A change is coming to US-Mexico relations

A change is coming to US-Mexico relations

02/07/18 - 20:14 - The winner of Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico is poised to bring profound changes to the country’s relationship with the U.S., at a time when the two nations find themselves increasingly at odds over President Trump’s policies.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known colloquially as AMLO, campaigned on a radical anti-corruption ticket. But his campaign approach to U.S.-Mexico relations was in many ways similar to that of his opponents, as Trump and his policies remain deeply unpopular across Mexico’s political spectrum.

"AMLO was actually quite restrained about the United States during the campaign; all candidates were critical [of Trump]," said Earl Anthony Wayne, who was U.S. ambassador to Mexico under former President Obama.

López Obrador is expected to bring a markedly different tone to bilateral relations than that of current President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose cautious and diplomatic approach to Trump was almost universally reviled by Mexican voters.

Still, López Obrador is likely to face many of the same challenges on key issues, from NAFTA to immigration to personal relations with Trump.

"He will have to walk that thin fine line that the current government has had to walk down for the past two years," said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.


López Obrador, who in the 1990s was an opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), could bring a radically different approach to the ongoing negotiations to redraft the treaty, which impacts more than 80 percent of the country's exports.

López Obrador says he now supports the treaty, but his past opposition and left-leaning ideology worries some of NAFTA's strongest proponents.

"I have heard from some that he's moderating and that his economic advisers are not complete socialists, but we're very concerned about having a situation like Venezuela just south of our border," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a powerful advocate for NAFTA.

Trump, meanwhile, is likely to continue his policy of using tariffs and threats of withdrawal as a negotiation tactic in dealing with Mexico and Canada. Mexico’s president-elect will be under political pressure to be seen as "not being bullied," Christopher Wilson said.

Known for his short temper and intolerance of dissent, López Obrador is expected to exert direct control over his party, the National Regeneration Movement, and its allies, and take a more aggressive tact in the negotiations.

"I think he's not going to be as passive as Peña Nieto was regarding NAFTA. I think he's going to defend the sovereignty of Mexico in strong ways," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

Still, López Obrador's new government may look to NAFTA as a way to start the presidential term on the right foot.

"The first good thing you could do is actually finish NAFTA negotiations," Wayne said.


Trump and López Obrador will have to navigate each other carefully on the hot-button topic of immigration.

López Obrador, a proponent of the traditional Mexican doctrine of non-intervention and self-determination in foreign affairs, will be forced to step outside his comfort zone to criticize a foreign country's human rights record unless U.S. policy toward migrants changes.

"We will be friends to all the peoples and governments of the world," he said. "In foreign policy, we will again practice the principles of non-intervention, self-determination of peoples and peaceful solution of controversies."

But López Obrador, facing internal and external pressures, will have to take on Trump directly when it comes to immigration.

"Whether he likes it or not, whether typically he has been a [politician] who gets involved in other nations' business, I think he's going to have to," said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

According to preliminary election results, López Obrador won among voters outside Mexico -- this was the first election to feature significant voting opportunities for expatriates -- by a ratio of almost three-to-one over the runner up, Ricardo Anaya.

That's a sign that Mexicans living in the U.S. are expecting him to fulfill his promises to protect migrants from the actions of the Trump administration.

"With the government of the United States of America we seek a relationship of friendship and cooperation for development, always based on mutual respect and in the defense of our countrymen migrants who live and work honestly in that country," said López Obrador in his victory speech.


López Obrador could also deviate from his predecessor when it comes to his approach to Venezuela.

Peña Nieto and Trump have found common ground in their criticism of Venezuela's dictator, Nicolás Maduro.

The leaders of López Obrador's party, on the other hand, have publicly touted their ties to Maduro.

Vice President Pence has taken the administration's lead in Latin American relations, courting regional powers in opposition to countries viewed as hostile to the U.S., including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

And Mexico has led the Group of Lima and the Pacific Alliance, national alliances with similar democratic and economic interests.

"It is possible, probable, that Mexico will play a lesser leadership role in the Lima Group," said Eric Olson, deputy director at the Wilson Center's Latin America Program, adding that Mexico is "unlikely to withdraw."

Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, a progressive think tank, said "it remains to be seen" whether the foreign policy goals of Trump and López Obrador "will coincide."

"If the Lopez Obrador administration adopts a foreign policy focused on noninterventionism, this should not impede it from raising concerns about policies and practices in other countries, including grave human rights violations, although his government will likely play a different role in regional dialogues than the current Mexican government," said Meyer.

Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, said there's a hunger in Latin America for a left-leaning pan-regional leader who can lead the regional anti-corruption charge.

"Latin America is one of the areas where [López Obrador] can appear as a political superstar," said Wood.

Personal relations with Trump

López Obrador's personal style contrasts sharply with Peña Nieto’s — and often closely resembles Trump's.

The Mexican leader is prone to long-winded answers and vague policy prescriptions, including his core campaign call to eradicate corruption in Mexico. Asked multiple times during the campaign for specifics on his anti-corruption policy, López Obrador repeatedly said he would end corruption leading by example.

His team has been said to be a moderating influence on the sometimes irascible politician.

"Sounds very familiar. And that's the whole key: Will it be like Trump where we all thought that his Cabinet and his advisors would moderate him? We saw that hasn't happened. That's an open question for Obrador. Don't know," said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).

The first interactions between Trump and López Obrador have been apparently  cordial.

Trump called López Obrador on Monday -- presumably with the help of a translator, as the president-elect is reputed not to speak English.

"I received a call from Donald Trump and we talked for a half hour. I proposed to explore a comprehensive agreement; of development projects that generate jobs in Mexico ... reduce migration and improve security. There was respectful treatment and our representatives will talk," tweeted López Obrador shortly after the call.

Observers have noted the similarities between the two men's personalities -- and the campaigns that brought them to power -- could foster a close relationship.

"He's kind of run on the same platform, just 'Mexico First,' and the personalities are probably pretty similar. Whether that means there will be a conflict between the two leaders, or a mutual respect, I don't know. Sometimes Trump respects strongmen," McCaul said.

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