Last updateFri, 15 Feb 2019 10am

Trump & AMLO: Could they hit it off?

Is it possible that Mexico’s next president can forge a good relationship with Donald Trump despite the pair’s diverging ideological positions on most matters?

pg2bDuring his campaign Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador railed against the U.S. president and his policies, calling his border wall “an affront against humanity,” and liking Trump’s comments about Mexicans to “the way the Nazis talked about the Jews.”

But since Sunday’s landslide victory, Lopez Obrador has tread delicately when quizzed about Trump and what the future holds.  He has been overly circumspect, declining to refer to the coarse broadsides the U.S. chief executive has repeatedly fired off against this country or mentioning the polemic border wall and who will/won’t pay for it.

And in the pair’s 30-minute telephone call on Monday – described by Trump as “a great conversation” – Lopez Obrador even suggested Mexico could “cut migration” to the United States, if more investment was forthcoming from the north to provide new jobs and economic opportunities for the poor.

For his part, Trump remarked that he believes the new Mexican leader can help the United States with its border issues, although he provided no specifics about how this might be accomplished.  According to the U.S. president, the conversation also touched on the possibility of a separate trade deal between the two countries should no agreement be found in the Nafta renegotiations.

Some political observers have warned that the two leaders are such similar headstrong characters that sparks are certain to fly at some point, with potentially serious fallout to the bilateral relationship.

But while Lopez Obrador is known for his stubbornness and fiery rhetoric, his term at the helm of the Mexico City government (2000-2005) proved that he can also master the ambassadorial role when required.   

The fact that both Trump and Lopez Obrador are populists at heart may also help them to forge a closer bond.  The U.S. president seems to prefer strong-willed leaders to those who like to govern by consensus. He may even come to admire Lopez Obrador should Mexico’s next president take bold, economic (read protectionist) decisions in the interests of his country.

Lopez Obrador will be a tough opponent, however, when it comes to the treatment of Mexican migrants, whose rights he has vowed to defend with all his power.  Although he  believes emigration should be done out of desire rather than necessity, and that the numbers of Mexicans crossing the border will naturally decrease if more work opportunities are created at home, he can be expected to denounce vigorously any mistreatment of co-nationals north of the border.

Another potentially thorny bilateral issue could be the continuance of the Merida Initiative, a partnership forged in 2007 to help reduce the power of drug trafficking in Mexico. U.S. funding to the tune of $US1 billion has been used to help train police, prosecutors and judges, fund improvements in prisons and jails and aid an ongoing overhaul of the criminal justice system.

In a bid to stem the endless violence  plaguing the country, Lopez Obrador has suggested an easing off in the war against the cartels, but without granting a complete amnesty. He says his focus will be to provide new opportunities to the small-time cartel members or drug dealers who are drawn into the narcotics trade by necessity rather than greed. How this policy will be viewed in Washington is unclear but could be seen by the Trump administration as weakness.

There is enough evidence to suggest that AMLO will easily hold his own in the relationship with Trump and refuse to be goaded into displays of anger by irrational statements and tweets emanating from the White House. One person who believes this to be the case  is Roberta Jacobson, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who stepped down from her post last month after becoming frustrated with Trump’s rhetoric toward Mexico that she said made her job “increasingly difficult to do.”

On CBS’ Face the Nation last Sunday, Jacobson threw a positive spin on the prospect of a Lopez Obrador presidency and the future of the bilateral relationship.

“He has been at pains to reassure people that he takes this relationship seriously, that he does not think that it needs to descend into insult, and he has the leftist credentials to stand up politely in a way that I think he’s got the credibility to do,” Jacobson said.

One of the first major bilateral issues facing Mexico’s new president will be the future of  the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). It now seems unlikely that a renegotiated deal will be completed prior to the midterm elections in the United States in November.  However, Lopez Obrador will be permitted to bring his own team to the negotiating table during the transition period and will also meet soon with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Nafta and other issues.

One thing the president-elect and the Trump administration will agree on is the need to improve wages in Mexico.  While the new team of negotiators may balk at including a stipulated minimum wage requirement for the auto industry within the agreement, the sentiment won’t be lost on Lopez Obrador.  He has continually berated Mexico’s business leaders for suppressing the incomes of workers and has regularly condemned the government’s annual minimum wage hikes as unacceptable.

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