Everything could go wrong between Trump and Mexican President AMLO today

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The Mexican president arrived in Washington DC yesterday to meet with President Trump about the Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States, and Canada (USMCA), formerly known as NAFTA. A self-anointed crusader against what he refers to as “neoliberalism”, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — or “ AMLO “, as people refer to him here-arrivedin the US on a commercial flight because, as he has repeatedly insisted, using a presidential plane is ostentatious and, in his words, “there cannot be a rich government with poor people.” Significantly, it was López Obrador’s first trip outside of the country since he took office in December 2018.

Back home, the Mexican president faced heavy criticism for the visit on both sides of the political spectrum. On the left and the right, commentators lamented the far-left president’s hypocrisy in flying commercial but bringing to the meetings a team of some of the wealthiest and most powerful businesspeople in Mexico. Political pundits and critics of AMLO’s government railed against him in the media: Would AMLO know which fork to use at the dinner? He’s kowtowing to Trump’s bullying about migration at the border and his insistence that Mexico would pay for the wall. Isn’t he bringing with him the same people that he has unflatteringly branded as “the mafia of power”? This visit shows central American migrants and Mexican Americans that AMLO doesn’t care about their plight. How could he fly to meet the man who recently referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals”?

The two leaders are on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum: AMLO considers himself far-left and Trump is without a doubt far-right. However, both men have some important qualities, notions and modus operandi in common. For instance, both men had little to zero experience as public elected officials before becoming president and sold themselves to their electorates as non-corrupt political outsiders. For both men, this has translated to seemingly arbitrary and arguably incompetent policy decisions.

Both leaders regularly attack the press: Trump by referring to any unflattering news coverage as “fake news”, and AMLO by demeaning journalists by calling them “fifi” (stuck-up). And both leaders have been accused of stoking divisiveness in their respective countries: Trump continues to incite racial tension and flagrantly support white supremacist arguments, slogans and symbols on Twitter, in statements and at campaign rallies. Similarly, Lopez Obrador is accused of stoking class tensions in Mexico with his “us versus them” rhetoric and his unfortunate coinage of the terms “fifi press” and “mafia of power”.

Neither man seems to understand that they are president of an entire country and all its people, rather than just those that agree with them. And as each day goes by, both act more like demagogues than democratically elected officials. As two men with so much, and yet so little, in common sit down for this historic and critical meeting, we’re left asking ourselves: Is the visit such a terrible idea and is it doomed to fail as many have predicted?

I called Arizona State University’s Associate Professor of Latin American History and author of Specters of Revolution, Alexander Aviña, to ask him what he thought. “Both of these men have been described as populists but there are a lot of differences between them,” he said. “…The comparison of equivalency leads us to miss a lot of important things — Trump is an avowed White supremacist and AMLO is the head of the second most important economy in Latin America…they’re going to stick to the new NAFTA (USMCA) and that will allow each side to parrot what they want to their respective audiences. AMLO can talk about how the new agreement will allow Mexico to pay workers more and Trump will say this deal protects US jobs.”

“This meeting is indefensible because of the migratory issues facing Central American and Mexican asylum seekers, because of the wall and national security issues,” Avina added. “Hundreds of thousands of guns are coming into Mexico from the US and despite his [Lopez Obrador’s] rhetoric, on the ground we haven’t seen a shift from previous approaches to drug violence in Mexico. AMLO won’t bring up those issues up because he would be hammered.”

Francisco Galván Garza is the representative of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in Texas. He has a different take on the meeting. He explained to me that this trip was the Mexican government’s golden opportunity to do business and bolster the country’s economy: “The most important thing that we have to address in this meeting is the new USMCA, which has been in place since July 1st. Just days ago, Trump was inspecting the wall he’s building — that contradicts the purpose of the visit of friendship and collaboration.”

When I asked him about his expectations for the visit, Garza said, “Mexico has so much to offer. If Obrador doesn’t send the right signals to foreign investors, then we’re going to lose big time; Mexico is going to lose big time. During his campaign, [AMLO] promised 4 to 6 percent growth — this is his opportunity to deliver on that promise. And Trump and AMLO have a lot of security issues to discuss: you don’t want to invest in a country where your life and the lives of your employees are at risk.”

There are ten big projects that the Mexican president has put to referendum, including the cancellation of a new international airport in Mexico City where construction was already well underway, and the termination of construction on a major beer brewery in the state of Baja California that would have brought jobs, but was set to use significant amounts of water in an area suffering from severe drought. Controversially, although only 1 percent of the population voted, all his referendums have passed. Referring to this, Galván explained, “Mexico is the perfect landing strip for companies that were in China and want to relocate their operations. But would you come to Mexico as an investor if the government didn’t offer guarantees of private property and judicial warranties? If he keeps backing up on deals — those are bad signs to send to investors.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages out of control in the US, and as Mexico faces its own surge of cases and deaths from the virus, both countries stand at the precipice of deep economic depressions. With two such unpredictable or unstable (depending on which way you frame it) leaders, there’s no way of telling how today’s meeting will go. Mexico certainly needs the jobs, so I can only hope that AMLO will have the courage and good sense to send the right signals to US investors.

But López Obrador and his delegation must walk a fine diplomatic line and address the critical human rights issues posed by Trump’s ongoing detention of migrants in the US, the “Remain in Mexico” policy that has left thousands of central American families stuck in inhumane conditions near the US-Mexico border as they wait to apply for asylum, and the increasing violence Mexicans face from organized crime and guns coming from the US. Let’s hope he’s up to the task.

Originally published at https://www.independent.co.uk on July 8, 2020.

IHRL attorney & writer. Bylines in: PBS, USA Today, Independent UK, Al Jazeera, Romper, Ravishly, & National Catholic Reporter.

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