The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, has confirmed this Monday that he will travel to Washington —with a date yet to be scheduled, predictably throughout the day—, his first trip abroad since he became president, on the occasion of the start, on 1 July, of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada (T-MEC). Mexico, which has proposed the meeting, defends the decision to establish ties with the Donald Trump Administration and to send a message about the importance of the trade agreement for its economic recovery plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy of non-confrontation and rapprochement has provoked mixed reactions among the country’s diplomats and specialists, especially in light of the US elections next November and the Republican leader’s anti-Mexican speech. Lopez Obrador, who will travel on a trade route, is not scheduled to meet with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the leader in the polls.
“It seems to be a perilous strategy on the part of Lopez Obrador, which exposes him to criticism within the country for supporting Trump during the campaign,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Institute for Mexico at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The analyst considers several fronts that can be opened for the Mexican Government, the most evident with Biden himself, who is leading the intention to vote, but also in the face of the unpredictable attacks of Trump, who has failed the management of the epidemic of his neighbour. “If Biden wins, the personal relationship of both presidents will be a [complicated] relaxation,” says the specialist, “there is also the risk that Trump would say something negative regarding Lopez Obrador, Mexico and Mexicans during the visit. Or soon after, as happened before with Enrique Peña Nieto in 2016”.
“It is a colossal mistake,” summed up Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to the United States, on social networks last week. “We are heading towards a historical error,” wrote the diplomat Agustín Gutiérrez Canet, in a criticism that surprised when the husband of the current Mexican ambassador, Martha Bárcena, came. The ghost about the Mexican president’s plans is the antecedent of a visit by Trump to Mexico, during the elections four years ago. The then-candidate had not hidden his xenophobic speech to incite the nationalist bases of the Republican Party, in a campaign that started calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” and that it closed with the promise of building the wall and “making Mexico pay for it.” Peña Nieto gave state treatment to the businessman, which was seen by the bulk of public opinion as humiliation. Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic candidate, was also invited but declined.
As a candidate for the presidency, Lopez Obrador described in 2017 the sayings of the US president as “propaganda” and a “neo-fascist strategy”, and he even published the book, Oye Trump. After coming to power, the Mexican politician lowered his tone and opted to ignore the provocations and negotiate. “It responds to a broad diplomatic strategy that started from the 2018 transition, in which the incoming government-supported and reactivated a negotiation that had reached an impasse,” responds Roberto Velasco, newly appointed undersecretary for North America. Velasco rules out any interference in US politics and highlights the sending of fans and masks to confront the pandemic.
Lopez Obrador has confirmed that as usual since he became president, he will also travel to Washington on a commercial line. As there is currently no direct route from the capital of Mexico to Washington, the president has reported that he will stop and move a day earlier. During his morning conference on Monday, Lopez Obrador has not ruled out the possibility of resorting to any Armed Forces plane or helicopter in the future but has insisted that he will only use it in an emergency. On the possibility that to travel the test of the COVID-19 must be done, something that until now has declined, the Mexican president has asked to wait: “Let’s not go ahead eve.”
“It is an obligatory meeting because the three presidents have not met since they took office and because the relationship with the United States is so important that these efforts are necessary, even with a president as toxic as Trump,” says Genaro Lozano, professor at the Iberoamerican University. Lozano affirms that the criticism of the opposition is part of the campaign for next year’s elections in Mexico and assures that the influence of Lopez Obrador on the Latino vote has been exaggerated. “It is ridiculous, there is no empirical or scientific evidence to say that,” says the internationalist, especially at the juncture of the search for a coronavirus vaccine, the start of the T-MEC on 1 July and the presence of Mexico. At the next United Nations Security Council.
“It is essential that the presidents of two neighbouring countries meet frequently, the number of issues on the agenda justify it,” agrees the Mexican diplomat Enrique Berruga, although he qualifies: “He is part of the Trump re-election process, that is the most worrying about the visit”. One strategy to avoid this, says Berruga, in charge of organizing the meetings between Vicente Fox and George W. Bush, is to have an almost millimetre “score” of what is going to be treated and what is going to happen.
Lopez Obrador’s visit has also sparked across the border. “This visit is an effort to distract attention from the failure of both leaders to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” wrote Juan S. González, Biden’s advisor for Latin America, on Twitter. “A short-sighted decision to take sides in the US presidential election,” said Dan Restrepo, a former adviser to Barack Obama and one of the main Latino leaders within the party. The US ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, has also lobbied, declaring that the country is giving “troubling signals” to foreign investors and announcing the suspension of some categories of work visas for Mexicans due to the global economic collapse.
Specialists agree that the possible participation of Justin Trudeau would lower the political cost for Lopez Obrador. However, he remains an unknown quantity due to the tense relationship between Trump and his Canadian counterpart. Another way out is to seek a meeting with Biden and other Democratic leaders, an uncertain option due to how the terms of the trip have been set, although viable if it is a state visit.