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Two populists from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Two populists from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

López Obrador journeys north to toast trade deal with Trump

Both leaders may find the meeting a convenient distraction from domestic troubles

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Andrés Manuel López Obrador makes his first international trip as Mexico’s president to visit Donald Trump on Wednesday, where the two populist leaders will toast the launch of the USMCA trade treaty despite mounting woes at home.

Since taking office 20 months ago, López Obrador has made not upsetting Trump a priority despite the U.S. president’s provocations. But critics fear he is wading into a political minefield just four months before the U.S. election — and with no plans to meet Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

López Obrador had initially expected to celebrate the July 1 start of the trade deal with the U.S and Canada — which replaced the quarter century-old NAFTA — via videoconference, because of the pandemic.

But on a visit to a border patrol station in Arizona last month, Trump said a visit was imminent. So Mexico’s president shelved his dislike of foreign travel to arrange a trip that — owing to his insistence on flying commercial — involved a layover and required him to take a Covid-19 test and wear a face mask, something he has refused to do despite rising numbers of cases at home.

The about-face reinforced a view in Mexico that despite their intertwined economies, López Obrador, who was critical of the U.S. president’s “authoritarian attitude” toward Mexicans and migrants in his 2017 book Hey Trump, invariably defers to his northern neighbour.

The decision by Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, to stay home — citing longstanding commitments — heightened those concerns.

Some fear that López Obrador will become a pawn in the re-election campaign of a president who professes friendship but has preached hostility to Mexicans and migrants and has made high-profile visits in recent weeks to his border wall.

“I think it’s a trap,” said Verónica Ortiz, head of Comexi, a foreign affairs think tank. Although Trump has hailed his counterpart as a “really great guy” and López Obrador has defended the U.S. president, “I don’t think people in Mexico see respect — they see continual aggression,” she added.

Both leaders — populists from opposite sides of the political spectrum — may find the meeting a convenient distraction from domestic troubles as they battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

López Obrador’s domestic approval ratings have dropped 20 points since early in his presidency, and he has been criticized for business-unfriendly policies including the cancellation of a partly-built U.S. brewery.

“He gets to say with USMCA that Mexico is open for business when everything else he is doing shows that Mexico is not,” said Duncan Wood, head of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. “It’s a photo-op so he can say ‘I’ve handled Trump,’ which isn’t true.”

Trump has also seen his approval ratings drop as he comes under fire for his handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout. He continues to lose ground in polls to Biden.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus attacked the trip in a letter to Trump as “nothing more than an attempt to distract from the coronavirus crisis” as well as “a blatant attempt to politicize the important U.S.-Mexican relationship along partisan lines.”

Some fear that despite López Obrador’s policy of non-intervention in other nation’s affairs, his failure to meet Biden or senior Democrats could make it look like he was taking sides.

“USMCA was only ratified because of Democrat support,” said Jason Marczak, head of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “The U.S.-Mexico relationship is far more than just an AMLO-Trump deal.”

Mexican officials denied any bias. “The reason this trip is limited to meeting the president is precisely because Mexico does not want to intervene in an internal U.S. [electoral] process … It’s a government-to-government, president-to-president meeting between two countries which in 2019 were each other’s biggest trading partners,” said foreign ministry spokesman Daniel Millán.

Nevertheless, Trump has usually prevailed. Within a month of taking office, López Obrador accepted Washington’s demands for migrants to await U.S. asylum hearings in Mexico.

The U.S. president then threatened tariffs on Mexican exports unless it clamped down on rising numbers of Central American migrants. López Obrador acquiesced, deploying his National Guard police force en masse.

There is also the spectre of Trump’s visit to Mexico during the 2016 campaign, which left then-president Enrique Peña Nieto humiliated after failing to challenge insults against Mexicans and plans for a border wall.

López Obrador maintained “it is better to have good relations than to fight.” As well as controversial issues including drugs and weapons trafficking, he said the two men may also discuss their shared love of baseball.

Mexico’s president was to kick off his trip on Wednesday with a visit to the Lincoln memorial. After paying his respects to his favourite U.S. president, he was to visit a statue in the U.S. capital of his political hero, 19th-century Mexican president Benito Juárez.

He meets Trump on Wednesday afternoon. The trip will end with a White House dinner attended by top Mexican business leaders, including Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man and a prominent investor in the president’s infrastructure projects.

Others include Ricardo Salinas, a media, banking and retail mogul and one of his closest business advisers, as well as Bernardo Gómez, co-president of Televisa, Mexico’s top television station, who hosted Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, for a dinner at his home in Mexico City last year.

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