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Why Mexico’s President might want Trump re-elected

mexico president Andrés Manuel López Obrador
MGN Online
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

(CNN) - It was a beautiful day in the White House Rose Garden when the US and Mexican presidents strode side by side to their respective podiums.

For President Donald Trump, the meeting on July 8 appeared to be little more than a formality. It might generate a few minor headlines, sure, but nothing that would truly stand out amid a re-election fight and a surging coronavirus pandemic.

But for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, making his first foreign trip as Mexico's President, an entire nation was watching.

How would López Obrador, or AMLO as he is popularly known, handle the US President who had made insulting Mexicans a staple of his rise to political power?

Would he use the moment to confront Trump's past racist comments? Would he take the President to task on his derision of migrants? Would he remind Trump that Mexico hasn't actually paid for his promised border wall?

As someone who once explicitly called Trump a racist, you might expect López Obrador to do just that.

But he did not.

"We have received from you, President Trump, understanding and respect," said López Obrador, as he looked over at Trump. "Some people thought that our ideological differences would inevitably lead to confrontations. Fortunately, this has not been the case."

López Obrador gave a glowing speech touting the US-Mexico relationship and thanked Trump for his "kindness."

"His visit went very well because the guy came prepared," said Rafael Fernández de Castro, Director at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. "He thought of his audience when he delivered his speech."

His audience was singular in nature -- Donald Trump, the man running for re-election to the highest office in the country more important to Mexico than any other.

With less than four months until the US presidential election, López Obrador knew then full well that Trump might win. It might even now be the outcome he prefers.

But whether Trump gets four more years or Democrat Joe Biden assumes the Oval Office, the impact on America's neighbor to the south will be pronounced.

If Trump wins

If Donald Trump wins a second term, his Mexico strategy will likely take a similar tack to what we've seen so far. But don't mistake a lack of change for a lack of impact. The US administration's policies have created some profound changes to date.

Start with migration, where Trump has used coercive measures, like threatening tariffs or border closures, to force the López Obrador administration to play ball in a few different ways.

The so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) were a prime example. Pushed through in 2019 by the Department of Homeland Security, the program forced those seeking asylum in the US to wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed. It put the burden of their care on Mexican border communities and local governments.

Trump was also eager to stop the massive flows of Central American migrants traversing Mexico on their way to the US border. So, with the threat of tariffs looming if Mexico didn't step up enforcement, López Obrador agreed to deploy Mexico's newly created National Guard.

The Guard was originally tasked with curbing the prolific, narco-fueled violence gripping the country but was instead deployed to Mexico's southern border. Amid the new troop presence, the number of Central American migrants crossing to the US fell substantially.

It was a stunning reversal for López Obrador who, before assuming office, urged Mexico to allow migrants safe passage to the US. He has defended his actions as always being well intentioned with human rights top of mind.

Those same threatening tactics could well be used again in a second Trump term with the administration's eye on another big issue -- drugs.

"The Trump administration's next big move with Mexico will be how to fight drug trafficking and organized crime," said Larry Rubin, the President of the American Society in Mexico. "Yes, Trump has been very frontal and direct with Mexico but at least there's a very important working relationship that's resulted in multiple new agreements in other areas."

Trump has repeatedly blamed Mexico for allowing drugs, and specifically opioids like fentanyl, to be shipped into the US by trafficking groups in Mexico.

What, specifically, Trump wants to see done to quickly stop that flow that hasn't been tried before is not clear. But he now has a proven tool to force Mexico's government to act in ways he sees fit.

"[Trump] extracted grave and onerous concessions from Mexico by threatening to impose tariffs last year and he may follow the same path on the issue of opioids and fentanyl," said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the US.

Furthering implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the new free trade deal that went into effect earlier this year that might be Trump's most tangible foreign policy achievement to date, will also be a staple of a second Trump term.

But aside from migration, drugs and trade, expect four more years of a Trump administration focusing on little else.

"He doesn't care what happens in Mexico in terms of the rule of law, the separation of powers...a level playing field for business, attacks on freedom of the press, all of which are critical for the health of Mexico's democracy going forward," said Sarukhan.

You could add human rights violations, a sky-high murder rate, and corruption to that list, not one of which Trump has shown any substantive inclination toward helping solve despite many of those problems tying directly back to Americans' voracious appetite for drugs.

"The Trump administration has tended to view Mexico as a series of problems that need to be addressed solely by Mexico by using threats of tariffs and leveraging the dissymmetry in the relationship," said Antonio Garza, a former US ambassador to Mexico."

If Biden wins

Trump and Biden are far apart on just about every issue. US-Mexico policy will be no different.

The most tangible differences that would quickly be seen, according to the Biden campaign's plan, would be to immigration policy.

