López Obrador, winner of Mexican election, faces a complex future with Trump

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MEXICO CITY — When Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumes the presidency later this year, he will have the broadest mandate in Mexico’s recent history, a possible majority in congress and allies in state governments across the country.

What he will do with that mandate could alter the direction not just of Mexico’s internal politics, which have been transformed with the ruling party’s devastating defeat in Sunday’s election, but also the course of U.S.-Mexico relations.

Although López Obrador struck a conciliatory tone in his acceptance speech, asking for “friendship and mutual respect” with the United States, he will now face the difficult task of reconciling his promises of compassion for migrants and the peasants drawn into Mexico’s drug trade with his interest in building a constructive relationship with President Trump.

López Obrador, 64, is the first leftist in decades to be elected president of Mexico. He won around 53 percent of the vote, 30 percentage points more than than the second-place candidate, Ricardo Anaya.

Trump and López Obrador spoke for about 30 minutes on Monday morning. 

“I proposed a comprehensive deal with development projects that would generate jobs in Mexico and therefore reduce migration and improve security. The tone was respectful and our representatives will talk,” López Obrador wrote on Twitter.


Andrés Manuel López Obrador, winner of Mexico’s presidential election, center, waves during a rally at Zocalo square inMexico Cityo, on Sunday, July 1, 2018. (Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg)

“I think the relationship will be a very good one,” Trump told journalists after the call, adding that the two leaders discussed trade, border security, NAFTA and the possibility of a U.S.-Mexico trade deal.

Those messages belied just how fundamentally different the two politicians are.

In the past, López Obrador has likened Trump’s attacks on Mexicans to the way Nazis talked about Jews. He has proposed organizing protests against Trump’s immigration policy, with people dressed in white forming a human chain along the length of the U.S. border. On Sunday night, after his victory was announced, he said any relationship with the United States would need to include a defense of “our migrant countrymen” living north of the border. 

Yet members of López Obrador’s team recognize that they will need to approach their early conversations with the U.S. administration carefully, with a sense of how they might engage Trump. The stakes are high for Mexico, which last year exported $340 billion in products to the United States, its top trading partner, and imported $276 billion in goods. A trade war with the United States could have devastating consequences for Mexico.

Lopez Obrador “doesn’t see Trump as a lunatic. He sees him as a leader making a political plan,” said Marcelo Ebrard, a top adviser to the incoming president. “Our goal now is to look for common ground, to see what we can put on the table.”

One major question is how López Obrador will treat the tens of thousands of Central American migrants who transit through Mexico on their way to the United States each year. Last year, Mexico detained and deported 76,433 Central Americans — part of a more aggressive policy carried out in recent years, at least partially at the behest of the United States. Compared to many previous Mexican presidents, López Obrador has focused more on the plight of migrants. 

“The priority of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s policies will be that all of migrants’ rights are respected, without restrictions. We want Mexico to be a country of refuge,” said Olga Sánchez Cordero, one of his top advisers, in May.

Trump has adopted an aggressive strategy to try to reduce illegal migration, including a “zero tolerance” plan that for several weeks resulted in the separation of migrant parents and children. He canceled the separations after a national and international uproar.

On Monday, López Obrador said NAFTA would be among the top issues he planned to discuss in his first post-election meeting with current President Enrique Peña Nieto. Trump has called for revising the deal to gain more benefits for American workers, but negotiations have hit an impasse over cross-border automobile production. Although the new Mexican president doesn’t take office until December 1, members of his team will be joining Pena Nieto’s negotiators, López Obrador said in an interview with the Milenio newspaper.

“We will support the current negotiators so that this agreement can be signed, a good negotiation will be made for the benefit of Mexico,” he said.

Even though López Obrador has voiced his support for NAFTA throughout his campaign, he has also said the death of the agreement “cannot be fatal for Mexicans (because) our country has a lot of natural resources, a lot of wealth.”

López Obrador has moderated his economic policy proposals in recent years, but he rose to prominence as a politician who frequently derided the impact of free trade. 

Many supporters of López Obrador have been adversely affected by the 24-year-old deal, as Mexico began importing billions of dollars worth of agricultural products like corn, leaving thousands of small-scale grain farmers unemployed.

On other issues, too, there would appear to be sharp differences between U.S. policy and Obrador’s guiding values. The U.S. government provides crucial support for the Mexican military’s campaign against drug cartels, and sometimes dispatches its own drug enforcement agents on missions across the country. It’s unclear how those relations would jibe with López Obrador’s overarching security plan of putting more emphasis on social programs to keep youth away from cartels, and putting less focus on military campaigns — something he’s dubbed “hugs not gunfire.”

López Obrador will likely have strong backing for his domestic and foreign policies.  On Monday, as results from congressional elections trickled in, it became clear his party was within striking distance of a majority in both houses. If it falls short, Morena could form an alliance with other parties to get the same result.

A majority in congress would give López Obrador sweeping authority to increase the scope of Mexico’s welfare system, a key campaign promise.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country from 1929 to 2000, and returned to power in the last six years under Peña Nieto, was crushed in both national and local races. The party appeared to capture just 15 percent of congressional seats, a staggering loss.

Peña Nieto, who was constitutionally barred from running for reelection, is among the most unpopular presidents in decades, having been caught up in a series of corruption scandals.

While some analysts debated whether this might be beginning of the end for the PRI, the party’s leaders attempted to reassure their constituents.

“To the millions of PRI-istas and supporters who voted for the party: keep your head up,” Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, an interior minister for much of Peña Nieto’s government, wrote on Twitter. “I am convinced of the strength of the party and its enormous commitment to Mexico.”

Josh Partlow in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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