Mexico’s great gamble: ‘Trump plays poker, but Lopez Obrador plays chess’  

It has been the strangest of courtships, between the ultimate unlikely couple.

On one side sits Donald Trump, the bombastic and erratic “America First” nationalist who seized the White House from the gilded realm of Trump Tower.

On the other Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a veteran Left-winger who started his political career sleeping on the floor of mud huts in impoverished rural Mexico, before rising to challenge big oil companies and fight for a global compact of social justice.

They have exchanged messages of flattery – Mr Trump tweeting last month: “Great call, we will work well together!”

Mr Lopez Obrador, who on Saturday will be inaugurated as president of Mexico, returned the compliment. He sought, he wrote, “to reach a friendly understanding and mutual respect with you, with your people and with the great nation that you represent.”

Click Here: gws giants guernsey 2019

The letter ended: “I send you a warm hug.”

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, voting in July with his son Jesus Ernesto

“It’s almost a bromance,” said Laura Carlsen, the Mexico City-based director of the Americas programme at the Center for International Policy, a think tank.

“Which is kind of disgusting for most Mexicans.”

Even more surreal is the fact that Mr Lopez Obrador has managed to get the presidents of Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia into the same room as Mike Pence, the US vice president, and Ivanka Trump. One can only imagine the diplomatic dances being done at this very minute to avoid, at all costs, Mr Pence being cornered at the taco table by Nicolas Maduro.

Also there will be Jeremy Corbyn, making his debut as leader of the opposition at a presidential inauguration. The two men have a friendship dating back over a decade – “my eternal friend,” Mr Lopez Obrador called him, in a video on Twitter posted on Friday, as the pair spent “inauguration eve” together at the Mexican politician’s ranch in the southern state of Chiapas.

“We’re on our way to Mexico City,” he captioned the video, celebrating their reunion.

While his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, chose to mark his inauguration with an inspection of a military parade and a private dinner at the Chapultepec castle, Mr Lopez Obrador has nodded to his activist roots.

He is staging a day-long celebration in the Zocalo, a giant plaza in the centre of Mexico City, which was the heart of the Aztec city on which the modern capital sits. Indigenous people are to stage a ceremony, officially presenting him with a baton of power. Musicians from across the country have been invited. The largest plaza in Latin America, with capacity for 100,000 people, is expected to be packed.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's supporters fill the Zocalo as election results come in, on July 1

It will be a poignant moment for the 65-year-old, who was mayor of the city from 2000-2005.

In his second run at the presidency, in 2006, he staged weeks of protests in the Zocalo against what he and his supporters saw as a stolen election. On the night of his election, in July, he was once again in the Zocalo, addressing the adoring thousands.

Yet once the music has stopped, the party is firmly over and the real work begins.

And Mr Lopez Obrador, president-in-waiting for decades, finally getting his chance, is determined to make a dramatic debut. On Saturday, for the first time, the presidential residence, Los Pinos, is flinging its gates open to the public – Mr Lopez Obrador campaigned on a promise to move out of the giant luxury bunker and live a quieter life. He is moving the office to the National Palace instead, and seems likely to either sleep there or else take a small flat nearby.

A masked woman holds up a sign that reads in Spanish "The assassins are in Los Pinos," referring to the presidential residence, during a march demanding the resignation of Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto

He will then start work on his agenda. One of the first items is to end the presidential pension, and put a stop to the full-salary payments currently made to his six living predecessors. Another is to sell or rent out the presidential jet – both policies raising eyebrows for their brazenly populist sway.

Next will come plans to legalise marijuana, increase pensions for the elderly, and scrap the $13.3 billion redevelopment of the capital’s airport – even though it is well underway.

“He has definitely been elected to shake things up,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society. “And he has been very explicit that, right from the beginning, he is going to prioritise helping Mexico’s poorest.”

