Mexico's presidential front-runner seeks common ground with Trump

Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants to make a deal to solve illegal immigration – but not with border walls. Instead, he wants to strengthen Mexico's economy and improve governmental stability to provide a better living standard for Mexicans and ease US tensions.  

Alan Ortega/Reuters
The leftist front-runner of Mexico's presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (c.) of the National Regeneration Movement, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Uruapan, Mexico, on June 8, 2018.

The politician leading the race to be Mexico's next leader said on Sunday he wants to broker a deal with President Trump to stem illegal immigration through jobs and development rather than a border wall.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the favorite to win Mexico's July 1 presidential election, said he hoped to craft a deal with Mr. Trump similar to the "Alliance for Progress," an aid plan launched in 1961 by former President John F. Kennedy to help Latin America.

"Our dream, which we'll achieve regardless of whether Trump accepts or not, is that the Mexican can work and be happy where he was born," Mr. López Obrador said during a campaign event in the southern border city of Tapachula, Mexico.

Aides to López Obrador, a leftist former mayor of Mexico City, say he thinks he can find common ground with Trump over migration, which has fueled tensions between the two countries.

For months the Mexican candidate has been working on his plan to improve wages and create better conditions for Mexican workers. It must also raise living standards in Central America and create more job opportunities there, said López Obrador.

Skeptics, however, doubt López Obrador could persuade Trump to abandon his proposed border wall, a signature campaign pledge that fires up his political base, or that Trump would embrace a program to create employment in Mexico, which the US president accuses of stealing American jobs.

Part of López Obrador's pitch, aides say, rests on his willingness to say the buck stops with him.

The candidate has said repeatedly that Mexico must do more to solve its own problems, including fighting corruption and violent crime, a view that Trump shares.

"Andres's point is that it's [Mexico's] fault, it's not the fault of the United States," said campaign aide Marcelo Ebrard, who succeeded López Obrador as mayor of Mexico City, serving from 2006-2012.

Advisers say his plan has progressed on the back of months of study of the US president. The candidate said he would detail his proposal in due course and that he also wanted Canada to be part of it.

López Obrador has already talked of creating a special zone along Mexico's northern border with lower taxes and higher wages. His advisers told Reuters that measures could also be directed at the southern border and elsewhere to contain migration.

If elected, López Obrador would take office on Dec. 1. Aides say he would push for a development deal with Trump soon after assuming power.

Kennedy's 1961 "Alliance for Progress" was a multi-billion dollar program that set out to improve democracy and living standards in Latin America. It had limited success.

It is unclear how López Obrador's plan would be funded or win over the current US president, who not only insists Mexico will pay for his border wall, but is also threatening to quit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because of US jobs moving to Mexico.

"Trump will not spend a dime of taxpayer money in any form or program for aid or support in Mexico," said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador in Washington.

By engaging with the US on migration, López Obrador also risks exposing himself to attacks by political opponents that he is appeasing Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Mexico.

Still, if López Obrador can forge a personal relationship with Trump from the outset and secures a strong electoral mandate, he might have more success, Mr. Sarukhan said.

"These are signals of strength that I think Trump will identify," he added.

The US government would not speculate on the outcome of Mexico's election, a State Department spokeswoman said.

"We look forward to working with whomever the people of Mexico choose," she said.

Mexico first 

An election win by López Obrador would put already-strained US-Mexico relations into the hands of two mavericks with often directly opposing nationalist visions.

Austere in his habits, the Mexican candidate is in some ways quite unlike the flamboyant billionaire.

Still, adversaries frequently compare López Obrador to Trump. Like the American, he can be thin-skinned, tends to belittle rivals, and has often clashed with the media.

Some political observers worry the two could prove an explosive combination.

Within weeks of Trump taking office, López Obrador toured several US cities, pledging his support to Mexican immigrants, whom Trump had described as "rapists" in his election campaign. López Obrador had strong words of his own, likening Trump's rhetoric about Mexicans to Hitler's vilification of Jews.

However, he has since softened his tone and stresses he wants to pursue friendly, respectful ties with Trump, even if his policy will always be "Mexico First," said Hector Vasconcelos, López Obrador's pick for foreign minister.

Supporters contend that, a Mexican history buff who does not speak English, could be the perfect foil for Trump, because of his Mexico-centric vision.

"Nobody in their right mind could imagine him selling out to Trump," said John Ackerman, a constitutional law expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Reconciling their differences would be a challenge.

Trump has pursued a renegotiation of NAFTA to repatriate jobs from Mexico and limit Mexican exports to the US.

López Obrador, meanwhile, wants Mexico to be self-sufficient in foodstuffs and gasoline, two major US exports to Mexico. He has also signaled a more independent stance on security.

The potential perils of negotiating with Trump were illustrated on Saturday at the G7 summit in Canada. Just hours after agreeing to a joint statement on several policy issues with the US's closest allies, Trump changed his mind.

He then blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "dishonest" and "weak" on Twitter and threatened to escalate a trade dispute with Canada, stunning assembled diplomats.

Still, Tatiana Clouthier, another senior aide on the López Obrador campaign, said he would be far more assertive with Trump than the outgoing Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who is limited by law to a single term.

Mr. Peña Nieto was ridiculed in the media for inviting then-candidate Trump to Mexico City in 2016 and failing to defuse tensions over the wall. And his attempts to build bridges with Washington have not curbed Trump's enthusiasm for lashing out at Mexico or ended uncertainty over the future of NAFTA.

López Obrador would drive a hard bargain in talks with Trump on issues like security, his aides say. But he has no illusions about the test that Trump represents, said Lorenzo Meyer, a Mexican historian and longtime friend of López Obrador.

"He knows he's got a problem there," Mr. Meyer said. "That they'll need to handle [Trump] very carefully." 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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