When Mexico’s New President Hits the Ground Running, He’ll Smack Into Trump
December 1, 2018
MEXICO CITY — The honeymoon for incoming President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will be sworn in Saturday, will be sweet and short, if it happens at all.
Awaiting him are a host of urgent issues, from a growing number of Central American migrants encamped at the U.S. border and the threat of a border shutdown to skyrocketing violence around the country, jittery foreign investors and energy policy issues.
He’ll also need to address his people’s seemingly impossible expectations, such as eradicating centuries of corruption and poverty during his single six-year presidential term.
But among his greatest challenges will be his unpredictable counterpart across the border — President Donald Trump.
Despite talk of mutual admiration and shared traits — two stubborn, forceful leaders with a populist bent and a keen ability to ignite passions among their base supporters — chances of their getting along are overrated, analysts say. Lopez Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, is a skilled, pragmatic politician who’s expected to seek solutions, analysts say. The real question, experts add, is whether Trump has the political will to meet AMLO halfway.
Already in the backdrop of Lopez Obrador’s swearing-in is a dicey situation on the border, where thousands of Central Americans are gathering in Tijuana, waiting to get a chance at asylum in the U.S. With winter looming, the situation could turn into a humanitarian crisis, even as Trump threatens to shut down the border and presses for congressional funding for his border wall.
“I think, in many ways, the crisis on the border represents a solution for Trump,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and associate professor at CIDE, the Center for Research and Economics Education in Mexico City. “He wants this. He needs this. He thrives on this.”
Vice President Mike Pence will lead the U.S. delegation to Mexico to attend Lopez Obrador’s inauguration. The U.S. has already floated the idea that the incoming Lopez Obrador administration plans to implement a “Remain in Mexico” policy aimed at keeping asylum seekers in Mexico for long periods until the U.S. can process them. But Mexican officials say such an agreement is nowhere near being finalized, and likely may never be.
This puts Mexico in a tough spot, which may be exactly where Trump wants Mexico and Lopez Obrador to be.
AMLO is expected to reach out to some of the Central American leaders who will attend his inauguration and began a dialogue about issues such as asylum, economic development for the region and his promise to provide as many as 100,000 visas to Central Americans to work in Mexico.
And incoming Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard is scheduled to meet Sunday in Washington with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with immigration at the top of the agenda.
The first test, said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Two Nations Indivisible, will be how AMLO addresses the migrant crisis and how Trump reacts to AMLO’s position.
“So far, the two political leaders have gotten along, perhaps recognizing the similarities in their rise to power, but their very political bases — from the nationalist right to the nationalist left — will make it difficult when crises arise,” said O’Neil. “And especially when the U.S. 2020 presidential race picks up in in earnest.”
A lot is at stake: About $1.6 billion in trade crosses the 2,000-mile border every day. No state has more to lose from any disruption of that than Texas. Trade between Texas and Mexico topped $187 billion last year.
For now, the signals from Mexico are all positive.
“The next Mexican government considers the relationship with Texas a top foreign policy priority,” said Marcelo Ebrard, the incoming foreign minister. “We will seek to strengthen our ties and deepen our collaboration on energy, technology, infrastructure and competitiveness.”
Ebrard said projects that could be jointly developed along the border include linking the Lone Star State with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec — the shortest distance in Mexico between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Such a transportation network, Ebrard said, could “turn into a major industrial and logistics corridor, complementing medical services clusters in the region and expanding the integration of productive chains between Mexico and Texas.”
But some foreign investors, including Texans, are more concerned about signals Lopez Obrador has sent regarding Mexican energy reforms signed into law in August 2014 by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
An estimated 110 oil and gas contracts that represent about $200 billion in foreign investment have been granted under the reforms in the nation’s energy sector and the national PEMEX oil monopoly. Lopez Obrador has indicated that his administration will respect the contracts, but has also said that he would “rescue the oil and gas industry” from a decline that he blames on the historic opening of PEMEX to foreign investment.
More recently, he favored a consulta populara, a nonbinding public opinion referendum, the results of which supported canceling work on a new, $13 billion international airport for Mexico City. Lopez Obrador had opposed the airport. The referendum results signal that he may be planning to deliver on some of his more extreme campaign promises, further unnerving investors.
“Lopez Obrador likes delivering on his promises, and that bodes well as a politician, but it makes it difficult for him in governing,” said Andrew Selee, author of Vanishing Frontiers and president of the Migration Policy Institute.
“My sense is that both Trump and AMLO will do things that make little economic sense to prove a point,” Selee said. “Texas will get caught in the crosswinds in the populist agenda that Trump and AMLO have, but for the most part they will benefit from the fact that these are two leaders who do care about economic growth and in the long term they don’t want to interrupt investment too much.”
Key Texas investors preferred to remain mum on the issue, with some saying they will closely watch Lopez Obrador’s first moves before deciding on future investments.
“I’m concerned with the rapid change of tone in this new incoming administration,” said Luisa del Rosal, executive director of the Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center at Southern Methodist University. She said the incoming administration seems “far less moderate than during the campaign.”
“If things start like this,” she said, “what certainty can Texas investors expect if they wanted to do business with Mexico?”
Others, like Gerald Schwebel, executive vice president of IBC Bank of Laredo, who was involved in the the new trade agreement negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico that will be signed on Friday, along with Canada, played down concerns for now.
“As capitalists, we always adjust to new conditions; we’ll do it once again,” Schwebel said. “To investors I’d say this: Invest in Mexico. Even with a new trade agreement, all the systems and infrastructure are in place. Mexico offers many more advantages than other countries.”
As for Lopez Obrador, Schwebel added, “He’s a capitalist and is surrounding himself with very capable people.”
Perhaps the most prickly domestic matter facing Lopez Obrador is his promise to restore security across the country and end corruption, pledges that many analysts say are the key reasons for his presidential victory.
This is a record year of drug killings. More than 240,000 people have been killed since 2006. Lopez Obrador recently unveiled his security plan for the nation, but it appears to be little different than plans offered up by the past two administrations. As in the past, Lopez Obrador’s plan calls for putting soldiers on the streets and offering amnesty to low-level criminals. It also encourages victims to forgive criminals, something that doesn’t sit will with many.
“AMLO has not been straightforward with details,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor of policy at George Mason University and an expert on security. “It is not clear when, how and if a real police reform is going to take place.”
In Ciudad Juarez, Lupita Davila, a mother of one of the more than 13,000 people killed in that city, had a message for Lopez Obrador: “There’s no forgiveness without justice.”
Staff writer Alfredo Carbajal in Dallas contributed to this report.
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