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U.S.-Mexico relations enter new era of AMLO and Trump

As Mexico prepares to swear in a new president this weekend, are U.S.-Mexico relations set for change, or more of the same?
John Feeley is a former US Ambassador and Univision political consultant.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador/Donald Trump. Crédito: Getty Images

Five months have passed since Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) realized his political career ambition and captured the Mexican presidency on July 1 with a convincing electoral mandate. Looking back at July 2, AMLO’s prospects could not have appeared more encouraging. The term “landslide” was on everyone’s lips.

Yet in the ensuing five months, the world has not stood still. As he prepares to accept the Presidential sash this coming weekend, AMLO and his team are taking stock of what has happened since that euphoric summer evening in the Zocalo, including in the country’s relationship with the 'colossus to the north,’ the United States. On that account, there have been important changes.

For openers, a new trade agreement, USMCA, (United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement), has been negotiated to replace NAFTA. It has yet to be signed or implemented. The new president’s envoy to those talks, Jesus Seade, was involved with President Pena Nieto’s team almost immediately – a positive development for Mexico. Most experts agree that the results of the trilateral negotiations are not as unsatisfactory as many anticipated. For this, AMLO can be grateful, as he won’t have much bandwidth to dedicate to protracted and contentious commercial negotiations with the United States and Canada.

Another change since last July is that the midterm elections in the United States dealt President Trump a serious setback. By no means mortally wounded and still the dominating political figure in the United States, Trump will soon feel the nettlesome sting of Congressional requests for information, public hearings and subpoenas. Combined with the possibility of some sort of denouement in Special Counsel Mueller’s probe, Trump will likely have very little time to pay attention to AMLO or Mexico. This should be to AMLO’s advantage, if indeed the day-to-day bilateral relationship is delegated to cabinet and sub-cabinet level staff on both sides.

That cast of characters has also changed since the Mexican elections. On the American side, a new National Security Advisor (John Bolton), has joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the perpetually embattled Homeland Security (Kristjen Neilsen) as custodians of cross-border relations. Of course, the new Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, Government Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero, and a new Mexican Ambassador to the United States – Marta Barcenas, will join members of AMLO's economic and security cabinets to see who becomes the chief relationship manager with the gringos.

And in that mix of characters there is one constant factor that has not changed: Jared Kushner.

President Trump’s son-in-law and West Wing advisor quickly became the senior U.S.-Mexico handler during 2017 when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in the process of making himself and the Department of State irrelevant. Informed observers in Mexico City and Washington are currently speculating as to who will emerge as his new Luis Videgaray, the former Secretary of Foreign Relations and Pena Nieto policy brain with regard to the United States relationship. Videgaray made literally dozens of visits to the White House and had a good personal rapport with the Presidential son-in-law.

He whispered to Jared. Jared whispered to Trump. And Trump tweeted exactly what he wanted: the same anti-Mexican tirades with which he launched his campaign back in 2016. In response, Pena Nieto said little, and that suited the Trump Administration just fine. Trump kept up his anti-Mexican, anti-migrant, pro-wall rants, and the more pragmatic Kushner-Videgaray channel continued its work, although many of us always believed that Videgaray woefully confused access with influence.

That should be a key lesson the AMLO team internalizes quickly: access does not necessarily translate into influence, especially where an increasingly pressured Donald Trump is concerned. By launching tear gas across the border on a caravan of rowdy but essentially defenseless Central American asylum seekers, Trump no doubt pleased his base. But more importantly, he almost certainly escalated the stakes well beyond where Foreign Secretary-designate Ebrard and Secretary of State Pompeo left their border discussions on November 15 th in Houston, when the pair agreed in principle that Mexico would allow Central American asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases move through the U.S. immigration courts, a process that often takes months if not years.

So AMLO now has explosive gas projectiles flying over the border into sovereign Mexican territory. His PRI-ancestors are rolling in their graves. It is unlikely that his own MORENA base will allow him the space to remain quiet like Pena Nieto. And Trump, ever the cunning caudillo who places family loyalty above competence, is now sending the most charming member of his inner circle, his daughter Ivanka, to the Mexican Presidential inaugural along with Vice President Pence.

It remains to be seen who will become her and/or her husband Jared’s primary interlocutor, or if AMLO will seek to change the dynamic of how this existentially important relationship is conducted. However, AMLO has an advantage. Trump will not change; he is incapable of doing so. He will double down on demonizing Mexico and Mexicans whenever he believes it suits him. AMLO knows this. It will be wholly up to him to either continue with the Pena Nieto duck and cover tactic or create a new Mexican response.