MEXICO CITY — President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has never left Mexico once in the 19 months he has been in office. Now, he’s traveling to Washington, to greet President Trump.
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Gladys McCormick, an Assistant Professor of History in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, specializes in the political and economic history of Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on corruption, drug trafficking, and political violence.
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McCormick is the author of “The Last Door: Political Prisoners and the Use of Torture in Mexico’s Dirty War,” published in the journal The Americas (January 2017), and “The Logic of Compromise: Authoritarianism, Betrayal, and Revolution in Rural Mexico, 1935-1965” (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). She is currently working on two books: one detailing the history of torture in Mexico since the 1970s, and the other a co-authored overview of drug trafficking in Latin America.
Reason for trip:
Both AMLO and Trump need to highlight the start of the USMCA deal to deflect attention away from their respective crises at home by focusing on what they consider to be a victory for their administrations; Trump because he is facing dismal polls going into this reelection and AMLO because he has little to show in terms of achievements two years into his electoral victory. Both leaders get to shift the conversation away – even if momentarily – from their governments’ mishandling of the COVID pandemic.
For Trump, AMLO’s visit will allow him to showcase how he has bent Mexico to his will by reminding voters that this is a “very good deal” for the US while signaling his achievements at strong-arming Mexico on immigration policies. The fact President AMLO is coming to visit Trump at the White House and this press conference will take place in Trump’s backyard signals who is the top political player. This undoubtedly will help Trump in his reelection campaign because it shows who has more power.
For President AMLO, he can momentarily stop the focus on the growing security crisis in Mexico and his government’s inability to stem the wave of violence afflicting so many states, such as Guanajuato, and evident in the streets of Mexico City with the recent assassination attempt of the Chief of Police there. The visit is also a way for AMLO to rally his base of support as he appears to take the message of the Fourth Transformation to Washington DC with what he calls “dignity and decorum."
Immigration as a flash point:
The topic of immigration will loom large at their visit for two reasons: Trump just announced he’s re-filing the DACA justification before the Supreme Court later this week and AMLO has been discussing at his morning press conferences about how he’s a “friend of the immigrant” and he’s going to “represent the immigrants on this trip”. Likely not in direct conversations between the two of them, since both are vested in keeping up appearances that they get along and shine the focus on USMCA, but certainly off-stage.
Trump needs it to bolster his credibility as hard on Mexico and immigrants in general, while AMLO needs it to shift the conversation away from all the security crisis unfolding in places like Guanajuato and for damage control with Remain in Mexico/National Guard at border with Guatemala. He also has give Mexicans deliverables given how much support he’s getting in the polls for this visit.
The takeaway would be that both leaders stoke their unique brands of populist theatre using immigration: Trump as being against it and AMLO to highlight his progressive persona. The clash of these two populist uses of immigration later this week will reveal cracks in the carefully honed image of these two leaders as being on friendly terms. This clash may have intended consequence from the Trump camp, though unintended from AMLO, of pushing immigration back on scene as a core issue for the campaign, hence the accusation that AMLO will help Trump is valid.
AMLO's relationship with Trump:
One reading of the relationship between the two leaders is that the only person that can say “no” to AMLO is Trump. While the Mexican president has dismissed – often publicly – the suggestions of his advisors and political allies, he readily bows to Trump’s threats. We need only think back to the President AMLO stationing the National Guard at the Mexico’s southern border to stop the flows of migrants and capitulating to Trump’s threat to impose tariffs last summer to force AMLO to agree to the Remain in Mexico asylum policy.
This reading gives the impression that AMLO is weak and subservient when it comes to the American president, and feeds into all notions that the US is the superior partner in diplomatic relations with its southern neighbor.
Another reading of their relationship is that AMLO is politically savvy and, despite his personalistic approach to leadership, knows how to pick his battles. Moreover, AMLO learned how Mexico should manage the relationship with its ostensibly more powerful northern neighbor as he rose through the ranks for the PRI machine in the 1980s. Even after he broke away from the PRI in the 1990s and 2000s, he and others around him had gotten their political education in the PRI. In other words, AMLO took a page from the PRI in how to negotiate and collaborate closely with the US government.
He may appear “servile” to Trump, but that is precisely the strategy that worked so well for Mexico during, for example, the 1960s and 1970s. Mexico came off as an ally of the US during the Cold War and later on the Drug War, when in reality they used the anti-communist and anti-narcotic rhetoric, not to mention military aid and training, to subdue domestic dissent and protect one-party rule.
Latino/as in the US:
President AMLO's visit will do very little for the Latino/a community in the US. He is a divisive figure among Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, so it would be naïve to suggest his visit will help rally support for Trump among this group of voters.
Risk of contagion:
Now that Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil was diagnosed as positive for COVID-19, there may be greater scrutiny on AMLO taking such a trip to the United States during a pandemic. Though he has tested negative, the fact he insists on traveling commercial and connecting through an airport in a likely COVID hotspot, raises the recklessness of taking such a visit at this time.