Despite the criticism it received, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s recent meeting with Donald Trump was a shrewd diplomatic move that will help consolidate the Mexican president’s progressive agenda.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was inaugurated as President of Mexico in December 2018, he encountered what seemed on the face of it to be a hostile and inimical environment, with a more antagonistic incumbent in the White House than had been seen in generations. With Trump expressing open disdain for Mexicans and talking of building a wall to keep them out, the prospects seemed grim.
As a candidate in 2017, AMLO had called Trump a ‘neofascist’ and roundly condemned his anti-Mexican prejudices. Trump threatened to tear up NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, and while AMLO like much of the Mexican Left had condemned this neoliberal treaty, it seemed likely to be replaced with something even worse if Trump got his way.
But AMLO surprised most observers, and probably the US administration, by seeking good relations from the word go. Despite the imbalance of forces, the Mexican leader and his team correctly calculated that Washington would not really want to exclude migrant workers completely or to disrupt the closely integrated economy of the border regions and of major industrial production chains like the automobile industry.
While totally opposed to neoliberalism, AMLO realised that with 80 per cent of Mexico’s foreign trade being with its northern neighbour the idea of simply tearing up NAFTA was a non-starter. The only viable solution (although far from easy) was to seek revision of the treaty in ways beneficial to Mexico.
Rather than indulge in futile, indeed suicidal, anti-imperialist gestures, AMLO sought to engage with the vain and irascible occupant of the White House by a combination of flattery and hard bargaining. Trump’s preference for personal dialogue and deal-making could be used to Mexico’s advantage.
On his election in 2018, AMLO contacted the US President proposing a new stage in bilateral relations ‘based on mutual respect’, and Trump responded in kind, with warm congratulations on AMLO’s victory. Shortly afterwards a high-level US delegation arrived to push trade negotiations forward.1 While domestically AMLO advanced with his ‘Fourth Transformation’ (4T) agenda, he also sought rapprochement with Mexico’s hegemonic neighbour.
Two years later, in July 2020, the inconceivable has happened: a new trade treaty (USMCA, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement) has come into force, with significant benefits for Mexico; and AMLO has just visited Washington as a favoured guest of President Trump. Moreover, despite scepticism from many on both sides of the political spectrum, this gesture may well go down in history as a triumph of Mexican diplomacy.
The Transformation of Mexican Foreign Policy
In the year and a half since his inauguration, AMLO and his remarkably capable Foreign Secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, have discreetly but firmly undertaken a radical reorientation of Mexican foreign policy. Rather than a supine submission to Washington and a steady rightward drift, as had been the case with the neoliberal presidents of the previous 30 years, they have reasserted Mexico’s historic tradition of non-intervention and respect for sovereignty, and combined it with an active and protagonistic role promoting peace and multilateral cooperation on the international stage.
While quietly negotiating with Washington, Mexico showed an apparently contradictory desire for closer relations with progressive governments in Latin America. Formerly a leading member of the conservative ‘Lima Group’ of Western Hemisphere governments (formed in August 2017 to increase hostile pressure on Venezuela in line with US policy), Mexico now withdrew from the group. This new trend in Mexican policy faced a potential crisis in late May 2019, when after months of growing Central American migration through Mexico towards the US, Trump suddenly threatened to slap 25 per cent tariffs on all Mexican products if the flow of migrants was not halted.2
Rather than respond with hostile rhetoric, AMLO called for dialogue and sent Marcelo Ebrard to Washington for talks. A week later Ebrard emerged triumphant, with a bilateral agreement to work together to manage migration from Central America (and elsewhere), and an understanding that tariffs and trade were a separate issue.3 Trump abandoned the tariff threats and trade negotiations resumed.
Another dramatic incident which demonstrated the new direction of Mexican diplomacy was the coup in Bolivia in October 2019 and Mexico’s decisive action to grant asylum to President Evo Morales, sending an air force plane to rescue him and almost certainly saving his life.4 Despite evidence pointing to US involvement in the coup, open friction with Washington was avoided and Mexico insisted that this was a humanitarian gesture based on its long tradition of granting asylum regardless of political orientation.
This positive engagement with Latin American neighbours is now reflected with Mexico holding the presidency of CELAC, the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States (which includes all Western Hemisphere countries except the US & Canada) for the year 2020; Mexico is clearly proud to lead this independent regional organisation. AMLO has carefully avoided any entanglement in the bitter confrontation between the US and Venezuela, but when questioned on the subject he reasserted Mexico’s opposition to any kind of intervention and its defence of national sovereignty. In response to a specific question as to whether Mexico would sell Venezuela petrol, he declared that they would (although no request had been received): ‘We are free, and we defend self-determination.’5
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Mexico not only took the necessary domestic measures but reached out for help internationally: Marcelo Ebrard and his team quickly arranged to get ventilators and PPE from China, and AMLO personally called both Trump and president Xi Jinping of China to request assistance. Beyond this, Mexico also took the lead on Covid-19 internationally, with AMLO intervening in a virtual meeting of the G20 to warn that the response to the pandemic must address the problem of global inequality.6
In the last three months, the scope and ambition of Mexico’s diplomacy has really come into its own. At the United Nations, the Mexican delegation proposed a resolution calling for equal access to any Covid-19 vaccine or treatment and an end to speculation in medicines and equipment; it was backed by 187 of 193 member countries. This and other activities favouring international cooperation were reflected in Mexico’s election to the Security Council with a near-unanimous vote, and its appointment also to ECOSOC, the UN Economic & Social Council.
