MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s upcoming visit to Washington to meet with Donald Trump will embarrass many Mexicans and outrage many Americans. For Trump, it is a campaign event. For Lopez Obrador, it is the payment of a favor.
In April of this year, Trump decided to help AMLO reduce the oil quota that Mexico refused to make at the last meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). “We will be reimbursed at some point when they are ready to do so,” Trump said. For fear of retaliation, knowing Mexico’s heavy dependence on the United States, Lopez Obrador will break his habit of never leaving Mexico.
The only precedent for similar acquiescence in modern Mexican history occurred in August 2016, when Enrique Peña Nieto received Trump at the presidential residence. Nothing justified that invitation, but, now that it had been consummated, many of us demanded that the president at least make a public apology for having repeatedly insulted Mexicans by calling us “rapists” and “criminals” and, of course, declare in front of him that Mexico would never pay for the wall.
Instead, Peña Nieto sidestepped the wall’s issue and had the gall to exonerate Trump himself for his vexations. After spending four hours in Mexico – probably the most profitable hours of his campaign – Trump returned to a political rally where he declared that Mexicans would pay for the wall. Peña Nieto and Mexico got nothing. Trump got the picture he needed to look “presidential. And the United States got Donald Trump.
American liberals have a hard time seeing the similarity between Lopez Obrador and Trump. It doesn’t fit with conventional ideas. Lopez Obrador has projected the image of a left-nationalist social fighter. Donald Trump is an extreme right-wing racist oligarch.
But his convergence proves the anachronism of ideologies in our time. What unites them is much more than what separates them. Both seek the absolute dominance of executive power over the other powers. They disdain institutions and the law. They lash out at the independent and critical press, one with its fake news, the other with its “other data.”
They encourage polarization. They despise science and actively destroy the environment. They have acted irresponsibly, ineffectively, and coldly in the face of the pandemic. Both have corrupted their mandate by focusing on the cult of their person.
Lopez Obrador fears and recognizes him as a single power. It is the power of the United States. “One does not kick Samson around,” says a famous saying, which AMLO often repeats. Out of ignorance of the outside world and being formed in a presidential Mexico, López Obrador believes that Samson and the United States are Donald Trump.
That is why, faced with the threat by Trump to abandon the Free Trade Agreement or impose tariffs on Mexican products, he agreed to turn Mexico into Trump’s wall. The new National Guard, which was supposed to prevent and combat the violence that has reached historic levels in Mexico, has been deployed on the southern border to detain Central American migrants at all costs and keep them isolated in subhuman conditions the northern border.
Until Trump, servility had not been the hallmark of Mexican diplomacy vis-à-vis the United States. Our nations will soon be two hundred years old, but in those two centuries, full of fierce diplomatic and military conflicts, there were only three episodes in which Mexico’s rulers, driven by fear and necessity, prostrated themselves before “the giant of the north”.
All occurred in the 19th century: the surrender of Antonio López de Santa Anna to Andrew Jackson in 1836 (with the loss of Texas the following year); the submission of the Mexican government to the government of James Polk in 1848 (with the loss of more than half of the territory); and the signing in 1859 of a treaty between the government of Benito Juárez and that of James Buchanan which, but for the outbreak of the American Civil War, would have resulted in the further loss of sovereignty.
From then on, with minor concessions in the face of force or blackmail, Mexican diplomacy maintained an attitude of dignity, with excellent results for the neighborhood. A very significant episode for our time occurred in 1927 when Plutarco Elias Calles resisted pressure from Calvin Coolidge regarding the new legislation that claimed ownership of natural resources for the Mexican State. The Hearst tabloid press urged the invasion against the “Soviet Mexico.” The Mexican government released secret documents that revealed the serious intent of an attack. Finally, Coolidge desisted, sending a sensible and practical ambassador to Mexico – Dwight W. Morrow – who brought the two countries together.
The moral was clear: dignity pays. On this basis of respect and good faith, the relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lazaro Cardenas, two genuinely progressive presidents, was built. The United States moderated its reaction to the expropriation of the oil companies decreed by Cárdenas in 1938. And in 1942, Mexico joined the Allies in World War II.
That foundation of dignity, wisdom, firmness, respect and good faith has been lost not only because of Trump’s attitude, whose racist discourse and hostility towards Mexicans living in the United States have sown fear on both sides of the border, but also because of López Obrador’s unjustifiable submission to all his whims and threats.
His bet is the same as Peña Nieto’s in 2016: He will benefit if he helps Trump with the Latino vote. But it’s as unjustifiable now as it was then: it’s not when Trump was just an aggressive, mendacious candidate with a chance of winning, but in 2020 when the whole world has seen and suffered his excesses.
We Mexican Democrats will not forget the reverence for the man who has so vexed us. And U.S. Democrats will not forget the service to those who have harmed them so much. If Joseph Biden wins the crucial election in November 2020, although he will have much to mend in the world order, he will do well to pay attention to his neighbor to the south, where a friend and faithful servant of Donald Trump is trying to impose an authoritarian order like the one Trump, in his tweet-like sleeplessness, has always dreamed of achieving.
For The New York Times
Enrique Krauze (@EnriqueKrauze) is a historian, editor of Letras Libres magazine and author of, among other books, El pueblo soy yo -“The People is I.”