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This week Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) visited Washington DC and met with President Trump. Jesus Velasco writes that despite criticisms of AMLO over his visit, the summit will be a win for the Mexican president, who is seeking international legitimacy at a time when Mexico faces multiple crises.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) visit to the United States this week has provoked condemnation in both countries. Some argue that his trip will have helped Trump’s reelection campaign. Others feel that it is hypocritical that AMLO, who called Trump a racist in 2016, will have a friendly visit with a president who most Mexicans detest—about 85 percent have a negative view of Trump. Others contend that Lopez Obrador will look like Trump’s faithful and obedient lackey. Although these arguments have certain doses of truth, AMLO’s visit had three main motivations. First, to seek, in times of deep crisis on several fronts, the legitimization of AMLO’s government. Second, and related to the first, to express empathy with the superpower when both countries face severe economic and health problems. Third, to reinforce his good image with President Trump so that, further down the line, US money may once again be a lifeline for Mexico.

AMLO’s administration has encountered sustain criticism. The middle and upper classes disapprove of his policies, especially budget cuts that have substantially affected the health and education sectors, police, judges, scientist, and bureaucrats. Other criticisms came with the cancelation of the construction of the new international airport in Texcoco–near Mexico City–, which had already seen a $5 billion investment. A significant increase in violence in Mexico and a severe economic crisis, even before the pandemic, also drew sharp disapproval. Economists predict that Mexico’s GDP in 2020 could contract by 8 percent, which will provoke the worst economic crisis in decades, even worse than in 1995, one in which President Clinton conferred a $20 billion loan to Mexico. Economic and health conditions in Mexico have worsened with the deficient handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Intellectuals and journalists see AMLO’s administration as erratic and important sectors of the population as intolerant. As a result, Mexicans have rallied against AMLO’s policies in several states.

Under these circumstances, AMLO’s visit to DC last week was a smart move. He shook hands with Trump, who expressed—as he has done before—adulatory words about the Mexican President. This will elevate, however temporarily, AMLO on the world scene. The visit will allow him to show that he has international status in a moment in which the support of the international community and organizations is urgently needed. It is an opportunity to show his political skills and demonstrate his abilities in working with the complicated American president. The visit will help him legitimize his government nationally and internationally. It is also a moment to find empathy and solidarity with the superpower when both countries are immersed in a profound economic, political, social, and health crisis. Finally, he needs to leave the door open, so in a not too distant future, the Mexican government could ask for financial aid from the superpower. To do that, AMLO will show that he is willing to accept American demands and display political and policy confluences with the Trump administration. Such political and policy compatibility will not require AMLO to make departures from his revealed practices and habits of mind.

While AMLO and Trump are very different presidents, they are similar in many respects. Both are nationalist and populist; both are severe critics of the media; both dislike unfavorable opinions and attack and undermine their critics; they constantly attack institutions; both are willing to call the electoral institution or electoral results rigged, even without evidence. AMLO often looks like Trump, and Trump like AMLO; frequently they are like one, TRUMPAMLO. To accept American demands, will likely not be a problem either for AMLO; he has pleased Trump before. Last year AMLO agreed to stop Central American migrants travelling through Mexican territory from heading north, helping the US with its anti-immigration policy. In a nutshell, with this visit, both presidents win. AMLO has legitimized Trump during an election year; Trump will legitimize AMLO in moments of crisis. AMLO perhaps will obtain the promise of some coins. The two governments will be happy and pleased with the meeting of the Two Amigos.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Jesus Velasco – Tarleton State University
Jesus Velasco is the Joe and Teresa Long Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at Tarleton State University. He is the editor of American Presidential Elections in Comparative Perspective: The World is Watching (2019), and author of Neoconservatives in US Foreign Policy Under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: Voices Behind the Throne (2010).