This success on the global stage was accompanied by important steps in bilateral relations, making it clear that while Mexico wants close economic collaboration, military involvement of any kind is not acceptable. Current legal action against corruption under former president Felipe Calderón has raised the issue of the ‘Fast and Furious’ intervention in 2009, a covert raid by armed US agents which violated Mexican sovereignty and which appears to have been authorised by Calderón’s government. Marcelo Ebrard sent a diplomatic note on 8 May requesting clarification of recent revelations on the subject.7
Also, on 18 June, AMLO reminded his audience that under former president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18) the US had provided helicopter gunships to help Mexico in the fight against crime, but ‘with all due respect, we do not want this’.8
To Washington with Prestige and Dignity
Global diplomatic success combined with assertion of legal and military sovereignty meant that the Mexican president could arrive at the White House with his head held high, not as a supplicant but as leader of an independent country with growing prestige. His confidence was also aided by domestic success, with progressive implementation of social programmes and systematic efforts to eradicate corruption and impunity.
The visit was not generally expected until almost the last moment: for over a year into his presidency AMLO maintained that he would not engage in international travel, relating with other heads of state by phone, virtual communication or through his diplomatic service. Even when in late March 2020 both Trump and Xi Jinping issued invitations, he showed reluctance to travel, citing health concerns. Still as late as 10 June, in answer to a question at his daily press conference, AMLO pointed out that the UN was advising against meetings of heads of state at the General Assembly in September, and ‘I still think the best foreign policy is made at home.’9
Anyone who has observed the Mexican president carefully will realise that he keeps his cards close to his chest, and it should not have come as a surprise that only some ten days later he was talking of the visit to Washington as a strong possibility. The formal entry into force of the new USMCA Treaty on 1 July meant that early July would be an appropriate time to visit, indeed the only realistic time given the electoral calendar in the US. Critics would in any case argue that the visit would give unnecessary backing to Trump’s campaign, but AMLO could reasonably respond – as he did – that it was a state visit celebrating a major new bilateral agreement (indeed, trilateral, with Canada) regardless of party politics.
When the visit finally materialised, AMLO’s remarkable capacity for surprise and audacity was revealed yet again in the unprecedented decision to take an ordinary commercial flight. While it was well known that he was selling the presidential plane as part of his drive against official extravagance, it had widely been assumed that he would travel in a Mexican Air Force plane for security reasons.
The event itself, from the evening of 7 July to the afternoon of 9 July, followed the choreographed ritual of most such events. AMLO made formal tributes at the monuments to Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez, emphasising good relations at a crucial moment in the history of both countries (the US Civil War and abolition of slavery, and the French invasion of Mexico). This in itself could be seen as a subtle but significant gesture given Trump’s association with white supremacists, made more palatable by the fact that Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party. It also marked a very rare instance in which the US actually defended Mexican sovereignty.
Following the official meeting of the two presidents on 8 July, both alone and then with their respective teams, the formal speeches in the White House Rose Garden were remarkably warm and cordial. Trump spoke of ‘my good friend’ and said the two countries now enjoyed ‘an outstanding relationship…which had never been so close’, praising the contribution of Mexican-Americans in many fields of US life.
AMLO’s speech also focused on the positive, but it was longer and more substantial, with emphasis on several points which are crucial to his agenda. ‘We want to privilege understanding…setting aside differences, or solving those differences through dialogue and mutual respect’ – ‘Some thought that our ideological differences would inevitably lead to confrontation. Fortunately, that bad omen was not fulfilled.’ He outlined the benefits of the new USMCA trade treaty, as Trump had also done, but stressed the benefits for workers and for small and medium enterprises. He also thanked the US president for assistance in obtaining ventilators for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
But AMLO also politely but pointedly stressed several historical episodes: a remark by George Washington to the effect that no nation should take advantage of another’s weakness; the close relationship between Juárez and Lincoln and the rejection of the French invasion; and the good relations also between Lázaro Cárdenas and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in avoiding conflict over the 1938 oil expropriation.
