Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's relationship with the U.S. and its presidents may seem surprising to those unfamiliar with the confident populist from the rural Mexican state of Tabasco who won his nation's top office on his third try in 2018. Mexico's larger neighbor to the north never seems to faze the politician known universally by his constituents by his initials, AMLO.
When Donald Trump was president, López Obrador didn't hesitate to call his rhetoric "racist" and to describe his immigration agenda as "irresponsible." Yet AMLO and Trump had a relationship that an analysis in The Washington Post once described as "weirdly great," and their administrations worked together harmoniously on the renegotiation of the North American trade deal and — to the surprise of many — on Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy, which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their paperwork was processed. At the White House's urging, in 2019, Mexico also cracked down on immigrants who were crossing its southern border with the presumed intent of eventually entering the United States. In October 2020 — with Trump locked in a tight re-election fight with Democratic nominee Joe Biden — López Obrador left Mexico for the first time since taking office to visit the White House, where he praised Trump for his leadership on trade issues.
This may inspire easy cynicism about AMLO sucking up to the nation that is by far Mexico's largest trading partner. But his relationship with Trump's successor undercuts this view. Last month, he directly snubbed Biden by refusing to attend a Summit of the Americas meeting in Los Angeles meant to show U.S. leadership, blasting him for not inviting Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. And last week, even as he visited the White House in a meeting meant to showcase strong U.S.-Mexico relations, AMLO used his joint appearance with Biden to rib him about how much higher gas prices were in the U.S. than in Mexico. To his credit, Biden took this in stride. Optics, of course, aren't as important as what Washington and Mexico City can accomplish together. Tuesday, the White House announced that Mexico would invest $1.5 billion in high-tech security infrastructure along the border, triumphantly contrasting this with Trump's unfulfilled promise to make Mexico pay for a border wall. Biden and López Obrador also issued a joint statement vowing to "disrupt the flow of fentanyl into our countries."
On other issues, however, differences remain entrenched. The U.S. hoped that Mexico might warm to its anti-human smuggling initiative after the deaths last month of 53 migrants trapped in an abandoned truck in San Antonio. During his joint appearance with AMLO, Biden said, "We need every country in the region to join us." But despite White House claims otherwise, Mexico appears noncommittal. It has also ignored nudging from the U.S. to take more direct efforts to prevent recent surges of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.
For his part, AMLO has been unable to persuade Biden to embrace his call for the sharp expansion of temporary U.S. work visas for Mexicans and Central Americans. And he loathes U.S. criticism of the lack of labor rights in his country, its high crime and the killings of 12 journalists this year.
Ultimately, both Biden and AMLO realize the importance of a strong relationship on trade. Any hope that this will help lead to a more constructive and coordinated approach to immigration and border security may be hard to realize because of U.S. domestic politics. But the more the nations realize they need each other, the stronger their ties will become, culturally and politically, and the more likely those ties are to extend to their successors.
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