June 23, 2018

In Mexico, Beware the Clash of the Populists

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-“Let’s kill the Americans!”

It was December 7, 1941, and my friend Jack Vietor – a magazine publisher and heir to the Jell-O fortune – was staying in a hotel in the city of Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America declared war. But much to Jack’s surprise, the mob that showed up in the town plaza wasn’t chanting about Japan, or Germany. They were wielding machetes and shouting, “Let’s kill the Gringos!”

The crowd had seen the headlines announcing that Mexico had declared war – and automatically assumed the headlines referred to the United States. Jack hid under his bed, terrified, until the hotel owner assured him everything was okay.

It’s hard to remember today, but it wasn’t so long ago that the thought of Mexico and the U.S. as mortal enemies who could go to war with each other was far more than just a remote possibility. That antagonism was a symptom of a long and complicated relationship, as I saw firsthand over a quarter-century living and working in Mexico from the 1950s to the 1970s. For years, most Mexicans perceived America as the arrogant and overbearing neighbor (at best) or the invading bully (at worst).

That gradually changed over years of careful diplomacy and growing cooperation, symbolized by the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, that removed economic barriers to trade in 1993. But now, that might all be about to revert. President Donald Trump is working overtime to make enemies of both of our neighbors, Mexico and Canada – and in July, Mexico may well elect a new president who is happy to comply.

Leftist, nationalist, and populist, presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -known as AMLO – has been called the Hugo Chavez of Mexico. In truth, he’s really a more competent, pragmatic Bernie Sanders. Lopez Obrador’s dream is to Make Mexico Great Again, and he’s more than happy to do it at America’s expense.

If that sounds like President Trump, it should. While there are obvious differences between the two men – Trump likes to punch down while AMLO punches up – there are also a striking number of things they have in common.

Lopez Obrador, like Trump, “can be thin-skinned, tends to belittle rivals, and has often clashed with the media,” according to Reuters. Trump touts his nationalist, protectionist America First foreign policy; AMLO’s policy is “Mexico First.” Both have called NAFTA a bad deal and AMLO wants to make Mexico less economically dependent on the outside world. Both have canceled major contracts because they were “too expensive,” claimed elections were “rigged,” and been called dangers to their own countries. They both work outside the constraints of traditional politics to achieve their goals. It’s not hard to see why commentators have taken to comparing the two politicians – and why many are worried about a dangerous clash of similarities should Lopez Obrador win the Mexican presidency.

But dig beneath the surface, and the truth becomes clear: these are, in fact, two very different men.  AMLO has long campaigned against Mexico’s systemic corruption and its “mafia of power.” President Trump has been compared to a Mafia boss, and the Trump presidency has been described as “one massive tale of corruption,” driven by a leader who hails from the business elite Lopez Obrador rails against. Trump raves about how Trump Tower is a “palace in the sky,” while the Mexican populist uses those same words to criticize Mexico’s presidential plane. In truth, AMLO and Trump are as alike as Sanders and Trump.

Come July, should the two populists lead the North American neighbors, nobody really knows what will happen. It could be a recipe for greater conflict in the U.S.-Mexico relationship – carefully managed thus far by more prudent American and Mexican leaders – potentially undoing all the progress our two countries have made since the 1930s. How?

First, expect a Lopez Obrador government to be far more aggressive on trade.

Since the beginning of his Administration, President Trump has attacked Mexico as getting a better deal than America on NAFTA. Now, Mexico is starting to fight back. Last month, Mexico quickly retaliated against President Trump’s new tariffs by aiming its own tariffs squarely at products from congressional districts that supported him in the 2016 U.S. election. More quietly, Mexico bought ten times more corn last year from Brazil and became the first country to ratify the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which the U.S. disavowed last year – clear signs Mexico is hedging its bets.

All of this has occurred under Mexico’s current conservative administration. But when Mexico First meets America First, all bets are off. The Mexican government has worked to limit the damage from President Trump’s efforts to re-negotiate – even scrap – NAFTA. Lopez Obrador might think that’s a great idea – and embrace the fight with relish. AMLO wants Mexico to be as economically self-sufficient as possible, especially in agriculture and energy. He’s even talked about canceling all foreign contracts in the Gulf of Mexico, an action that will likely anger U.S. businesses and run up against President Trump’s desire to open up oil and gas exploration everywhere.

Second, expect AMLO to take his pledge to fight corruption very seriously. He’s marched600 miles to protest election fraud. As mayor of Mexico City, he sought to run a clean government that would help the poor. AMLO’s image as an anti-corruption crusader is a key part of his appeal to ordinary Mexicans, and his record suggests he will follow through aggressively. His anti-corruption efforts could even sweep up U.S. companies or make it harder for them to do business in Mexico, creating more points of tension with the United States. That could harden President Trump’s posture toward Mexico even further.

Finally, Lopez Obrador may freeze security cooperation with U.S. agencies to fight heroin production in Mexico and capture cartel leaders. U.S.-Mexico security cooperation has been a bright spot outside of our trade relationship, creating a valuable and consistent area of cooperation between our two countries.

The United States has never had a president like Donald Trump. Mexico has never had a president like Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – but that may change. In the clash of these two populists next month lies the potential for a confrontation in U.S.-Mexico relations that could cause lasting harm to both countries.

If President Trump doesn’t want to be remembered as the president who lost Mexico, he should take a few lessons from the president who’s remembered – unfairly – for “losing” China.

It was Harry Truman who, more than any president, began the process of reconciliation and progress that has brought the U.S.-Mexico relationship to where it is today; though Franklin Roosevelt initiated the Good Neighbor Policy, it was Truman who conducted the first state visit to Mexico. That visit is remembered for Truman’s impromptu gesture of laying a wreath at a memorial for young Mexican military cadets who had sacrificed themselves as the U.S. military stormed their fortress. It was an act that conveyed real respect for the Mexican people from an American leader.

President Trump is doing great damage to the U.S.-Mexico relationship. If he doesn’t act now to repair it, in a few years we might recall the prosperous, friendly, stable Mexico that could have been and bemoan the antagonistic, poor, and unstable Mexico that might emerge.