MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Andrés Manuel López Obrador returned to Mexico on Thursday buoyed by a cordial first encounter with President Donald Trump that successfully distracted from multiple crises at home but produced few tangible results.
As they have done since López Obrador took office in December 2018, the two leaders refrained from the heated rhetoric both regularly employ against other targets, instead asserting their friendship and mutual respect.
Absent from the carefully scripted White House meeting Wednesday were any of the slurs against Mexico that Trump used during his campaign, such as when he referred to migrants to the U.S. as “rapists” — or any mention of how he has taken repeated steps as president to seal off the U.S. to all migration, both legal and illegal.
Nor was there any sign of the fiery López Obrador who defended migrants from the U.S. president's attacks during his own campaign in a book titled, “Hey, Trump.”
During their appearances at the White House, neither president indicated that they had had discussions about immigration or security.
“They needed this trip for both to distract attention" from the coronavirus, "from what’s going on with the economy and from the security crisis in Mexico,” said Gladys McCormick, an associate professor in history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “And certainly Trump is going into a very, very tough electoral campaign.”
Two years into his six-year term, López Obrador’s ambitious domestic agenda — getting control of Mexico’s runaway violence, battling corruption and raising millions out of poverty — is in jeopardy.
Mexico saw more homicides last year than have ever been recorded before. Earlier this month, Mexico City’s police chief was nearly assassinated in a brazen attack on a major city thoroughfare, and last week 27 people were killed by gunmen in a drug rehabilitation center.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has projected Mexico’s economy will contract 10.5% this year. If that weren't enough, on Wednesday, the government announced nearly 7,000 new confirmed COVID-19 infections, the highest single day total yet.
The stated purpose of López Obrador's visit to Washington was to celebrate the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, the new free trade accord that is replacing NAFTA and which went into effect on July 1. Yet Democratic U.S. legislators, who played a large role in passing the law, were not included in the visit. The other central topic of the meeting was the pandemic, according to Mexico Ambassador Martha Bárcena.
A year ago, Trump threatened crippling tariffs on Mexican imports unless Mexico did more to slow the flow of migrants over the border. Mexico responded by deploying the newly created National Guard to stop them from advancing to the U.S. border and accepted the U.S. expansion of its “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced asylum seekers to wait out the process in Mexico.
Yet on Wednesday, López Obrador stood smiling beside Trump and thanked him for respecting Mexicans and not trying to impose U.S. will on his country.
The words of both presidents yesterday were not representative of their actions and López Obrador’s comments “show the absolute subordination of Mexico’s foreign policy to the designs of President Trump,” said Silvia Núñez García, a researcher at the Research Center on North America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Ultimately, the visit that drew global attention turned out to be “trivial” for the rest of the world, Núñez García said. “The two were speaking exclusively to their audiences.”
The reaction from the Mexican president's political rivals was also swift.
“I had the hope that he would act with dignity, that he would put Trump in his place for all of the offenses against our country and our people,” Silvano Aureoles, governor of Michoacan state, from the leftist opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party, wrote on Twitter. “Mexico has dignity, Mexico has memory, even though you have forgotten it crossing the border.”
Bárcena and her U.S. counterpart, Ambassador Christopher Landau, said Thursday that the goals of the visit were always very limited and thus its accomplishments modest.
Landau said the most important outcome was that the two leaders met face to face and spent time together. Both countries worked to make sure there were no surprises and as a result “there was not a lot of drama,” he said during a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Asked about López Obrador praising Trump for respecting Mexico, Bárcena cited Trump’s remarks about Mexicans being important contributors to the U.S.
“This change of words, it’s very important,” Bárcena said. “I think this shows progress on how the perception of each other has changed.”
There is value for Mexico in having good relations with Trump. As López Obrador noted, Trump helped Mexico obtain 600 ventilators when they were needed to confront the pandemic and offered to make up the difference when oil-producing nations were looking for a deeper production cut from Mexico than López Obrador was willing to make.
“So far, I would say that López Obrador can count this visit as a win,” said María Fernanda Pérez Arguello, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “He appeared next to President Trump and they didn’t talk about domestic issues in Mexico and that’s something that President López Obrador wanted to avoid at all costs.”