The conventional wisdom in Mexico’s political circles is that President Trump will use his July 9 meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Washington for his own re-election purposes — and make his visitor look like a fool.
Perhaps. But if Lopez Obrador takes advantage of the visit and sends a strong signal that he will reverse his disastrous economic policies to promote massive investments — a big if — it could also be a golden opportunity for Mexico.
The stated purpose of the visit, Lopez Obrador’s first foreign trip since he won the 2018 elections, is to promote the newly signed USMCA free-trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Basically, it’s the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with some updates.
Right now, as three former Mexican foreign ministers have said, the odds are that Trump will be the big winner of the meeting.
First, Trump desperately needs to score a foreign-policy victory before the November elections, and doesn’t have much to show on that front.
His much-heralded Middle East Peace plan has never taken off. His much-promoted summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has not resulted in anything but a propaganda victory for North Korea’s tyrant. His promises to bring down Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro have not materialized. The list goes on.
So Trump will now try to highlight the new USMCA deal as a huge achievement. It will also offer him the photo opportunity he needs to portray himself as a world leader, especially after European leaders canceled their participation at a Trump-hosted G-7 summit in the United States because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, Trump will use this political show to divert attention from his disastrous handling of the pandemic. The United States has 4.2 percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of its COVID-19 deaths.
Third, Trump may try to energize his base by publicly humiliating Lopez Obrador. That’s exactly what he did in August 2016 when, as a candidate, he visited Mexico’s then President Enrique Peña Nieto. Just hours later, Trump delivered a fiery anti-immigration speech in Arizona.
This time, Trump may repeat his claim that “Mexico will pay” for his border wall, perhaps through the proceeds of the new USMCA agreement. Or Trump may publicly attack Lopez Obrador for Mexico’s shameful abstention at a recent vote by the Organization of American States to condemn Venezuela’s latest measures to rig its December legislative elections.
Or Trump may accuse Lopez Obrador of promoting “slave labor” by inviting at least 590 Cuban doctors who are being paid only a fraction of their salaries, while the bulk goes to Cuba’s dictatorship. That would play very well among Cuban-American voters in Florida.
Fourth, Lopez Obrador will be perceived as backing Trump’s re-election bid. The Mexican president already has said that he will not be meeting with likely Democratic candidate Joe Biden during his visit. If Biden wins, a new Democratic administration may not see Lopez Obrador as a good friend.
Bur Lopez Obrador could, if he wanted, turn the visit in his favor and use the world stage he will have in Washington to signal major changes to his outdated state-centered economic policies, which have scared away investments, reduced growth and are increasing poverty.
Lopez Obrador desperately needs an economic rebound. When he took office in 2018, he promised to make Mexico’s economy grow by 4 percent annually. Instead, Mexico’s economy shrank by 0.1 percent last year, before the pandemic, and the International Monetary Fund is projecting a whopping 10.5 contraction for this year. It will be one of Latin America’s biggest economic slumps.
The bottom line is that, yes, Trump may play Lopez Obrador like a fiddle for his own political gain in America. But Lopez Obrador could win, too, if he announces policy changes to lure foreign investment and resume growth.
It would be a game-changer if he did. I’m not too hopeful, however — Lopez Obrador is not even planning to bring with him a delegation from the private sector.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera