Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Will AMLO Gain From His Visit to the White House?

In his first foreign trip as Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrived Tuesday in Washington and meets today with U.S. President Donald Trump. // File Photo: Mexican Government. In his first foreign trip as Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrived Tuesday in Washington and meets today with U.S. President Donald Trump. // File Photo: Mexican Government.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is meeting today in Washington with U.S. President Donald Trump in López Obrador’s first trip abroad since taking office in December 2018. What are the main items on López Obrador’s agenda for the trip? What is each president looking to gain from the meeting? Why has López Obrador taken so long to travel internationally as president, and how does his administration’s foreign policy compare to those of his predecessors?

Martha Bárcena, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States: “President López Obrador decided to make this trip to celebrate the entry into force of the USMCA and to endorse a new economic chapter for the region. He wants to give his full political endorsement to an agreement that is expected to strengthen regional value chains and attract new investment in a decisive moment for the global economy. Furthermore, he wants to thank the U.S. government for supporting the creation of an airbridge between the two countries to send 420 ventilators to Mexico for its fight against coronavirus and maintain a close coordination in any future efforts directed to combat the pandemic. President López Obrador will be focusing on the need to work toward dialogue and mutual understanding, as he has mentioned time and time again. The president understands that the USMCA represents the next step of a journey that has brought and linked our peoples and our economies together, and that requires a renewed political commitment from both sides. Even before taking office, President López Obrador explained that his priority was going to be to stay in Mexico during the first years of his term to focus on his domestic agenda, which is highly demanding and includes a daily 7 a.m. press conference. His foreign policy has adopted a markedly social, inclusive and rights-oriented approach, as it was reflected in the negotiation of the environmental and labor chapters of the USMCA, for example, or in the full endorsement his administration has given to the human rights agenda, or the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Arturo Sarukhan, member of the Inter-American Dialogue’s board of directors and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “Mexico has consistently been punching below its weight in the world for far too long, but now with President López Obrador, it’s not punching at all; it’s not even in the ring. For a leader who had not traveled abroad since his inauguration—skipping G20 and APEC summits and the U.N. General Assembly—and who’s probably one of the most intellectually incurious and disinterested Mexican presidents of the modern era when it comes to what happens around the globe, López Obrador could have certainly waited a few months more until after Nov. 3 to travel to Washington. Instead, in a Pavlovian response to Trump, he has waded straight into electoral politics in the United States and—in the eyes of many Americans and others around the world—provided a backslap to the most polarizing president in the modern history of the United States at a time of profound social convulsion, unseen since the days of the Vietnam War. And what could have easily been achieved via a virtual welcoming of the entry into force of the USMCA has now morphed into a second successive Mexican government jumping on the Trump electoral bandwagon, a new opportunity for the U.S. president to pimp Mexico—and López Obrador—as an electoral prop and deepening perceptions among Democrats that López Obrador prefers to see Trump re-elected. Moreover, for a leader who has recurred to the default position that ‘the best foreign policy is domestic policy,’ the trip will lay bare a paradox in López Obrador’s mantra: it’s precisely Mexico’s domestic weaknesses and failings that are creating foreign policy vulnerabilities, particularly vis-à-vis this U.S. administration. It is likely that these will be used to once again pressure Mexico in what has become Trump’s Sinatra Policy toward Mexico: ‘My Way.’ ”

Earl Anthony Wayne, co-chair of the Mexico Institute Advisory Board at the Wilson Center and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico: “When Presidents Trump and López Obrador (AMLO) meet today, they will rightly welcome the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), but they should also recognize that there is still much to be done to strengthen commerce, security and well-being between the United States and Mexico. In the 19 months since AMLO took office, U.S.-Mexico relations have largely been crisis management over the border wall, migration, cross-border crime and trade. Now, both presidents can gain by building on the USMCA and initiating long-term efforts to promote prosperity and build better cooperation on public security, border management and migration. The USMCA provides 16 years of ‘certainty’ during which North America’s businesses, farmers and workers can expand the existing networks that produced $1.3 trillion in trade in 2019. The USMCA’s updated rules, norms and procedures will facilitate commerce and resolving disputes. The USMCA, however, is also a strategic vehicle for making North America more competitive in the world and for building cooperation on shared economic challenges such as the transformation of work and business by new technologies, which is now accelerated by the impact of Covid-19. In this connection, Mexico should double down smartly on its potential to attract resilient supply chains and investment under the USMCA. To do so, the AMLO government needs to rethink steps that have alarmed investors. AMLO and Trump can productively use their talks to charge officials with developing a forward-looking economic agenda that builds from USMCA and with better cooperation on cross-border crime, border management and irregular migration.”

Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas program of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR): “President López Obrador has given various reasons for his trip to Washington: to thank Trump for selling ventilators to Mexico, to thank Mexican migrants—with whom he is not meeting and who almost universally oppose his visit—for remittances and ‘to talk baseball.’ The top reason is the entry into force of the USMCA, but the agreement is already signed and ratified and is not significantly changed from the terms laid out in 1994. It does not need glad-handing a beleaguered and campaigning U.S. president to go into effect. So why did López Obrador decide to make his first diplomatic trip abroad to a nation subsumed by the pandemic and electoral politics, facing the most massive opposition demonstrations in its history and led by a man who frequently attacks Mexico, Mexicans and migrants? AMLO arrives in Washington with his economic cabinet and advisors and what the Mexican Business Council hopes will be a ‘totally pro-investment agenda.’ With Mexico going deeper into recession and no possibility of a 1995-style, multibillion-dollar bailout, the trip is a dog whistle to international investors. This over-the-top appeal for the Trump seal of approval and U.S. investment clashes with the Mexican government’s stated goals of fairer distribution of wealth, multilateralism and reduced dependency. NAFTA created huge inequalities, and while the USMCA is a necessary evil after decades of integration, it will not be the Mexican economy’s panacea and could, in fact, impose restrictions on national programs to support small producers, foment national industry and direct resources toward the poor. Meanwhile, Trump garners free points among Latino voters. As happened when Peña Nieto hosted Trump’s 2016 campaign, this visit will be remembered as a colossal mistake and a step backward for a people-first, bilateral relationship.”

Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.