Unlike scores of leaders around the world, President López Obrador didn’t congratulate Joe Biden after United States media announced his victory over President Donald Trump in last Tuesday’s election.
Speaking in Villahermosa, Tabasco, on Saturday evening several hours after major media outlets called the race for Biden, López Obrador said he would wait until legal challenges are resolved before offering his congratulations to the successful candidate.
“We’re going to wait for all the legal issues to be resolved. We don’t want to be imprudent. … We want to be respectful of people’s self-determination and the rights of others,” he said.
The president joins the leaders of Brazil, China and Russia in withholding congratulatory remarks to the president-elect.
López Obrador, a strong advocate of non-intervention in the affairs of foreign countries, also said that “President Trump has been very respectful of us,” adding that “we have achieved some important accords.”
“We are thankful to him because he has not interfered,” he said.
Indeed, Trump didn’t make Mexico a major issue in his campaign for re-election this year as he did when he faced U.S. voters in 2016 and infamously described some Mexican migrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
Despite that rhetoric and their ideological differences, López Obrador has developed a friendly relationship with his U.S. counterpart. His only trip outside Mexico since taking office in late 2018 was a visit to Washington in July to meet with Trump.
During the visit, AMLO, as the president is best known, said that in his time in office, Mexico has received “understanding and respect” from Trump and his government.
In Villahermosa on Saturday, López Obrador said that Biden has also shown respect toward Mexico and not sought to interfere in its internal affairs.
AMLO said that he has known the 77-year-old former vice president for more than 10 years, noting that he had spoken with him about migration policy.
“There are no bad relationships, it’s just that I can’t congratulate one candidate or the other. I want to wait until the electoral process is finished,” he said.
In addition perhaps to not wanting to offend Trump while the U.S. president remains in office and takes legal action against alleged voting irregularities, López Obrador’s decision not to congratulate Biden appears related to his own experience in close, contested elections.
In remarks that were striking in their similarity to those made recently by Trump, the president said Saturday that the presidency was stolen from him at the 2006 election he lost narrowly to ex-president Felipe Calderón.
“They hadn’t finished counting the votes and some governments were already recognizing those who declared themselves winners,” López Obrador said.
Although AMLO – who also challenged the result of the 2012 election he lost to former president Enrique Peña Nieto – said his decision to not congratulate Biden didn’t amount to an endorsement of Trump, many of his critics charged that he had indeed sided with the U.S. president, who is deeply unpopular in Mexico.
It was widely expected that López Obrador would reach out to Biden given the importance of the relationship with the United States, which shares a more than 3,000-kilometer-long border with Mexico and is the country’s most important trading partner.
“This was a very serious mistake by López Obrador,” said Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister who served in the administration of ex-president Vicente Fox.
López Obrador should have followed the lead of other leaders who quickly congratulated Biden, he said, noting that leadership aspirants welcome congratulatory remarks from foreign leaders because it confers legitimacy on election results.
“The standard on these matters, and this is a long-standing issue in diplomacy, is pretty much this: you should do what everyone else does,” Castañeda said.
The former foreign minister, now a professor at New York University, charged that López Obrador is “scared to death of Trump” but wondered “what kind of retribution” he is afraid of.
“Trump is not going to close the border. Or bomb Ciudad Juárez. Or deport 2 million Mexicans. It’s not in the cards,” he said.
Pascal Beltrán del Río, editorial director of the newspaper Excélsior, charged that López Obrador effectively endorsed Trump’s repudiation of the election results by not congratulating Biden.
“The president of Mexico now owns Donald Trump’s hallucinatory observations about the presidential election,” he wrote on Twitter. “The relationship with Biden was already going to be difficult; now more so.”
United States Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas democrat who heads up the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said on Twitter that López Obrador’s failure to recognize Biden as president-elect was a “a stunning diplomatic failure … at a time when the incoming Biden administration is looking to usher in a new era of friendship and cooperation with Mexico.”
Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, a U.S. representative for Illinois, tweeted at the president to tell him that “American voters have spoken and Joe Biden is our president elect.”
“He won fair and square,” he added before advising AMLO not to miss out on the timely opportunity to congratulate him.
Other observers were not as critical of López Obrador’s decision to withhold his congratulations.
“The crazy guy [Trump] could close the border, deport people or [do] something else that could cause a lot of damage to Mexico and to our compatriots,” said Genaro Lozano, a political analyst and columnist.
Héctor Diego Medina, a columnist and foreign affairs analyst, said that AMLO had made a “diplomatic error” but contended that it won’t be a costly one.
“Joe Biden is not a vengeful politician,” and therefore there won’t be any reprisal against Mexico once he takes office, he said. “Biden won’t create a fuss nor will he implement any sanction [against Mexico].”
The analyst said that he actually sees a warming of bilateral relations with Biden in the White House.
“The tone [toward Mexico from the U.S. president] will be better, the bilateral … [relationship] won’t be so coarse and there will be greater possibility of dialogue,” Medina said.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that he anticipates greater cooperation between Mexico and the United States if Biden’s election victory is confirmed.
He specifically cited economic matters as one area in which cooperation could improve but stressed that the relationship could benefit from a Biden presidency in a range of others.
Ebrard also said that the government will ask the United States to ramp up efforts to stop the flow of weapons into Mexico and the sale of drugs in the U.S.
The foreign ministers added that a meeting with an incoming Biden administration will be necessary in order to understand its vision for the relationship with Mexico. He ruled out any possibility that López Obrador’s decision not to immediately congratulate Biden will cause problems in the bilateral relationship.
Once the election result is confirmed, the Mexican government will dedicate itself to forging the “best possible relationship” with the new U.S. administration, Ebrard said.