the US president to ‘pimp’ Mexico for his campaign purposes. Perceptions have certainly deepened among Democrats that Lopez Obrador prefers to see Trump re-elected.

Although Lopez Obrador’s aim was to buy Mexico time between now and January of next year by hoping this visit will contain Trump’s anti-Mexican tirades on the campaign trail, whether or not Trump stops using Mexico as a political-electoral piñata is yet to be seen. I would not hold my breath.

Moreover, for a leader whose default position is ‘the best foreign policy is domestic policy’, the trip lays bare a paradox in Lopez Obrador’s mantra. It is precisely Mexico’s domestic weaknesses and failings that create foreign policy vulnerabilities, particularly vis-à-vis the Trump administration. And it is likely these will be used in the coming weeks and months to once again to pressure Mexico in what has become Trump’s ‘Sinatra Policy’ towards his southern neighbour: ‘My Way’.

Perception is indeed reality, and Lopez Obrador – and more importantly Mexico – can ill-afford to be perceived as Trump’s patsies at this juncture of American history. As many expected, it only took four hours after President Lopez Obrador’s White House remarks for Trump-supporting Hispanic-outreach social media accounts to start piggybacking on them. Campaign officials have also specifically said they will likely use his quotes in TV ads aimed at Hispanic voters later this year.

In addition, there is a potentially bumpy road ahead for Mexico’s relationship with the Democratic Party. The statements and tweets issued by former vice-president Joe Biden, Biden campaign surrogates and officials, prominent Hispanic Democrats in Congress, and the Democratic National Chair signal as such, as does a letter sent the same day of the visit by Democratic representatives regarding outstanding labour issues in Mexico related to USMCA compliance and enforcement.

This trip could have a long-standing impact for Mexico’s relationship with the US – and US society – and the voters that will determine the future of this country in the decades to come. Lopez Obrador’s meeting with Trump could well become a ‘travel now, pay later’ moment in Mexico-US relations.