The World

Why Is Mexico’s President Meeting With Trump Now?

There’s nothing pressing to discuss. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. There’s little to gain from this meeting besides a photo-op.

Side-by-side photos of López Obrador and Trump.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hector Vivas/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump will host a day’s worth of meetings with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, officially to celebrate the launch of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the replacement for NAFTA.

Remarkably, it will be López Obrador’s first trip abroad a year and a half into his administration. Last year, he chose to skip a G-20 summit and delegated crucial talks over the imposition of tariffs and the USMCA itself. Not this time. With just four months to go until America’s Election Day, and much to the disappointment of the Democratic Party, López Obrador will join Trump to toast the deal and “thank Trump for his solidarity” during the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, López Obrador’s decision to travel to Washington to show his appreciation for the most anti-Mexican president in recent memory has been met with harsh criticism in Mexico. It is warranted. The visit is unnecessary and ill-timed. It is not a coincidence that Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, chose to skip the occasion. With the USMCA already in effect, there is no pressing matter to negotiate. The trip, taken during a pandemic when people across the world are being encouraged or required to limit nonessential travel, is purely symbolic. In addition, violence in Mexico has recently increased and the pandemic is raging out of control in both countries. The fact that López Obrador—who is 66 and suffered a heart attack in 2013—might be putting himself at risk makes the visit more vexing.

For the Mexican president, the visit to Washington will also be the culmination of a drastic personal turnaround. Since taking office, López Obrador has shown an almost absolute willingness to accede to the Trump administration’s demands on immigration and trade. His acquiescence has made him a darling of the Trump White House, and the two men seem to have developed a special bond. López Obrador recently told Mexican press he would even like to talk to Trump about baseball, a sport both men played in their youth.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, just three years ago, while still a candidate, López Obrador had a completely different opinion of the man he now calls a friend. So much so that he wrote a book about it: Oye, Trump (“Listen, Trump”).

Published in 2017, it includes a series of speeches that López Obrador, who was mayor of Mexico City and ran for president unsuccessfully twice before he was elected in 2018, delivered during a multicity tour of the United States, where he spoke to a diverse group of Mexican and immigrant communities, whom he promised to defend from Trump’s nativist policies. It is almost surreal to go back to it now.

López Obrador doesn’t mince words. In the book, he calls Trump’s border wall “a monument to hypocrisy and cruelty,” suggests that “Trump and his advisers speak of Mexicans as Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews,” and pledges that “we cannot consent to a state policy that undermines the dignity of the legitimate interests of Mexicans and the nation.”

He repeatedly vows to defend immigrants and their right to seek a better life. “We will defend without condition the right of our countrymen to earn a living,” he writes, with passion.

It is especially surprising to read López Obrador’s criticism of his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, who controversially hosted Trump in Mexico City during the 2016 campaign. “The subordination of President Enrique Peña Nieto to the United States reveals a total absence of government in Mexico,” he writes. López Obrador goes on to disapprove of Peña Nieto’s inopportune meddling in America’s electoral process. “They were wrong to intervene,” he writes, before lambasting Peña Nieto’s embarrassment: “Due to his lack of moral and political authority or perhaps because of the blackmail of various entities in Washington, Peña Nieto has allowed the outrageous insolence of the president of the United States against our compatriots.”

The man who wrote these lines will travel to Washington on Wednesday to talk baseball and thank Trump. His trip will not go unnoticed. “President Trump is hellbent on inflicting cruelty on Latinos and immigrants and scapegoating our communities for political gain,” Rep. Joaquín Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me recently. “The U.S.-Mexico relationship is far too important to be politicized.”

Just a few years ago, Andrés Manuel López Obrador would have agreed. Will he have the courage to make Trump listen now?

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