WASHINGTON — The presidents of the United States and Mexico meet Wednesday to celebrate a new trade deal. But that’s something of a pretext as each fends off domestic heckling in search of a bigger political payoff.
President Andres Manuel López Obrador’s first foreign trip since taking office 19 months ago will bring him face to face with a counterpart who has vilified immigrants and issued relentless demands on border security and trade.
But getting on President Donald Trump’s good side could ease challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit his country especially hard.
“Mr. López Obrador is visiting Washington partly to figure out a way to avoid, and stem some of the more negative effects of a potential second term by a Trump administration,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Trump critics say he’s using the meeting to distract U.S. voters from the rising death toll and vehemently oppose the visit.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, demanded he postpone the meeting until after the November election, calling it “a blatant attempt to politicize the important U.S.-Mexico relationship.”
Latino Victory Fund president & CEO Nathalie Rayes asserted that Trump only wants “a photo-op to serve his own political agenda. Trump is a racist demagogue who called Mexicans ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’ and, to this day, continues to promote hateful rhetoric and policies that harm the Latino community.”
“We understand why they feel offended. But we need to keep an ongoing dialogue, for the benefit of the community,” said Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, Martha Bárcena Coqui, adding that her president will reiterate, privately and publicly, the need to respect the contributions of immigrants to the U.S. society and economy.
The countries are deeply intertwined -- economically, culturally and on immigration, drug policy and border security. Bilateral trade topped $4 trillion in 2019, and each is the other’s top trading partner.
“It’s going to be quite a meeting. He’s a good man. He’s a friend of mine. And we have a great relationship with Mexico,” Trump said Tuesday.
Aides to both presidents say the agenda will focus on economic issues, pegged to the July 1 implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
They’ll downplay rancor over Trump’s immigrant-bashing and Trump’s long-abandoned vow that Mexico will pay for a border wall it never wanted.
The political dimensions are hard to ignore, though.
López Obrador blasted predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto for welcoming then-candidate Trump in August 2016, a visit that set off a firestorm in Mexico. He even wrote a book titled, “Listen, Trump,” denouncing Trump’s immigrant-bashing.
“It looks like the same old politics as usual,” said Andrew Selee, a longtime U.S.-Mexico observer and president of the Migration Policy Institute. “The López Obrador administration is supposed to be all about transforming Mexican politics.”
But Mexico’s economy is in such dire straits that there’s little choice other than to court Trump, said Juan Carlos Baker Pineda, a former Mexican undersecretary of foreign trade.
“Those issues are there, certainly,” he said. “The reality is that regardless of the political context that exists in both countries, the US and Mexico just cannot give themselves the luxury of not speaking.”
Mexico, the world’s 14th largest economy, saw flat GDP growth last year and is on a path to a 10% collapse this year. The pandemic has cost 12 million jobs in a country of 130 million, and countless more among vendors and others in the informal sector.
More than 40 million Americans were jobless at the peak of the pandemic-induced recession this spring.
U.S. officials cited historic cooperation on migration that has cut illegal migration by 85%, much of it from Central America.
A populist who has shunned some of the trappings of office, López Obrador arrived in Washington late Tuesday via Delta Airlines after a stopover in Atlanta. Nonstop flights have been cancelled between Mexico City and the U.S. capital.
Pomp is on the agenda, however.
The Mexican president will start the day by laying wreaths at the Lincoln Memorial and a nearby statue of Benito Juárez, a 19th century president who freed Mexico of French rule, dedicated in 1969.
The presidents will sign a joint statement in the Rose Garden private meetings.
Trump is hosting a dinner for his counterpart with a guest list that includes the likes of billionaire Warren Buffet and an A-list of Mexican business leaders from media, banking, real estate and other sectors. Billionaire Carlos Slim is on the invitation list.
Trump and his guest have much in common, said Payan. Both are populists who have attacked institutions, the press and their opponents, thriving on “dramatic politics of finding enemies and dividing people.”
Both resist owning up to mistakes or insults. Both have a base of about 35% and face political headwinds at home.
Democrats not invited
Democrats complain that the Mexican leader is not meeting with former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee to face Trump in November, or any Democratic congressional leaders.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the timing of the meeting “suspicious,” given that Congress is in recess.
“President López Obrador’s visit appears to have been intentionally scheduled for a time when many senior Congressional Democrats are not in Washington—rather than July 1, when the USMCA entered into force,” he wrote Trump on Tuesday, suggesting a conscious effort to cut out Democrats from joining in the celebration of the trade pact despite the fact that was a bipartisan project.
Mexico’s ambassador insisted that no slight is intended.
She noted that Mexico has hosted three delegations of Democrats during López Obrador’s term, and that Biden has not yet formally accepted the nomination.
“We give the utmost importance to our relationship with the Democrats,” Bárcena said. “President López Obrador is going there to meet with President Trump to talk about USMCA.”
In Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tania Guerrero, who works for a nonprofit group that helps migrants seeking asylum, is among the López Obrador supporters offended by a visit that in her view reflects a “sickening dependency.”
Economic integration has left Mexico with no choice but to do the bidding of the United States, she said, referring to the 25,000 national guardsmen Mexico has deployed as “a human wall” to keep migrants from reaching the United States.
But with Mexico’s economy in a tailspin, there are valid reasons to cultivate this relationship, said Jesus Velasco, a U.S.- Mexico expert at Tarleton State University in Stephenville.
“Bill Clinton once rescued Mexico from economic collapse,” he recalled, referring to the 1994 bailout. “Maybe López Obrador is getting ready for the next Mexican debacle. He needs access to the White House and access to dollars.”
Gillman reported from Washington. Corchado reported from El Paso.