MEXICO CITY – President Trump called Mexican migrant rapists, threatened his neighbor with a trade war, threw tens of thousands of asylum seekers out of the country, built the border wall and promised to make Mexico pay for it.
Mexico’s president is a huge fan.
So deep is his appreciation that when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador first phoned President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. last month, he praised the outgoing President.
“I have to mention that we have a very good relationship with the current President of your country, Mr Donald Trump,” said Mr López Obrador, according to two people who were aware of the call and who were discussing internal matters on condition of anonymity. “Regardless of other considerations, he respects our sovereignty.”
Mr López Obrador is concerned that Mr Biden is more prone to meddling in Mexican affairs and has spent the past few weeks pre-empting the detailed administration.
He was among the very last world leaders to congratulate Mr. Biden on his victory and insisted on waiting “until all legal issues are resolved”. He recently signed a law banning US drug agents’ ability to act in Mexico. And then, out of nowhere, Mr López Obrador offered Julian Assange asylum.
His administration also exonerated a former Mexican defense secretary who was charged with drug trafficking by American prosecutors. The president said the allegations were “fabricated” by investigators who “did not act responsibly”.
Behind all of these perceived trifles lurks fears that Democrats are more likely to step in to promote labor rights and clean energy, which stands in the way of Mr López Obrador’s ambitious agenda at home, according to two government officials who spoke about the condition Anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“It’s like having a dog in the park: it grinds its teeth, threatens you, and growls in the hope that you won’t get any closer,” said Shannon O’Neil, Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He is trying to take preventive action against the commitment of the new Biden government.”
One of the surprising twists and turns of a Trump presidency was how highly valued a Mexican leader who walked on a left-wing populist platform once said that Mr. Trump “fuels racism” valued him.
The relationship is apparently based more on pragmatism than on deep personal friendship. The two men share a deep disinterest in the details of foreign policy and found a common purpose in leaving each other alone.
The terms of their business may not have been written, but they were clear. Mr López Obrador pushed through Mr Trump’s immigration agenda and in return the United States let him rule Mexico at will.
In a recent speech in Alamo, Texas, Mr. Trump bragged about how many Mexican soldiers Mr. López Obrador had sent to the border police. “I want to thank the great President of Mexico,” he said. “He’s a great gentleman, a friend of mine.”
When it comes to style too, guides were often aligned. Both fought for the promise to eradicate a corrupt elite, won with a coalition of voters disgusted by their country’s establishment, and after their tenure painted the media and opposition as enemies of their movement.
Just as Mr Trump used Twitter to speak directly to his base, Mr López Obrador takes control of the narrative by holding two-hour press conferences every day, often with questions from personable tabloid reporters or YouTubers.
And in 2006, Mr López Obrador spent months on fraud charges after losing the presidential election, going so far as to hold a fake inauguration for himself in the capital’s central square.
“He is very similar to Trump in a sense,” said Sergio Aguayo, one of Mexico’s leading human rights activists. “The understanding between them was emotional and practical.”
Mr Biden is likely to ask more of Mr López Obrador.
The president-elect expects a surge in migration from Latin America in the coming year, driven by the global economic crisis and the perception of a more likable ear in the White House, according to several people familiar with his thinking. On Sunday, Guatemalan soldiers repulsed a caravan of thousands of Central Americans traveling north from Honduras in hopes of reaching the United States.
Mexico, which has mobilized additional security forces on its southern border to prepare for this latest caravan, is seen as crucial in repelling new waves of migrants. And with the pandemic still raging, Biden’s government will also need Mr López Obrador’s collaboration to do more coronavirus testing and tracing for people crossing the southern border.
However, Mr Biden is unlikely to resort to threats or public humiliation to get Mexico to do what he wants – and that gives Mr López Obrador the opportunity to set the tone early on for a more cautious relationship.
While the Mexican president says he wants to maintain a “policy of good neighbors” with the superpower on the border, he also criticized his predecessors as “subservient and irresponsible in terms of enforcing our sovereignty”.
In the recent explosion over Mexico’s decision not to bring charges against the former Mexican defense secretary whom the United States accused of working for a drug cartel, Mr. López Obrador defended himself by attacking American officials. He accused her of “conducting an investigation that is so irresponsible and without evidence.”
According to analysts, its real aim may be to stir up resentment among the Mexican public against American intervention in the drug war.
“He’s trying to activate a certain anti-American phase,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, political analyst and associate professor at CIDE University in Mexico. If successful, it can make it easier to reject US influence over your government.
“You are going to pressure López Obrador to change certain guidelines,” said Bravo Regidor, “and López Obrador will say,” You see? You are trying to intervene in our internal affairs. And we won’t let it. ‘”