Understanding why AMLO and Trump are “budding up”

and . Jul 09, 2020
Understanding why AMLO and Trump are "budding up" Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (left) and Donald Trump (center) in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House

“Poor Mexico: so far from God and so close to the United States.” The famous quote from Mexican dictator Porfírio Díaz compiles the turbulent history of relations between the two countries. This July 8, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — also known as AMLO — visited his American counterpart Donald Trump for the first time since he took office late in 2018. The “budding” relationship between the left-wing AMLO and the far-right wing U.S. president seems inexplicable, but it is key to both presidents’ political fortunes as the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage in both countries. 

The long-awaited meeting, which happens to be AMLO’s first international trip, takes place as the U.S.–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) is set to become a reality, starting a new chapter of trade relations between the two major nations. In 2019 alone, Mexico’s trade with the U.S added up to USD 614.5 billion, a 0.48-percent increase over 2018. 

Now, with a possible 10-percent nosedive in Mexican GDP this year due to the coronavirus crisis, Mexico needs an ally in Washington more than ever.

</p> <p>AMLO and Mr. Trump have a history of clashes. In May 2019, Mr. Trump<a href=""> threatened to impose 5-percent tariffs</a> on all Mexican imports “until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico stop.” As the final destination before the U.S. borders, many migrant caravans in Latin America see the territory below the Rio Grande as a corridor — something that the White House’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy wouldn’t accept.</p> <p>However, this AMLO-Trump crisis was quickly resolved after the Mexican government sent a committee to a three-day-negotiation debate in the U.S. capital, the billionaire president<a href=""> suspended his decision</a>.</p> <p>While AMLO wrote a book titled <em>Hey, Trump!</em>, decrying the U.S. president’s racially charged attacks against Mexican immigrants, he has embraced a more pragmatic approach to dealing with the notoriously thin-skinned Mr. Trump, offering praise for his U.S. counterpart and indicating his willingness to work together.</p> <p>The stakes for the meeting have changed with the Covid-19 pandemic and Mr. Trump’s declining re-election hopes, following his bungled handling of the health crisis. As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has <a href="">reported</a>, AMLO’s handling of the pandemic has its fair share of detractors and will likely make or break his presidency. With this in mind, who has more to lose and to gain from this appointment?</p> <p>According to Adolfo Laborde Carranco, an International Relations Professor at Anahuac University in Mexico, the gains might be mutual, but Mr. Trump may need them more in the short term.</p> <p>“In political terms, a successful meeting is more important for Mr. Trump, mainly due to his electoral process. The U.S. president now faces the loss of 50 million jobs, a scarce public health policy vis-à-vis Covid-19 [he recently left the World Health Organization], and a rupture with international actors, such as China. But, mainly, Mr. Trump aims to garner votes among Latinos, which could be decisive in the 2020 elections,” Mr. Adolfo told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>In 2016, Mr. Trump won the presidency with <a href="">less support</a> from black and Hispanic voters than any president in at least 40 years, per Reuters. But despite his bigoted attacks on Mexican-Americans, his <a href="">polling among Latinos</a> is <em>higher</em> in 2020 than it was back in 2016, according to Pew Research. Currently, there are around 59.8 million people of Hispanic origin in the U.S. — and they are considered a key demographic in the upcoming election.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h4 class="has-text-align-center">Exports from Mexico</h4> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="exports from mexico" class="wp-image-44196" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1168w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Source: OEC</figcaption></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h4 class="has-text-align-center">Where does Mexico import from?</h4> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="Where does Mexico import from? (2018)" class="wp-image-44197" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1162w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Source: OEC</figcaption></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Why AMLO needs Trump&nbsp;</h2> <p>The World Bank predicts that Latin American and the Caribbean will face an economic skid of 7.2 percent in 2020. Besides a predicted 10-percent shrinkage in GDP, Mexico is staring down the possibility of a veritable job apocalypse. Our own data journalist Aline Gatto Boueri showed that out of the country&#8217;s 95.8 million people of working age, <a href="">50.3 million are out of the workforce</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>AMLO’s approach to dealing with Trump is, as a result, closely connected to hopes of kickstarting the Mexican economy through a new trade deal. The beginning of USMCA could guarantee Mexico preferential access to the world&#8217;s wealthiest market, providing more security for new investments.</p> <p>It also benefits local workers and companies, as the Mexican industrial sector depends on U.S. exports. Since the old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, U.S.-Mexico agribusiness grew sevenfold. The new agreement updates the old order by taking into account electronic business and establishing that the deal will be revised (and, once again, updated) in 16 years. There are other victories for AMLO in the revised bill, including labor reform in Mexico facilitating unionization.</p> <p>Mr. Laborde Carranco explains that AMLO’s trip was delayed probably due to internal problems in his government. During 2019, the Mexican leader designated his Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to represent Mexico abroad, including in the emergency meeting in 2019 that took place following Mr. Trump’s threats. But, as the old adage goes, better late than never.&nbsp;</p> <p>“AMLO took a long time to act, but it seems to me that an earlier meeting was not a real option, given all the internal struggles he faced,” the expert told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. The meeting takes place after a record increase in violence, with 34,582 intentional homicides recorded in 2019 — the deadliest year on record. It represented a 2.5 percent growth compared to 2018, statistics by the National Public Security System (SNSP) showed.</p> <p>“Despite all these internal issues, Mexico needs the U.S, with 82 percent of foreign trade dependent on the northern neighbors. Even with things to be solved internally, AMLO needs to try to solve this economic problem thinking about improving his image and eyeing the June 2021 midterm local elections, and also to solve the migration problems that started in 2019.”</p> <p>Most importantly there is significant support for AMLO’s visit in Mexico, according to sociologist Edwin Ackerman. “AMLO is playing to a domestic audience. A recent poll showed that close to 60 percent of Mexicans support the trip. The renegotiation of NAFTA under highly unstable conditions was an important achievement. AMLO sees in his visit an opportunity to claim this as a victory.”</p> <p>Not that appeasing the U.S. is a priority for Mexico, but the economy will be. While having markedly different politics to Mr. Trump, AMLO could well benefit more from this meeting. As Mr. Ackerman notes, Mexico has evidence that diplomatic pragmatism gets more results than public confrontation.</p> <p>Prominent examples of this include the U.S. recently stepping in to help Mexico meet its quota of reduced oil barrel production per day as part of an OPEC Plus agreement and the securing of at least a thousand of ventilators for Covid-19 patients.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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