AMLO repeatedly referred to friendship and good relations between the two countries ‘despite some grievances which cannot be forgotten’; and ‘what I appreciate the most is that you have never sought to impose on us anything that violates our sovereignty…You have not tried to treat us as a colony; rather, you have honoured our status as an independent nation.’10 Not surprisingly, Trump described his visitor as ‘tough but fair’.
The visit concluded with a gala dinner and further brief speeches; among those attending were leading business representatives, a sign of the new treaty’s real commercial and economic significance.
Critics, allies & saboteurs: what’s really at stake
As was to be expected, the Washington visit was subject to intense criticism from all sides, but particularly from the Left. Those who had denounced NAFTA as a neoliberal agreement destroying workers’ rights, depressing wages, turning Mexico into a branch-plant economy and harming the environment, saw no benefit in the new treaty. They condemned AMLO for not meeting Mexican migrants and for being a pal of Trump when the US president is struggling in the polls. A typical Mexican leftist journal, La Izquierda Diario, accused AMLO of ‘grovelling’ with a ‘display of flattery’ in the face of Trump’s ‘unlimited cynicism’.11 In the US, the Democrats inevitably accused the Mexican president of unwarranted interference in the election campaign, and the liberal media in both the US and Mexico rehashed all of Trump’s unsavoury qualities and the alleged benefits for Mexico of a Democratic victory in the elections.
What the critics fail to consider is that a failure to engage with the US on trade when Trump was denouncing NAFTA for his own nationalist reasons, and even more when global economic crisis threatened to see Mexico crushed by US protectionism, would have been disastrous. As for migration, open confrontation with Trump could only lead to brutal retaliation which would leave the migrant community in a much worse situation.
The new USMCA Treaty also has real benefits which the critics fail to consider. Unlike NAFTA, it includes a chapter on labour which explicitly recognises union rights, calls for internal union democracy and for higher wages in Mexico. It also includes small and medium enterprises, providing for their participation in exchanges between the three countries; and it respects Mexico’s petroleum sovereignty, previously threatened by US proposals for a free energy market. To have won these concessions from Washington is no small achievement.
But where the critics are most wide of the mark is in terms of the political context, both domestic and international. Anyone familiar with US Latin American policy in recent decades will realise that the Democrats, despite their liberal rhetoric and their much more presentable manners, are in practice no less interventionist and bellicose than the Republicans. As for migration, under Obama a record number of Mexicans – nearly two million – were deported.
In Mexican domestic politics, the rightwing and old-guard opposition to AMLO has been completely outmanoeuvred by the Washington visit. They have been trying desperately to tar him with the leftist brush as an irresponsible populist, an enemy of business, a castro-chavista bent on turning Mexico into another Venezuela. Now he has most of the country’s leading entrepreneurs onside, transnational companies like Walmart agreeing to pay overdue taxes to finance the 4T Transformation, a new trade treaty and a good relationship with the most notoriously unpredictable US president in living memory.
What the Mexican Right (and much of the US establishment) wanted was to provoke AMLO into a confrontation which would enable them to generate a middle- and upper-class revolt with significant support, leading to regime change as in Brazil or Bolivia or at least serious unrest as in Venezuela or Nicaragua. Instead they are faced with a moderate consensus for real progressive change in a democratic and peaceful manner, a positive example which can only be beneficial for the entire Latin American and Caribbean region (and even – dare one hope – for the US itself).
Viewed in this context, AMLO’s Washington visit can be seen, in the words of John Ackerman, as ‘a strategic triumph of reason over politics’ and ‘a diplomatic master-stroke’ comparable in US politics to Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.12 The more thoughtful and analytical intellectuals in Mexico realise this: Victor Flores Olea writes of ‘AMLO’s tour-de-force in dangerous territory’ and quotes veteran Senator Porfirio Muñoz Ledo: ‘this is the most complete and illuminating speech I have ever heard from a Mexican president in the United States…’ Muñoz Ledo also points out that ‘Trump didn’t say what he thinks, but what he had to say, while López Obrador said exactly what he thinks and what I believe all Mexicans think’.13
3 ‘Mexico’s Ebrard says Talks with U.S. focused on Migration Flows, not Tariffs’, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-mexico-ebrard-idUSKCN1T62WS, June 6, 2019. Accessed 08/07/2020; and www.migrationpolicy.org/research/one-year-us-mexico-agreement,
10 Presidencia de la República, Comunicado, 09 de julio de 2020: www.gob.mx/presidencia/we-choose-to-march-together-towards-the-future-declares-president-lopez-obrador-during-an-official-work-visit-to-the-united-states
11 www.laizquierdadiario.mx/Historica-arrastrada-de-AMLO-ante-Trump-en-la-Casa-Blanca, 8 July 2020, Accessed 14/07/2020. ‘Alarde de zalamerías’ de AMLO, ‘cinismo sin límite’ de Trump. Translation mine.
This article was originally published in Public Reading Rooms and has been edited for style.