Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Cherished Friends

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 14, 2020 --  

Mexico's president has given in to Trump at every turn, yet still has managed to get precious little done at home.

When Mexico's president Andrés Manuel López Obrador paid court to America's President Donald Trump in Washington last week, it was a time to celebrate their joint success. Both men signed the United States Mexico Canada Agreement trade pact, Trump with his giant black sharpie and Obrador with a more traditional pen.1 The pact, two years in the making, replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Thoughtful observers couldn't help but shake their heads at the spectacle. Here we had a left-wing Mexican leader exchanging pleasantries with a right-wing American strongman with a history of disparaging his southern neighbors as drug mules and "rapists"2. And amazingly, this was Obrador's first foreign trip ever as president -- and he's been president for a year and a half. Upon arriving home to critics of his performance, Obrador said he didn't even talk to Trump about the much-hated border wall because it wasn't on the agenda, and said he had no opinion on the matter.3

Sadly, Obrador's cuddle fest with Donald Trump shows the true face of populist politicians. It doesn't matter much whether they are come in a left-wing or right-wing flavor -- they all have bombast, self-promotion, and the support of the ignorant masses in common. Like Donald Trump, Obrador almost never wears a face mask in public appearances and has presided over a lackluster response against the onslaught of the pandemic. Both men are staunchly conservative in the "old-fashioned" sense of the word. Like Trump, Obrador is a sexist who has said women should serve as caregivers4 and lives blissfully out of touch with the times. Obrador claims he doesn't even have a bank account.5

His two years in office have been marked by his lap-dog like approach to his bullying northern neighbor. AMLO, as he is known in Mexico, agreed early in his presidency to seize Central American migrants en-route to the U.S. border. He allows American border control agents to hand over asylum-seekers to Mexican agents who then do America's bidding by detaining them in Mexico. AMLO caved in to the United States on trade, scrapping NAFTA for a rebranded USMCA that grants advantages to American autoworkers at the expense of their Mexican counterparts.6

When confronted about this record by his befuddled Mexican countrymen, AMLO is unapologetic. He says his goal is to maintaining a good relationship with the United States. By that measure, his presidency has certainly been a success -- during his state visit Donald Trump referred to Obrador and Mexico as "cherished friends."7

It is arguable that caving in to a powerful northern neighbor with great economic influence is the proper course of action for AMLO. Trump once threatened economic sanctions on Mexico -- something that never came to pass, probably at least partially due to AMLO's deference.

Perhaps a policy of appeasement in international affairs are a good idea to enable AMLO to focus on domestic goals. Yet on the domestic front, AMLO's achievements in his first 18 months in office have been thin.

AMLO did manage to push through two increases in the minimum wage, intended to help the nearly half of Mexicans who live in poverty.8 But it is unclear whether many of Mexico's poor will see real benefits, as many work in informal jobs (e.g. street vendors) not subject to wage laws. Such wage increases may also be eroded by increased inflation -- a perennial problem in Mexico -- for those lucky enough to get them.

Obrador has also started a number of social programs for the elderly and youth. He increased the small pensions paid bi-monthly to Mexicans over age 65 or 68 to help them pay basic living costs.9

But on the biggest problems facing Mexico -- the astronomical crime rate fueled by warring drug barons, and now the coronavirus pandemic -- Obrador has had few wins. The murder rate continues to hover at all time highs. Meanwhile, daily infection rates from coronavirus continue to climb as the economic consequences mount -- tourism has collapsed, remittances are waning, and the price of oil has plumetted.

While recent polls show AMLO is slipping in popularity10, he still has the approval of most Mexicans -- a level of support that many Latin American leaders (let alone AMLO's cherished friend up north) would envy.

There is no escaping the fact that Obrador's presidency has failed to meet expectations. His narrow loss in the 2006 presidential election made him a martyr among left-wing supporters, and his surprisingly competent tenure as mayor of Mexico City made his more conservative opponents less fearful. But as the years tick by without delivering results, AMLO now manages to disappoint skeptics and supporters alike.

Related Web Columns:

Shameful Collaboration, April 9, 2019

Sorry About the Ancient Plunder, March 26, 2019


1. Bloomberg News, Mexico’s President Flies Coach to Washington to Seal His Bet on Trump, July 7, 2020

2. Washington Post, ‘They’re Rapists.’ President Trump’s Campaign Launch Speech Two Years Later, Annotated, July 16, 2017

3. The Hill, Mexican President: 'I Don't Have an Opinion' on Border Wall, July 13, 2020

4. Aljazeera, Mexico President Slammed for Remark on Women Staying at Home, June 26, 2020

5. The Yucatan Times, OPINION: AMLO Doesn’t Even Have a Bank Account. How Can He Run Mexico’s Economy? June 20, 2020

6. BBC, USMCA trade deal: Who gets what from 'new Nafta'?, October 1, 2018

7. Reuters, Mexican President Exits Trump Embrace Smiling, Democrats Grumble, July 9, 2020

8. Reuters, Mexico to Hike Daily Minimum Wage by 20%, Experts Worry About Inflation, December 16, 2019

9. The Mazatlan Post, AMLO Expands Pension Program for Mexico’s Elderly, January 17, 2019

10. Bloomberg News, Mexican President’s Approval Rating Drops to New Low Over Economic Record, July 1, 2020