Within the first 100 days, Biden says he would end MPP and restore previous asylum laws. That would allow applicants to wait in the US for their claims to be processed and not in dangerous border towns in Mexico.

Any new construction of the US-Mexico border wall would also be halted immediately, according to the campaign.

Biden also promises a more holistic approach to the opioid crisis. His plan focuses on lowering American demand for drugs as a means to reduce the flow of opioids into the US as opposed to focusing on stopping Mexican criminal groups from supplying them.

His campaign's website doesn't have much detail or new ideas when describing what actions Biden would ask Mexico to take to curtail the flow of drugs.

Biden supports the USMCA — the free trade agreement is something where either a Biden or Trump administration would likely work to ensure a smooth implementation.

But perhaps the starkest difference between the two potential US administrations centers on rhetoric and the nature of the political dynamic between the two sides.

"It's a return back to normalcy, the status quo, the way in which we knew politics to work across the border," said Gladys McCormick, a US-Mexico relations expert at Syracuse University. "It would be a lot less volatile, a lot less, 'who the hell knows what happens' when you turn on the TV."

A more predictable, less transactional foreign policy would likely be a hallmark of a Biden administration, including greater empowerment of cabinet-level officials to carry out agendas.

It's also safe to say a Biden administration would not denigrate Mexicans as a key part of its electoral and political strategy.

"No more Mexico-bashing, no more using Mexico as a...political piñata whenever it is expedient domestically," said Sarukhan. "The narrative, the rhetoric, the framing of the relationship will profoundly change."

Whether you agree with the Trump administration's policies or not, his tactics in carrying them out have been extremely effective in a Machiavellian way. Mexico has done almost exactly what Trump has asked. Would a Biden administration be so effective?

Biden has proven before that he is not above tying bilateral relations to results on the ground. As Vice President, he was part of an Obama administration that withheld millions of dollars in aid to Mexico over alleged human rights abuses. The administration also urged Mexico to curb flows of Central American migrants.

And Biden might not be so willing to ignore certain issues to which Trump has turned a blind eye — namely human rights and what critics would call López Obrador's continued erosion of Mexico's democratic institutions.

"If [the López Obrador administration] really knew Joe Biden, some of them might be concerned that he won't shy away from, either in public or in private, talking about these issues which are critical," said Sarukhan.

One topic Trump has not touched that Biden almost certainly would — gun smuggling. The vast majority of powerful weapons that are helping fuel Mexican drug-related violence come from the US.

"Now, with Trump, it's not an issue," said Fernández de Castro. "It's impossible to cooperate with him on this because he is seen as someone too close to the gun lobby. That is something that truly bothers Mexico."

So who does Mexico want to win?

Let us be the first to say that trying to gauge the preference of a country with over 120 million people as if it were a monolith is a fool's errand.

So, it helps to break it down into three categories: the President himself, his broader administration, and the public at large.

Officially, Mexico's government has no preference in the US election outcome and says it's ready to work effectively with whomever wins.

"Mexico's government position regarding the US elections is one of complete respect to the democratic decision of its people," said a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. "Our country has no preference for President Trump or for former Vice President Biden, but only for democracy to be upheld."

But all five experts CNN spoke to suggested that López Obrador likely wants to see another Trump victory.

To an outside observer, this might not seem the obvious choice. But to the experts, it's clear.

"He definitely would want Trump to continue," said Rubin. "He knows how [Trump] operates and they already have a rhythm for working well together."

By consistently heeding Trump's wishes, López Obrador has made clear that he is willing to work with the US on its foreign policy goals, as long as it doesn't interfere with his domestic goals.

"He does not want to spend a nanosecond of his time dealing with foreign policy and in particular dealing with Donald Trump, so anything that means he doesn't have Trump breathing down his neck, he has accepted," said Sarukhan.

Were he to vote, experts say López Obrador would punch his proverbial ballot for Trump, a fellow populist with a bent for nationalism.

"He does appreciate the way Trump sees him," said McCormick. "I think AMLO is much more comfortable working with someone like Trump than traditional political figures."

His administration as a whole may not all feel the same way. Cabinet-level officials on down are those responsible for dealing with the day-to-day machinations of a Trump White House beholden to the whims of a mercurial president.

A Biden administration would likely make their jobs less chaotic, although perhaps not any easier.

"Trump inserts a level of volatility that I would imagine must exhaust some members of the AMLO administration," said McCormick.

"It would be more carrots and fewer sticks, and the carrots would result in the kind of transnational cooperation of benefit to both countries," said Garza.

The final part of the equation is the easiest. Polls of the Mexican public throughout the Trump administration have consistently found approval ratings of the US President to be well underwater, often in the single digits.

Were the Mexican people to have a vote, it would be a Biden-Harris ticket all the way.

Article Topic Follows: National/World

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