Two days before meeting with his United States counterpart in the White House, President López Obrador has brushed off criticism of his trip to Washington, declaring that U.S. President Donald Trump’s treatment of Mexico is not the same as it was before.
“If we have a good relationship with the United States government, we’ll avoid ill treatment, and little by little we’ve achieved this,” López Obrador told reporters at his regular news conference on Monday morning.
“My critics, our adversaries, ask ‘how can I go [to the United States] if he [Trump] has offended Mexicans?’ I want to say to the people of my country that in the time we’ve been in government, there has been a relationship of respect, not just toward the government but especially toward the people of Mexico. It’s not the same treatment as before and this can be proven in statements, in messages … about Mexico from abroad. It’s a completely different situation,” he said.
López Obrador reiterated that the purpose of his visit to Washington is to celebrate the July 1 entry into force of the new North American free trade pact, the USMCA, and the beginning of a new commercial relationship with Mexico’s fellow signatories, the United States and Canada.
(The office of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that he won’t attend the White House celebration.)
“We believe that the treaty’s entry into force is … very important,” López Obrador said, declaring that the USMCA will allow North America to become a stronger economic region.
“This agreement is beneficial for the three nations” and their people, he said, adding that it ensures that workers in Mexico, the United States and Canada will receive fair pay and benefits.
“This wasn’t considered before,” the president said.
While the entry into force of the USMCA provides a legitimate reason for López Obrador to travel to the United States, his first trip outside Mexico since taking office in December 2018, people ranging from everyday Mexicans to former diplomats and political commentators have nevertheless criticized his decision to meet with Trump, who a year and a half before his 2016 election victory infamously labeled some Mexican immigrants to the U.S. as criminals, drug dealers and rapists.
Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, said on Twitter in late June that meeting with Trump would be a “big blunder” writing that López Obrador “will only be used as an electoral prop” four months before U.S. voters go to the polls.
Denise Dresser, a Mexican political scientist and columnist, said the decision was “a very risky move.”
“Forever the Mexican president will be captured in a photograph standing next to someone who Mexicans view as xenophobic, as racist, as a leader who has humiliated Mexicans,” she said. “By standing next to him, López Obrador validates those positions.”
A Mexico City sidewalk taquero, or taco cook, was also critical of the president’s trip to Washington.
However, given that he has made up his mind to go, AMLO, as the president is popularly known, should “tell Trump to stop stepping all over us and to treat everyone as equals,” Cristian Corte told the United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) from his makeshift taco stand outside a subway station.
Others critical of López Obrador’s Washington trip say he is using it to distract from problems at home, especially the coronavirus crisis and associated economic downturn.
There is, however, strong public support for AMLO’s decision to meet with Trump. A poll conducted by the newspaper El Financiero at the end of June showed that even though 70% of respondents saw Trump in a negative light, 59% supported López Obrador’s plan to meet with the U.S. president. In contrast, 35% of respondents disagreed with it.
A Mexico City construction worker expressed support for the trip, telling NPR that López Obrador’s meeting with Trump could help Mexico’s ailing economy, which is predicted to suffer a deep recession in 2020.
“I hope they do something good and get investment to come here because jobs are hard to come by these days in Mexico,” Saúl Hernández said.
Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City university, predicted that López Obrador won’t lose too much support as a result of meeting with Trump.
“For Mexican standards López Obrador is still quite a positive president, his base sticks with him. It’s chipping away but it is chipping away slowly,” he said.
Bravo personally opposes AMLO’s White House visit but acknowledged that he is in a difficult situation.
“It’s not like the president of Mexico can get in a fight with Trump. … One way or the other we have to reckon with the fact that we have such an anti-Mexican president in the White House and find a way to work with him.”
The meeting between López Obrador and Trump will be the two leaders’ first face-to-face encounter, although they have shared several telephone conversations.
The Mexican-American summit will go down as one of the odder meetings, said the news magazine The Economist, describing it as a “rare face-to-face meeting” amid the coronavirus pandemic between two presidents “who are notably reluctant to promote social distancing.” Neither is ever seen wearing a face mask.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said that everyone traveling in the Mexican delegation – Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and Economy Minister Graciela Márquez will be among the officials accompanying López Obrador – will be tested for Covid-19 before meeting Trump.
Their risk of exposure to the virus will be higher because the president and other government officials will fly commercial to Washington with a change of planes required to reach the U.S. capital from Mexico City.
While López Obrador and other government officials are at pains to justify the visit, The Economist said that “it is not clear what AMLO will gain from the summit except frequent-flyer miles.”
It said that the meeting will provide an opportunity for Trump to boast that he has got much of what he wanted from López Obrador.
The United States president initiated the renegotiation of a new North American trade pact, describing NAFTA as “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made,” and convinced Mexico effectively to become his long-promised border wall by threatening blanket tariffs on Mexican imports if López Obrador and his government didn’t do more to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S.
The Mexican government staved off the tariffs by deploying the National Guard to both block the entry of Central American migrants at the southern border and stymie their progress through Mexico toward the United States. It also agreed to accept the return of all migrants who had passed through Mexico to reach the U.S. as they await the outcome of their applications for asylum.
In addition, Mexico allowed factories that had been shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic to reopen after coming under significant pressure from the United States not to disrupt the North American supply chain.
The U.S. government, The Economist noted, helped to arrange the sale of 211 ventilators to Mexico but “otherwise there has been little reciprocity.”
The United States did agree to cut oil production on Mexico’s behalf in order to help secure a deal to reduce global output to stabilize crude prices amid the coronavirus pandemic but Trump stressed in April that Mexico would “reimburse us sometime at a later date when they’re prepared to do so.”
Trump could seek to have such a reimbursement designed in a way that will help his chances at the November 3 presidential election at which he will face off against Democratic Party presumptive nominee and former vice president Joe Biden.
López Obrador’s cultivation of a friendship with Trump via his Washington visit could jeopardize his relationship with Biden, who appears to be on track to become the next president of the United States.
The Economist said that “Democrats are thought to be dismayed by AMLO’s subservience to Mr. Trump,” noting that while Biden met with all of the presidential candidates for Mexico’s 2012 election, including López Obrador, during a trip to the country that year, the Mexican president has given no indication that he will return the favor.
It also said that some members of Biden’s team think AMLO is a willing accomplice in Trump’s pitch for reelection and predicted that Mexican-American relations could be strained if Barrack Obama’s VP ascends to the top job.
“If Mr. Biden wins, Mexico’s president may have some fence-mending to do,” The Economist said.