Mexican leader in rare trip to see Trump under virus cloud

Publish: 6:24 PM, July 8, 2020 | Update: 6:24:PM, July 8, 2020

WASHINGTON, – Mexico’s leader is paying his first foreign visit Wednesday in the unlikeliest of circumstances — in the midst of the raging coronavirus pandemic to see US President Donald Trump, who has disparaged his country.

A left-wing populist, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018 refusing to travel overseas but has made his first exception — flying commercially, in economy class, to Washington.

Trump would hardly seem to be an ally, having campaigned for the White House on promises to build a wall on the southern border and on vilifying Mexican immigrants as criminals.

But AMLO, as the Mexican leader is known, has shown a pragmatic streak in managing relations with Trump, mindful that even small actions by the giant neighbor can have enormous consequences for his country, especially on the economic front.

The official reason for his visit is the launch of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a modified successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement which Trump had branded a killer of working-class US jobs.

Despite coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Trump and Lopez Obrador have also been cooperating in the US leader’s efforts to stop Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States as they flee violence.

Trump said Tuesday that he expected “quite a meeting” with Lopez Obrador.

“He’s a good man. He’s a friend of mine. And we have a great relationship with Mexico,” Trump said.

Lopez Obrador said Tuesday before leaving Mexico: “I want to maintain good relations with the United States. That’s what suits us.”

Lopez Obrador is banking on the new trade agreement to prop up the Mexican economy which is expected to contract 8.8 percent this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left more than 30,000 dead in Mexico.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to come to Washington to make it a three-way summit.

– ‘Four years of insults’ –

Some Hispanic lawmakers have been aghast at Lopez Obrador’s willingness to meet Trump.

Representative Chuy Garcia, a Democrat from Chicago who was born in Mexico, said Trump was seeking a photo-op with Lopez Obrador in a bid to paper over “four years of insults, attacks and damaging policies” toward Latinos as he seeks a new term in the November election.

“Trump’s cruel policies have traumatized migrant children, left innocent people detained indefinitely and terrorized entire communities with raids and deportations,” Garcia wrote in the Mexican newspaper Reforma.

“I hope President Lopez Obrador uses this controversial trip as an opportunity to demand respect from Trump for the 36.6 million Latinos of Mexican origin and 11.2 million Mexican immigrants living in the United States.”

Lopez Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, similarly stunned many observers when he welcomed candidate Trump in 2016 for a brief visit, letting the reality TV star show a statesman-like side before the cameras.

Michael Shifter, director of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said that Mexico’s goal was to avoid tensions with the United States — and that Lopez Obrador has succeeded.

Beyond marking the trade agreement, the point of Lopez Obrador’s trip “seems to be to keep Trump satisfied and ensure that the United States doesn’t do anything against Mexican interests”, Shifter said.

Despite their differences in tastes and ideology, Trump and Lopez Obrador share common traits.

Both have scorned traditional media yet dominated the headlines — Trump through Twitter and Lopez Obrador via press conferences every morning.

And both have shown nonchalance over COVID-19 despite mounting deaths, refusing to ground all normal life and scoffing at the need to wear masks.

In a sign of the unusual times, Trump and Lopez Obrador do not plan a news conference. And Lopez Obrador, complying with airline rules, flew to Washington with his face covered.