He has promised $5 billion in scholarships and youth training programmes, in a bid to give young people a future and take away the cartels’ cannon fodder – making good on his campaign promise: “Becarios si, sicarios no” – yes to scholarships, no to hitmen.

Mexico's streets have, in some states, been militarised since 2006

He will also launch his National Guard – the administration’s controversial plan for a combined military-federal police force – in a bid to end the historic levels of violence plaguing the country. Critics have panned the idea, saying it is no different from the failed strategies of Felipe Calderon, who declared “war” on the drug gangs in 2006, and then Mr Pena Nieto, whose Gendarmerie did nothing to stem the bloodletting.

Furthermore, they see it as a betrayal of his campaign promise to focus on the societal causes of cartel violence, rather than resorting to military bombardment.

John Ackerman, a columnist and law professor at Mexico’s largest university, UNAM, strongly disagrees.

“The creation of the National Guard is absolutely the demilitarisation of Mexico,” he said. “The Guard will be made of mainly federal police, with some members of the military police. It’s not keeping the troops on the streets at all.”

Mr Ackerman laughed when asked if he was optimistic for Mexico’s future. His wife, Irma Sandoval, will become director of the civil service secretariat – in essence, Mr Lopez Obrador’s corruption tsar – and Mr Ackerman himself is a longtime friend of the new president, serving as an unofficial advisor.

“I’m hardly independent,” he said. “But yes. This is the change Mexico needs. Enrique Pena Nieto has been a disgrace.”

Enrique Pena Nieto, the deeply unpopular outgoing Mexican president

Mr Ackerman, born in the US, denied Mr Lopez Obrador was a populist, saying instead he was “a progressive, democratic, socially-concerned liberal.”

And he was excited to see how his wily friend dealt with Mr Trump.

The US-Mexican relationship could not be more important. US goods and services trade with Mexico totalled an estimated $615.9 billion last year. The North American Free Trade Agreement, Nafta, set the tone for trade deals – its survival looked precarious when Mr Trump came to power, but just this weekend he signed its replacement, alongside his Mexican and Canadian counterparts.

Since 9/11 cooperation on security has dramatically increased, and the 2007 Merida Initiative encouraged the two countries to work together to combat drug trafficking. The current trial in New York of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, accused of leading the world’s biggest drug dealer, is a vivid example.

Mr Trump’s sending of such a high-powered delegation to Mr Lopez Obrador’s inauguration – in addition to his vice president and daughter he has sent two of his Cabinet ministers and a slew of state governors and mayors – is a clear sign of how seriously he takes the relationship, despite having labelled the country’s population “rapists”.

Ivanka Trump and Mike Pence are leading the US delegation to the inauguration of "Amlo"

But the problems will come thick and fast.

The migrant “caravan” – around 5,000 people are currently camped out in increasingly unsanitary conditions in Tijuana, waiting to apply for asylum in the US, tear gassed by US border police – will dominate their early discussions.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, is leaving the G20 in Buenos Aires early, and flying up to Mexico to hold talks with his Mexican counterpart, Marcelo Ebrard, on Sunday.

On Monday the US homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen – who on Friday made a highly unusual plea for police to be sent to reinforce the US-Mexico border – will meet with more members of Mr Lopez Obrador’s cabinet.

The two countries are also in talks about a temporary solution to the current “catch and release” at the border, whereby migrants crossing illegally are detained then released for their court hearing. Mr Trump despises it, and Mr Lopez Obrador may offer him a “Remain in Mexico” solution, whereby they wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. It’s not yet clear what concession Mr Lopez Obrador is seeking in return for the huge favour.

Indeed, Mr Lopez Obrador is treading a fine line between appeasing Mr Trump and staying faithful to his Mexican voters, who hold the US leader in the lowest esteem of any country in the world.

But his supporters don’t seem worried by this.

“He’s a master strategist,” said Mr Ackerman. “Trump thinks he is the best, with The Art of the Deal and whatever.

“But Trump plays poker. Lopez Obrador plays chess.”

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *