From threats to solidarity, virus reconciles US-Mexico leaders

Less than a year after President Donald Trump threatened to put crippling tariffs on Mexican exports, the pandemic is helping bring  Mr. Trump and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador closer together. Their common ground? Reactivating the economy. 

AP file
The pandemic has brought together U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrado (left), with Mr. Trump promising 1,000 ventilators to his southern neighbor.

The COVID-19 pandemic could have been a fraught moment for United States-Mexico relations – two leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum facing the largest crisis ever confronted by either administration.

Instead, presidents Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador are carrying on like old pals.

The men appear so chummy that the Mexican president, who has not traveled outside his country since taking office nearly 18 months ago, is talking about visiting his U.S. counterpart. It's almost enough to forget that less than a year ago Mr. Trump threatened to put crippling tariffs on Mexican exports.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump said Mexicans crossing the border brought drugs, crime, and "tremendous infectious disease" to the U.S. After taking office, he continued to promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it.

But this month Mr. Trump called Mr. López Obrador "a very good friend" and praised his "tremendous intelligence." His Mexican counterpart described their relationship as a "friendship" and said Mr. Trump had spoken to him with a lot of "fondness."

The two have consistently denied observers any fireworks, and their common ground in the virus crisis appears to be an eagerness to reactivate their economies, which is sometimes at odds with warnings from health advisers.

The warmth between them recently yielded some benefit to Mexico. To complete an agreement among oil-producing nations to reduce production, Mr. Trump offered to make a deeper cut to U.S. production, because Mr. López Obrador said Mexico could not afford to.

Then on Friday, Mr. Trump appeared to grant a favor to Mr. López Obrador. The Mexican president said Mr. Trump called him and said that Mexico would get 1,000 ventilators by the end of the month with the option to buy more.

"It's a new gesture of solidarity with Mexico," Mr. López Obrador wrote on Twitter. "I proposed the possibility of meeting in June or July to personally express our appreciation."

Earlier that day, Mr. López Obrador had said at his daily news conference that Mr. Trump "has been respectful of the people and government of Mexico."

"There isn't the belittling of Mexicans like there had been before, there isn't with the same intensity," he added.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security reached agreement with Mexico and Canada to continue restricting nonessential travel at U.S. borders for another month. Later, in a tweet, Mr. Trump said he was temporarily suspending immigration to the U.S. to curb the virus, though with all the other immigration restrictions, it was not immediately clear who would be affected.

"It's very clear that there's a high degree of affinity, a surprising degree of affinity, between Mr. Trump and Mr. López Obrador," who is willing "to cater to Trump in order to not only prevent Trump from dumping on Mexico, but also because López Obrador recognizes that he can get help and support where he needs it," said David Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego.

Last year, Mexico signed a new regional free-trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada, which had been a Trump priority. Mr. López Obrador, who rails against the neoliberal legacy of his predecessors – privatizing state-owned businesses, weakening unions – almost daily, went along with it.

When the number of asylum seekers showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border began last year to overwhelm the U.S. capacity to process them, Mexico averted Mr. Trump's tariff threat by deploying its newly minted National Guard, which stopped mostly Central American immigrants headed north. The Mexican government also let the U.S. expand a controversial program to make asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in the U.S.

The result was that Mexico became the de facto executor of U.S. immigration policy in the region.

Mr. López Obrador "has shown an incredible penchant for appeasement" of Mr. Trump, said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "He's up against a wall. He has no choice. Picking a fight with Washington today would absolutely and completely poison the waters more than they're already poisoned. He's got no other choice but to cooperate with Mr. Trump. And I think Mr. Trump knows it."

Under the health emergency, the U.S. government has completely closed its southern border to asylum seekers and in many cases is quickly returning Mexicans and Central Americans back to Mexico.

Mr. López Obrador has effectively chosen an economic benefit over the welfare of migrants and Mexican border towns, Mr. Shirk said. "It says to me that this is a president who is absolutely focused on one thing and that is trying to stimulate a moribund Mexican economy."

In Mexico, Mr. López Obrador's hardened position on immigration has not appeared to hurt him with his base, said Ivonne Acuña Murillo, a political science professor at Mexico City's Iberoamerican University. She sees the real threat to his administration in the pandemic and what she says is an organized opposition campaign against his handling of the situation.

"I believe that if we are not in a political crisis, we could enter one," Ms. Acuña said. "There is clearly an orchestrated strategy to hit the president's popularity." Mr. López Obrador frequently refers to his "adversaries," a group that by his definition includes opposition politicians, the country's largest media outlets, and most anyone who criticizes his policies. He accuses them of trying to take advantage of the pandemic to damage him.

As for Mr. López Obrador's recent coziness with Mr. Trump, Ms. Acuña also thinks he has little choice.

"During the campaign, (López Obrador) said if he tweets, I'm also going to tweet," Ms. Acuña said. "That's campaign talk. But it's not the same being a candidate as being president ... because the United States is still the empire. And politically speaking, Trump is still the most powerful politician in the world."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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