Mexico's Lopez Obrador Has to Stand Up to Trump

Newly-elected Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador departs after casting his ballot in last week's election. (Photo: EPA)

Mexico's Lopez Obrador Has to Stand Up to Trump

The newly elected Mexican president will have to prove that his promises to confront Trump are more than just rhetoric.

On July 1, the Mexican people elected Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) as their new president. "I confess that I have a legitimate ambition: I want to go down in history as a good president of Mexico," he said after announcing his landslide victory.

While what he does on the domestic front will surely be important, his administration will be defined by his approach to dealing with the United States.

Mexico-US relations deteriorated following the election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016. Trump has repeatedly promised to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it, called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and slapped tariffs on steel and aluminium coming to the US from Mexico.

Despite Trump's hostile rhetoric, Mexico's outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto advocated for dialogue and tried to avoid confrontations with his American counterpart. Mexicans deplored that subservient behaviour.

AMLO ran on a nationalist ticket and promised to be a lot less conciliatory than his predecessor towards the US, should he win the election.

On the campaign trail, he made repeated calls to assert Mexico's sovereignty. He lambasted the "erratic" US president's "hate campaign" against Latin American migrants and criticised what he called an "arrogant, racist and inhumane" family separation policy.

Many Mexicans liked this rhetoric and saw in him a man who can stand up to Trump and reclaim the nation's dignity on the international arena. Now he has to deliver on his promises.

How Mexico became a US-hating nation

For much of the 20th century the Mexican state promoted a brand of nationalism shaped by anti-US sentiment and as a result, Mexico remained a relatively closed country both in economic and political terms.

But Mexican attitudes towards the US changed significantly in the 1990s. The influential Mexican business community started to push heavily for a more open economy and put their support behind pro-US politicians. Consequently, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, starting a new era of economic cooperation between Mexico and the US.

In the following years, NAFTA not only transformed Mexico's economy but also affected its foreign policy towards the US. The nationalistic approach of the 20th century gave way to servile policies that readily responded to any whims of the US State Department.

President Pena Nieto, who took office in 2012, continued this trend, going out of his way to please his American counterparts. In August 2016, he invited then-candidate Trump to the presidential house. The move was widely criticised in Mexico as an unnecessarily obsequious gesture towards a candidate who had widely used anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican rhetoric in his campaign.

After Trump won the election, Mexican attempts to please the new administration reached unprecedented levels. The Pena Nieto government started to pursue a more aggressive immigration policy at Washington's command.

When the US told Mexico to stop, detain and deport Central American migrants who enter its territory, Pena Nieto eagerly complied. Mexico started separating Central American children from their parents long before the US adopted the controversial policy.

But Pena Nieto's pro-American policies proved to be highly unpopular among the Mexican public and, coupled with his failures on the economic front, made him one of the most unpopular presidents in Mexican history. His approval ratings plummeted in 2017 to an all-time low of 12 percent.

Meanwhile, for the first time in a decade and a half, Mexican public opinion of the US turned overwhelmingly negative. According to a September 2017 Pew poll, some 65 percent of Mexican respondents saw the US unfavourably (up from 29 percent); 93 percent had no confidence in the US president doing "the right thing regarding world affairs".

Moving beyond rhetoric

It is amid this atmosphere of rejection of the servile Mexican political elite that AMLO was elected president. He aptly cashed in on the Mexican public's anger towards Trump, who throughout the Mexican election campaign season continued to criticise Mexico's immigration policies, insist that Mexico should pay for the border wall, and fuel anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US.

"We won't do the dirty work of any foreign government," AMLO said, referring to detentions of Central American migrants trying to reach the US border. He even wrote a book titled Oye Trump (Listen up, Trump) in which he criticised Pena Nieto for not representing Mexico with dignity and condemned the border wall and Mexican "passivity" in its relations with the US. He also proposed mobilising Mexican consulates in the US to defend the rights of Mexican immigrants.

AMLO also broke with neoliberal dogma and called for Mexico to become agriculturally self-sufficient and to stop importing food from the US. Heavily subsidised agricultural products imported from the US under NAFTA destroyed the rural south, where Obrador is from, and sent many on the dangerous journey across the US border.

Now AMLO says this will change. He has also proposed a diversified approach towards commerce, recognising the risk of betting the country's economic fortunes on the US. He says he will seek to form new trade relationships around the world, thus reducing Mexico's dependence on the US.

Indeed, AMLO has said a lot of things that Mexicans have wanted to hear for a long time. But it is still unclear how he will implement them all.

His first interaction with Trump went more smoothly than expected, with the newly elected Mexican president tweeting: "I proposed that we explore an integral agreement of development projects, which generate jobs in Mexico and with that reduce migration and improve security. There was respectful treatment and our representatives will speak more."

This conciliatory tone and talk about "reaching an understanding" with the US after the election is not what many of his voters want to see.

They already gave him the mandate to act and change Mexican domestic and foreign policies. He won 53 percent of the vote in the election and has the political capital necessary to end decades of passive foreign policy and re-assert Mexico's sovereignty.

So he has to act now and translate his rhetoric into actions. While Mexico's business elites who benefited from free trade and complete compliance with US demands might be nervous about this approach, a tougher attitude is what the country needs to face the bully in the White House.

The Mexican public is ready for and wants a strong president who can protect Mexicans living in the US, oppose Trump's wall and remind its northern neighbour that Mexico is a sovereign nation.

If AMLO fails in this, he will face the same fate as Pena Nieto: His popularity would hit rock-bottom. But if he succeeds, he would indeed go down in history as a "good president."

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