Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador heads to Washington on Wednesday to talk trade with Donald Trump, against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the US leader’s bid for re-election
It will be Lopez Obrador’s first foreign visit after 18 months on the job and will see him meet a president known for his anti-Mexico rhetoric.
It’s a practical decision to visit Trump, a man who described Mexicans as “rapists” and bringing “drugs” and “crime” during his successful 2016 election campaign and who has vowed to build a wall across the entirety of the southern US border to keep such people out.
Lopez Obrador, widely known by his initials AMLO, says the main reason for his visit will be to kick-start the new North American trade deal that came into force on July 1, as well as to thank Trump for supplying equipment to fight the coronavirus.
“It’s not surprising that AMLO’s first foreign travel as president is to the White House,” Michael Shifter, director of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, told AFP.
“His policy towards the US under Trump has been… to avoid any conflict.”
The Mexican president is banking on the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — known as T-MEC in Spanish — helping to drag his country’s economy out of the 8.8 percent contraction expected this year due to the pandemic, which has left more than 30,000 dead in Mexico.
‘Walking a tightrope’
But there’s more to this visit than just trade.
It comes just four months ahead of Trump’s bid for re-election, and some Latino Democratic legislators have called on the US president to cancel the visit, saying it “politicizes” the bilateral relations.
However, the visit is going ahead, and the White House press secretary’s office said the two presidents will meet “as part of their continued partnership on trade, health, and other issues central to regional prosperity and security.”
It added that the new deal, which was signed at Trump’s insistence as he wanted to ditch the old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that he felt was unfair to his country, would “ensure North America continues strengthening its economic ties while working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”
Lopez Obrador has dismissed any notion that his visit could help Trump, insisting that he wouldn’t be getting involved in “partisan politics” and this is a “work meeting.”
He added that “politics is like walking a tightrope, you have to take risks.”
Some 12 million people born in Mexico live in the US and another 26 million are second or third generation Mexicans.
“It’s an unnecessary visit that has a lot of risks and no advantage for Mexico,” former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda told AFP.
He believes the visit will add nothing to the trade deal but could give Trump an election boost.
Castaneda also felt crucial issues such as the US sending asylum seekers to Mexico while they waited for decisions on their case; the recent deportation of Mexicans that have lived in the US for years; or the cancelation of work visas under the pretext of measures to fight the pandemic would not be discussed.
He also believes other issues should be on the agenda, such as the socioeconomic damage of border travel restrictions due to the coronavirus on people living either side of the frontier, as well as the trafficking of drugs and arms.
“Right now Trump is entirely dedicated to his re-election, to the pandemic and the economy… it doesn’t seem very favorable,” Castaneda added.
For international relations expert Hernan Gomez, the meeting will merely help Trump “reinforce his narrative that he succeeded in his campaign promises” to end the NAFTA agreement, which he had called the worst deal ever signed.
Gomez believes there has been “very strong pressure from Trump to do things on his terms,” adding that, after all, it’s “a very asymmetrical relationship.”